Two diseases stalk India — one new and mysterious confounding scientists worldwide, the other decades old, all too familiar, nurtured by the politics of hate and bigotry. The coronavirus disease has so far taken less than 1,000 lives in India. But the disease of religious hatred has killed thousands over the years.
As Covid-19 spreads, anti-Muslim sentiment is raging. A media narrative, pushed by a few toxic television channels, is that the Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in Delhi — the venue of a Tablighi Jamaat meeting in March — is solely and singly responsible for the spread of coronavirus infections all over India. A Muslim man was beaten up by a mob in Delhi. A Muslim mother and daughter have been abused by a grocery store owner. Muslim vegetable vendors in UP’s Mahoba complained that people called them Tablighis and refused to buy from them. An Ahmedabad hospital reportedly segregated corona patients on religious lines, public outrage forcing the Gujarat government to issue a denial. Dozens of fake videos and WhatsApp messages on Muslims apparently flouting social distancing, allegedly spitting at people to “infect” them are in circulation.
Let’s do a reality check. Yes, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering was an instance of ignorant civic irresponsibility and should never have been allowed by Delhi Police, which operates under the Union home ministry. Tablighis did spread the virus in parts of Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, but it defies all logic to say they’re responsible for all cases in India, in every state and town. In Mumbai, the worst affected city, coronavirus is cutting across religion, caste and class, with middle class Worli-Koliwada, slum settlement Dharavi and posh Malabar Hill all affected.
Huge numbers of Muslim health workers are on the battle lines of Covid. Of the two doctors who were targeted by a mob in Indore, one was a Muslim, Dr Zakia. Kerala, now a nationwide model for fighting corona, has a sizeable Muslim population and one of the reasons the state has been so successful is precisely because Muslims, Hindus and Christians are working side by side, without discrimination, in a united effort.
By far the biggest corporate donor to the fight against corona is a Muslim, Azim Premji. India’s biggest pharma companies, both in the forefront of the fight against Covid — Cipla and Wockhardt are owned by Muslims. The Dawoodi Bohras of Mumbai are feeding thousands through free kitchens. In Indore, Muslim neighbours carried a Hindu woman’s body to her funeral.
To wilfully search out Muslims as coronavirus “culprits”, for TV anchors to deliberately seek out “Madrassa hotspots” is not only a chilling pursuit of TRPs but also serves to distract citizens from failures of government policy responses. Violent majoritarian vigilantism operating under the cover of an anti-corona campaign will make the fight against the disease even harder and weaken India’s resolve by creating social turmoil.
When a member of the Nihang sect slashes off a policeman’s hand, not every Sikh is held responsible. When some gau rakshaks lynch and murder, not every Hindu is blamed. Why then should every Muslim be cast as an infection-spreading Tablighi? Politicians like Asaduddin Owaisi have repeatedly called for Muslims not to congregate. Conversely, a Karnataka BJP MLA held a birthday bash, Mumbai VIPs travelled in a convoy to a picnic, and this week thousands violated lockdown rules to celebrate a chariot festival in a Karnataka temple. The issue therefore is not religion, it is the mindless civic irresponsibility of all Indians, not just Tablighis.
Added to the general civic irresponsibility is the desi fetish for ‘untouchability’. Social distancing in India predates coronavirus, with many cities marked by religious segregation and ghettos. Over the last few years, faced with targeting and discriminatory state action like CAA, the sense of siege among Muslims has grown. In certain areas, Muslims are lashing out mistrustfully at state agencies — even at government doctors.
The hate virus is highly contagious. While Muslims are cast as corona villains on the one hand, hate and suspicion is being directed at other groups too — doctors working in Covid wards are being abused, attacked and ostracised, outsiders in villages and mohallas are targets of violent suspicion, migrant workers are being barred from returning to their home villages. Hate and suspicion are all-pervasive.
Scientists are working to find a vaccine for coronavirus, but who will cure the communal virus? It can only be cured if each of us journeys inwards to find the humanity within, to treat fellow human beings as equals. After all, this is the teaching of every great religion, whether Hinduism or Islam. If even a global pandemic which knows no boundaries cannot end religious hatred, what ca