March 2020, when coronavirus was a new occurrence in India, an Islamic organization—Tablighi Jamaat—was accused of spreading it across the country. Criminal proceedings were registered against Tablighi Jamaat members—some of them belonging to foriegn countries as well—for acting against law during the pandemic. This accusation was then used to further spread hate against the whole Muslim community of India.
On August 22, 2020 however, the Bombay high court struck down all criminal charges against Tablighi Jamaat’s members stating that they were scapegoated by the government.
The Bombay high court mentioned in their judgement:
Let us understand how the events unfolded in the Tablighi Jamaat saga and its impact on Muslims of India.
The Markaz Nizamuddin Event
Tablighi Jamaat is headquartered at Alami Markaz, Banglewali Masjid in Nizamuddin, New Delhi which is often referred to as Markaz Nizamuddin. Markaz Nizamuddin is where members of Tablighi Jamaat often congregate to discuss and deliberate about their outreach plans.
One such meeting was held in early-March 2020 which drew members not only from various parts of India but also from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries. The people from foriegn countries entered India on a valid tourist visa to attend the congregation much before the time March 13, 2020, when Indian Health Ministry claimed “COVID-19 is not a health emergency, no need to panic.” In fact most of the attendees left Delhi around March 11, 2020 itself.
However, on March 24, 2020 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown so some of those attendees who were still staying at Delhi Markaz got stranded as they could not leave in the wake of sudden nationwide lockdown of transportation services.Tablighi Jamaat officials asked for permission to send stranded members to their destination but the permission was denied.
This was then followed by a series of fake news stories of which major Indian media houses were a part of. Sudheer Chaudhary of Zee News claimed that Tablighi Jamaat members are somehow linked to Al Qaeda and are working similar to the “suicide bombers” by spreading COVID-19 deliberately. The stories about Tablighi Jamaat members misbehaving with Quarantine center staff and spitting in the open were broadcasted on Times Now and several other news channels. This story was proven to be incorrect by fact checking website AltNews.
Rohini Chatterjee (2020) describes India TV News coverage of Jamaat in these words “In a video, one of India TV’s anchors says, “God knows how many members of the jamaat are roaming around in the country like corona bombs”. The other anchor chimes in, ‘they can detonate the virus bomb at any moment, putting large numbers of people in danger.’ All of this was also announced in high-pitched, dramatic tones aimed at spreading fear and panic in the minds of viewers”.
Indian print media also ran hoax news reports. For instance Danik Jagran—India’s leading Hindi Daily—published 156 stories, eight editorials, and five cartoons over 15 days spreading misinformation and half truth about the Jamaat. Another widely read Hindi daily, leading, Amar Ujala, claimed Tablighi Jamaat members defecated in the open after being denied non-vegetarian food at quarantine centre. This story was again proven incorrect by the fact checking website AltNews.
Aftermath & Discrimination
The fake news on the Jamaat further led to more structural forms of violence against Muslims in India. Islamophobic hashtags like #CoronaJihad were over twitter in hundreds of thousands. Time Magazine reported that over 165 million people saw the hashtag #CoronaJihad on Twitter—which as explained earlier was done at the behest of the Indian media.
These include countless incidents like that of Mehboob Ali—a 22 year old who attended the Jamaat’s function—and was brutally thrashed over rumours of deliberately spreading COVID-19.
30-year-old Rizwana Khatun lost her child to hate infodemic. She writes “I was abused on the lines of my religion and was asked to wipe the blood. I could not because I was shivering. I was beaten up with slippers. I was shocked and rushed to a nursing home.there it came out that my child had died.”
In Indian state of Karnataka, Muslims distributing food to migrant labourers were beaten over a rumour of them spreading COVID-19 through food distribution. In Uttar Pradesh—the most populated state of India, the ruling party—Bharatiya Janata Party’s elected legislator—named Suresh Tiwari—appealed to people not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors.
In Punjab, Muslim Gujjar dairy farmers were beaten and boycotted in their villages over similar rumours. There are many more such post-jamaat incidents of violence against the Muslims reported by the media.
The way Tablighi Jamaat was vilified and blamed for spreading coronavirus in India may seem to be atrocious and plain hate speech as per any globally acceptable norm. However in Indian context, this is just one more example of the continued onslaught of misinformation; disinformation, half truth, plain lie, and slander, which in the last few years, has become acceptable to be peddled by the mainstream print and electronic media.
Let us hope that the Bombay High Court judgement on Tablighi Jamaat will create enough pressure on the mainstream media which will make them scale back the blatant Islamophobic fake news pedling on their platform.
During the time contemporary to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, I was part of a research group that was working towards archiving COVID-19. We also did a case study on Tablighi Jamaat (this part was handled by me), so some parts of the article are referred to and reproduced from this archive, to learn more visit archivingthetimes.webflow.io.