2020, year of the pandemic: For Muslims in Madurai, COVID-19 meant widespread stigma, ostracisation
'These were our people. What happened to them? How did they turn against us in an instant?,' one resident wondered while recalling the pervasive stigma against Muslims during the early days of the pandemic
Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods of people in Tamil Nadu in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part two of the series.
Read part 1 of the series here.
A bunch of Rajinikanth fans are intensely debating whether or not Thalaivar will finally take a plunge into politics. Two in the group promise that they would go into exile if it comes to that while the matriarch pledges that she doesn’t care, her vote is for Rajini no matter what he represents. Amid exclamations of ‘What, no!’ and ‘Rajini dhaan CM’, the conversation swings back to where it began — COVID-19’s alleged Muslimness.
“COVID-19 doesn’t exist; it was created to create conflicts between Hindus and Muslims,” claims Nageshwaran.
“Eh? For four days, I was knocked out because of the virus. I was coughing like my lungs would fall out any minute. What was that then?” questions Siddique Fatima.
Her husband Jaffer jumps in to ask her why she thinks it was the novel coronavirus.
“Because I fall sick all through the year. I know this was different. Don't talk rubbish. I am not going to say that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. COVID-19 is a virus, yes. This is true. So is the fact that this virus was used to create hatred against us. This is an episode Muslims in Madurai won’t forget. We cannot forget it even if we try,” responds Siddique Fatima.
Everybody in the room nods.
“Right before COVID-19, massive protests were organised against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The kind of support we received from non-Muslims was phenomenal. They participated and organised along with us. More non-Muslims were present on the stage than Muslims every day. Which is why what happened with us because of COVID-19 came as a shock. These were our people. What happened to them? How did they turn against us in an instant?” questions Jaffer.
A month after the lockdown hit India, Fatima couldn’t bear it any longer. The police cars, barricades and policing were at an all-time high in Nelpettai, especially because it is a Muslim locality. The anxiety associated with the situation got to Fatima. To calm herself down, she wanted to catch a glimpse of the Kanavai Dargah in Melakkal, where she was a regular. She served food to people there and also helped in its upkeep. Without telling anybody, she snuck out and decided that she’ll walk all the way till the dargah, which was 20 kms away. As she made her way towards the dargah, cops stopped her at multiple checkpoints. She told them that she was walking towards the dargah alone and she meant no harm. They cautioned her but she assured them that she’ll be fine. She had to sit down at Konchadai as she no longer had the energy to walk further. She was in tears by then.
As she sat weeping, an auto driver spotted her. “Where are you off to, amma? What happened?,” the auto driver inquired.
She told him that she had to get to her dargah, even if it means the end of the world. The auto driver told her to get in and promised to drop her off as close to the dargah as possible. As they drove past Madurai, Fatima looked on in shock. Never had she seen Madurai this empty or silent. On the way, a 70-year-old non-Muslim woman joined them. As soon as she got into the auto, she cringed at the sight of Fatima. She started mumbling about how COVID-19 was being 'spread by mami’s' (a derogatory term to refer to Muslim women wearing burqas or hijabs) like Fatima and pushed herself to a corner of the auto. She told Fatima to sit away from her, at the other corner. Unfazed by her co-traveller, Fatima just prayed that she reaches the Dargah one way or the other as they kept getting stopped at every junction.
“It is because of this mami that they are stopping us, tell her to get off,” exclaimed Fatima’s co-traveller from time to time. Fatima refused to engage, she was set on reaching Melakkal.
Just as they entered Melakkal, the auto was stopped by the residents of the village adjacent to the Dargah.
At the sight of Fatima, the crowd, consisting of around 15 women, started yelling at her. “Why are you coming here? Don’t you know that it is you mami’s who are the cause of this disease? Get out of here immediately,” they started screaming at her. Fatima was shocked. She recognised faces in the crowd. Many of them were people she had served food to at the dargah, during the yearly festival.
“I just want to say a prayer next to the dargah. And I’ll leave. Let me go, please,” she pleaded. The auto driver told the crowd that he is a Hindu himself and requested them to let Fatima be, as she just wanted to say her prayer and that she has made her way there with great difficulty. The crowd didn’t care. The heckling didn’t stop.
Fatima walked towards the dargah, sat down next to it and said her duas. Then she got back into the auto and left quietly. As she began her journey back home, the heckling still continued. “Why and how is this happening?,” she asked herself. In the days to come, people running away at the sight of a Muslim woman was something she got accustomed to — be it when she took her grandson for a consultation to the hospital or when she went out of Nelpettai, for any kind of work.
“Stigma surrounding the disease was very high till August”, says Nageshwaran. “We know of instances where people decided to end their lives, not being able to bear the stigma,” he said.
The story of Mydeen Beevi and her son Mustafa is one such story.
