How coronavirus exposed India’s deep religious fault lines

By Sarwar Kashani

New Delhi, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- The deadly coronavirus that has gripped the world carried no religious identity until it arrived in India, where the epidemic has triggered a communal backlash against the Muslims.

The country reported its first coronavirus infected patient on Jan. 30 amid one of its worst communal tensions between majority Hindus and minority Muslims over a new law that makes religion a basis for citizenship in an otherwise secular state.

Indian Muslims became a subject of more hostility after widespread outrage over a religious congregation in New Delhi that triggered a wave of COVID-19 cases.

Islamophobic audio, text and video messages and anti-Muslim hashtags have since gone viral on social media, sparking daily trends that accuse Muslims of waging #CoronaJihad and #BioJihad against the country.

Some of these messages even called for the ghettoization of India’s nearly 200 million Muslims because they are “super spreaders” of the virus and “deliberately” spread it to destabilize the world’s largest democracy and its fast-growing economy.

Delhi Minorities Commission head Zafarul Islam Khan told EFE that blaming Muslims for the coronavirus outbreak was part of the “systematic banishment” of the community in India that has been more or less institutionalized by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There are certain Hindutva forces in India who see everything from a Muslim context. They blame Muslims for any problem this country faces. Most of the time, Muslim victims are even held guilty and punished for the crime committed against them. That is the popular narrative,” Khan said.

He said the anti-Muslim narrative had been building up for decades and linking the virus to Muslims was the latest episode of the plot.

Authorities linked hundreds of coronavirus cases and at least a dozen COVID-19 deaths across India to the event organized by an Islamic missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat, in the Nizamuddin area of the capital that is also famous for the mausoleum of a 13th century Sufi saint.

Thousands of Muslims from India and abroad attended the congregation on Mar. 13 at the global spiritual center of the nearly 100-year old movement that is popular among Sunni Muslims across the globe.

This was days before the government announced measures, including prohibitory orders on gatherings, to curb the rapidly spreading virus.

The city government in Delhi prohibited assemblies of more than 50 people from Mar. 16.

The cases linked to the event and tracked down after frantic efforts by the authorities resulted in a collective response that points to the deep religious fault lines in the country of over 1.3 billion people.

Some national TV channels, known for their aggressive nationalistic tone, aired prime-time news programs with anti-Muslim titles like “CoronaJihad”, “NizamuddinIdiots” and “CoronaTerror.”

A leading channel published an infographic with a skullcap and facemask and claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat has been responsible for almost 60 percent of coronavirus cases in India.

The private broadcaster subsequently deleted the infographic from its website and twitter handle but it was still available on social media sites like countless other memes accusing Muslims of transporting and spreading the virus.

For example, a meme showed Chinese President Xi Jinping as a producer of the virus, Tablighi Jamaat chief as its distributor and common Muslims as retailers.

Khan said Tablighi Jamaat members were “stupid, insensitive and idiots” to organize the event when the entire world was stressing on social distancing but blaming all Muslims for the infection was “pure vindictive” by Hindu extremist forces who “have found a reason to bash Muslims again.”

“The media helped spread the anti-Muslim narrative across the country. People in some colonies have barred Muslims from their neighborhoods. Muslim vendors are facing economic boycotts,” he said.

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