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India: When Even a Pandemic Is Communalised

Thursday 2 April 2020, by siawi3


When Even a Pandemic Is Communalised

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

April 1st 2020 5 hours ago

The right-wing ecosystem appears bent on blaming the Tablighi Jamaat for the COVID-19 outbreak in India.

Although everything in nature is telling us to sober up as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian right-wing warriors have chosen to communalise the human tragedy on Hindu-Muslim lines, Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta writes.

They sought to deflect attention from alleged police complicity and government inaction in the visibly anti-Muslim riots in Delhi by either talking only about the brutal murders of policeman Ratan Lal and Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma, or by drawing attention to Aam Aadmi Party’s councillor Tahir Hussain’s alleged culpability in the violence incessantly.

Now, even as Indians are locked in their homes to stave off the COVID-19 outbreak and scores of poor migrant workers are stranded without work or shelter, the right-wing ecosystem has found yet another opening to demonise the usual scapegoats – Muslims. This time, it is by centring the attack on one Islamic evangelical organisation – Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) – which had organised a religious gathering about 10 days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown.

Was Tablighi Jamaat alone in taking the COVID-19 threat casually?
A simple fact sheet can show how TJ was not the only culprit in taking the pandemic lightly. In fact, most Indians, including the ones leading Central ministries, did not think it was a public health emergency then.
TJ had planned the event from March 13 onwards, for which a number of believers, including foreigners, had booked tickets and got visas. Many of them ended up becoming “super spreaders” of the virus, but was it only their fault?

It was on March 9 that the Union government first ordered medical screening at Indian airports. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, yet the Union home ministry told Indians on March 13 – the day TJ’s event began – that it wasn’t a “health emergency yet”.

The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government began to take precautionary measures the same day when it banned gatherings of more than 200 people, while exempting marriage functions. Religious sites across different faiths, offices and public transport services in Delhi were all up and running still, as common Indians had not fully grasped the dangers of COVID-19.

It was only on March 16, when the Delhi government banned any gathering of more than 50 people, that people of Delhi began to take the matter seriously. Even then, the Union government had not woken up. On the evening of March 19, the prime minister urged people to observe a day-long “Janata Curfew” on March 22. Even at that time, many assemblies, including in Delhi, and parliament continued to be in session, giving a semblance of normalcy.

As late as March 20, the Uttar Pradesh government had plans to go ahead with a week-long Chaitra Ram Navami Mela from March 25 to April 2. It was only when the Union government banned all flights on March 24 and imposed a 21-day lockdown a day after that the threat dawned upon people.

The TJ has erred and acted irresponsibly for taking the COVID-19 threat lightly, and continued their event well until March 19 – the day when Modi gave a call for “Janata Curfew”. But to blame the crisis singularly on it is not only misleading but malevolent.

Government inaction?

Now, if we take a look at the government action, there are many unanswered questions. Media reports have clearly stated that the Tamil Nadu government informed the Union health ministry about the possibility on March 21. Despite knowing that Nizamuddin could be one of the possible hotspots for the virus, both the Union government and the Delhi government appear to have acted at snail’s place.

It was only on March 31 that the Union home ministry informed all state governments about the TJ gathering and its linkages with Telangana and Tamil Nadu patients. However, it is unclear what the Centre did to evacuate and quarantine more than 1,000 people at the TJ headquarters. The TJ claims that although it discontinued the event on March 19, many were left stranded at its headquarters because of the sudden disruption in transport services owing to a lockdown imposed by the Delhi government on March 23.

More importantly, why didn’t the Delhi police deny the TJ permission to organise the event? The police also failed to enforce the Delhi government’s order that prohibited any religious gathering. It is clear that the Delhi police addressed the TJ matter not before March 24 when its officers summoned the TJ officials. The Delhi police has released a video that shows an officer giving them directions to empty the Markaz premises. However, it still remains unclear what the Delhi police and Delhi government officials did to facilitate the evacuation process