The last few days have seen an unprecedented ire and concern in the country and from the media about the propagation of COVID-19; such anger and such anxiety which was missing since three months of finding the first COVID-19 patient in India; such worry and such arguments which were missing even when thousands of migrant workers from all over the country started walking hundreds of kilometers to reach their homes in the middle of a global pandemic. It takes little deliberation to realize what irate the middle-class Indian masses the most and what sends the media into a frenzy Islamophobia.
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS:
An Islamic religious organisation by the name Tablighi Jamaat has been holding conferences at its international headquarters at Markaz Nizamuddin for about a hundred years, the schedule to which is predecided upto a year in advance. Following the pattern, a similar congregation was organized this year starting on the 13th of March. The Jamaat has participants from all over the world that travel globally for missionary activities and social work. At the time of inception of the conference, the government’s official stance had been of denial of the COVID-19 as any health emergency.
Coronavirus is not a health emergency: officials
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) March 13, 2020
Fast-forwarding to about a week, a “Janata curfew” was declared by Prime Minister Modi on 22nd of March following which all activities of the Jamaat were discontinued and several members got stuck at the Markaz due to cancellation of train services the same day. On 23rd of March, Delhi announced a lockdown of most travel facilities and an attempt to seal its borders staring 6 am. On the evening of the same day, the Prime Minister yet again announced a lockdown extending till the 15th of April hence further diminishing any chances of departure of the members.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 24, 2020
Funnily enough during the entire sequence of the aforementioned events, little had been discussed in the media against the gathering. Well, because how many of us were practicing social distancing and observing an unannounced lockdown as dearly as 13th of March? Most schools and colleges were still functioning, businesses still operating, parliament still conducting sessions and in some state even government still being toppled.
But @PMOIndia @narendramodi (addressing nation right now) exempts public representatives from social distancing because it is their responsibility to serve the public, just like doctors, food delivery personnel & media (other categories exempted in PM’s speech) https://t.co/4Lpq5Ya3qB
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 19, 2020
A non-exhaustive list of events taking place during the tenure of Tableegh’s conference that failed to evoke the same ire and condemnation as the latter are:
- The parliament was in session and held sessions upto the 23rd of March. That is, even lawmakers waited for the announcement of complete lockdown in order to halt parliamentary sessions. How can lawmakers be expected to estimate the gravity of the situation by themselves?
- A Gaumutra (cow urine) party was organized by the Hindu Mahasabha on the 15th of March in Delhi that gathered several people to combat the “meat-eaters” virus. Similar cow urine parties were held in several other states resulting which several people even fell ill in parts of West Bengal.
- After the toppling of the incumbent government in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan took oath as the CM on the 23rd of March. The ceremony was an extravagant display of power and was attended by several BJP leaders. It has even been speculated that India’s delay in response to COVID-19 was a direct repercussion of BJP’s political aspirations (conspirations? ) in Madhya Pradesh and the lockdown was withheld till the fruition of MP floor test.
- Two days after the announcement of a nation-wide lockdown by the PM and a ban on all religious gatherings, Yogi Adityanath, the CM of UP took part in shifting the Ram Lalla idol in Ayodhya along with a hundred other people. Moreover, the editor of a popular news portal The Wire has been booked by the UP police for comments against Adityanath. Apparently, during the time of Tableeghi Jamat’s conference, Adityanath had insisted on conducting the Ram Navmi fair as usual that invites hundreds and hundreds of people. Such was the callous and dismissive attitude of the government itself.
- Around March 17th and 18th, thousands of people gathered at Tirupati for religious purposes that saw little to no media attention.
- Just as I type this, thousand of people have flocked to several temples in West Bengal to celebrate Ram Navmi.
We can go on and on about this and that gathering, naming all of which is impossible. The point is not whataboutery but to highlight selective outrage on only one group of people and the kind of propaganda that has followed.
It is only understandable that when even the government had taken a nonchalant attitude towards a global pandemic, the masses would reflect a similar attitude.
The last week has seen some of the worst vitriol being spewed on national media and social media is not far behind. In times of a global pandemic, the likes of which is not seen in the last hundred years and the entire world is coming together to devise means to curb further promulgation, India media has maintained its priorities. To be fair, for a brief time, India media so used to pseudo controversies did seem lost.
As global media and efforts concentrated on the pandemic and as the Indian government began to show concern around the same, the ones at loss were the poor media houses of India who have apparently forgotten how to report anything else other than fake sensationalism.
So lost were they, that for some time, leading national news channels were seen playing ‘Antakshri’ during news hours. Such is the dissonance between the mainstream media and an average Indian that the former would rather sing songs on TV than report health updates or even the plight of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometers without food and water.
To the relief of the Indian media, a few people who had attended the Tabligh’s conference tested positive for COVID-19. Finally, the media had been salvaged.
It shows how the media seems nothing fit enough to report other than brazen islamophobia, nothings rakes up the TRPs like good old communalism. The kind of headlines churned out of leading newsrooms was not just preposterous but had the potency to incite largescale abuse and discrimination against Muslims in this country.
