Shraddha Pokharel, APMA 2019

COVID-19 infections have topped 5 million worldwide, and more than 342,105 have succumbed to it last 25 May 2020. Still, very little is known about the virus, and it continues to spread devastation across the whole world. This has brought about certain uncertainties and unfounded speculations regarding the origin and the naming of the virus. Bigotry and racism gained momentum following these controversies. Among the existing polarizations that have been exaggerated is Islamophobia. Accompanying the spread of the SARs-CoV-2 virus is the rise in anti-Muslim sentiments in South Asian countries like India.

India is a secular country as per its constitution. In reality, however, this is far from true. While the country has had a history of communal tensions, the resurgence of conflict between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority worsened after the rise of a Hindu nationalist group in the 1990s. Attacks on Muslims escalated after the demolition of the Babari Masjid in 1992, and incidences like the Gujarat riots of 2002 are common and are most likely to occur time and time again. Moreover, the consecutive victory of the right wing Hindu political party Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) since 2014 has furthered anti-Muslim rhetoric in present day India. The recent protests against the exclusionary bills – Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Registration of Citizens (NRC) of 2019 – resulted in violent killings of at least 11 people and are among the latest developments of this trend.

In a country like India, where the oligarchic Modi government has only used the Hindu-Muslim divide for political gains, the pandemic has further stigmatized the religious minority. No sooner than the infections started that the government failed to take timely actions and identified the people of the Islamic faith as scapegoats of their shortcomings. The politicians didn’t miss any chance to shift the blame of the rapid infection in the country to a congregation of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary body. A BJP politician tagged the Tablighi Jamaat as perpetrators of ‘corona terrorism’ after an infection cluster was traced back to a Muslim religious gathering. Another leader of BJP also went on to ask people to boycott Muslim vendors claiming that they were infecting supplies with the virus.

Later, the entire Muslim population was dubbed as ‘super spreaders’ by the media. ‘CoronaJihad’ became a recurring issue across social media as Muslims were accused of conspiring to spread the virus. Several fake news with unrelated videos circulated in social media, and there were reports of even hospitals discriminating against Muslim COVID-19 patients in apartheid-like segregation based on religion. Vigilante groups have also targeted people belonging to the faith, often barring them from entering villages, preventing street vendors from selling, and even assaulting volunteers. There have been incidents of mob attacks on Muslims in different parts of the country. Even worse, the conspiracy spurred communal violence in West Bengal, as the Muslims living in that area were associated with the spread of the virus, and several houses belonging to the religious group were consequently burned.

Despite the surge in discrimination, hate speech, and targeted incidents against the Muslim community, the government has not only remained quiet on the matter but also contributed to setting the narrative of Muslims as the main culprit. As the media continuously broadcasted sectarian debates, and politicians persistently endorsed hate sentiments, many Muslims were subjected to stigma, boycott, and threats. The religious minority that has long been ostracized because of their faith, at the onset of the pandemic, is doubly bound by fear of the virus and fear of state-sponsored discrimination.

Photo from Al-Jazeera/Reuters/Amit Dave.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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