Even in this time of Covid-19 pandemic, communalism is being fanned in India, centring first the missionary Tablighi Jamaat congregation on March 13-15 at Delhi's Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque. Muslim Covid-19 patients in some Indian hospitals are being segregated, BJP leaders are making unkind remarks towards Muslims and their religion and some donors have urged officials not to give their relief materials to Muslims.
These are indeed very troubling developments.
While maligning the Tablighi congregation as a "super spreader" of the coronavirus is promoting BJP's divisive political agenda by camouflaging its ostentatious economic failure and botched handling of the virus outbreak, it will certainly not be helpful for India in containing the virus outbreak. Engaging the country's 200 million Muslims in virus containment effort is as much necessary now as ever.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended the ongoing three-week nationwide lockdown until May 3. The number of infections has now crossed well over 17,000 and the Tablighi congregation has been blamed for one third of the total Covid-19 positive cases by some government officials.
Following the detection of seven positive cases at the Nizamuddin Markaz events, Delhi police's crime branch lodged a FIR against seven people, including Mawlana Saad, the leader of the congregation for holding the congregation at Nizamuddin by violating the government order against large gatherings.
But police investigation has gone far beyond it and landed on the source of funding of Tablighi Jamaat, as if it were a terrorist organisation. On top of these, a case has been filed against Mawlana Saad for committing "unintentional homicide". If convicted, the defendant could be awarded up to 10 years of imprisonment.
But the question is why did the Indian home ministry allow this big event to take place at this critical moment in the first place? Did not it realise that Nizamuddin Markaz could become a coronavirus hotspot because many foreign nationals would be there as participants?
The government action and Indian media's blustering criticism of Nizamuddin congregation has made the Muslims scared about their safety.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, one of the leading organisations of Islamic scholars belonging to India's Deobandi school of thought, already complained to the Delhi High Court that the whole Muslim community in India was being targeted using the Tablighi congregation as a pretext. Lives and properties of Muslims have become insecure, their freedom and rights have shrunk even more, they complained.
What is terrifying was that the whole Nizamuddin incident was not seen as a health issue or even a lack of responsibility on the part of the congregation organisers, but Muslims in India in general were targeted in a fresh effort of marginalisation.
The faith of Muslims has also come under attack. The hardliner BJP leader of West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh, referring to Nizamuddin, tauntingly said that Allah, the name of God for Muslims, would not be able to protect them from the coronavirus.
Simultaneously with this disparagement against Muslims, another BJP MP, Subramanian Swamy, made bigoted comments that Muslims in India do not deserve the same rights as everyone else living in the country.
In an interview, when he was asked about India's controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act by journalist Isobel Yeung, Swamy said, "We know where the Muslim population is large, there is always trouble — because the Islamic ideology says so." He went on to say that if the Muslim population becomes more than 30 percent in any country, that country is in danger.
When reminded by Isobel that Article 14 of the Indian constitution ensures equal rights for everyone in India, Swamy most brazenly said that this was a misinterpretation of the Article, saying: "The law ensures equal rights for equals.… Muslims do not fall into the equal category."
In the state of Assam where the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) has been made, half a dozen of justices of Foreigners Tribunal of the state donated fund to the government coronavirus relief programme on condition that the money must not go to the aid of "Tablighi Jamaat, jihadis or jahils." Ironically, to this Foreigners Tribunal, the left-out Muslims from the NRC have to appeal for citizenship.
Many human rights activists in India have rightly questioned inclusion of these justices in the tribunal who openly express their hatred towards the Muslim community of the country.
The acerbic utterances and vilification of the largest minority community will not help India any better to fight the pandemic, but it can certainly shore up popular support of BJP for its governance failures, which are many.
Narendra Modi's sudden declaration of lockdown has not only aggravated India's prevailing joblessness, it has hit hard the lives of internal migrant workers, many of whom were reported to have walked more than 100 miles from Delhi to other place in absence of any mass transports.
Agricultural experts in India are making dire forecasts that India may suffer a food crisis if the pandemic lingers for a long time and lockdown continues. When India needs, like any other nation hit by Covid-19, national unity at this moment, the state as well as many leaders of the ruling BJP are expressing sentiments that continue to divide Indian society and isolate the Muslim community even more.
In Muslim countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, many members of Tablighi Jamaat were infected with the virus because of their closer contact and some of them died also. In India, the infection of Tablighi Jamaat attendants has been given a communal colour, ostensibly to further alienate the country's already beleaguered Muslim population.
In this time of pandemic and afterwards, BJP needs to hide its failures, and what could help it better in its objectives than generation of hatred against the Muslims.
The writer is a journalist and a columnist and a former teacher of English at Bangladesh University and Darul Ihsan University (now not in operation). He can be contacted at: [email protected].