BJP sycophants like Arnab Goswami went on to accuse “them” as criminals who were out to defile the nationalist efforts of battling the pandemic. #CoronoJihad trended for hours on twitter. By stirring up this “them vs Us” narrative in times such as these not only blames the Jamaat disproportionately but puts the onus on the entire Muslim community.
This is not journalism.
This is terrorism. pic.twitter.com/cmhxHmjU72
— Arfa Khanum Sherwani (@khanumarfa) April 2, 2020
The hypocrisy in reporting various incidents was more than evident. While the thousands of people gathered at Tirupathi and several hundred at Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu and Kashmir were reported as “stuck devotees”, the single Islamic congregation limited to one building was reported as “criminal hideout”.
It was not long before dozens of fake news turned viral.
In one case it was reported that Tablighi Jamaat members were licking off plates in order to spread the virus. The video was actually from the 2018 of Bohra community that lick plates after meals to ensure zero food wastage.
Similarly, unverified reports of Tabligh members spitting on health workers and beating them went viral and added to unrelenting islamophobia. After fact-checking several of these reports were proved to be false but we are yet to see any clarifications, leave alone apologies from these media houses.
It was and is still horrendous to flip through the Indian news channels. When you expect to see updates on health and management, all you see is unabated dog-whistling against minorities who are already disadvantaged due to their socioeconomic loci.
WHY ISLAMOPHOBIA? ITS IMPACTS
Such targeted blame game and large scale demonization doesn’t have only mental repercussions but encourages systemic discrimination as well Apart from feeding bigotry, the media houses have ensured the masses see the Muslim community as the “enemy” in this pandemic instead of the virus itself.
Such propaganda has made sure to associate and blame the pandemic to Muslim negligence leading to which it would soon be difficult for Muslims to maintain their rented housings or even seek basic medical help. Just as airline workers and health workers are facing discriminations and abuse due to speculations of them carrying the virus, the day is not far when Muslims would be subjected to the same if the vicious propaganda is not discontinued. It was not a slip to run prime time shows viewed by millions with catchphrases like “Mullah laaya corona” (The muslim man brings corona) or “Corona Jihad” which implies that it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the entire Muslim community to infect “Indians”.
To assume such blatant islamophobia as just flustered concern would be a delusion . It is no different than Zee news running headlines that expressed thrill at the idea of “Corona ki Maut Marega Pakistan”( Pakistan will die of Corona). What is it that adds such excitement at the idea of large-scale death and destruction even if it is one border away? The kind of witch hunt against the Jamaat members and the ultimate vilification of the entire community is no different than the strain of sentiments towards Pakistan.
The Indian news channel @ZeeNews has just deleted this tweet, which went viral after I shared it. It said that Pakistan will die the death of Corona.
Hope someone can find video of the segment, which aired last night.
Btw, these types of segments are common on Indian TV. pic.twitter.com/ne406pHlIw
— Arif Rafiq (@ArifCRafiq) March 18, 2020
To treat COVID-19 patients as criminals and a threat to the nation instead as vulnerable and in need of help is not just atrocious but is also indicative of how ill-prepared the government is to handle the outbreak.
DISTRACTION FROM WHAT?
It would not be an understatement to say the Indian media has been extremely biased and unethical in its reporting of the pandemic. When it is time to grill the government about its policies and preparations, the media and the upper-middle-class chose to engage in PR stunts and clapping from balconies. Meanwhile, the amount of troubling news that went underreported is enormous. It was only a matter of time till a befitting scapegoat was found to pin the blame of the outbreak instead of the government taking apt responsibility for the same.
At a time when the shortage of PPEs had been anticipated for a long time, instead of learning from the experience of other nations. India decided to milk its economic opportunities over the safety of its health workers. Around 90 tonnes of PPE gears have been exported to Serbia despite concerns of shortage internally.
Moreover, the rates of testing for corona patients is one of the lowest in India. India tests a meager 32 people per million whereas even Pakistan is testing around 69 people per million. Funnily there is no comparison as such in Indian media that is busy daydreaming of death and misery in Pakistan.
As per reports around 18 firms in India had been granted permission as of 20th March to get their testing kits validated by the National Institute of Virology. The very next day the Health ministry issued guidelines that allowed only the testing kits approved by US FDA/European CE to be used. Funnily enough, only one firm cleared this criterion which is an Ahmedabad based firm named CoSara, which will now enjoy the monopoly over the “Corona market”. There have been serious questions over the ties between the promoters of the company, the Sarabhais, and their ties with BJP and Narendra Modi which has led them to enjoy this privilege.
Because if the ill-prepared and sudden decision( which has become a hallmark of this government) of lockdown several thousand migrant laborers were stranded in completely deserted cities miles away from home. Instead of reporting their plight, the Indian media was busy singing third grade Bollywood songs on TV.
While India continues to deny community transmission (despite several international organizations calling foul) and reporting few deaths, would the death of 20+ migrant workers be counted as a consequence of Corona?
There are several burning questions as of now and legitimate concerns regarding public safety and health. The number of deaths and the amount of misery predicted by several studies is jarring and does not match the nonchalant stance of the government.
In the present scenario, probably ignorance is bliss because the news has neither credible reports nor any consolation. And anyways, legend has it that banging plates enough from balconies can render the virus impotent.