A policemen gestures as men wearing protective face masks walk to board a service bus taking them to a quarantine facility on March 31 amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus after a Muslim conference in New Delhi. (Photo: AFP)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked Indians to stand united in the fight against the coronavirus as some of his party workers blamed Muslims for the fast spread of the pandemic across the country.
"When it [the virus] attacks, it does not look for any caste, creed and religion, so our response to it should be unity among ourselves and to promote brotherhood," Modi wrote in a social media post.
The prime minister's remarks on his LinkedIn page on April 20 came as he shared thoughts with Indian professionals on the work environment in the post-Covid-19 world.
Some members of his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have claimed that a mid-March Muslim gathering in Delhi was a conspiracy to spread Covid-19 in the country.
"Even though late in his response, the prime minister needs to act fast to restore India's secular ethos," said Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians.
Some 3,000 people from across India and overseas attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi, defying government orders banning gatherings during the pandemic. At least 10 participants died of Covid-19 after they returned home.
The possibility of spreading the virus forced authorities to search and quarantine all attendees. By mid-April, some 27,000 Muslims had been quarantined in 15 states.
However, some BJP members said Muslims who attended the gathering were responsible for 30 percent of total infections.
Some BJP leaders claimed the gathering was part of “corona terrorism” to spread the contagion among millions of Indians. The media depicted those who attended the gathering as "super spreaders" and hashtags such as "coronaJihad" and "CoronaBombsTablighi" began to trend on social media.
"Tablighi Jamaat people have begun spitting on the doctors and other health workers. It's clear their aim is to infect as many people as possible with coronavirus and kill them," tweeted Kapil Sharma, a BJP leader in New Delhi.
One social media video showed a group of men on April 5 repeatedly attacking a young man in Delhi. The man, bleeding from his ears and nose, was asked to explain who was behind the "conspiracy" of the Muslim gathering.
Positive cases have multiplied in the country over the past three weeks. There were around 1,000 cases at the end of March, but by April 20 the number had jumped to 17,600.
Health experts told media that the spread of the disease has nothing to do with the Muslim gathering, pointing out that it is part of the pattern of Covid-19 for cases to increase unless social-distancing rules are strictly followed.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, in his letter to the federal home minister said sensational media coverage projected the Tablighi incident as a conspiracy.
There was no conspiracy on the part of the people stranded after the gathering or its leadership, Khan said. They were innocent victims of this unseen epidemic like anyone else.
Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, told UCA News that Modi needs to do more than talk.
"There is a big difference between saying and doing as he is talking about unity and brotherhood. But at the same time his ministers and workers abuse a particular community. If he is serious, he should first instruct his people to stop harassing minority communities in the country and take them in confidence," said Arif, whose organization is based in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
He said a hospital in the state had released an advertisement saying Muslims with Covid-19 should not visit the facility. "If the government works with determination, such things will not happen," he said.
Modi's social media post, which addressed the new atmosphere of working from home, made only a passing reference to the need for unity in fighting the pandemic.
"Today the working model has changed as it is known for its innovative zeal and our country, with the right blend of the physical and the virtual, can emerge as the global nerve center," he said, adding “let us rise to that occasion and grab the opportunities.”
India has witnessed increased religious polarization since the BJP came to power in 2014. It projects itself as the champion of Hindus, enabling hardliners to step up their campaign to turn India into a Hindu-only nation.