A new wave of COVID-19 cases in India has taken an Islamophobic turn as 300 cases have been traced to a weeklong Muslim religious gathering by the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement that is nearly 100 years old and was attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad.
The gathering emerged as one of India’s major virus hotspots after thousands flocked to the Islamic religious centre in the Nizamuddin West neighbourhood of Delhi.
Islamophobic hashtags have been trending on Twitter since the news first broke on Monday.
“Instead of corona quarantine, we should have hate quarantine,” says historian Rana Safvi.
Officials are still scrambling to identify and trace all of those who attended, as well as their secondary contacts.
But the cases that are directly linked to the event have risen steadily through the week, exposing religious fault lines in a sharply polarised country.
Even as details about the congregation emerged on national news, #CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots, #Covid-786 (a number that carries religious meaning for Muslims), began trending.
“We need to be secular. Religious groups should not hold congregations thinking religion is its own act of survival,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.
Islamophobic memes have also been circulating – one meme, for instance, shows China as the “producer” of the virus, and Muslims as its “distributors”.
Officials believe the infection started with the event’s foreign attendees, many of whom are preachers – this list included several from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan.
Hindu nationalist Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a minister in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, called it a “Talibani crime”.
Indian television news, which has often been criticised for its divisive rhetoric, flashed headlines such as “Save the country from Corona Jihad” and “Who is the villain of Nizamuddin?”
The swift communal turn has also unnerved Muslims – especially as it comes on the heels of deadly religious riots in Delhi, and a controversial “anti-Muslim” citizenship law that saw thousands of Indians take to the streets in protest.
But in the weeks prior to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, other religious groups have also flouted the government’s lockdown order and continued to congregate.
Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, attended a busy Hindu celebration a day into the lockdown.
Another 40,000 people in 20 villages were quarantined in Punjab state after a COVID-19 outbreak was linked to a Sikh preacher who had returned from a trip to Italy and Germany. The man had ignored advice to self-quarantine and visited a large gathering to celebrate a religious festival.
Hundreds of thousands also celebrated a 10-day harvest festival in Kerala state around the same time the congregation in Delhi was happening.
“It was irresponsible and could have been avoided but there were so many other congregations of other religions which took place. This took place in the middle of Delhi. Why didn’t anyone stop it?” Ms Safvi asks.
On March 13, Delhi’s government had banned all gatherings of more than 200 people. So it’s unclear how the event continued.
Police in Delhi have now charged the cleric and six other leaders of the mosque for ignoring the government’s warnings. (Source: BBC)