To some Muslims, the war on coronavirus has begun to look like a war on the community itself. The community finds itself blamed for the spread of the coronavirus

by Zia Haq

Jehirul Islam, a coronavirus disease patient, made a final call on April 10 from his hospital bed in Maharashtra’s Akola to his family in Assam. He sounded grim, fearing something he imagined to be far worse than dying of Covid-19. The next day, hospital staff found him dead, his throat slit, in an apparent suicide.

“He was worried he won’t be able to make it back home and that, if he were to die, his body would be cremated, rather than buried in a Muslim cemetery,” his brother Moinul Islam said from Singimari, a village in central Assam’s Nagaon district.

Two suicides have been driven by stigma, rumours and slurs directed toward India’s 200-million Muslims.

To some Muslims, the war on coronavirus has begun to look like a war on the community itself. The community finds itself blamed for the spread of the coronavirus. This followed a global religious congregation in New Delhi in mid-March, held by Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic movement of preachers, which met in defiance of official restrictions.

The gathering of nearly 2,500 delegates, some from Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan, led to a dramatic spike in Covid-19 cases in the country, with Indian attendees presumably infected by the foreigners then going on to infect people across the country. At one point the congregants or their contacts accounted for a third of the total cases.

Fears of cremation of Muslims, based on rumours, were unfounded. “The government’s guidelines state that Muslim Covid-19 victims should be buried at a cemetery closest to the place where the patient died,” Maharashtra minister Aslam Shaikh said .

The religious event led to outrage among both Muslims and non-Muslims. However, Muslims then began to be accused on social media sites of deliberately spreading the virus as part of a “jihad”.

The hashtag “Corona Jihad” was circulated 300,000 times, according to Equality Labs, a digital advocacy group, quoted by Time magazine. Ordinary Muslims say the Jamaatis were “irresponsible and condemnable”, but the incident has given rise to reprisals.

There have also been several reports of them misbehaving in quarantine, including at Delhi’s LNJP hospital where the police had to be called in.

In Delhi’s Bawana, a mob attacked Mehboob Ali, who had attended a similar Islamic gathering in Madhya Pradesh, leading to three arrests, according to the Delhi Police.

On April 4, Mohammed Dilshad, who had a connection to Tablighi Jamaat, hanged himself in Himachal Pradesh’s Una Bangarh village, allegedly because of social boycott.

In Assam’s Nalbari district, Hindu shopkeepers refuse to serve people from a Muslim village, according to Rehmat Ali, a farmer of the area.

In another instance of Islamophobia, an official of the State Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam on April 7 wrote a letter to the state’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma that shocked Muslims.

In it, Kamalesh Gupta, the official, said he and his colleagues had made donations to the state’s coronavirus fund. However, he urged that “help may not be extended” to Muslims linked to Tablighi Jamaat, who he labelled “jihadi”, a synonym for terrorists. Crucially, officials like Gupta are tasked with deciding the fate of people stripped of citizenship in the state on suspicion of being illegal foreign migrants.

It is true that the Tablighi Jamaat congregation led to a steep spike in the number of Covid-19 cases. A senior health ministry official, Lav Agarwal, addressing reporters, said on April 5 that the number of days it would have taken for India’s coronavirus cases to double had quickened to 4.1 days from 7.1 due to the congregation.

“The Jamaat people should have deferred their meet. They have brought miseries on the community,” said Maulana Asghar Ali, the imam of a mosque in Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur.

The government seems to have been slack too, said Naved Hamid Moemin, the chief of All India Majlis-e-Mushwarat, a Muslim advocacy organisation. “The police made no effort to separate foreigners from Indian preachers at the gathering despite serving a notice on them,” Moemin said.

Last week, the Union home ministry issued an advisory on preventing “social stigma” attached to Covid-19 patients or their communities. It said “certain communities and areas are being labelled purely based on false reports”, adding that such prejudices need to be “countered urgently”. The federal health advisory urged officials to “never spread the names or identity of those affected”.

However, in Assam, health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma publicly released names of all of the state’s 29 patients -- one Hindu and the rest Muslims. The minister, addressing reporters, said: “Generally, we do not reveal the names of patients suffering from diseases like HIV. Yet, the Covid patients’ names are being released with an honest intention of making people aware and stopping the spread of Covid-19.”

There’s also an argument for releasing the names -- it helps those who may have come in contact with them know that they could be infected.

Maulana Mahmood Madni, a former Rajya Sabha MP and leader of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, India’s oldest Muslim faith-based outfit founded in 1919, said he had urged all mosques and Muslims to follow official lockdown guidelines.

“The shame over what Tablighi Jamaat did is collective and so is the religious hatred that followed,” said S Irfan Habib, a Delhi-based historian.

The police have registered a criminal case against Maulana Saad, the leader of Tablighi Jamaat, who made an egregious sermon posted on YouTube. In it, he urged Muslims to flock to mosques and said social distancing was “nonsense”. Saad has since gone into hiding.