The media reporting on the 2020 Tablighi Jamaat religious summit in India characterised mosques in India as posing ‘a threat’ to the Indians. People who were part of the Tablighi summit were portrayed as ‘human bombs,’ which eventually led to the characterisation that Muslims in India intentionally spread COVID as part of the ‘Corona Jihad’. This chain of disinformation led to the widespread stereotyping and discrimination of Muslims in India during the first wave of the pandemic. While many attendees tested positive and constituted 30% of the positive cases in the first few days of the pandemic, it was only after this incident that the mass testing began in India. For example, in a statement issued by the Indian Scientists’ response to COVID-19 (a civil society group of Indian scientists), they pointed out that the positivity rates of a targeted population are not comparable as there was no data available from any form of mass testing in the country at that point of time.
Tablighi Jamaat or the Society of Preachers is an organisation founded by Islamic scholar Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi in Mewat, India, in 1926. The organisation grew eventually and now has a presence in 150 countries. A religious congregation of this group was held in New Delhi, India from 10-13 March, 2020. The summit started a day ahead of the WHO declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic. Prime minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, 2020. In fact, the news reports show that the Union ministry on 13 March, 2020, said that COVID is not a health emergency in India, and there is no need for people in India to panic. This timeline shows that COVID was not acknowledged by the government as a serious health emergency, and they were not prepared to deal with the scale of the infections.
The attendees of the congregation went back to their respective states. Even though an accurate number is unavailable, it is estimated that 3,500 foreign nationals attended the event. 960 foreign nationals were held in quarantine in Delhi. But in the states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, they were straight away sent to jail. The attendees were charged with the Epidemic Diseases Act, the National Disaster Management Act and the Foreigners Act. In certain cases, they were even charged with murder. Such harsh actions were taken against the attendees, while there were no restrictions imposed, specifically on religious pilgrimages and gatherings. For example, the Tirupati temple, which hosts around 4000 pilgrims in a day was open until 17 March, 2020.
The actors, in this case, were several. The Caravan article shows that the tweets of minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi called the congregation a Talibani crime on 31 March, 2020. This was retweeted 2884 times.
After the minister’s tweet, on the same evening, Sudarshan News in one of its segments, Bindaas Bol, claimed that the mosques in India are posing a threat to Indians. Excerpts from the show are given below:
“In today’s Bindaas Bol, I bring you a very serious issue and appeal to the Narendra Modi government that the Tablighi Jamaat be banned. If India’s mosques are posing a threat to Indians, and human bombs carrying COVID-19 are roaming around freely, wouldn’t you call it ‘corona jihad’? We should keenly monitor these jihadis and the jihadis should be strictly punished under the law.” the anchor said while opening the show.
It is important to note the nexus between the ruling BJP and this media house. Before 2014, when BJP was not in power, only a negligible amount of funding went to this news channel from the Central government. However in 2014-15, in the first financial year, BJP came to power and the ad revenue from the Central government increased from 1.2 lakhs in the previous year to 23-3 lakh. In 2017-18, it reached 83.3 lakh.
Reports also show that on 4 April, 2020, a Lok Sabha member from the ruling BJP, Shobha Karandlaje, said that she smelled “corona jihad,” referring to the religious summit. A report by the human rights group Equality Labs found out that the hashtag corona jihad was then used in nearly 30,000 tweets that potentially reached 17.00,00,000 users.
Several news channels broadcasted multiple stories vilifying and stigmatising the summit and accusing the attendees of an intentional motive. Zee News, a prominent news channel in India, for example, carried out a panel discussion, on 31 March, 2020, to discuss the issue. Towards the end of the show, the anchor declared that Tablighi Jamaat was a conspiracy to turn India into Italy, a country that had the highest number of COVID cases at the time. Hindi dailies like Amar Ujala and Rajasthan Patrika carried fake news of quarantined Tablighi members defecating in the open. India TV played a video that claimed that a maulana is encouraging people to spit on food. India today, Dainik Jagran, Republic TV, and many other prominent news channels broadcasted primetime shows that encouraged confusion and leading questions, supplemented by accusations against the attendees using terms like jihad, anti-national activity and terrorism, etc., to characterise the summit.
The nature of these reports changed from March 2020 to April 2020. While the earlier reports were based on the Tablighi summit, gradually they started broadcasting fake news characterising the Muslim community as the intentional spreaders of the virus.
A video of a Muslim fruit vendor licking his fingers while organising fruits was shared widely suggesting that he is purposefully spreading COVID.
The original video was found to be dated 15 February 2020 by fact-checkers. The man’s daughter also claimed that he was mentally unstable. The video was taken out of context and shared widely over social media.
Another prominent fake news was that Muslim-owned restaurants spit on food to spread COVID and are influenced by the Tablighis.
A factcheck by the Logical Indian found out that the video pre-dated the COVID pandemic.
Another old video about a few Bohra Muslims licking the plates to avoid food wastage was widely shared as foreign Muslims hiding in a mosque and licking the plates to spread COVID. Fact-checking websites have identified several other Islamophobic tweets spreading the misinformation that Muslims are responsible for the massive spread of the virus in the country.
The contents of the media coverage, the social media circulation of fake news, and the tweets from the prominent actors did not contain explicit mention that the Muslims are intentionally spreading the virus. However, the videos demonstrably carried visuals of men who can be visibly identified as Muslims in their mannerisms, backgrounds and attires. The tone used in the accompanying texts had terms like jihad or terrorism to maintain a narrative that it was a planned attack to destroy the nation. Eventually, the Tablighi summit disappeared as a reference point, and the Muslim community as a whole began to be targeted despite their affiliations or lack of familiarity with a particular organisation. It is important to note that the main posts with the fake videos used a language of othering where ‘they’ is used as a frequent pronoun to refer to the Muslim community, but the comments carried more violent language, bigotry and threats against Muslims. A few examples are given below from the YouTube reporting of Sudarshan news on 31 March, 2020
Translation: Islam should be banned forever
The comments under the video of the fruit-seller licking fruits are more bigoted. Few of them are cryptic in the way it is calling for violent action against Muslims. The last post, for example, says that he has a better punishment for the Muslims which he can’t share publically. He goes on to say, “Make them drink the sacred water of the river Ganga,” hinting forceful conversion.
This campaign was targeted at ultra-nationalists and people who already had some prejudices against the Muslim minorities in the country. More than social media, the TV channels carried programs that raised leading questions and terminologies, indicating that a particular event is solely responsible for a failure of the public health systems. The print media also participated in the media frenzy. A Caravan magazine article analysing the trajectory, reports that there were 11,074 media stories on Tablighi Jamaat between 20 March, 2020 and 27 April, 2020. The researchers who analysed the report state that the top source of the news was the Times of India which published 1,863 stories within five weeks, which were further shared on Facebook 3,19, 874 times.
However, when it moved to the next stage, the medium of disinformation was predominantly social media, where old videos against Muslims were shared to directly accuse the Muslim community with explicit messages. They were also supplemented by public statements by elected representatives of the ruling party.
The media trial, targeted profiling of a particular group, and the creation of intentional confusion that lead to a call for violence are all part of a broader offensive against minorities in India, aimed at their othering and demonisation. For instance, it started with the actions of cow vigilante groups against Muslim cattle transporters in India in 2015. Similar coordinated hate campaigns against Muslims using fake videos were used to create controversies in the case of inter-religious marriages, volunteer religious conversions, civil society movements against draconian laws, etc.
The impact of the misinformation and organised campaigns against Muslims were manifold. It varied from discriminatory behaviour to assault, and crimes during the months that followed the Tablighi summit.
Targetted violence against Muslim communities:
Caravan magazine carried reports of attacks on Muslims due to the COVID-19-related rumours. On 7 April 2020, a shop owned by a Muslim man was set on fire. The survivor identified that the young people set the shop on fire under the influence of rumours. One day prior to that, four Muslim men were attacked in the same state for similar reasons. A 22-year-old who returned to his home state Delhi after attending a Tablighi event in Madhya Pradesh was attacked for intentionally spreading COVID-19 in the first week of April 2020. He was attacked after his medical examination to check the symptoms of COVID. A vegetable vendor was similarly beaten up in Delhi by a customer for being a Muslim. The vendor was beaten up and abused by the customer while accusing him and ‘his people’ of starting a jihad. The incident took place in the second week of April 2020. Muslims distributing rations to the slum dwellers in the city of Bangalore were beaten up by a suspected BJP member. They were warned to ‘not feed the Hindus’ while they were beaten up by cricket bats.
Boycotting of Muslim businesses:
Another impact of the hate campaign followed by the fake news and propaganda was the economic boycott of Muslim businesses. One such report is from the BJP ruling state of Karnataka where civil society groups had to come forward to actively campaign against boycotting Muslim vendors.
In the state of Punjab, Muslim dairy farmers from the Gujjar community had to approach the government against boycotting their business despite the fact that milk was declared an essential commodity.
In another instance, two Muslim vendors were stopped from selling vegetables in UP and were accused of Tablighi members and spreading COVID-19.
Social boycott and discrimination
A hospital in Meerut had published an advertisement which restricted the entry of Muslim patients without negative test results for COVID-19. Similar rules were not applicable to people from other religions. The hospital withdrew the advertisement after it was reported.
A Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing BJP was seen bullying and threatening a vegetable vendor in the state of Uttar Pradesh for having a Muslim name. The vendor was forced to reveal his Muslim identity. Another BJP MLA openly defended his call to boycott Muslim vegetable vendors.
Conclusion and Diagnosis
The organised ways the government representatives and the popular channels behaved indicate a coordinated effort to hide the government’s ill-preparedness to handle a health emergency. It is important to note that in the second wave of the pandemic, almost XX number of people died due to the negligence of the government. The Tablighi event was used as a temporary excuse to divert attention from the sad state of public health in the country and to fuel the anti-minority propaganda. This indicates that it is an influence operation. It is also important to note that several Indian media houses such as Caravan, Newslaundry, The Logical Indian, The Wire and Scroll constantly carried articles that busted false propaganda and disinformation on the Tablighi summit. It is also important to note the contribution of fact-checking organisations such as Alt News in busting fake news related to the same. All of which contributed to the timely removal of several false information from the internet.