Naseerudin, 44, had gone to pick up some vegetables from his friend’s house in Humnabad, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, when he says an officer stopped him on his scooter.
Other vehicles were on the road, Naseerudin says — he believes he was stopped because of his religion.
“I am an Imam, so I look and dress very Muslim. I also have a long beard,” he says. “The cop started hitting me and saying that it is because of me and my community that this disease is spreading.”
Nagesh D L, police superintendent of Bidar district where Humnabad is located, says the officer has been suspended while an inquiry was conducted into the incident. Naseerudin says he called the police from hospital to make a statement, but Nagesh claims they did not receive any complaint.
Naseerudin is not alone. As fears of a widespread coronavirus outbreak mount in India, some of the country’s Muslims, who make up roughly 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billion population, have been targeted in Islamophobic attacks on the streets and online, and accused of spreading the virus.
In the capital, New Delhi, for example, volunteers distributing ration kits to Muslim families say they face harassment from police and are scared to go out. In Punjab, Muslim milk producers say they have been threatened by villagers, their houses have been raided by police, and people are scared to buy their produce.
At the center of the recent Islamophobia is a gathering of a conservative Muslim missionary group in New Delhi in mid-March, and led to a large, highly publicized cluster of coronavirus cases.
While these incidents have been mostly isolated, the virus fears are only amplifying existing prejudices, playing into growing Hindu nationalism which in recent years has seen India’s Muslim societies increasingly marginalized.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected in a landslide victory last year, many Indian Muslims say his emphasis on empowering India’s Hindu majority has left them feeling like second-class citizens in their own country.
Under Modi, the majority-Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir has been stripped of its autonomous status, nearly two million people in India’s northeast Assam state, which shares a long border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, were left off a controversial new National Register of Citizens, which critics feared could be used to justify religious discrimination against Muslims there, and a divisive new law has been enacted which gives Indian citizenship to asylum seekers from three neighboring countries — but not if they are Muslim.
In February, that same law, which critics say is an example of the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, sparked deadly clashes in the capital.
It was in that environment that a Muslim group’s gathering became a focus of India’s coronavirus outbreak.
Between March 13 and 15, the group called Tablighi Jamaat, which focuses on encouraging Muslims to return to practicing the religion as the Prophet Muhammad did, met in New Delhi.
Thousands of members had traveled from across India and abroad to the event at the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque — the group’s global headquarters — in central Delhi.
After the event, delegates — who had dispersed — began to fall sick with Covid-19 and Indian officials embarked on a widespread effort to trace, identify and test attendees and their families. As of Saturday, 4,291 cases had been linked to the gathering, across 23 states and union territories, according to health authorities. That amounted, as of April 20, to nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases reported so far in India.
While the meeting was held before the official nationwide lockdown on March 25, the Indian Ministry of Health had advised all states on March 6 to avoid mass gatherings.
A day after Modi announced a citizens’ curfew on March 22, Tablighi Jamaat followers were still in their headquarters. Event organizers said in a statement that when the curfew was put in place, the event was “discontinued immediately.”
“Due to the sudden cancelation of rail services across the country on March 21, a large group of visitors who had to depart by way of rail got stuck in the Markaz premises,” organizers said.
The Delhi police are even weighing criminal charges against the group, which has denied it broke any law. The event organizers also say that they acted within medical guidelines by not allowing its stranded visitors to roam the streets.
Other gatherings had also gone ahead in this time period — both sessions of Parliament, for example, were on until March 23.
Even after the lockdown was announced, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath traveled to Ayodhya and participated in a Hindu ritual, reportedly surrounded by at least 20 people. Speaking to local media, Adityanath’s media advisor Mrityunjay Kumar said the meeting was held early in the morning when most people were asleep and that there were around 10 people present.
After the cluster of coronavirus cases from the Tablighi Jamaat meeting emerged, some members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials began equating the meeting to terrorism.
On Twitter, the head of the BJP’s information and technology unit, Amit Malviya, called the gathering part of an “Islamic insurrection.” Sangeet Som, a state-level BJP lawmaker, reportedly said the meeting was “corona terrorism,” and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP minister for minority affairs accused the event organizers on Twitter and local television of a “Talibani crime.”
The lawyer for the head of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi, Maulana Mohd. Saad, declined to comment on the issue.
Sanjay Kapoor, political commentator and editor of independent political magazine Hardnews said questions should be asked about why the attendees were not checked at the airports when arriving for the event, despite the government saying it was screening those coming from countries affected by coronavirus.
