Communalizing pandemic has dangerous portents in India

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By Iftikhar Gilani

Soon after many in India’s mainstream media launched an all-out assault against Tablighi Jamaat, accusing their headquarters in the capital Delhi of spreading coronavirus, the resident welfare association (RWA) of my locality in South Delhi, home to mostly middle-income groups, banned the entry of vegetable sellers and other menial workers. A WhatsApp message by the RWA secretary did not use the term “to boycott Muslims”, but everybody knew all those banned belonged to this religious group. In many other housing societies, the RWAs were blunt in their messages. A friend living in a posh locality in the outskirts of Delhi said their RWA directed all members not to host Muslims till the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Reports of communalization of the pandemic are pouring in from different parts of the country. Last week, a 22-year-old Muslim man was lynched in New Delhi after being accused of spreading the pandemic. Earlier, another young Muslim man was beaten to death in the eastern state of Jharkhand after a mob accused him of spitting. Hindu-right is drawing sadistic pleasure form trends like “Corona Jihad” and “Tablighi Virus”, and the hate such posts have generated, little realizing that the virus does not know the faith.

In Israel, the behavior of Jewish settlers and off late now by Israeli soldiers caught on camera spitting on the doors of Arab homes and dumping medical waste in Palestinian localities has raised the level of hate to new proportions.

More than a decade ago, Paul Silverstein, an anthropologist at Reed College in the U.S. city of Portland, Oregon, wrote about the realities for Muslims, saying replace Muslims with Jew, and you will get a relatively serviceable definition of anti-Semitism. “Muslims are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures, and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with [them],” he said.

Kevin Sachs, a Zurich-born Canadian film distributor, believes that the contemporary Muslim question is almost identical to the Jewish question of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The accusations often made against Islam — that the Islamic tradition seems monolithic, intolerant, primitive and inferior to the western one — are the same as famous German philosopher Bruno Bauer wrote about Jews in 1844. He had argued against equal rights for Jews. In contrast, in the same year, the Ottoman Empire had issued an Edict of Toleration, easing restrictions on Jews in Palestine. Voltaire, an 18th-century French writer, historian, and philosopher, also described Judaism as a backward, unenlightened, and intolerant religion.

In the middle of the 14th century, when plague infected one-third of Europe’s population, rumors spread wild that Jews were poisoning wells to spread the disease. It led to the massacre of thousands of Jews. Many Jewish villages were wiped out. The communalization of pandemics has been effectively used in the west to target Jews.

Recently when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was telling a delegation of doctors that “unfortunately instructions are not strictly adhered to in the Arab sector,” he forgot how Haredi Jews — a group within the Orthodox Jews, known for their strict interpretation of Judaism and opposition to modern values and practices — were cocking a snook at his authority by refusing to abide by social distancing and quarantine norms. His government has described the Haredi Jewish neighborhoods as hotspots.

India uses lockdown to punish activists

In India, when the whole country is under lockdown, the police are swooping on many young activists who had participated in the anti-citizenship law protests over the past few months. Prominent among them, Safoora Zargar, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, was called for questioning on April 10 by the Special Cell of Delhi Police, and was subsequently arrested. Before her arrest, Meeran Haider, a scholar of Jamia Millia Islamia, had also been arrested.

According to writer Karuna John, many other students and activists have been called for questioning by the Special Cell. All this is happening as life in the city has almost come to a standstill under the now extended lockdown. Other young activists like Khalid Saifi and Ishrat Jahan, who were arrested just before lockdown, continue to remain in jail. In the wake of lockdown and risk of a pandemic, they are unable to access legal aid as the courts are only functioning partially, and lawyers are unable to work properly.

Most of the scholars arrested are in the final stages of earning their advanced university degrees and many of them hail from other states. This has also put a great emotional and financial burden on their families back home. It is also an attempt to prevent the emergence of future leadership among Muslims.

On April 10, a leading news channel India Today TV aired a “special investigation” on its primetime show calling Islamic seminaries or Madrassas as hotspots. It had used a sting operation against three Delhi-based madrasas — Madrasa Darul-ul-Uloom Usmania, Madrasa Islahul Mumineer, and Madrasa Jamia Mohammadia Haldoni.

The channel claimed the three caretakers deliberately have kept students in their madrasas in cramped spaces, violating all lockdown guidelines, and hiding the students from the police. It also claimed the caretakers had links with the Tablighi Jamaat — whose congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin has been blamed by the Indian media for causing a spurt in coronavirus cases — and, therefore, were risking the lives of the children.

But soon other media outlets like Newslaundry punctured this sting. The students from the eastern state of Bihar were supposed to return to their homes. Their tickets were booked but had to stay back due to the lockdown. On March 21, the government had advised educational institutes to let students who were still in hostels to continue staying on campus until the coronavirus outbreak was contained. These madrassas were in fact following this advisory rather than flouting lockdown guidelines.

Hindu group congregation in London

Almost coinciding with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi, a Hindu group International Society for Krishna Consciousness, known as the Hare Krishna movement, was hosting a meeting in London on March 12-15. So far, 21 devotees who attended this meeting have been confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus. Five of them passed away. But the U.K. government or people there did not communalize the virus or did not put the blame on the Hindu group for spreading the pandemic.

While putting the whole blame on the irrationality or Tablighi Jamaat, who should have very well desisted to call any gathering after pandemic outbreak, other events were going on in India. The parliament with its 790 members was in session till March 23. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the political drama was being enacted to dislodge the opposition-ruled government. On March 20-23, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers in provincial Bhopal carried out massive celebratory rallies attended by new Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and other senior state BJP leaders.

On April 11, Chouhan told Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a video conference that the spike in cases in his state was due to people, who had returned from Delhi after attending a Tablighi Jamaat congregation. But his officials dispute his claim. Local media blamed three senior government officials for spreading the virus, by attending meetings and avoiding social distancing despite showing symptoms of the disease.

Principal Secretary (of Health) Pallavi Jain Govil, Additional Director Veena Sinha and Deputy Director Virendra Kumar Chaudhary tested positive for the virus on April 4. Sons of both Govil and Sinha had returned from the U.S. and did not reveal their travel history to authorities.

The COVID-19 is affecting all of us and threatening our collective health — economic, social, psychological and physical wellbeing. Instead of communalizing the pandemic and identifying the virus with faith or a community, there is an urgent need to work together to beat this common enemy. If it goes out of hand, it will hardly recognize faith or boundaries. All religious groups, believers or non-believers are equally vulnerable to the dangers of the virus. Let us join hands and put a stiff fight together to save humanity. Help, not hate, will defeat the virus. AA

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