Muslims as contagion: The image of “terrorists” carrying COVID-19 in India

Image Courtesy: UNI Photo

If we believe our government and the national media, then the most dreaded terrorists in India do not carry grenades, rocket launchers or AK-47s. Instead, they carry COVID-19; bio-terrorists are equipped with the latest biological weapons imported from the Maoist China; Tabligi Jamaat, the organization responsible for a congregation in Delhi have implanted viral chips on Muslim bodies that produce a contagion to eliminate Hindus. In place of exploding grenades, the new "terrorists" sputter coronavirus. They spit on fruit, they sneeze from windows, they cough from their houses, and they vomit from buses, as part of their new "attacks".

Such violent imagination shows that Islamophobia in India is no longer closeted hatred, nor an open secret. It is proliferating alongwith the pandemic. It is out during lockdowns. From villages to towns, it is in blown out proportions amidst the public, branding all Indian Muslims as terrorists. They are the source of all the evil. It is producing an analogy in which Hindus are seen as sacred contagion and Muslims, dangerous contagion. While the sacred contagion has every right to spread, the dangerous contagion has to be contained. Acts can be seen as attempts to impose a Hindu social order on Muslim communities, wherein they are "terrorists" by birth, as one becomes a Brahmin or an "untouchable", or as nomads become born "criminals", and members of performing communities are born as "prostitutes".

This does not mean that Muslim societies do not practice the caste system, but their social systems are not yet fully subservient to aggressive Hinduism.  Misapprehended Muslims are the world of chaos for Hindus. They have the potential to produce dangerous contagions. It is about containing and quarantining Muslims, who could not be contained during the anti-CAA-NRC protests. The disease is a sign of both good and evil for the State, as in the figure of Bengal’s Shitala Mata. Evil has to be dispelled like a mythical State dispels others’ right to divine citizenship. 

An epidemic is never only about the epidemic, nor is a disease only about the disease. Neither the plague, nor the coronavirus, can be viewed in isolation. Virus, a microscopic agent creates its microcosm before it enters the body and society. None other than Albert Camus has brought this connection alive in his The Plague — a classic about the epidemic, but also a metaphoric tale of the Nazi occupation of the body and the city. It is also about the absurdity of life and death that we face in times of catastrophes. It is also about the profundity of death that we don’t recognise, unless we face it. Epidemic is a moment of turmoil. It lays out siege on our organised lives. It stops our movements and shakes all the structures.  It creates a situation in which trivial concerns become insignificant. It leads human societies to open up in profound rupture. It is a time when we ask questions about life and death, of prophecy and philosophy, of encounter and intimacy, about the power of a virus and the collapse of the world order. Ideally, this should have been the case. Ideally, a disease that is causing much concern around the world should not have been communalised. One can get infected at any moment. At any moment, life can be at risk. Those who claim that homosexuality is a sin, are under treatment. Those who manage security (the head of Mossad) have been quarantined. Everyone stands vulnerable in the face of a pandemic. In such moments of helplessness, Camus says, what else can we do but to love fellow human beings? He asks us to bring life to the hospice, never to the hospital. A meaningful and compassionate life that capitalism and other systems of exploitation have divorced us from.

It is believed that the epidemic has erased all forms of social and political differences, but this is not the case. Time and again, pandemics prove that we are but political animals and that politics has no exit from our lives. Who will die and who will survive are not purely a matter of chance, but are  clearly political. It has been proven before, and is being proven again with the frequent death of Blacks at the heart of the US Empire. A timely slogan reads like this: "Coronavirus is a disease, capitalism is pandemic". If this is the case, then it is a right to do politics. It is the right time to ask questions. Those questions that we never asked about our health care systems, the profit order, and life insurance companies that promise us life after death. Let us question the lifeless health care system in which even doctors are not safe, let alone the diseased. It is not the infection that is to be blamed for their deaths, but the government and the system, for it is a case of negligence of the State. Who will ask these questions when the conscience of those who ask questions, the media, has been sold out. With their conscience gone for a toss, the bloodthirsty India media keeps looking for scapegoats. This time, the scapegoat is the Tablighi Jamaat. The organisation has also become a scapegoat for the Hindu State, for which it is holding millions of Indian Muslims responsible. 