“I think there was a certain amount of laziness or complicity through the state. All these people came through immigration and surely if they were infected, why weren’t they checked especially when the government has been saying it’s been tracking people coming into India from early March,” he said.
Rumors and misinformation on social media
In the days after the Delhi mosque cluster was reported by the Indian media, a series of Islamophobic hashtags gained traction on social media, including #CoronaJihad, #CrushTablighiSpitters and #BioJihad.
Rumors, misinformation and videos claiming Muslims were deliberately spreading Covid-19 were widely shared, fanning already inflamed religious tensions in the country.
“We have observed a deliberate pattern to delegitimize the community,” Alt News, an Indian nonprofit fact-checking website, said. “All these videos have been used to call for a boycott of the community, especially the lower economic sections of the society such as vegetable and fruit vendors. This act of communalizing a pandemic is disturbing as well as dangerous.”
Wajahat Habibullah, former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities who remains a vocal leader on minority rights, said: “It is shameful that the safety of the Muslim community has been compromised during Covid-19.
“We should all work together to combat the disease, instead we are targeting a certain community,” he said.
Offline, Muslims across India with no connection to the gathering in New Delhi say they were targeted as India’s response to the virus ramped up.
Mohammed Shukrdeen, a milk producer belonging to the Gujjar community in the state of Punjab, almost 200 miles from where the event took place, said that his entire community was impacted by rumors following the Tablighi Jamaat event, in two ways.
“First, no one wanted to buy milk from us, and second, local authorities would raid our houses to see if anyone of us had either visited the Jamaat in Delhi or if we were hiding others who had come,” Shukrdeen, who says he had no connection to the gathering, said. “The villagers threatened the dairy where we sell milk and the dairy stopped buying our milk. This meant a huge loss for us.”
Shukrdeen couldn’t take the emotional and financial stress and says he went to speak to the village heads about the ostracization of his community. A video he recorded of the meeting was picked up online and police then intervened to help. Shukrdeen said they reached an agreement that the milk sold by the Muslim community would be bought by the dairy and that they will be allowed to continue their business.
Still, the damage to their finances and reputation was done.
Other Muslims say they face hostility and harassment in the street.
Mohammed Sakeb, 28, organizes a campaign that distributes ration kits to Muslim families, especially those affected by recent inter-communal riots in north-east New Delhi.
Sakeb said he and his volunteers often face harassment when they go out despite having passes allowing them to travel, deliver food and serve marginalized communities during the lockdown.
“The other day a 25-year-old volunteer was distributing rations to the worst affected Muslim families. The police stopped him, didn’t ask any questions and then started hitting him. He had to run away,” he said.
CNN was unable to reach the police for comment.
Sakeb said most of his volunteers are afraid to go out now. “Those of us who dress with our skull caps and have long beards, we instantly get targeted,” he said.
Experiences from people like those interviewed by CNN have been widely reported in Indian media.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation in a statement expressed “deep concern” about “rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia within political and media circles and on mainstream and social media platforms.”
The Minority Affairs Minister Naqvi said that everybody’s “cultural, social, religious” rights were “completely safe and secure.”
“As far as India is concerned and the Indian government or Indian Constitution is concerned, we are completely committed for the socio-economic, educational and religious rights and upliftment for every section of society including minorities and Muslims,” he said.
Naqvi called the harassment and attacks isolated cases and said, “the people who are doing all these things is not correct.”
Responding to whether calling the Jamaat gathering a “Talibani crime” would inflame tensions, Naqvi said: “Talibani crimes means it’s a serious criminal negligence and the peoples who … like the Talibanis, who never follow the rules.”
Stopping the rumors
In a post on LinkedIn on Sunday, Modi said Covid-19 presented a “common challenge.”
“Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking,” he said. “Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”
Several Indian state leaders have condemned the spread of misinformation that’s targeting the Muslim community though many have stopped short of condemning the violence.
“Like coronavirus, there is another virus that is emerging and threatening social harmony: the virus of fake news and communal hatred,” said Chief Minister of Maharashtra state, Uddhav Thackeray on Twitter.
“If someone circulates fake news or videos like commodities or notes being smeared with saliva or with inflammatory content, my law will catch up with them. They will not be spared. Don’t do this even for fun,” he said.
According to CNN affiliate CNN News18, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa said: “Nobody should speak a word against Muslims. This is a warning. If anyone blames the entire Muslim community for some isolated incident, I’ll take action against them also without a second thought.”
Naseerudin, who was allegedly left beaten in the street after being stopped by police, said that while the authorities continue with their inquiry, he just wants to focus on getting better and back to work.