The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in the Indian media industry. The fear of the virus, which still doesn’t have a cure, and the ensuing countrywide lockdown has taken a toll on all Indians, with the poorest hit the hardest. 

Surely, for a brief while, the government, opposition, media and the general population came together in the fight against the virus. But, the short-lived unity was too good to be true.

As news about the initial COVID-19 infections from an international Islamic conference organised in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area in mid-March by Tablighi Jamaat broke, certain media houses wasted no time in demonising and accusing the entire Indian Muslim community for the outbreak. This divisive, communal narrative has been playing on loop ever since. 

Translation: Jamaat detonates dangerous Corona ‘bomb’ in the country | India TV, YouTube screengrab

Things continued to get uglier as social media users and mainstream media outlets fanned the communal flames, weaponising a virus that otherwise affects and endangers all to slander a single religious community. 

Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad, #CoronaTerrorism, #CoronaBombsTablighi flooded Twitter. According to Equality Labs, a digital human rights group, the first hashtag “appeared nearly 300,000 times” and was “potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter”. And this does not end at tweets and retweets. 

Some prominent Twitteratis even demanded that Tablighi members be shot at. Rangoli Chandel, sister of Bollywood actor Kangna Ranaut, was one of the many who issued such violent calls, demanding for the “mullahs and secular media” to be made to stand in line and shot dead. Fortunately, her Twitter account was suspended soon, after many reported it for inciting genocide.

WhatsApp and Facebook also saw a dramatic surge in the circulation of misleading and fake videos showing Tablighi members and other Muslims spitting on food at restaurant, licking their fingers before touching the vegetables to sell,and deliberately coughing on the faces of non-Muslims. Fact-checking houses such as Alt News, Factly and The Quint have reported a barrage of fake news being circulated to polarise the masses.

There is little doubt that certain media outlets whose sympathies lie with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime have been indulging in open display of bigotry in the name of journalism. They have been fervently airing COVID-19 conspiracy theories targeting and ridiculing Indian muslims, despite a statement issued by Indian scientists noting that “the available data does not support the speculation that the blame for coronavirus epidemic in India lies mainly with Tablighi Jamaat’.”  

As prominent Indian activist, Harsh Mander, puts it “coronavirus has morphed into an anti-Muslim virus”. Media houses have used the pandemic to bare its fangs, the ones that the sudden outbreak and subsequent government calls to unite against the pandemic had deterred them from using.

Translation: Will Jamaat take India to Stage 3? | ABP News, YouTube screengrab

“In the name of religion, they have put our lives at risk”, Zee News declared. 

“Ban Taliban Tablighi”, Times Now demanded. 

“Save the country from corona jihad”, Sudharshan News pronounced. 

Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami even went on to say that it was a “deliberate attempt to undermine my country.

India Today group’s Rahul Kanwal was called out on his investigative report on how Madarsas in India have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots. Prominent activist, Kavita Krishnan, took to Twitter to post a video calling the channel and their journalist out.

“This is not journalism, this is hate mongering”, Krishnan said.

Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian, during an interview with Rahul Kanwal called the Indian media’s attempt to call transmissions from the Muslim community as “a deliberate act of terrorism, “a complete nonsense”. 

“We don’t need more hatred, we need solidarity, we need more love between people,’ Harari added. 

The list of media hatemongers goes on, as one switches from one channel to another. While it is understandable that providing news to the public during a crisis is a duty of every journalist, such a duty entails responsibility. 

There is little doubt that the Tablighi Jamaat’s total lack of civic responsibility has led to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases across the country. But in reporting this lapse, the mainstream Indian media and its social media affiliates unleashed a poisonous propaganda against a vulnerable minority. Without doubt, these entities have only given a new lease of life to the Islamophobic surge in the Indian public discourse since the BJP came to power in 2014.

For the Muslim community, the everyday demonisation and vilification has all kinds of consequences. The discrimination has ranged from calling for a social boycott of Muslims in Karnataka to refusing to buy milk from Muslims vendors (some in Punjab were allegedly forced to unload their milk into the river, as reported by The Wire). The Quint has also reported a number of attacks on Muslims by goons in various parts of Karnataka.

Cases of marking shops owned by Muslims vendors has also been recorded. There have also been reports of Muslims being beaten up, chased out of their neighbourhood or attacked, and abused on streets – without any police intervention. All of this and yet, the same media that is otherwise so spirited to blame all Muslims for the Jamaat congregation, remained mum. 

The most recent example is of India TV head, Rajat Sharma, who jumped to the conclusion that the recent gathering of distressed migrant workers at the Bandra station in Mumbai was triggered by calls by Muslim leaders – just because he could see a Mosque near the station. 

It is as if defending oneself against a virus was not enough. Faced with accusations of spreading COVID-19, now Indian Muslims have to defend their religion too. 

As Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court judge, said in a recent article:

“Bad days are ahead for Indian Muslims. With the coronavirus, the scenario has become grimmer.” 

Here in India, the journalism of demagoguery is having a catastrophic effect on the delicate social fabric. Nothing less than an unequivocal condemnation by all is required today. Yet, at the moment, unity seems like one of the scarcest of resources around.

Momena Qaisar is a final year student of law at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, and a freelance writer. She tweets at @MomenaQaisar.