Migrant workers are stranded and starving — how can millions be possibly safely taken back to their homes or fed? Testing rates are abysmal — how can the government gather enough kits or make them affordable? The economy is taking a battering — what can be done given the pandemic and the absolute necessity of a lockdown?
COVID-19 has crippled nearly every aspect of governance and public life in India, with one exception: the department of hate and fake news. Not only is hate-mongering doing well, almost every Islamophobic hashtag is, for lack of a better word, going viral.
For the past two months, Indian social media has been awash in Islamophobic content that’s tried hard to link the COVID-19 pandemic to Muslims.
As was the case in other countries, including the United States, there were some attempts to dub the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus.” But in India efforts at Sinophobic propaganda were a whimper compared to the roaring hate that’s now been unleashed against the country’s Muslims.
Even if such rhetoric is xenophobic and unfounded, one can understand how and why the outbreak in Wuhan lends itself to easy Sinophobic spin. To connect the pandemic to a specific religion is, to anyone with a modicum of rational thought, absurd.
But for the Indian cyber hate machine, no gap is big enough that it cannot be leaped.
“This wave of communal propaganda began right after the news of the Tablighi Jamaat fiasco broke,” said Pankaj Jain, fact checker and founder of SMHoaxslayer. Having begun operations in 2015, SMHoaxslayer.com is one of the oldest fact checking websites in India and remains one of the best independent initiatives combating fake news in the country.
Around March 13, a large group of Tablighi Jamaat followers had gathered in the Hazrat Nizamuddin area of New Delhi for a markaz — a retreat and religious school for members of the Jamaat. Many of the attendees had come from countries with high infection rates at the time. Senior members of the Jamaat stayed within the close confines of the venue in a dormitory-style residence through the length of the markaz. According to the Indian government, over 8,000 Jamaatis visited Nizamuddin in early March.
As expected, infections among the attendees soared.
“We didn’t shut the door — the government did,” said Maqbool, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. Maqbool, who identifies himself as a fellow traveler of the Tablighi Jamaat, knew people who were among those held inside. “The lockdown was announced suddenly on March 22 by Modi, wasn’t it? Everyone in this country was caught unprepared. Then why make a villain out of this one group?”
Maqbool is partly right. Like the infamous demonetization, Modi’s announcement of the countrywide lockdown came in an 8 p.m. televised speech with no prior warning and no mention of contingency plans or relief measures.
The move left millions — especially India’s internal migrant workers — in a lurch.
Mandating social distancing in a country where cities have high population densities, and also announcing a complete shutdown of transportation necessary for people to return to their hometowns, was the proverbial Catch-22. People are at fault if they disobey anti-gathering laws, and also if they try to move out of the city.
Like migrant workers and everyone who was outside their home district when the order came down, the markaz attendees who were inside their retreat couldn’t have gone back to their homes even if they wanted to.
The holdup at Nizamuddin went on until a forced evacuation began on March 30. It took the police a full two days to evacuate over 2,500 people holed up inside.
But Maqbool was only partially correct in his assessment that the government was at fault for what happened.
The Tablighi Jamaat was irresponsible in both organizing the markaz and in allowing foreign attendees to gather without proper screening. Moreover, Jamaat chief Maulana Saad in a YouTube video called COVID-19 punishment from God for sinners and claimed it had no effect on the pious and therefore, the faithful must flock to their mosques — ignoring all calls for social distancing.
After the evacuation, the attendees became a body of superspreaders and are, as per government records, the cause of India’s single biggest spike in infections.
Then reports surfaced about Tablighis refusing to cooperate with testing and misbehaving with hospital staff. In fact, following the evacuation, many attendees promptly took the infection home to all corners of the country and to date a total of 25,000 people have been quarantined through contact tracing of the Tablighis.
But the case with the Tablighis was far from exceptional. The group became a spark for Islamophobic propaganda, which conveniently ignored similar problems with roots in non-Muslim communities in India.
On that same day that the now infamous Tablighi gathering began in March, the Health Ministry of India told the Press Trust of India: “Coronavirus is not a health emergency.” Screening was far from watertight at airports and many people slipped through the checks, bringing the virus home. Testing rates remain abysmal, even now.
