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The novel coronavirus has brought much of humanity to its knees, laying bare our vulnerability to nature’s fury.

Many countries are putting up a united front to fight this contagion, setting aside the other dangers humanity faces. Unfortunately, some others seem to be trying to outdo the virus by spreading hatred and demonization. 

India is a case in point. The second and third weeks of March were a pivotal time for the country. The novel coronavirus had escaped China, ravaged Italy and Spain and was gaining momentum in the United States. Even though it was poised to spread in India, several large religious and political gatherings of both Hindus and Muslims took place. 

A government advisory and travel lockdown went into effect on March 15. Two days earlier, Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), an apolitical Muslim missionary organization, held its international annual meeting in Delhi. The next day, the Hindu Mahasabha, a political and religious organization, conducted a large Gau Mutra party (cow urine drinking party) in the belief that it would cure coronavirus. Three days after the government advisory, 40,000 people took part in worship and pilgrimage services at the Hindu temple at Tirupati.

On March 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first address to the nation, asked people to observe a “people’s curfew” from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He also asked people to gather at their doors and balconies at 5 p.m. that day to express gratitude to medical workers; this resulted in a large number of his followers coming out on the streets, rallying and dancing while banging pots, pans and drums in jubilant processions with no regard to social distancing.  

Within days, a few participants in the TJ gathering were diagnosed with the coronavirus. What followed was an outpouring of hysteria, scapegoating, and demonizing of not just the TJ members, but the entire Indian Muslim community. Muslims were blamed for being super spreaders of the virus in social and mainstream media, by politicians, celebrities and all kinds of influencers. This scapegoating has been widely condemned by intellectuals, news reporters of repute, human rights groups, and conscientious politicians. 

The coronavirus crisis hit India against the backdrop of new citizenship laws that have been widely condemned as discriminating against Muslims. Massive protests across India, the largest in defense of the constitution since India became independent, were joined by people of all walks of life: students, artists, journalists and public intellectuals, and led by Muslim women. It’s very encouraging to see that the St. Paul City has introduced a resolution to take a stand against these discriminatory laws in India. During President Trump’s visit to India in February, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians in Delhi made incendiary speeches that led to deadly violence against Muslims resulting in several dozen lives lost and hundreds injured. 

Like many countries, India has been facing criticism for not doing enough testing for COVID-19. The testing that has occurred was weaponized by extensively applying it to members of TJ and Muslims. This propaganda was further amplified by thousands of fake videos on social media claiming that Muslims were intentionally spreading the virus to infect Hindus. It generated so much hatred that Muslims were being beaten and killed in the streets with impunity. There were open calls to boycott Muslim vendors, reports of hospitals denying care to Muslims or in some cases, segregating Muslim patients from other patients. Muslim women were denied gynecological appointments based on their religion,  and a few women even lost thier babies on the steps of hospitals. 

In one instance, news reports said a pregnant woman was forced to wipe her own blood from the hospital steps where she was denied medical care She was then beaten and forced to flee to save herself and her unborn child. The woman, 30-year-old Rizwana Khatun of the Indian state of Jharkhand, was able to find a small nursing home where she delivered her baby, but it died  due to lack of timely care.

Modi has  addressed the nation three times, but has not made one direct and forceful statement calling for the restoration of communal harmony. There has been no mention of stopping the spread of hatred, nor did he ask the media to stop scapegoating Muslims. This is no surprise, coming from a man who is at the helm of a party that built its rise to power on the ashes of religious harmony and a tattered social fabric.

The alarming rise in violence and scapegoating of minorities in India has prompted the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to issue a scathing report. It recommended that the U.S. government designate India as a “country of particular concern,”for engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act. It also recommended imposition of targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States. It is important to remember that Modi was considered a persona non grata by the United States and was denied entry into the country in 2005 on the grounds of a religious freedom violation under the International Religious Freedom Act, the first and only time such a denial has been issued. This ban lasted until he was elected as India’s prime minister in 2014. 

The coronavirus does not discriminate. The high and mighty, the poor and the pauper – all have fallen prey to this scourge. All energies should be focused on combating the virus instead of spreading hatred and bigotry, lest one become a victim of the former while spreading the latter.

As India battles the novel coronavirus, it cannot let the hate virus thrive in its midst. For the sake of its future health, India must work on eradicating both.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect that of Sahan Journal or its employees.

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Zafar Siddiqui

Zafar Siddiqui is an Indian American who lives in Blaine. He is a co-founder of The Supporters of the Human Rights in India (SHRI).