The newspaper advertisement placed last week by a cancer hospital in India’s most populous state didn’t mince words: any Muslim patients seeking treatment must prove they didn’t have Covid-19.
The privately owned Valentis Cancer Hospital in Uttar Pradesh state apologized a day later “for hurting religious sentiments.” But the message written in black and white crystallized for many the increased hostility against India’s Muslim minority as coronavirus infections surge across the country.
Attacks on Muslims, including farmers driven out of villages and others beaten by angry mobs, have been reported across the country -- from rural hamlets to the cities of New Delhi and Mumbai, prompted by a lethal mix of WhatsApp messages accusing them of deliberately spreading the virus. Hashtags like “corona jihad” and “corona terror” have been trending on social media, prompting a backlash from Gulf states where millions of Indians work.
The rising discrimination threatens to hurt India’s status in Muslim-majority countries and inflame longstanding religious tensions in the Hindu-dominated nation of 1.3 billion people. Divisions already began to harden last year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed a citizenship bill discriminating against Muslims, sparking nationwide protests in recent months that have left scores dead.
What’s worse, the upswing in discrimination against Muslims now threatens to complicate India’s fight against Covid-19. On Thursday, the country reported 21,797 infections and 681 deaths.
In India’s business capital Mumbai, where the sprawling Dharavi slum has become the country’s worst-hit virus hotspot, authorities say Muslims are afraid to self-report.
“There is a lot fear in the Muslim community and they are not telling us facts,” said Kiran Dighavkar, an assistant commissioner at the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the main civic authority for the city. “The hate towards the community seems to have increased because other people feel they are spreading the virus. Because of this it has become unsafe for our staff to visit some areas and we have to take police with us.”
At another hotspot in Noida, a suburb on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi, authorities were taking to social media to flag fake news and rumors.
“It takes a lot of time,” said Ankur Agarwal, a police officer in Noida. “We have to monitor the social media, we need to build our intelligence as compared to totally focusing on Covid operations and ensuring the lockdown.”
Modi so far hasn’t commented directly on the simmering sectarian tensions, but said in a tweet earlier this month that “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, language or borders before striking.”
One of his cabinet members, Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, said Tuesday that authorities were working to protect the safety and well-being all citizens. “India is heaven for minorities and Muslims,” Naqvi said at a briefing. “Their social, religious and economic rights are secured in India more than any other country.”
Yet the world is expressing alarm. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has in the past criticized India’s treatment of its minorities, on April 14 raised concerns about the “continued scapegoating and attacks on Muslims in India due to false rumors over the spread of #coronavirus, often accompanied by dangerous rhetoric by politicians.”
The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” expressed “deep concern” on Sunday over “rising anti-Muslim sentiments” in India.
In the United Arab Emirates some of the more viciously worded posts by Indian migrants prompted some to get fired from their jobs, and also drew the attention of a member of the ruling family. Last week Princess Hend Al Qassimi responded to a now-deleted tweet, saying “your ridicule will not go unnoticed.” India’s ambassador to the UAE condemned the hate speech.
Although Gulf states are condemning the anti-Muslim sentiment in India, falling oil prices and a downturn in the global economy will limit any deeper rift, according to Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at Kings College, London.
“India retains leverage vis-a-vis these countries as it is one of the largest importers of oil,” he said. “Gulf countries are impacted not only by the coronavirus but also by the decline in oil demand.”
The new wave of rumors and anger directed against India’s 200 million Muslims started in the last week of March when details began to emerge of thousands, including visitors from Indonesia and Malaysia, gathering at the headquarters of the Tabligh-e-Jamaat -- a conservative Muslim sect -- in the crowded lanes of Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.
Hundreds of members tested positive for the virus after authorities evacuated the building. Cases sprouted across the nation as many left Delhi and traveled back to their homes. Some 25,000 members and their contacts were traced and quarantined across more than a dozen Indian states.
For more than a week, the federal government listed the infections connected to the Muslim gathering separately at their daily media briefings, which fanned the flames further. On April 8, the health ministry issued a statement asking that no community be targeted, but it did little to rein in the anger.
Mohammed Shamim and his family were among those targeted. The vitriol built steadily after he began driving minivans full of fresh fruit and vegetables far into the villages of Uttar Pradesh when India announced a strict nationwide lockdown on March 25. Hindu villagers began to heckle them and asked others not to do business with them.
“Then more people began harassing us saying, ‘you Muslims are spreading this illness, we don’t want you people coming to this village.” he said. ‘People who had bought vegetables from us were told to return them.”
While India has seen a continued marginalization of its Muslim minority since Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, over the past year it’s accelerated and become more violent. In the last week of February, before the country began to see a steady uptick in Covid-19 cases, three days of anti-Muslim violence in a part of the Indian capital left more than 50 people dead.
Now Shamim and his family are too frightened to go back into the villages.
“Things are bad enough with this virus,” he said over the telephone. “We don’t want anything bad to happen to us.”