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In March of 2020, just before the official coronavirus-related lockdown in India, a Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering took place in the Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in New Delhi. The event was attended by 80009000 followers from India and abroad. Less than a month later, nearly 4,300 participants tested positive for COVID-19. 

The Indian media took this information as an opportunity to vilify the attendees, deeming them “super spreaders” and accusing them of taking part in a “corona jihad,” implying that Muslims were intentionally spreading infection as a Jihad strategy. The Nizamuddin event led to the government charging attendees with various offences such as ‘public nuisance’ under the Indian Penal Code, and many of them were detained in various parts of the country. At the same time, India was testing a very low percentage of the population even as the government was aggressively tracking, testing, and quarantining the Muslim attendees of the Nizamuddin event.

Since the BJP party came to power in 2014, the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has emphasized the rights of Hindus over other groups. He is turning India into not simply a state where the majority of the population is Hindu, but a state where they dominate over other groups – a Hindu majoritarian state. The news media is, for the most part, following his lead. Almost all of the national news channels in India increasingly and uncritically support government policies and schemes, including its increasing hostility towards the Muslim population in the country.

During the COVID-19 global pandemic, at last count, India has recorded more than 8.5 million cases with 100,000 deaths – resulting in more of the same, causing a predictable exacerbation of xenophobia and bigotry in India. Researchers Soundarya Iyer of the French Institute of Pondicherry and Shoibal Chakravarty of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISc., who analysed media reportage about the Jamaat from March 20th to April 27th, found 11,074 stories published from 271 media sources with the term “Tablighi Jamaat.’’ Similarly, an analysis by the Indian Journalism Review shows that Dainik Jagran, a Hindi daily national newspaper, kept up with the slew of Islamophobic content spanning 156 stories, eight editorials, and five cartoons over 14 days from March 28th to April 11th.

When researchers Joyojeet Pal and colleagues at the University of Michigan studied media misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic in the Indian media they found that the news stories between March 14th and April 12th had shifted from discussions of a possible lockdown and infections to Muslims and religion more significantly. They also found instances in the data where official wings of the government, such as the Press Information Bureau, purposefully spread misinformation, such as posting multiple tweets declaring that the news reports on deaths of migrant workers travelling back home on trains during the coronavirus lockdown were false. Asian News International (ANI), a syndicated news platform, was also accused of spreading fake news on quarantine measures linked to the Nizamuddin event.      

The media narratives which targeted the Muslim community as a whole during the pandemic had very real consequences: two attendees of the Nizamuddin event were found to have died due to denial of care and erratic food in a quarantine centre in Delhi, and several cases emerged of people being denied medical care by hospitals due to their religion. It took until August 21st for the Bombay High Court to dismiss the charges against 35 Tablighi Jamaat petitioners while calling out the scapegoating of Muslims in the Indian media. 

Rahul Kanwal, a senior journalist at India Today, on April 4 shared this infographic depicting statistics using the image of a man with a skull cap i.e. a Muslim man. Source: Rahul Kanwal, Twitter, 2020

Here’s a compare and contrast for you: on August 5, India had a total of 1.96 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 40,742 reported deaths. On the same day in the city of Ayodhya, a Hindu ceremony for the highly contentious new Ram Temple was held. The ceremony was attended by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and various other ministers as well as political and religious leaders.

The ceremony was telecasted along with live updates  on almost all electronic media platforms throughout the day where the tone of reporting was celebratory. The media narrative around the ceremony was different from that of the Nizamuddin gathering. A barely mentioned fact was that a few days before the ceremony, the priest who was going to perform the ceremony and 16 policemen monitoring the site tested positive for COVID-19, prompting calls for the event to be postponed. During the same time period, another religious gathering took place in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh that involved around 26,000 people, who were placed under home quarantine. This event went largely unnoticed by the media, perhaps because it was a Hindu religious gathering, as they focused their efforts on the Nizamuddin event. 

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The Modi regime has seen major backsliding when it comes to both freedom of the press and treatment of the Muslim minority. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index rankings saw India drop from the 140th to the 142nd position in 2020. Reporters without Borders, an independent, international NGO that safeguards the right to freedom of information, reports that the “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased.” The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Kuwait government, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have flagged the violations of religious freedom in India and asked the US government to declare India a country of “particular concern” given its tolerance of religious freedom violations. 

What we are currently witnessing in India is the scapegoating of Muslims, by the ruling party, including the police and judiciary. A crisis such as the current global pandemic would ideally be dealt with by working with the problems at hand: the poor health infrastructure in India and the mismanagement with respect to the lockdown implementation. However, this would mean that the government would have to take on responsibility and blame for the mismanagement of the crisis, and given the status quo against Muslims in India, it is simpler to vilify them. For India to truly deal with the pandemic, it would have to accept all its citizens as equal – which would disrupt the status quo that the ruling political party and its affiliates have carefully and violently crafted. And the media would need to do the same.

Vedika Inamdar and Pooja George are researchers at The Polis Project Inc., a New York-based not for profit – hybrid research and journalism collective producing knowledge about critical human rights and political issues that have a direct impact on public discourse.

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