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FOCUS June 2020 Volume 100

Countering Islamophobia in India

Aditya Menon

Even as India continues to grapple with rapidly rising number of COVID-19 infections, the Muslim minority in the country is facing an additional threat—increasing Islamophobia.

Instead of forging unity against a common threat, the pandemic ended up deepening the existing religious divisions in the country and adding to the marginalization of religious minorities.

Muslim Congregation

The narrative of blaming Muslims for the pandemic can be traced to March 2020, when a number of people associated with the Islamic proselytizing organization Tablighi Jamaat were found to be COVID-19 positive.

It was found that they contracted the infection at an international congregation of the organization held in New Delhi in the second week of March. As Tablighi Jamaat is a transnational organization, the congregation was attended by representatives from across the world.

This meet took place before the Indian government placed a lockdown and before it began actively screening people at airports. The government had also given permission for this congregation to be held.

So instead of questioning the government on why international travelers —that too from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases—were allowed to enter India, much of the media narrative focused on blaming Muslims. Terms like "Corona Jihad" were frequently used in television media, in effect, projecting patients as terrorists.

This led to an unprecedented stigmatization of Indian Muslims across the country. There were numerous incidents of Muslims being targeted in this period - from Muslim fisherfolk being attacked in the southern province of Karnataka to a Muslim dairy owner committing suicide in the northern province of Himachal Pradesh, after being subjected to a social boycott by local Hindus.

Citizenship Amendment Act

The COVID-19 lockdown also witnessed another disturbing trend—the arrest of several Muslim civil society activists by the law enforcement agencies. One of the activists, a young student from Jamia Millia Islamia University named Safoora Zargar, was put in prison despite being four months pregnant. Another activist, Khalid Saifi, founder of the organization United Against Hate, was beaten up by the police in custody.

All these activists have been leading the protests against what is known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, a legislation passed by the ruling government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Act seeks to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities from India's neighboring countries, except Muslims.
Naturally, the Act is seen as discriminatory by Indian Muslims and sparked protests in different parts of the country. The protests began in December 2019 and protesters had to face attacks from the police as well as from rightwing goons.
However, on 24 February 2020, the attacks on the protesters snowballed into full-fledged sectarian violence in the Northeast District of India's capital Delhi, barely a few miles from where US President Donald Trump was meeting Indian leaders during his visit to India.

The violence continued for two days, killing over fifty people and displacing hundreds. Over two-thirds of those killed and nearly 90 percent of those who were displaced happened to be Indian Muslims.

However in its probe into the Delhi riots, the police pushed the narrative that the violence was a "pre-planned conspiracy" by people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and several people leading the protests—like Zargar and Saifi mentioned earlier—had been arrested under the draconian anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. In effect, peaceful protests by Indian Muslims have been criminalized.

The crackdown on protesters as well as the rising Islamophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic present new obstacles for Indian Muslims. It is clear that the space for articulation of Muslim grievances and legitimate political demands has shrunk considerably.

Now, any mobilization by Indian Muslims will be seen with much more hostility by law enforcement agencies as well as sections of the majority Hindu community.

Therefore, the main challenge for Indian Muslims would be how to find their voice in these difficult circumstances and counter rising Islamophobia in the country.

Aditya Menon is an Indian journalist.

For further information, please contact Aditya Menon through his e-mail address: