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Coronavirus Paranoia Exposes Entrenched Islamophobia in India

Kate Byng-Hall examines how Islamophobia and discrimination adds to the devastating impact of coronavirus on India's Muslim population.

Photo by Joshua Clay

Thousands of Muslims have been targeted in India amid fears that they are purposefully trying to spread Covid-19 as a form of terror movement against the Hindu population.  The attack is the latest in clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the country.

The accusations began after a meeting of Muslim missionaries in Delhi led to thousands of cases of coronavirus at the beginning of India’s outbreak in March. A religious meeting held by Muslim organisation Tablighi Jamaat in early-March was the origin of the biggest spike of cases in the country after thousands gathered there.

On 25th March, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown with just four hours’ notice, shocking the Muslims who had travelled to Delhi from around the world to attend Tablighi Jamaat’s gathering. 2500 foreign Muslims were unable to leave the country within the four-hour window so were trapped at the meeting venue, and subsequently arrested for breaking the newly-imposed rule that forbade meetings of over 50 people.

Those 2500 individuals included eight British nationals who were detained in Delhi for two months after their arrest, and now face criminal charges for their attendance of the event claim that their phones and passports were taken from them, and that they were forced to stay in unsanitary four-person cells with just two meals a day.

Shamsul, an optometrist from Lancashire who was among those arrested, said that

“when you are locked away like an animal inside a room and you get treated like a piece of dirt, it mentally just breaks you completely”.

Police only agreed to release and deport the Muslim prisoners if they confessed to wilfully disobeying lockdown rules. A petition was filed to the Delhi high court on 20th May which argued that their detainment is tantamount to illegal detention" due to their inability to leave the country within the limited window.

On 16th April, Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, one of the group’s leaders, was charged with culpable homicide as a result of the thousands of Covid-19 cases caused by the gathering.  If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison.

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Rapid Generalisation

22-year-old Mehboob Ali was thrashed by locals in his small hometown of Bawanain northern Delhi after attending the Tablighi Jamaat event. Three men were arrested for assault after the incident left him hospitalised.  

This sentiment cannot be called uncommon in India. The Tablighi Jamaat spike was widely publicised by the media across India, leading many Hindus to assume that the Muslim group caused it intentionally in order to attack the country’s predominantly Hindu population. #CoronaJihad was trending as the idea of Covid-19 being used as an alternative to suicide bombing became a common suspicion.  

Muslims have been ostracised around the country. Muslim vendors have been prevented from trading in some areas, and beaten if they have tried. A cancer hospital in Meerut was found to be refusing to treat Muslim patients unless they took a coronavirus test prior to entering the building. Muslim volunteers have been attacked with cricket bats in Bengaluru while trying to give food to the homeless. Muslim businesses have been widely boycotted.  There is concern that the paranoia surrounding Islam during the pandemic could be a significant economic detriment to Muslims.

The blatant Islamophobia has attracted global discontent, with the Kuwait government, a royal princess of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and a number of Arab activists calling out Islamophobic hate speech by Indians as well as discriminatory policing.

This prompted the Indian PM to tweet saying that

“COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. […] We are in this together”. 

Many have said this gesture is not enough to excuse the rampant Islamophobia he allows under his leadership.

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Anti-Islamic Trends 

The PM Narendra Modi represents the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), known for its anti-Muslim agenda.  Since his party was elected in 2014, Modi has stood by while mob attacks against Muslims have increased significantly in India, particularly against those they suspect have been trading and killing cows for beef, a practice which is prohibited in Hinduism.

This discrimination ramped up in 2019, when the Indian government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which favours granting citizenship rights to Hindus over Muslims, a practice which violates international law. The Bill also means that many Muslims, of which there are nearly 200 million living in India, could be detained as illegal immigrants

Hundreds of thousands of Indians have protested against the Bill, but they were met with excessive police force and anti-Islamic slurs. This sends a clear message that the leading BJP is set in their intolerant ways, and has no remorse when it comes to its aggressively Islamophobic policy.

Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer, is one of many who has expressed concern that this climate could lead to a genocide of India’s Muslim population, saying that “in India [the] Hindu vigilante mobs do the killing [of Muslims] and the police, the legal system and the political climate help them to get away with it” due to the government’s fascist tendencies.  

“Muslims are being dehumanised, ostracised economically as well as socially – if you read scholars of genocide […], they tell you that this is the first step, the way it all begins” –Arundhati Roy

Roy argues that human rights organisations must step in to prevent Islamophobia in India, which has been provoked by paranoia during the coronavirus pandemic, from escalating into full-scale extermination. The mindset of India’s government has no place in the modern world, especially at a time when we are so in need of compassion.


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