Varanasi’s Muslim weavers face worsening economic crisis and discrimination during lockdown

16 April 2020
A weaver looks at a design template while sitting at a handloom making a silk saree in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on 28 October 2017.
Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg / Getty Images
A weaver looks at a design template while sitting at a handloom making a silk saree in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on 28 October 2017.
Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg / Getty Images

At around 8 pm on 8 April, Fauzia Shaheen, a weaver in the Muslim-dominated locality of Madanpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, started experiencing labour pains. Shaheen’s family of eleven is involved in the weaving industry and has been reeling from a financial crisis since demonetisation. Amber, her sister-in-law, said the family called up Kavita Dixit, a doctor who has a clinic in Gurudham, located around two kilometres from their home. Dixit asked them to get Shaheen to the clinic. Amber and her two brothers—including Shaheen’s husband Mohammad Arkeem—went to the clinic and rang the doorbell. “A nurse opened the door and stopped us from entering,” Amber recounted. When the family asked the nurse to speak to the doctor, Amber said, the nurse replied, “You all have brought the coronavirus.” The nurse instructed them to not “argue” and take her to another hospital. Amber said, “She did not listen to us. When we called the doctor, she didn’t receive.” I called Dixit for a comment on the incident, but she did not respond. 

The incident illustrated the religious discrimination that several Muslims have been facing during the ongoing lockdown to contain COVID-19. This discrimination was spurred when news emerged that more than two thousand people met in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area for a conference organised by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation, in March. The conference was criticised for ignoring principles of social distancing when cases of COVID-19 had started to emerge in the country. Sections of the media took this as an opportunity to give a communal colour to COVID-19. 

Several reports have since emerged of people insinuating that Muslims are carriers of the novel coronavirus. I spoke to some weavers in Varanasi—most of the tens of thousands of weavers in the city are Muslims. They told me about the discrimination they faced. All of them also emphasised that the lockdown to contain COVID-19 has worsened the economic crisis in their line of work, which has been ongoing since demonetisation.

After the nurse’s refusal to let them in, Amber, Shaheen and Arkeem called for an ambulance and headed to Sir Sunderlal Hospital at the Banaras Hindu University campus, located around four kilometres away. The hospital’s emergency ward issued them a slip, which referred them to a doctor. The first thing that the doctor asked them, Amber said, was where they lived. When the family told him Madanpura, he became angry and asked them to go to the Shiv Prasad Gupt hospital, located at Kabir Chauraha, at least six kilometres away. 

“My sister-in-law’s pain was increasing. The guard standing there started to shout at us, chasing us away. My brother and I pleaded with the doctors there, but they did not listen to us at all,” Ambar said. “We went to the ambulance driver, and said to him, ‘Brother, take us to Kabir Chauraha.’ He replied, ‘Bring a referral slip.’ We again went to the doctor. We asked him to make us a referral slip so that the ambulance could take us there but the doctor refused,” she said. But, Amber told me, the doctor replied, “We haven’t seen your sister-in-law, so how do we make a reference?” 

According to Amber, as they tried to figure out what to do, at around 2.30 am, Shaheen gave birth outside the hospital. Shaheen kept screaming, but “no one listened to us. The guards were repeatedly scolding us and asking them to leave,” Amber said. “I myself cut the child’s umbilical cord at 3 o’clock.” 

Amber said that Arkeem got in touch with a doctor who lives in Madanpura and works at SSH. The doctor tried to arrange for Fauzia’s treatment at the hospital. After a while, a nurse came and took Shaheen to the hospital’s general ward. “She cleaned the baby and also put a stitch on my sister-in-law,” Amber said. While Shaheen was screaming with pain, according to Amber, the nurse said, “You have no work anyway, but to give birth to children and have come here to spread corona … Now take her from here.”

The family went to the hospital’s dispensary to buy some medicines. “The employee at the dispensary had spent half an hour giving medicine and the guard was repeatedly scolding us, ‘You all are still here, you have not left yet. Get out,’” Amber said. After this, “We took a private ambulance, but the driver said that he cannot go to Madanpura,” which had been marked as a COVID-19 hotspot. He dropped the family at Sonarpura, around 500 meters away from Madanpura. The three of them, with the newborn in tow, made their way on foot and reached by 5.30 am.

SK Mathur, the medical superintendent of SSH, denied that the hospital had discriminated against the family. “We attended the family. It’s nothing like this. We are admitting coronavirus patients too. In this time, no one can do this,” he said.  

Amber’s brother, Shahi Ahmed, a 28-year-old weaver, told me that for generations, the family has been involved in the production of Banarasi saris. Over the course of nearly three years, their financial condition significantly deteriorated, owing to demonetisation. Further, his father is paralysed and one sister has a mental disability. Most of their earning goes towards bearing their medical expenses.  

Sunil Kashyap is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 Uttar Pradesh