On April 28th, BJP legislator Suresh Tiwari of Uttar Pradesh told people not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors. In a video of the incident, Tiwari says, “Keep this in mind, and I am saying this openly, no one should buy vegetables from Muslims.” A day later, another BJP legislator from Uttar Pradesh, Bribhushan Rajput, was recorded threatening a Muslim vegetable vendor and his young son. Rajput accuses the vendor of lying about his name to hide the pair’s religious identity. “If you people are seen in the locality, then you will be thrashed,” Rajput yells, after questioning the vendor’s young son. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and home to nearly 40 million Muslims—a community that increasingly faces targeted violence from both mobs and the police alike. The ruling BJP party, along with Prime Minister Modi, have been accused of propagating Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim attacks and discrimination have escalated in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, as India faces both public health and economic crises.
After facing public outrage, BJP leadership issued an order for Rajput and Tiwari to explain their actions. Neither of the BJP legislators in question apologized for their actions and instead chose to defend them. According to DNA India, Rajput confirmed his appearance in the video and (falsely) claimed, “These people [Muslims] sprinkle urine on vegetables.” Tiwari dismissed criticism by emphasizing that he never encouraged violence, according to the Financial Express. “I told them not to fight with them or take law into their own hands, but simply to stop purchasing from them…” Tiwari said, “There are many Muslim vendors in Barhaj too and I only advised people not to purchase from them to be saved from the deadly virus.”
Tiwari’s call for a ban on Muslim vendors comes from a conspiracy theory that Muslim Indians are intentionally spreading the Coronavirus as an act of terrorism. According to The Guardian, the conspiracy started after Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group, held a large convention in mid-March. After many at the convention contracted Covid-19, rumors started that the Tablighi Jamaat was primarily responsible for India’s outbreak. The Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 group stated that “the available data does not support the speculation.” However, many BJP members accused Muslims of committing “Corona-jihad.” Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi characterized the Tablighi Jamaat gathering as a “Talibani crime” in an interview with The Print. Similarly, ABP Live reports BJP legislator Sangeet Som called the meeting “Coronavirus terrorism” that should be punished as terrorism.
The recent videos of Tiwari and Rajput are not isolated cases of bigotry, but representative of a systematic issue. The chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, Dr. Zarful-Islam Khan, alleged that the state disproportionately focuses on Muslim violations of the lockdown, according to The Guardian. Khan said that despite “dozens” of different groups violating coronavirus restrictions, “the whole focus is being directed on Muslims only.” This lopsided focus will damage India’s fight against Covid-19, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). It has already harmed the Muslim community: Al-Jazeera reports that a government-run hospital in Gujarat now segregates Muslim and Hindu patients. Other hospitals refuse Muslims altogether.
BJP officials’ incendiary remarks matter. A 2018 IndiaSpend initiative found that ninety percent of hate crimes committed since 2009 occurred after Modi and the BJP took power in 2014. Earlier this year, Muslims feared losing citizenship under the exclusionary Citizen Amendment Act (now on hold due to the pandemic). Police brutally responded to protests against the act, according to the HRW, beating protestors and raiding Muslim shops and residences. Today, in multiple states, posters prohibit Muslims from entering certain neighbourhoods, according to The Guardian. Far-right groups around India, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), now supply saffron flags to Hindu vendors, Al-Jazeera reports. Similarly, fruit shops in Jamshedpur display posters of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a right-wing Hindu, anti-Muslim group), according to India Today. The flags and posters allow Hindu vendors to be identified—and render Muslim vendors obvious targets for harassment and outright violence.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Modi and the BJP now call for unity and brotherhood, regardless of race, class, or religion. These words, however, ring hollow. Muslims still face systematic discrimination and violence in India, as the videos of BJP legislators Tiwari and Rajput illustrate. India, and the world for that matter, need unity to combat the Coronavirus—and unity requires a fundamental shift in the BJP’s treatment of the Muslim community.
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