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Modi brake on anti-minority tirade? Covid-19 suggests 'deep' Islamophobia roots

BJP MP Tejaswi Surya with Modi
By Ram Puniyani*
Islamophobia as a word came more into vogue after the 9/11 twin tower attack in 2001. In the aftermath the American media popularised the word “Islamic terrorism”, and for the first time in global history a religion began being associated with the political act of terrorism.
In India, hate against minorities was already prevalent, but with different arguments. It was a by-product of communal politics. It emerged during freedom movement as a reaction to Indian nationalism.
Hindu communal politics propagated Islam as a religion associated with violence. It was propagated that Islam had the tendency to proliferate through force, it indulges in terrorism, Muslim kings destroyed Hindu temples, Muslims indulge in polygamy, produce more children, are more aggressive, eat beef etc. All this was already the part of ‘social common sense’.
Events in India during the last few months, beginning with abolition of Article 370, coming up with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and spectacular democratic protests of Shaheen Bagh against CAA – all this created a situation where hate-spreading machinery became more aggressive.
To cap it all came the Covid-19 pandemic and the Tablighi Jamaat incident. The blame of spreading coronavirus was (falsely) put on Muslims as a whole. It began being alleged that Muslims are out to launch corona jihad, are producing corona bomb etc. It became part of popular thinking. This made life of the Muslim community unbearable. Even the lynching of Sadhus near Palghar by local villagers was sought to be initially projected as an act of the ‘hated’ community.
Normally, the international community refuses to take immediate note of occasional violation of human rights of minorities. This time the level of demonisation of Muslims was so high that many international platforms and voices that matter expressed their unhappiness over what was happening in India. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, its independent permanent Human Rights Commission, called for steps to protect India’s Muslims.
In addition, a drama unfolded in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here, there live and work lakhs of Indians, and a large number of them are Hindus. Some of them are influenced by the core communal ideology. They proudly display their photographs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Few of them tweeted that Muslims, through Tablighi Jamaat, were involved in ‘Islamic Jihad’, ‘Islamic virus’ and ‘Muslim virus’. One of the most prominent tweets was by a rising star of BJP, Tejaswi Surya. In this tweet, Surya endorsed Tarek Fateh’s derogatory remarks on Arab women. Some followed suit, claiming that it is Indians primarily who have triggered growth in Gulf countries. Muslims were sought to be projected in negative light. 
Many commentators suggest statements by Modi and Bhagwat would put a brake on the ongoing atmosphere of hate against minorities
Some prominent members of UAE’s Royal family took up the cudgels to counter these hate warriors. The UAE Princess, one who upholds Gandhiji, Hend Al Qassimi, tweeted that the ruling family is friends with India, but “… your rudeness is not welcome… You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.” She then quoted UAE laws prohibiting hate speech by citizens and non-citizens. The Royal intervention opened floodgates of comments from other sources.
She made an important point, “Don’t these successful so-called powerful millionaires know that hate speech is the prelude to genocide? Nazism wasn’t born in a day. It was allowed to grow like a weed that went wild because people chose to look the other side and it thrived on that specific weakness called silence. Hate is being preached openly in India against Muslims, in a nation of 182 million Muslims.”
Narendra Modi, who generally responds late to such incidents, woke up on these goings on. One knows that not only large number of Indians employed gainfully in these countries, they are also sending millions of dollars back home. India is the third major country having trade with these countries. A Modi tweet began being taken in a positive light by several commentators, who saw a ray of hope in this.
He said in the tweet, “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.” He knows who all in media, social media and on TV channels are spreading hate, but he refused to reprimand them.
On a similar line, the sarsanghchalak (supreme Leader) of RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, also said that the whole community should not be targeted for actions by a few. Both these top leaders of Hindu nationalist politics, fortunately, woke up after international reprimand, particularly the reaction from UAE and other Gulf countries, which have already started terminating jobs of some Indians for spreading hate. Ironically, around the same time, Modi’s cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi described India as jannat (heaven) for Muslims.
Many commentators suggest that the statements of Modi and Bhagwat would put a brake on the ongoing atmosphere of hate against the hapless minority. Things are not so simple. The atmosphere today has been built up close to a century long work by communal forces. 
The molecular permeation of these hateful interpretations of history, and the presentation of Islam-Muslims by the America-dominated media following the 9/11 event, have dug fairly deep in social thinking in India.
Covid-19 events have demonstrated how deep are the roots of this type of thinking that such concoctions could be made part of the social thinking. It is possible only because of the decades-long divisive propaganda against the concept of fraternity, which is the foundation of Indian nationalism.
Protests from UAE, which incidentally gave the highest civilian honour to Modi in 2019, may put a small brake on the unabashed process in India. But the real struggle is inside the country, where we need to see that the social perceptions of Indian nationalism, articulated by Gandhi and Nehru in particular, are made to reach all the Indians through innovative and rational mechanisms.
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*Political analyst, anti-communal campaigner based in Mumbai

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