by KHALED BEYDOUN
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s visit to New Delhi, the ascending Indian public intellectual Rana Ayyub asked, ‘What is left for a virus to kill in a morally corrupt nation?’
As the pandemic ravaged Iran and Italy, and ripped into nation after nation between and beyond, the Indian capital was besieged by a different kind of home-grown pandemic, concocted by none other than the nation’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Modi’s meeting with Trump, in late February, displayed all the grandiose pageantry of two egomaniacs, and incited the ongoing Delhi riots to reach an ever higher fever pitch.
Buoyed by the meeting of the world’s two leading Islamophobes-in-Chief, mobs of Hindutva extremists stormed Delhi neighbourhoods populated by Muslims and proceeded to burn down homes, destroy and desecrate mosques, and kill Muslims and those who sought to protect them.
The Delhi riots claimed the lives of 60 people, 47 of whom were Muslims. One of them was an 85-year-old woman who was tied up and set on fire by a mob that chanted, ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ a common Hindutva slogan, as she burned to death.
Modi, in the form of state-sponsored Islamophobia and the mob violence his policies and proclamations embolden, spread this pandemic of violence that gripped India, most tightly in its capital city, strategically over the course of years.
The banner of ‘Hindutva nationalism’, which holds India to be the home exclusively for Hindus, was rapidly infecting the nation’s majority Hindu population and, in turn, exposing its 201 million Muslims to unspeakable horror.
It seemed that Indian Islamophobia, and the climax of vigilante violence that gripped Delhi for weeks, had reached its limit but was soon to be superseded by a new turn of events.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the headlines, and the novel virus claimed the lives of thousands, Hindutva leaders saw an opportunity to further justify their persecution of Indian Muslims: blame its spread in India on Muslims.
From March 1 to 15, Tablighi Jamaat – a Muslim missionary organisation – held its annual conference in New Delhi. The gathering, attended by Muslims from around the world, met at Tablighi’s Markaz headquarters in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin.
The event had been planned months in advance, and converged with growing concern within India about the domestic spread of the coronavirus. The state had not yet issued a lockdown, and Tablighi Jamaat – and religious gatherings from other faith groups – continued without interruption.
However, the ire of the popular media – and the extremist mobs that ripped through the city that hosted the Muslim conference – found a convenient scapegoat for the domestic spread of COVID-19: Muslims.
Not just the organisers of the Tablighi conference, and the 2 000 attendees, but the whole of the Muslim population in India, all 201 million Muslims, in an instant, were singled out and scapegoated as disseminators of the novel virus in India.
News headlines ran with the story that the Tablighi conference was the source of the national COVID-19 outbreak.
In swift order, Hindutva nationalists took to social media, dubbing the virus ‘Corona Jihad’ and the ‘Muslim Virus’. These labels were accompanied by vile caricatures of Muslims spitting on bystanders and physicians, and doctored videos of Muslims disobeying stay at home orders.
Instead of criticising the conference organisers, blame for the virus’ spread was assigned to any and every Muslim in the country. Even Muslims thousands of miles from Delhi, and those not associated with the school of thought subscribed to by Tablighi Jamaat, were singled out.
However, the facts mean little when fearmongering takes precedence.
A novel strain of the Hindutva menace was now underway, capitalising on national anxiety around a global pandemic that bore the face of a relentlessly persecuted and pummelled people: India’s Muslims.
Blaming Muslims for the spread of COVID-19 is a vile step, even for Hindu nationalists and supremacists bent on ridding the nation of a faith group it casts as ‘termites’, ‘terrorists’ and unwanted foreigners, and at best, ‘guests’ in a nation that is not their own.
Yet, events since the rise of Modi and his controlling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, signal that it is anything but a surprise.
Morality, and anything that resembles it in relation to the state’s relationship with the nation’s Muslim minority, has been entirely cast out in favour of a revitalised caste system that places Hindus on top and Muslims at the very bottom.
For Modi and his swelling following, Indian identity is a matter of ‘blood and soil’; a phrase used by white supremacists in Europe and the United States, and in India, by Hindu supremacists who view India – despite its unrivalled religious diversity – as the exclusive homeland for Hindus.
The COVID-19 virus and pandemic was unexpected but the existing architecture and design of Islamophobic persecution and scapegoating in India was firmly in place.
It was established upon a bedrock of constitutional amendments that deny naturalised citizenship to Muslim immigrants, and legislation designed to strip citizenship from undocumented Muslim citizens.
Chinese-style detention and internment camps exist in Assam, and in cities and villages throughout the country; Hindutva mobs with weapons in hand and blood in their eyes are doing the violent bidding of their beloved prime minister.
The days ahead, when state violence and the spreading virus will converge to inflict unspeakable violence against Muslims, will be the darkest.
Staying at home and social distancing, for Muslims in India, may be a matter of life and death; not just because of the virus that has much of the entire world confined and quarantined but because of a more ominous and deadly pandemic – Indian Islamophobia and the rabid mobs infected by a hateful disease that has no imminent vaccine.