A Bollywood singer, Kanika Kapoor, for example, returned from the U.K. to India in early March and organized a huge birthday bash at a hotel, which was attended by BJP parliamentarians. Later in March, she tested positive for COVID-19.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation couldn’t have happened without the knowledge of the Delhi administration and the police. In fact, the local police station is a stone’s throw away from where the markaz was organized.
If the instructions were clear, and the lockdown was to be followed from midnight on March 22 onward, why wasn’t the congregation ended then? What explains the eight-day delay? Also why were the attendees not quarantined and tested after evacuation; why were they instead allowed to take the virus all over the country?
And while Islamophobic quarters were raising hell over Tablighi Jamaat’s behavior, a Hindu congregation in Maharshtra defied curfew and carried out a religious procession. When the police tried stopping them, they retaliated by pelting stones at the officers. Another Hindu procession was held in West Bengal on the occasion of Ram Navami.
A Hindu Godwoman in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, who goes by the name of Maa Aadi Shakti — a self-proclaimed incarnation of the fierce Mother Goddess — refused to call her congregation off and instead brandished a sword and spewed abuses, daring the police to touch her. Similarly, Baldev Singh, another preacher in Punjab, defied lockdown and as a result 40,000 residents across 20 villages he visited were quarantined.
A group of nearly 1,800 Hindu pilgrims from Modi’s home state of Gujarat were stranded in north India. Home Minister Amit Shah arranged for their return in luxury buses.
Meanwhile, facing criticism not only from non-Muslims, but also from prominent Indian Muslim voices, Tablighi Jamaat changed track. Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, the head of one Tablighi Jamaat faction, sent out a message asking his flock to cooperate with the government and abide by all precautionary measures.
But the Islamophobia machine had already barrelled far ahead.
Within hours of the Tablighi fiasco news breaking, a hashtag #कोरोना_जिहाद (Corona Jihad) started trending in India. The next day more did: #निजामुद्दीन_के_कोरोना_जॉम्बीज (Nizamuddin are corona zombies), #MarkazCOVIDSpread, #JamaatKaCoronaDisaster, and others.
Over the next two days, the hashtags jumped from Twitter to TV, with prominent pro-government TV channel anchors frothing with rage and speaking the same words as trolls calling for all kinds of punitive and violent action against “jihadis” — meaning Muslims.
Soon the ruling party’s lawmakers and ministers joined the chorus and threw their weight behind the hate campaign.
The minister for minority affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi — a known anti-Muslim voice — said the Tablighis had committed a “Talibani crime.” Another BJP member called for a boycott of all Muslim vendors who sold essentials like vegetables and fruits.
As with the beef ban lynchings, with sufficient frenzy in the airwaves and on cyberspace, the hate moved into the realm of ordinary life.
On April 5, 22-year-old Mehboob Ali, a young Muslim man who had attended a markaz in another state — one with no connection to either coronavirus or the Nizamuddin congregation — was beaten to death in Delhi by a mob of Hindus. The attack was filmed and shared on social media; it shows the young man pleading for his life with his remorseless killers.
On April 10, Ambreen Khan, a nurse in Punjab who was on the frontlines of India’s COVID-19 fight, was threatened by a mob telling her to go to Pakistan or face dire consequences.
And on April 15, Tablighi leader Saad was charged with manslaughter by the Delhi Police.
“You know how this goes, right?” Pankaj Jain of SMHoaxslayer explained. “We know what the political affiliations and ideological bent of mind is of these people who trend anti-Muslim hashtags. The Jamaat fiasco just gave them a convenient handle.”
It wasn’t just convenient targets like the Tablighi Jamaat fiasco that were seized upon by anti-Muslim hate-mongers.
On March 14, Rahul Kulkarni, a news reporter working for ABP News (a TV channel with overt pro-government programming) wrongly reported that special trains were being arranged for migrants to get home from the Bandra station in Mumbai.
Being the financial capital of India, Mumbai has a large migrant population. The airing of the false train claim resulted in a massive gathering of people at the station trying to get a ride home. The situation spiraled out of control and the police had to orchestrate a baton charge to get the crowd to disperse.
