As the COVID-19 pandemic spread in India, a hate campaign targeting Muslims began on social media.
It started with news that a congregation of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement, in South Delhi was a novel coronavirus hotspot.
Many international visitors attended the conference held March 13-15 at the Markaz Mosque. Some of them later tested positive for the virus that first originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The conference took place before the nationwide lockdown commenced March 25, but it defied a Delhi state government order curbing religious and public gatherings, said chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, reported Quartz.
The government has blamed a third of India’s confirmed COVID-19 cases on the conference. A federal Muslim minister, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, called the Jamaat conference a “Talabani crime.” Jamaat chief Mullah Saad Kandhalvi was later charged with “culpable homicide.”
This followed a wave of anti-Muslim posts on social media by hard-line Hindus. Hashtags, such as # CoronaJihad, #Covid-786, #NizamuddinIdiots, #Coronaterrorist, #superspreaderMaulana trended on Facebook and Twitter.
Since March 28, tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and seen by 165 million people on the micro-blogging site, according to TIME magazine.
Delhi Minorities Commission chairman, Dr. Zafarul-Islam Khan told LiCAS.news that even some university professors indulged in online hate mongering.
Khan said one academic posted on Facebook that “they (Muslims) should be thrown into a gas chamber.”
“I wrote to the Delhi University vice-chancellor saying, ‘that we find this very, very disturbing that such elements should be teaching in a prestigious university like yours’,” Khan said.
Prominent daily newspaper The Hindu even displayed a cartoon of the coronavirus wearing Muslim attire. The newspaper later apologized and removed the picture from its website.
One television channel claimed that several Rohingya refugees were deliberately infected with the coronavirus at the Markaz Mosque and then sent out to different parts of India to spread the infection.
Some dailies have been running columns titled ‘Markaz Masjid’.
Khan has written to media complaining about such coverage.
“Such thoughtless classification is feeding into the Islamophobia agenda of the lap media and Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) forces and has been easily turned into a handle to attack Muslims across the country,” he said.
Tweeting from the Gulf
Anti-Muslim sentiment on social media has ventured overseas with some Indians employed in Muslim-dominated Gulf countries posting inflammatory tweets such as Dubai-based Indian, Saurabh Upadhyay, who asked Muslims to accept they were the source of the pandemic. He described Jamaat members as “terrorists”.
A few tried to play safe using fictitious accounts on Twitter but were caught. Recently nine Indians have been sacked or suspended in the Gulf region for their posts, according to reports.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Kuwait government and Arab activists expressed concern over Indians accusing Muslims of spreading the coronavirus.
The OIC issued a statement on April 18, urging India to take urgent steps to “stop the growing tide of Islamophobia” in the country.
With 182 million Muslims, 14 per cent of the total population, India has the second-largest Islamic population in the world.
A day after the OIC statement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s ambassadors in UAE, Oman and Qatar went into damage control mode with assuaging tweets.
“COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together,” Modi tweeted.
Akhtarul Wasey, Islamic scholar and vice chancellor at Maulana Azad University Jodhpur (Rajasthan), told LiCAS.news that Modi’s response “was good.”
“But it would have been more convincing had it followed action against some of his supporters for their vitriolic attack against Muslims,” Wasey said.
About 8.5 million Indians live and work in Gulf countries. They are there not only to earn but project India’s image there and help in nation-building, Wasey said.
“The government should also note that annual remittance from Indians in Gulf countries totals over $50 billion dollars,” he said, adding that India cannot afford to spoil good bilateral relations with these nations.
India’s bilateral trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, amounts to more than $100 billion annually.
The hate generated on social media has spread to communities with Muslims being ostracized in some parts of the country.
A government-run hospital in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, was accused of segregating coronavirus patients based on their religion.
Police had to take to task another hospital in Meerut in northern Uttar Pradesh state which put out an advertisement stating that Muslim patients would only be admitted if they showed negative test results for COVID-19.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Suresh Tiwari has asked people to desist from buying vegetables from Muslims. Tiwari claimed that Muslim vendors were “infecting vegetables with saliva.”
There have also been instances of attacks on Muslim vendors. A Muslim fruit vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district was thrashed by people after they accused him of gargling water and spitting it on watermelons.
In the state’s Mahoba district, some Muslim vegetable vendors were not allowed to sell their goods by Hindu hardliners who claimed the Muslims were members of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Hindu saffron flags were planted on vegetable carts to differentiate them from Muslim vendors in Uttar Pradesh and some other states, according to press reports.
In Mumbai, the financial capital of India, a man was booked for refusing to collect groceries from a delivery man because he was a Muslim.
A Muslim from Valsad Gujarat was falsely accused of spreading coronavirus after a video went viral, showing him dropping currency notes at a petrol station. Accusers said that it was done on purpose to spread COVID-19.
Later, it was revealed that the man’s right hand was paralyzed. While he was trying to pull out money from his wallet some currency notes fell to the ground.
“It is a sorry state of affairs. No one is defending what the Tablighi Jamaat did, but to make it out to be some sort of a deliberate conspiracy against the country is downright deplorable,” said Ejaz Aslam, general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamist organization in India.