India’s Islamophobic Media Pandemic

India’s Islamophobia is reaching a fever pitch.

By: Jeremy Ullmann

India’s Islamophobia is reaching a fever pitch. Over the past few weeks, hashtags like #CoronaJihad and #NizamuddinIdiots have gone viral on social media, blaming India’s 201 million-strong Muslim minority for the spread of the novel coronavirus

“The situation is extremely scary,” says Kavya Bhatia, a masters student in Mumbai, who has witnessed the escalating tensions first-hand.

“Television channel anchors and people on social media are continuously sharing content blaming Muslims for what’s happening, and there’s no one defending them.” 

Tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim populations go as far back as the days of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, and British colonialism, and are evident with more recent events such as the Islamist insurgency that forced Hindu 25,000 families to flee from the Kashmir region, and the nearly 2,000 Muslims who lost their lives to the Gujarat riots. However, the rise to power of Prime Minister Narenda Modi has made “Hindu nationalism”—and the discrimination of Muslims—far more mainstream. It has manifest as the controversial citizenship bill that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for asylum-seekers, so long as they are not Muslim and Modi’s well-documented tendency to turn a blind eye towards violence against Muslim communities.

Now, it is rearing its ugly head in the media narrative surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

It started with a large gathering of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat in the Nizmuddin neighborhood in the Indian capital of Delhi in early March—still weeks before the country closed its borders, and went into lockdown. Overnight, the potential outbreak was blamed squarely on Muslims—a message that was spread through social media with inflammatory hashtags, and out of context videos showing Muslim men licking utensils and cutlery and sneezing “en masse,” accompanied by captions suggesting that the videos were taken at this gathering, and proved that those gathered were intentionally spreading the virus.

Fact-checkers found that both videos were posted well before the COVID-19 outbreak—but by then, the damage had already been done. With the world’s second-largest population, and the most users worldwide of the most globally-popular social media platforms Facebook, Youtube and Whatsapp, the videos were already being spread with hashtags like #NizamuddinIdiots and #CoronaJihad making the rounds on social media.

WhatsApp messages—traditionally more difficult to monitor, due to their private nature and end-to-end encryption—took this further. Along with the videos circulating on Facebook and YouTube, an audio clip began making the rounds which claimed to be from Maulana Saad, one of the organisers of the event, and calls on Muslims to reject social distancing and attend their local mosques.

The Tablighi Jamaat leader has since released a video telling his followers to “follow the advice of doctors and the guidelines issued by the administration [and to] quarantine yourself, no matter where you are, it is not against Islam or sharia.”

Still, news outlets, such as Republic Bharat continue to refer to him as “a mastermind” behind “a terrorist operation meant to infect the whole of India.”

Cartoon, as seen in The Hindu

Mainstream media has been circulating damaging stereotypes of its own. A week after the Nizamuddin event, the newspaper The Hindu published a cartoon showing the coronavirus dressed up in a pathani suit, which is traditionally worn by Muslims, pointing an assault rifle at planet earth. After substantial criticism online they deleted the post and re-uploaded it without the pathani suit—but it is only one of many troubling examples of Islamophobia being broadcast across the country. On television, coverage of the the Nizamuddin gathering has received excessive airtime, broadcasting and rebroadcasting the viral social media videos long after they have been debunked. It fits the narrative of the increasingly pro-Modi—and by default, Hindu nationalist—news media environment that has seen raids on newsrooms and other troubling crackdowns on press freedom that makes it more and more difficult for India’s journalists to scrutinize their political leadership.

“The government has systematically created a climate of Islamophobia, but also of fear,” Bhatia continued, going onto say that the crackdown on anti-government protestors during the citizenship bill protests earlier this year makes her hesitant to speak out about hate speech she sees on social media.

“It feels now that you are more free to say clearly hateful, Islamophobic things, than to defend Muslims.”