Scapegoat of the Majority

Writing on the Plague, French critic Rene Girard says, "the distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness". Pandemics, however, could have been great equalizers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. An epidemic is never an equalizer. Rather, it brings discrimination, stigmatization, and xenophobia against its perceived "enemy". Jews were stigmatized in Europe during the Plague, and Hindus and Sikhs during the Plague, cholera and meningitis outbreak in the US Pacific and Canada. Hitler’s Germany almost exterminated its gypsies by decreeing the focus on "Combating the Gypsy Plague". Srijan Shukla rightly points out how "the coronavirus pandemic is causing societies to find their own personal scapegoat to blame". Americans are blaming immigrant Chinese; Chinese are blaming Uyghurs, Pakistan is blaming Hazara minority, India is blaming Muslims, and Muslims are blaming their jahil Muslims for spreading the virus. The Spanish were blamed for the Spanish flu and the Spanish called it the "French Flu". Migrant labourers have been viewed as suspects in the eyes of State. While cosmopolitans have thrown out their migrants, upper caste feudal villages have found novel reasons to shut their villages for the already thrown-out migrants. Is it not a riotous game to plan in the time of a pandemic? Moreover, by blaming Muslims, the Indian state and media are shifting focus from narratives in which upper-classes (who fly and travel abroad) are considered the carriers of the disease. It was important to shift focus as it was against the narratology of the nation and the corporate media. 

Muslims as Dangerous Contagion: From “Love Jihad” to “Corona Jihad”

At times when we are constantly thinking about a contagion which is overtaking our society, we need to think about the contagion not only in a physical sense, but also in relation to our socio-cultural and political life. Contagions can exist in various forms — from a plague virus to fascism. Not always seen, but there seems to be a simmering connection between physical and ideological contagion. We don’t need to go to Europe now to see the connection, for it is in front of our eyes.  If the coronavirus is a bodily contagion, Muslims are projected as another dangerous contagion. When both are merged, it creates a ripple effect. While the disease becomes an evil, the community itself is considered "diseased". The unfortunate congregation of Tabligi Jamaat is being viewed as a conspiracy, an act of "treason", and a case of "Islamic insurrection". The state invoking the NSA (National Security Act) against the members of the Jamaat, who themselves are victims of COVID-19, is no longer a surprise. From "Love Jihad" to "Corona Jihad", Islamophobia has many names and forms. The prevailing situation in India also proves that islamophobia is becoming insufficient, for it is proving to be too mild to encompass the nature of the violence and ghettoisation, taking the form of apartheid. This is quite similar to what BR Ambedkar has described as "permanent segregation" in the case of "untouchables".

Image Courtesy: Reuters/Amit Dave

The notion of Muslims as a dangerous contagion cannot be separated from the Hindus as a "sacred contagion". Hinduism as a sacred contagion has the right to spread anywhere, from air to earth, from birds, animals to dust. One who comes in contact with it becomes pure — from the corrupt leaders to the rape accused. It sacrileges everything — from economics to the judiciary. The truth is that even the pandemic could not escape the endemic of the Hindu social order. There is a possibility that the pandemic will consolidate the Hindu social order further.

This could be a controversial claim and perhaps a matter for further research, but one of the reasons that the COVID-19 has not spread that much at the community level in India, in comparison to other countries, could possibly be because communities have always been locked up in their own separate caste-based ghettoes.

Islamophobia cannot be seen in isolation of Brahmanism. In the Hindu social order, if Dalits are dirt, Muslims are infections. The image of Muslims as infections goes well with the spread of the coronavirus. “To have been in the margins is to have been in contact with danger, to have been at a source of power,” writes Mary Douglass. In one of his recent speeches, Narendra Modi said that democratic “citizenry” are “manifestations of God”. Therefore, anything that harms citizens must be a manifestation of vice, evil and demon. From secular notions, as per those enshrined in the Indian Constitution, Indian citizenship has now acquired religious meanings as per Hindu tradition. Democratic institutions, from the Legislative to the Judiciary have become part of the sacred. It is the sacred contagion of Hinduism that holds the centre and it is a mythical archetype in which security assumes the notion of sacredness and health becomes an affliction of “evil forces”. It is the premonition of a mythical society that is fighting a “divine war” against the COVID-19.

The politics is obvious. The Indian government’s mission to fight COVID-19 is not only about containing the virus, but also about “containing” the country’s Muslims forever. Both evils have to be contained, in the eyes of the Hindu State, for the free flow of the sacred contagion of Brahmanism. It is not surprising that sedition charges and arrests of Muslim activists have taken place in parallel with the war against the pandemic. Also, the anxieties and failures to contain COVID-19 have resulted in increased anger and hatred towards Muslims. Fanatics need to be shown how much the State cares about their existence. The formula is clear: if you cannot contain COVID-19, “contain” Muslims — a fight that is far more profitable than the fight against coronavirus.

Brahma Prakash is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.