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 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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