Mydeen Beevi, 70, is the mother of five and a resident of Madurai. After the death of her husband, she has been living by herself in Thek Vasal. Her youngest son Mustafa, 35, worked in Kerala and was her only source of income. He managed to make his way back to Thek Vasal just before the COVID-19 national lockdown was announced. Both of them traveled to Mulai Nagar, a few kilometres away, to stay with Ramzan Begum, Mustafa’s sister.
That is where the stigma started. Mulai Nagar is a Thevar stronghold, with almost all walls plastered with symbols which extol Thevar pride. After Mustafa returned, he started facing aggressive taunts of being a carrier of COVID-19. He stayed in as he was feeling tired and was slightly feverish after his return. This led his neighbours to abuse him and pick fights with him. Soon after, they summoned the police, who told him to get checked at the general hospital. “The police did not stop the neighbours from abusing my family,” says Mydeen Beevi.
When the ambulance didn’t arrive, Mustafa’s neighbours loaded him into an open truck and told him to leave. As this was happening, the neighbours shot videos of him being taken away, which went viral on social media. Once at the general hospital, he was tested for COVID-19, and he tested negative for the disease. On returning to Mulai Nagar, the neighbours didn’t stop their taunts even after being told that Mustafa had tested negative. They demanded that he leave immediately. Not wanting to put up with this anymore, Mustafa and Mydeen Beevi went back to Thek Vasal, hoping that this stigma would end. But it didn’t. Even at Thek Vasal, the neighbours having seen Mustafa’s video, insisted that he be checked for COVID 19. They stopped a corporation garbage truck and forcibly made him get on the truck. Mydeen Beevi, unable to see her son like this, also went along. At the hospital, the doctors told him that he had tested negative for it already, so there is no reason for another test.
Both of them walked back to Thek Vasal after this, as there was no transportation due to the lockdown. Mydeen Beevi comforted her son and told him not to heed to the taunts. Mustafa was silent. The next day, he said he is going out for a walk and stepped out. That was the last time Mydeen Beevi saw him.
He was found a few hours later, on the train tracks of Kapalur, dead. He had died by suicide. Since then, Mydeen Beevi has tried to petition everybody from the police to the administration, but to no avail.
Who is to be held responsible for Mustafa’s death? The residents of Mulai Nagar? Or the residents of Thek Vasal? The media, which blared the news of Muslims being carriers of COVID 19? Or the administration?
Back at Fatima’s room in Nelpettai, seated diagonally opposite me is RTI Hakkim. He is fondly called that for his tireless work towards exposing the government’s shortcomings through the Right to Information Act.
During the peak of the lockdown, the Madurai Collectorate announced that they needed volunteers to help with COVID-19 relief dissemination, Hakkim got himself and 200 others enrolled at the office of the District Collectorate. Around the same time, Facebook statuses started circulating that Muslims are spreading coronavirus through relief work. Unfazed, Hakkim and his friend were prepping towards beginning relief work when ID cards of a few Muslim volunteers were taken back by the police. Hakkim was summoned to the Collectorate and his ID card was taken away too.
When this reporter met Hakkim in May, he told me this story as is. He was in tears and disillusioned because something like this had never happened to him in all these years. But he was resolute about helping out in one way or the other. He didn’t know how, yet. Nor did he know if he’ll get his ID back, as one had to have the ID to do social work during lockdown.
A few days after that, this reporter met Deputy Collector Ranganathan, just to understand his scope of work. Ranganathan was also the one who had apparently ordered for Hakkim’s card to be taken away. He took me through different rooms, all stacked with provisions which were donated by people of Madurai. He also told me that they have a bunch of volunteers who help in distribution of these materials. Shortly after, he handed me a list, which had the name of only two organisations mentioned. The one on top of the list was Seva Bharati, an organisation linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is important to note that the organisation was chosen by the Collectorate for relief work months ahead of the state Assembly election. This also comes in the context of the BJP's attempts to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu.
On being asked about allegations of Muslim volunteers' IDs being taken away, Ranganathan brushed it aside as miscommunication.He said that anyone can sign up to volunteer, and all they have to is enter their details on a website, get an OTP number, and soon afterwards, they receive their card. He handed this reporter a card and said, “This is how the cards look.”
The card he showed was that of Hakkim.
It has been six months since. Hakkim did not get his card back, but that did not stop him from volunteering. He signed up with the Madurai Corporation and has since taken part in multiple COVID-19 relief programs. But at the end of 2020, he poses an important question.
“I’ve worked for years as an RTI activist and exposed many scams. What I am most afraid about is, what if in future, when I expose an official who is corrupt, people turn around to me and say that I exposed a Hindu official's corruption because I am Muslim? What if they ask why I can’t instead expose a Muslim official's corruption? If they ask questions like that, imagine how dangerous that can be for our country. If such things are decided on the basis of religion, it questions the very basis of India’s constitutional structure, doesn’t it? This is what I learned this year. Even if you love society and want to work for the society, the government will divide us on the basis of religion and discriminate. This government is a communal government. This is my takeaway.”
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