Around 11 pm on 7 April, Gayur Hasan woke up to the sound of a ruckus outside his house. The 60-year-old man is a resident of Keorak village in the Kaithal district of Haryana, and has an iron and welding workshop, his ancestral trade. He was yet to get his bearings when his son, Ehsaan, told him that their shop was on fire. “My house is 200–250 metres away from my shop,” Hasan told me, and added that by the time he reached there, a lot of his goods had already burned down. It took a while for the fire to be extinguished. Hasan said that on that day, “Under the influence of rumours, some of the younger people of the village set fire to my shop.”
Hasan was referring to the fake news, rumours and conspiracy theories that have been circulating on the internet and in media since 30 March, when news broke out about the cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat—an Islamic religious gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin locality. As the fake news targeting Muslims for the pandemic spread, there have been an increasing number of attacks on the Muslim community in Haryana. Meet Mann, a social activist with the Zamindara League, an organisation that works on issues of communal harmony among farmers, told me, “If you look at the social-media accounts and WhatsApp of the youth of Haryana, you will see hate messages against Muslims floating everywhere.” In some cases, the local media and politicians have been complicit in the creation or spread of Islamophobic content.
Hasan told me that in all his life he “had never witnessed an incident like this in our village.” He said that he had the full support of the village, and “the parents of the young people who set the fire came to meet me and apologised to me too.” He added that the parents were upset that their “children fell for this hatred.” He told me he believed that the villages of the countryside are peace-loving and share a “spirit of brotherhood.” The support he received from the elders in his village made him feel more secure. As he spoke to me, he kept reiterating the need for trust among the residents of the village. “Nowadays, because of phones and all the news on them, children fall prey to the hatred spread by the news. I worry about this new generation.” He added, “The people of my generation are still sensible and they are the only reason why I am still here.”
Just a day before the attack on Hasan’s shop, four Muslim men of the Dhatrath village in the state’s Jind district were attacked by their Hindu neighbours. The four men, all brothers— Bashir Khan, Sadiq Khan, Nazir Khan, and Sandeep Khan—were severely injured in the attack and had to be admitted to the Civil Hospital in Jind. Sandeep, the youngest brother, had to be shifted to the Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in the neighbouring district of Rohtak, as his injuries were the worst.
The apparent reason for the attack was that the men had not extinguished the lights in their house at 9 pm the previous night—Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for all lights to be turned out and candles and diyas to be lit on the night of 5 April, as an act of solidarity in the fight against COVID-19. Bashir told me, “On the night of the fifth, we also lit lamps on our terrace, but only the light outside our house, which is always on at night, was still on.” He added, “Using this as an excuse, some of our neighbours attacked us with weapons in the morning saying, ‘The whole village’s lights were off but these gaadon’s lights were on.’” Gaade is a derogatory term for the Muslim community. Bashir told me that till date, no one in the village had ever used this slur for them.