Islamophobia In India Threatens Religious Cohesion In Nepal

Islamophobia has surged in India since the coronavirus outbreak. Now, its northern neighbour Nepal must contend with rippling religious tensions.

India has an influence on Nepal which is hard to exaggerate. Many Nepali citizens speak Hindi – existing data suggests 5%, but surveys suggest that the proportion is greater – and many regularly tune in to Indian news channels. Furthermore, India has a near-monopsony over Nepal’s exports; 58% of produce that leaves Nepali borders is sold to India.

This makes Nepal vulnerable in two ways. Ideologically, its citizens are receptive to Indian media; economically, Nepal is dependent on keeping India happy.

Its first vulnerability has been tested in recent weeks. An anti-muslim conspiracy theory recently riled up Indian social media: the theory claims that Pakistan sent infected muslims through Nepal into Bihar, India, to spread the coronavirus in a biological terrorist attack. They accuse muslim Nepali politician Jalim Miya of orchestrating the assault.

The theory has been debunked, but has scarred the reputation of muslims. ‘Corona jihad’ was coined, a phrase suggesting malicious muslims are responsible for coronavirus, and has since trended on Indian twitter.

Nepali citizens mostly rejected the conspiracy theory. Thousands sent well wishes to their innocent compatriot Jalim Miya, and #RIPIndianMedia trended on Nepali twitter – an expression of disenfranchisement with dishonest, anti-muslim media which fanned the theory.

But Nepal soon faced a conspiracy of its own. On April the 16th 2020, two muslim women were caught on CCTV unknowingly dropping rupee notes from their pockets in a Nepali street. A by-stander accused them of spitting on the notes and littering them to spread coronavirus. His off-hand comment was enough to spark a police investigation against the pair: the story circulated on social media, and like the incident in India days before, it attracted numerous accusations about muslim involvement in spreading coronavirus.

The two women tested negative for coronavirus and were deemed innocent by police. Yet Islam’s reputation had taken another hit, this time in Nepal. #Coronajihad resurfaced, then #Islamophobia_in_Nepal trended once the country realised its mistake.

These two tales beckon caution. Nepali social media was (rightly) quick to criticise Indian islamophobia, but was also quick to ostracise its own muslim population when circumstances changed. The country has a good track record of religious cohesion, and should not lose sight of that. In a survey about crime, Nepali people revealed that ‘being subject to a physical attack because of your skin colour, ethnic origin, gender or religion’ is the least worrying to them out of 13 common crimes, with an anxiety-score of 13/100. Indian people are twice as worried about the same crime (score 28/100).

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister and ex-member of Hindu-nationalist group RSS, will likely marginalise India’s 172 million muslims further in the coming years. It is important that Nepali people stay vigilant to their ideological vulnerability, and choose not to follow him when he does.

Nial Perry
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