This turn of events was given an anti-Muslim spin.
Rajat Sharma, media czar and close associate of Narendra Modi, tweeted a photo of a mosque next to the station and claimed the crowd was deliberately organized by Muslims defying state orders. Several others followed suit. And yet again, despite clarification from both the mosque and the Mumbai police that the mosque just happened to be there and they had no role in the gathering of the crowd, the “news” went viral.
Not only did the usual suspects go on renewed anti-Muslim tirades, they urged the ouster of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for mishandling the situation in Mumbai. Just a few months earlier, much to the chagrin of the BJP, the Thackeray government had come to power by outmaneuvering BJP general secretary and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Through March and April, episode after episode has followed this same pattern.
A lynching in Palghar in which two Hindu monks were killed was blamed on Muslims. The police confirmed that it was a local fight gone wrong in these times of heightened social stress and the killings had no religious angle. In fact, among those arrested for the lynching, two were members of the local BJP. And yet, not only were Muslims painted as murderous villains killing innocent Hindu monks, right-wing rabble rouser and TV anchor Arnab Goswami bizarrely tried to link opposition figurehead Sonia Gandhi to the episode.
Goswami went on a tirade against Gandhi and tried to portray her as responsible for the Palghar episode. In his trademark crass and abusive bluster, he referred to her Italian origins, calling her by her maiden name to highlight her Italian birth, and portraying her as an evil plotter.
On cue, Indian Twitter started trending abusive hashtags against Gandhi.
The use of fake news, morphed images, outright fabrications, and lies all fit into an established pattern of Islamophobia, deployed during previous elections, the demonetization, the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy, and most recently the Delhi riots. The same tactics have been deployed during the pandemic.
What appears to be a new tactic at this juncture is taking a piece of genuine reporting and repurposing it in an anti-Muslim light, often by adding fake elements. In other words, seeding a big lie with a kernel of truth.
On April 27, for example, Zee Hindustan, a website belonging to the Zee Group (owned by BJP supported parliamentarian Shubhash Chandra) carried a story about two Muslim restaurateurs from London who laced their kebabs with human feces.
“The story was true,” narrated Jain, who debunked the Zee report. “But only partially. Yes, there was such a case. But firstly, this news is five years old. Secondly, the headline — which is what most people read — was changed to read: Jamaati mentality found overseas too!”
But not all is going according to plan for the hate machinery.
Governments in Indian states not ruled by the BJP have learned their lessons and are resisting the trap of us-versus-them formulations at this time of of crisis, avoiding playing into the Muslim-versus-Hindu debate where they’ll get beaten by those who specialize in this rhetoric.
Ignoring the trends and primetime shouting matches, these governments are taking legal action against those spreading hate and fake news, irrespective of their religion.
Two young Muslim men from Mumbai, Mohammed Hasan Yusuf Shaikh and Asif Rashid Shaikh — two very popular TikTok profiles — defied the lockdown and boasted how celebrities like them weren’t touched by police. They and a few others were promptly taken into custody and made to apologize on video and use their influence to urge others to obey the lockdown.
The hitherto untouchable Arnab Goswami, too, was taken in for questioning by the Mumbai police. The ABP reporter whose unverified report about special trains led to the Bandra crowds was arrested.
Kerala, the first and one of the worst affected states by COVID-19, has come down hard on hate-mongers and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan personally took to social media and warned fake news spreaders that legal action was awaiting them should they try their dirty tricks in his state. He signaled his dissent by not attending a video conference organized by Modi.
In West Bengal, the chief minister — an ally-turned-arch rival of the BJP — publicly snubbed the governor (a BJP appointee) and asked him to behave in a manner befitting his constitutional role. Additionally the state refused to cooperate with a central inspection team and instead the state has begun working directly with the World Health Organization (WHO).
The deployment of mindless hate-mongering has become so obvious and intolerable that not just other political parties, but even the BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, publicly distanced itself from it.
RSS Additional General Secretary Manmohan Vaidya, while condemning the actions of the Tablighi Jamaat, made clear that one must not tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush. “Even in the Muslim community, many people have acted responsibly,” he said.