Nations, like humans, reveal themselves during a crisis. Over the last two months, India has revealed itself in all its ugliness, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revealed himself to be unequal to this moment of monumental crisis. As a journalist covering the pandemic, I have had a ringside view of the government’s response becoming intricately woven with the persecution of Indian Muslims. The centre’s COVID-19 response has only proven what Indian minorities knew all along, that this government has no qualms sacrificing the lives and livelihoods of its poorest, sickest and most vulnerable citizens.
Since 30 January, when India reported its first case of COVID-19, the Modi administration’s handling of the pandemic has been marked by ineptitude, unpreparedness and a chase to rectify predictable consequences of its ill-thought-out actions. With a nationwide lockdown that was announced with four-hours’ notice, Modi launched a migrant crisis unparalleled since Partition. The sudden lockdown led to individuals starving to death, after they were left without work, money or any way to travel to their native homes, and abandoned by the government that put them in this position.
Among the many transgressions of the Indian government, the scapegoating of Muslim minorities will be the lasting memory. It drove patients into hiding, sick but frightened of admitting to symptoms, fearful that they will face the stigma created by the government’s response. Such a response was not unprecedented—previous pandemics have consistently shown administrations responding to unexpected public-health crises by blaming its minorities. As Muslims are blamed in India today, during the initial years of the HIV epidemic, homosexuals were wrongly blamed worldwide for spreading the virus. HIV then swept the world and decimated populations precisely because of the crucial time wasted in blaming minorities. With a similar response focused on the Muslim minority, the Modi administration has allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to spread in India.
In mid March, the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organisation, held its annual conference at the Markaz, its headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamudddin area. Later that month, news broke that there had been a cluster outbreak of novel coronavirus at the conference. In the days and weeks that followed, the Modi administration repeatedly focused on the conference as one of the main reasons for the spread of the pandemic in India—a false narrative that the mainstream media was only eager to emphasise in its coverage. Misinformation about Muslims intentionally spreading the virus circulated widely. The centre’s daily press briefings spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the Tablighi Jamaat, with the health and home ministries specifically and repeatedly handed out data on the Markaz-related infections. Meanwhile, the government has evaded questions about the lack of personal protective equipment for health workers and the government’s strategy to fight the pandemic.
On 28 April, news emerged that members of the Tablighi Jamaat had donated blood plasma to help the government treat COVID-19 patients. The next morning, I spoke to a doctor who was involved in the extensive contact-tracing exercise that followed the outbreak of the virus at the Nizamuddin Markaz. The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, remembered the exercise in great detail. She remembered that on 28 March, when the tracing began, was a Saturday, and told me that for the next 36 hours, she was involved in the evacuation of the now infamous Markaz cluster, in which 2,361 people who attended the religious gathering were reportedly evacuated.