Though they may seem paradigm-shifting, crises rarely upturn societies. Instead, they speed up existing trends – especially political ones.
“The crisis seems to have thrown the dominant characteristics of each country’s politics into sharper relief,” wrote economist Dani Rodrik. “Countries have in effect become exaggerated versions of themselves. This suggests that the crisis may turn out to be less of a watershed in global politics and economics than many have argued. Rather than putting the world on a significantly different trajectory, it is likely to intensify and entrench already-existing trends.”
This explains why India has managed to turn even a global, devastating public health emergency into an opportunity to vilify Muslims. Over the last few years, India’s Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to weaponise prejudice against Muslims in an effort to build a majoritarian Hindu votebank that shuns older Indian ideas of secularism and tolerance. The coronavirus crisis has turned into yet another opportunity to build on this project.
The inciting incident this time was undoubtedly newsworthy – a large gathering of Muslims in Delhi in mid-March who went on to travel around the country.
But around that same time temples and Parliament were still open and the government was insisting that Covid-19 was not a health emergency. Indeed, in a different climate, the Tablighi Jamaat event would have led to some tough questions for the Union government, particularly National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who is said to be close to the organisation’s leadership.
Instead, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and India’s mainstream media have used it as an opportunity to blame Muslims for the spread of the virus in the country, giving yet another excuse for people around the country to demonstrate their Islamophobia. As one headline put it, “Indians are fighting against coronavirus and BJP IT cell is fighting against Indians.”
In the media, Muslims stuck in some place because of the lockdown are described to have been “hiding” even as members of other religious communities were simply “stranded”. In neighbourhoods, Muslim food vendors are not being allowed to sell and even being beaten up.
In Mumbai, when migrant workers gather in the streets to protest their inability to get home, the BJP and the media quickly tries to give the news a religious colour. A mainstream news channel aired a “sting” about Muslim residential schools in Delhi “violating national lockdown rules”, when in fact the students simply had no way of going home.
The Indian Express even reported that a hospital in Ahmedabad was separating coronavirus patients and suspected cases by religion, though the state government has since denied this claim.
Communalism is not the only trend exacerbated by the virus. The same holds true for India’s extremely unequal society, with classism and the entitlement of India’s rich clearly on display in the fight against the virus. Similarly, the lockdown has given more power to patriarchal, majoritarian Resident Welfare Associations, who have sought to keep out anyone they dissapprove of: Indians from the North East, foreigners, Muslims, and even frontline workers like air stewards carrying out rescue missions or doctors and nurses working to take on Covid-19.
Such prejudice and discrimination is difficult for the country. To fight the coronavirus, a battle that will not be won in days or weeks but over the next year and a half until a safe vaccine is readily available, the government needs people to feel safe enough to come forward and self-report without fearing for their lives.
The effort of the BJP and India’s mainstream media to make Muslims the villains of this current moment endangers the fight against the virus, putting us all in danger. It is imperative that all of us work with the government, while also demanding transparency and accountability, rather than turning on each other, as we attempt to tide over the greatest health crisis in a century. But most of all, it is morally wrong.