India’s Muslim minority has long been subjected to discrimination and religious violence, particularly under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narenda Modi. This past year, a controversial new citizenship law blatantly excluded Muslims, sparking unrest across the nation. The current COVID-19 pandemic is working to stoke the hatred. Muslims, which make up approximately 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion population, have been targeted in Islamophobic attacks both online and on the streets and have been accused of intentionally spreading the virus. Hafiz Mohammed Naseerudin, an Imam, was assaulted by a police officer.
Stopped by an officer on his way to a friend’s house, Naseerudin believes he was targeted because of his religion. “I am an Imam, so I look and dress very Muslim. I also have a long beard. The cop started hitting me and saying that it is because of me and my community that this disease is spreading,” he said to CNN. Naseerudin is not alone. There has been a surge of fake online videos aimed at discouraging Indian Muslims from exercising coronavirus precautions. Violent hate crimes are also on the rise – Zareen Taj, a Muslim activist handing out food to the poor in Bangalore was accused of spitting in the food and spreading coronavirus. Members of her team were beaten with sticks. “We can save our country from this disease if we join hands,” said Taj. “This is the time for solidarity, not for division and hatred.”
Elsewhere, in the village of Harewali in central India, 22-year-old Mehboob Ali was attacked while walking home from a Muslim missionary conference. A video of the assault was shared on social media. The missionary group Ali is affiliated with, Tablighi Jamaat, received criticism for continuing to hold gatherings despite India’s lockdown. This incident has exacerbated existing prejudices and fed rising Hindu nationalism.
Prime Minister Modi was re-elected last year on a platform of Hindu primacy, moving away from India’s secular foundation. Many Muslims now feel they are being labeled as infiltrators in their own country. The Muslim-majority states of Jammu and Kashmir have been stripped of their autonomous status, and a newly enacted citizenship law gives Indian citizenship to asylum seekers from three neighbouring countries, unless they are Muslims. It was within this hostile climate that Muslims became a target during India’s coronavirus outbreak. Muslims unaffiliated with Tablighi Jamaat have also faced increased harassment and violent attacks. Mohammed Haider, who runs a milk stall, told The New York Times that “fear is staring at us from everywhere. People need only a small reason to beat us or to lynch us.”
The violence has been fuelled by right-wing television and Islamophobic statements from ruling party officials. “Keep one thing in mind. I am telling everyone openly. There is no need to buy vegetables from ‘miyans’ [Muslims],” legislator Suresh Tiwari from Deoria town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was heard saying in a video that went viral. Another official from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suggested that Jamaat members should be shot.
Many have noted that the attack on Muslims in India mirrors the xenophobia experienced by people of Asian descent in the United States and Europe. Similarly, Africans in China have been refused entry into restaurants, and in Pakistan, the Hazara ethnic minority has faced discrimination. “It’s just a lot easier if you can whip up hatred against someone else,” said author Charlie Campbell to The Washington Post. “It’s the idea of the bad apple rather than the rotten barrel.”
There has been some pushback against the rising Islamophobia from the government. Several Indian leaders have condemned the spread of misinformation, although many haven’t condemned the violence outright. “Like coronavirus, there is another virus that is emerging and threatening social harmony: the virus of fake news and communal hatred,” said Chief Minister of Maharashtra state, Uddhav Thackeray. India’s Ministry of Health has also stopped blaming Tablighi Jamaat at public briefings. “Certain communities and areas are being labeled purely based on false reports,” the Ministry of Health said in a recent statement. “There is an urgent need to counter such prejudices.”
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