Coronavirus outbreak sparks racist attacks on people from North East, stokes Islamophobia on social media

Incidents of people from the North East being racially vilified in mega cities such as Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata began coming to light over the past month.

Pinak Pani Datta April 06, 2020 09:16:45 IST
Coronavirus outbreak sparks racist attacks on people from North East, stokes Islamophobia on social media

The coronavirus outbreak has ripped apart the  idea of “unity in diversity”  endorsed by BJP MP Tejaswi Surya on Kunal Kamra’s podcast which dropped two days ago. As the media began reporting about the pandemic, some began treating it as an act of war by China and not a health emergency.

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A man spat on a Manipuri girl recently in Delhi blaming her for the pandemic because of the way she looked.

Incidents of people from the North East being racially vilified in mega cities such as Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata began coming to light over the past month. A Manipuri girl was spat on in Delhi, an incident which Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took to Twitter to  condemn.

Bollywood singer and ex-Indian Idol contestant Meiyang Chang said two men on a motorbike called him "corona" while he was out on his morning walk in Mumbai.

 On 2 April, Arunachal Pradesh got its first positive case: an asymptomatic Muslim man who'd visited the Tablighi Jamaat at Nizamuddhin Delhi. As the news spread, xenophobia began on social media. In a group called “Voice of Arunachal” on Facebook, which has almost 2.4 lakh members, some began demanding that the infected individual not be brought to the state, even in a a quarantine facility, while others began blaming and vilifying the entire community.

Select screenshots from the group:

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 Arunachal Pradesh's capital, Itanagar is located in Papumpare district, a stronghold of the Nyishi tribe. The All Nyishi Youth Association (ANYA), a powerful mobiliser in the area, put up a video on its Facebook page asking that coronavirus patients not be brought back to the state.

The video, captioned “No Means No”, which seems more like a warning than a request, got the following comments:

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The easternmost state has a tiny population of Muslims, mostly migrants from Assam or other parts of India. In Arunachal Pradesh, a non-tribal is generally called Haring. But Miya, the word used here, is a derogatory term — normalised in the discourse of Assamese identity movement over the past several decades — used to describe those who have migrated from East Bengal over the last century. In Arunachal Pradesh, the label is used for anyone who is Muslim.

 Angshuman Choudhury’s piece in Firstpost, which compiles the xenophobic response to the Nizamuddhin Markaz, points out the Assam government's blunder of releasing the names of those infected to the public even as Odisha has invoked Section 188 of Indian Penal Code and banned the publication of names of COVID-19 patients.

Virus and viral videos

Facebook has also seen a flood of videos falsely claiming Muslims are deliberately attempting to spread coronavirus . The Central government told the Supreme Court on 31 March that fake news is the the biggest impediment in fighting the pandemic.

Take for example, this video that falsely claimed that a Nizamuddin Markaz attendee spat at cops to spread coronavirus , which garnered over 1 lakh views and was widely shared online. Altnews debunked the video, but it went viral.

While independent fact-checkers like Altnews and Boomlive are working overtime to counter these fake videos, many big names have shared misleading tweets and videos.

The lack of context behind real videos being circulated online and reported by the media is also a problem. The Indore incident of medical professionals being chased by a mob and being pelted with stones was widely reported. But hardly anyone investigated the incident in depth.

Newslaundry revealed the story behind the news: Of how a fake WhatsApp message claimed Muslims are being taken away, given fake reports of testing positive and then being murdered with poisonous injections. The message further told Muslims to refuse to go with police and doctors.

At the same time another video, purportedly of a Muslim family in quarantine complaining about being held in isolation and not properly tested, went viral.  These messages triggered the 1 April violence, as per the report.

The author writes at urbangaonwala.com. He tweets @UrbanGaonwala

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