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Hindu Nationalists Blame Muslims For India's COVID-19 Crisis


The pandemic has a way of exposing problems that societies already face, and that is true in India, where police did something that seemed at first like the right thing to do. They began contact tracing, seeking all people who might have been exposed in a coronavirus hotspot. They focused on a group of Muslims, members of India's biggest religious minority. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on what happened next.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Infections rising nationwide, all from a frightening new epicenter.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A conference of Muslim missionaries in Delhi last month - thousands of people caught the coronavirus from attendees who went home and ended up spreading the virus across the country. Authorities have charged the leader of that religious group, called Tablighi Jamaat, with culpable homicide for holding the conference in violation of social distancing rules. Some of the group's leaders have fled into hiding, but their lawyer issued a video statement.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Lockdown (non-English language spoken). Quarantine (non-English language spoken)...

FRAYER: Calling on followers to cooperate with police, follow the lockdown rules, do not go to mosques, he said. Anger has nevertheless exploded across Hindu-majority India and its right-wing TV channels.


ARNAB GOSWAMI: These are dangerous people, these lockdown cheats. They have compromised us all.

FRAYER: An official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu Nationalist Party suggested shooting them. Indian Muslims faced discrimination and attacks well before COVD-19. Now a hashtag, #coronajihad, is trending.

PRATIK SINHA: Trying to insinuate Indian Muslims unknowingly spreading coronavirus and that it is equivalent to a terrorist activities, that they are doing so, you know, so that Hindus get it.

FRAYER: Pratik Sinha runs AltNews, an Indian website that debunks fake news. He's been tracking viral videos of Muslims licking utensils, spitting on food and sneezing en masse.

SINHA: For example, there is this 2-year-old video. There's this sect of Muslims called the Bohra Muslims. They believe that no food should be wasted so a bunch of young boys are licking all the plates and spoons after some event. And that went viral claiming that these are Muslims trying to spread coronavirus.

FRAYER: Muslim vendors have since been blocked from selling food and beaten up. When Zia Nomani (ph) volunteered at a recent food drive, he and others in Muslim dress were harassed.

ZIA NOMANI: They saw me wearing a kurta, and they started saying that we should be taught a lesson and all, and it's time that you leave from here, and within 10 seconds, you should be away from here.

FRAYER: He left. Others from his charity have been attacked with cricket bats. Nomani says his attackers identified themselves as members of the RSS, a powerful Hindu group with close ties to the Indian government. In a briefing last week, government spokesman Vikas Swarup denied there have been any retaliatory attacks on Muslims.


VIKAS SWARUP: I do not think this has anything to do with a particular community. It has to do with a condition that has been spread as a result of an irresponsible gathering.

FRAYER: Meanwhile, another video has emerged, but this one is not fake. It shows a Hindu mob beating a Muslim man on his way home from a Tablighi Jamaat meeting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken) Corona? (Non-English language spoken)...

FRAYER: The victim begs for his life. He's shaking. His hands and face are bloody. He managed to escape, but as the coronavirus spreads across India, so does fear.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.