Combating hate virus in times of corona

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Popular perceptions form the base of many an act of violence and violation of human rights of deprived sections. In India, since the mid-eighties, many an event has shaped the perceptions and intensified hate towards the religious minorities. The rise of communal politics during the freedom movement had created a stereotypical image of minorities, Muslims in particular. This is where the downward spiral began, and it has intensified, by and by. Not an event is missed where the negative perceptions are not fed into.

Intensifying this problem is the Coronavirus pandemic. While dealing with such a national emergency requires utmost unity, the communal forces, including a section of the media — in particular those labelled ‘godi’ media — have played a reprehensible role.

Through biased programs, they continue to put the blame of the spread of COVID-19 in India on the Nizamuddin Markaz event of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). True, TJ cannot be exonerated, for it did cause a large number of infections through its acts of commission and omission. But there have been parallel acts by other organisations including the steps not taken by the state, due to which India is facing the pangs of this disease. While many may dismiss this as whataboutery, the fact is that among the ten defaulters, if you single out one for the act, it amounts to targeting and deliberate singling-out, and for sinister goals. One should blame TJ for sure, but this blame has to be in conjunction with other similar slips which have contributed to the disease spreading in India.

The disease begins in China and grips countries like the United States, Italy, Spain, Malaysia and all other countries in the world, leaving just one region disease-free by the beginning of April. Only those who came in or went out of these countries got infected by or carried the Novel Coronavirus. The first death in India was of a person who came in from Saudi Arabia (on 12 February). Then there was high-profile singer Kanika Kapoor who tested Corona positive and had come in contact with innumerable people. A Sikh preacher, also Corona positive, was in contact with thousands of people too. The TJ event, which had been planned much before the lockdown, and which had taken due permissions from the government of India, was not cancelled as the overall threat perception in India had then been low.

To be precise, the WHO had declared it a global emergency on 30 January. In India, Rahul Gandhi had tweeted on 12 February, urging the Centre to take the Novel Coronavirus threat seriously, but he was mocked at. International delegates were allowed to come, with due permission, to attend the Markaz event, which was held from 13 to 15 March.

On 13 March the Indian government declared through a spokesperson of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that Covid-19 is “not an emergency” in India. By then, 4,000 potential cases had been found in India and were being traced. The Delhi government had also started putting restrictions on assemblies and gathering from 13 March, but the central government woke up on 22 March, that too by calling a Janata curfew. The national lockdown came only on 24 March, at a notice of only four hours.

The TJ event came to attention when one attendee died in Kashmir and other six died in Telangana. A section of the mainstream TV anchors, got a tonic that boosted their style of journalism. Distorted news that it is TJ which was the source of the disease was immediately made a part of the wider social perception. This is picked up by the usual channels, social media, word-of-mouth propaganda and the usual culprit, the Muslim community, was blamed.

Then followed rumours abound the TJ members demanding non-vegetarian food in hospitals, “spitting” to spread Covid-19, behaving indecently, and so on. The result was that on the lines of lynching in the name of the holy cow, a few more incidents took place. A Muslim woman was denied admission for child-birth, a youth was beaten up, another was forced to commit suicide. Many housing societies banned the entry of Muslims in their communities and other scattered incidents against minorities. And all this is just tip of the iceberg created by Hate.

The biased sections of the media had already created the “Corona bomb” scare, and spun lies and myths about “Corona jihad”, and of India being encircled by “Corona jihadis”. The result was that various state circulars started putting forward the numbers of Covid-positive patients in two categories—those originating from TJ and all of the rest. It is against this background that the chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, Dr Zafarul Islam Khan wrote “Your bulletins of Coronavirus victims are showing a separate column ‘Markaz Masjid’. Such thoughtless classification is feeding into the Islamophobia agenda….” He said that it was being used by the pliable media to assist Hindutva forces and turned a handle to attack Muslims. He also mentioned how there are calls to boycott Muslims socially, and that one boy was almost lynched in a Northwest Delhi village, while others were attacked.

Today even the government is asking hate-mongers to desist from pandering to popular biases and spreading lies. Many chief ministers, particularly of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal have urged people not to spread things that divide society. Even the United Nations has appealed against racial and religious profiling of Coronavirus.

Logical thinking and an understanding of the proper chronology of the spread of the disease clearly points to a government that registered the dangers posed by Covid-19. The section of media distorting the news needs to do its homework too. Covid-19 is an international pandemic, a global problem that has been spread by various factors. By narrowing it down to TJ and equating TJ to Muslims in general, they are doing a great disservice to national unity—and all humanity.

First published in Newsclick.
Ram Puniyani is a social activist and commentator. Views are personal.