Sunday, August 23, 2020

Vilification of Muslims in India during COVID-19: From Tablighi Jamaat to the Bombay High Court judgement

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Indian Media’s reaction to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy

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:

"A political Government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats. The aforesaid circumstances and the latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken. It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action."

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”.

Cartoon published in Indian leading news paper, Dainik Jagran portraying Tablighi Jamaat members as willful spreaders of COVID-19 pandemic | Source: Indian Journalism Review

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

Source: Adnan Abbasi via Archiving the Times

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.”

BJP Legislator Suresh Tiwari with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath | Source: Dainik Bhaskar

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.

Some Reflections

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.

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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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