Activist Akram Akhtar was home in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh, when the clock struck 9 pm on 5 April, and the soundtrack of those responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a 9-minute lights-out echoed around him.
“There were loud shouts of Jai Shri Ram, firecrackers and the distinctive sounds of .315 calibre country-made pistols being fired. I heard the conch and prayer bells from the temple where loudspeakers played bhakti songs.” This continued for 45 minutes, he said.
In other parts of India too, Modi’s call to switch off lights and light a diya or shine a torch “to mark our fight against coronavirus” was interpreted by many Hindus as a show of majoritarian strength.
Worried that there might be communal tension, Akhtar got on his motorcycle and drove to some Muslim neighbourhoods. “It was dark and quiet. Unlike other days, not one person was on the road,” he added, attributing this to the fear fueled largely by the recent police violence against Muslim citizens protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Corona fuels Muslim hatred
Since December, police in India’s most populous state has targeted Muslims, detaining thousands, raiding homes and even opening fire on people protesting against new laws that will put Indian citizenship through a religious sieve.
A bald headline in Time magazine holds up a clear mirror to our recent selves: “It Was Already Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus.”
After attendees at a Tablighi Jamaat meet — held in Delhi before Modi’s call for a national lockdown — tested positive, fake news about Muslims intentionally spreading the coronavirus went viral. As India trended #CoronaJihad, our Islamophobia was on show for the world to see.
An indication of how fast the hateful rumours spread was that even the UP Police was forced to turn fact-checker.
In Sahranpur, 62 km from Shamli, the police issued a statement denying that Jamaatis quarantined in Rampur “created a ruckus” because they didn’t get non-vegetarian food and had excreted in the open. “After going through news reports, news channels and social media posts we have found that these reports are completely wrong and untrue. Saharanpur Police refutes this projected news in its entirety,” the official police handle tweeted.
After this, there were many more instances of the UP Police correcting and warning or arresting people and media organisations for spreading fake news or attacks against Muslims. An article in the Hindustan newspaper dated 6 April said the Meerut police found to be untrue the report that a maulana had spat on and bitten a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper was angry after an altercation over money and had used a coin to create bite marks.
Fake news and real damage
Religious organisation Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind moved the Supreme Court to stop the dissemination of fake news and act against a section of the media for spreading communal hatred and bigotry. The organisation said that the Tablighi Jamaat meeting was being used to demonise the entire Muslim community.
If 2018 and 2019 were the years India communalised rape and spent hours debating—on prime time television and on social media—the religion of the rapist and his victim in horrific cases of violence against young women and minors, 2020 will go down as the year this country viewed a global pandemic through a Hindu-Muslim lens.
The fake news was everywhere. “My parents have been buying groceries from a supermarket owned by a Malayali Muslim for many years…Yesterday my father received a WhatsApp forward asking him not to go to the shop as the owner was infected with Coronavirus and the goods in the shop were infected too,” someone posted on Facebook.
Secularism is dead
Ideas of Indian syncretism and secularism feel increasingly dreamlike and distant in 2020. This latest blast of hateful bigotry came on the heels of the Delhi riots, where 19 mosques were damaged and burnt in targeted violence that lasted 48 hours in February in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods in the north-east.
When journalist and author Ajaz Ashraf began visiting these mosques, he was reminded of how the Taliban blew up two sixth-century statues of Gautam Buddha in Afghanistan and how the Islamic State destroyed archaeological sites as its soldiers barrelled through northern Iraq and Syria.
“These mosques do not have an ancient past, nor are they architectural marvels. Yet the fury the mobs vented on them was Taliban-esque in nature. They showed their extreme contempt for sacred spaces that were not theirs; made it clear, in fact that others’ places of worship belonged to the realm of the profane,” Ashraf wrote for news website NewsClick last month. He said he gave up after seeing the destruction in nine mosques.
Even sacred spaces that have always attracted both Hindu and Muslim followers in India face a shaky future.
When Nikhil Mandalaparthy, a reporting fellow at Pulitzer Center, began investigating the future of our Sufi dargahs, he found that prominent dargahs in Ajmer and Delhi were being increasingly targeted by Hindutva supporters and conservative Muslims. Incessant Islamophobic social media messaging (like the handle that tweeted that Hindu visitors to Sufi shrines “is akin to Jews worshipping the Nazis”) was making fewer Hindus visit these syncretic spaces in some parts of the country, he learnt.
Earlier this week a baby died in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, after a doctor refused to treat a pregnant Muslim woman because of her religion.
Islamophobia is everywhere you look in New India and already its impact is deadly.
So hunker down. It’s only April. There are still eight months to go in 2020.
Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based columnist and on the editorial board of Article-14.com.Views are personal.