India should introspect and not feel outraged when international bodies advise it to stop the stigmatisation of COVID-19-infected people on the basis of their religious identity. The attacks on Muslims, for instance, continue unabated. The sense of resignation of a young Muslim friend was palpable when he told me that he was waiting for this to happen. A young Muslim man committed suicide in Una in Himachal Pradesh after his fellow villagers boycotted him. It is, however, not surprising that the head of the government does not feel the need to talk about this crime against a religious community in this hour of global crisis.
It serves little purpose to enumerate and describe the cases of boycott of Muslim vendors and instances where colonies and lanes have been made inaccessible for people of the community. It is no use relating reports of Muslims being forced to live on a river bed in Punjab. It only increases the sense of depression amongst the community and emboldens the Muslim haters.
Even some well-meaning people in the media succumbed to the old social pathology and felt compelled to create a subhead in their newspapers of COVID-19 cases attributed to the Tablighi Jamaat. The Delhi government felt obliged to hold daily briefings under the category, “Tablighi Jamaat”.
Should we not report or discuss if the people testing for COVID-19 after the Markaz event, or those they contacted, are found to be positive in significant numbers? Do they constitute the single largest block of the COVID-19 positive cases? An impression has been created that Muslims are the “super spreaders”. This when there are reports of experts stressing that sampling information must also be provided for the numbers on the Jamaat-related positive cases to have any meaning. We need to compare the size of the Jamaat-related samples with other samples.
There is a lament that the Jamaat gathering provided the Muslim haters with an excuse for attacking the community. Why are such refrains so frequent? Just before the news of coronavirus infection broke out, the largely-Muslim gatherings in protest against the discriminatory citizenship law, NRC and NPR were blamed for the intensification of anti-Muslim bias among the Hindus. It was argued that it was suicidal for Muslims to protest as Muslims, as it would create fear among Hindus and alienate them further.
Instead of addressing the deep-seated Muslim phobia in society, many of us are advising Muslims to behave as good Muslims and good citizens. Muslim-phobic material seems to be produced on a mass scale in cyberspace and distributed. The language of war against the virus has only exacerbated the situation for Muslims. The virus cannot be seen. Carriers of the virus are visible. So, the “warriors” are attacking them and safeguarding the nation. Gangs of youngsters guarding their localities and villages, shooing away Muslims or attacking them have proliferated. Mosques are being vandalised. Gradually a feeling is taking root that the Hindus should not engage in any transaction with Muslims. This could drive Muslims out of the economic realm. There are very few of them in the formal sector, anyway. Their further marginalisation would mean being shut out of the informal sector as well. After political and social alienation, this would be the most disastrous thing for them — almost an existential threat.
In the seven decades of Independent India, Muslims have systematically been forced into ghettoes. There were already two zones of sensibilities in India — Hindu and Muslim. The current crisis is being used to deepen the divide.
The coronavirus has exposed the frailties of humans, and their helplessness as well. We, as a human society, need to mobilise all our scientific and spiritual resources, from all traditions, to meet the challenge that this virus has posed before us. It asks us to come out of our confines, join hands, heads and hearts and learn from each other. We cannot afford to be petty and vicious towards others.
The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University