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Muslims, the new victims of fake Coronavirus news in India?

On 24 March, a nearly 100-year old Islamic missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat, was dragged into the spotlight. 5 members who had attended the annual conference in Delhi had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Contact tracing led to a troubling revelation: thousands of attendees had already traveled by five trains to various parts of the country and by April 3, 950 confirmed cases were detected across 14 states (accounting for 97% all COVID cases in the country), all linked to the Jamaat conference.

The crux of the issue was that the Government of Delhi had issued a ban on all public gatherings as early as 13 March but this order had been flouted by the organization, and the conference which began on 3 March continued.

A Tablighi Jamaat conference (file)

According to the organisation, the event had been suspended and everyone was asked to leave as soon as PM Narendra Modi announced that there would be a day-long national curfew on 22 March. While many were able to leave, they said, others were stranded because states began to seal their borders the following day, and two days later, India went into lockdown, suspending buses and trains. Nevertheless, the organization has not adequately clarified its decision to continue with the event up until the national lockdown.

As the cases that were directly linked to the event rose steadily through the week, social media exchanges fueled by news reports on the Jamaat members' refusal to quarantine themselves began exposing religious fault lines in a sharply polarized country, that had just started recovering from controversial the CAA bill. Many video clips shared on Facebook and WhatsApp purportedly showed Muslims actively working to spread the virus in India. A country which had found itself united in its fight against a common enemy had a new trigger to re-ignite lost hate.

On 1 April, a video began circulating rampantly on WhatsApp showing a group of men in white robes and skull caps licking the leftovers from plates and spoons meticulously. An embedded message read, “Be careful everyone…. These are some people who are preparing to spread Corona Virus…Please be far from people…Please.” On the same day, an article on Factly pointed out that the practice of licking cutlery after every meal is a tradition among the Bohra community of Muslims. The article states, “Entire Bohra family eats in a single plate ‘Thaal’ and they have a ‘no-wastage’ policy. So they do not leave a single grain of rice on their plate when it is taken away.” The website identified that the video preceded the COVID-19 outbreak by at least two years. The portal also shared the screenshot of a Facebook post with the same video, which claimed that Muslims were, “applying and putting saliva on spoons, plates, and utensils and also they are with the intention of spreading coronavirus disease. Nobody knows what is happening to the nation.” The user who posted the video claimed that police caught 11 Indonesian Muslim “mullahs” from a mosque in Salem, Tamil Nadu for spreading the virus. When Factly archived the post on 1 April it had over 3,000 views and 176 shares.

In another video shared in a WhatsApp group called “Beyond Organic” on 20 March, an employee at a restaurant wearing a skull cap is seen blowing into a plastic carry bag before packing food. The accompanying text read, “Muslims are spitting in food which we give order to purchase to eat. Please. Avoid purchase food from Muslim shops.” GR Sai, one of the members of the group, said that it was evident that the man in the video was trying to blow open the bag. Though this might be unhygienic, many people do so irrespective of their religion. The fact checking website Alt News also found that the video had been uploaded onto YouTube in April 2019 and had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.

These videos do not only find a home on social media sites, several established news channels, particularly those that lean to the right have been reported to have aired similar out-of-context videos with baseless captions. Republic TV is purported to have aired a clip with an incorrect translation in Telugu attached which read, “Defeat lockdown and come out. If we spread this disease to 70,000 people, India will be destroyed. It will come into our control.” The statement was being attributed to the Tablighi Jamaat chief. While the video was taken off-air by the news outlet, it gained traction on Facebook and took several days to be flagged and removed. Long speeches such as this one are particularly susceptible to miscaptioning. As people generally tend to avoid listening to the entire speech, they are likely to believe the accompanying text and share it.

The Republic TV news segment featuring the incorrectly translated audio clip

Besides videos, hate in the form of memes, including one that shows China as the "producer" of the virus and Muslims as its "distributor", began circulating widely on Twitter. Simultaneously, #CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots, #Covid-786 (a number that carries religious meaning for Muslims), began trending.

The critical consideration that seems to elude people's attention is that rules being flouted is in no way exclusive to Muslims. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, attended a busy Hindu celebration a day into the lockdown. And 40,000 people in 20 villages were quarantined in Punjab state after a Covid-19 outbreak was linked to a Sikh preacher who had returned from a trip to Italy and Germany. The man had ignored advice to self-quarantine and visited a large gathering to celebrate a religious festival. And hundreds of thousands celebrated a 10-day temple festival in Kerala state around the same time the congregation in Delhi was happening.

The predominant reason why people seem to jump on the bandwagon of misinformation so easily perhaps originates from deeper societal issues. “The reason why misinformation is accepted very easily is because there is so much polarization in society,” Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News is reported to have said in an interview with the Caravan. Sinha agreed that misinformation surrounding COVID-19 did not have a religious tone before the Nizamuddin event was covered by mainstream media. He said when an opportunity is given to polarize people, it is easily used by those who want to. Sinha said that being able to identify fake content was often tied to how you would be affected by it. “Those who are targeted would be more critical,’’ he said, adding that the beneficiaries of misinformation would often encourage it or remain passive letting the damage of it be done.