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An Apartheid Era Begins in India, As Does a Moral Dilemma for its Allies

CJ Werleman reports on the escalation of Islamophobia in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Apartheid Era Begins in India, As Does a Moral Dilemma for its Allies

CJ Werleman reports on the escalation of Islamophobia in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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All apartheid regimes have a definitive starting point. The Jim Crow laws of the 1870s marked the beginning of racial segregation in the southern states of the US. The electoral win of the Afrikaner National Party in 1948 marked the start of apartheid in South Africa. It is now likely that future historians will record the COVID-19 pandemic as the official starting point of an apartheid era in India.

More precisely, it is likely that this era began on 15 April 2020, the day a hospital in Ahmadabad began segregating Coronavirus patients based on their religious belief, allocating separate wards for Muslims and non-Muslims – and, in doing so, mirrored the way in which African Americans were separated from white people in the US until 1964.

We can expect these policies of exclusion and segregation to be extended across all facets of Indian civil society, with the fate of India’s 200 million Muslims fast approaching one already experienced by two million Palestinian Israeli citizens, who live under a set of more than 50 discriminatory laws that favour their Jewish compatriots. 

In recent years, the Indian Government – led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – has been chipping away at the rights of Muslims, culminating with the updating and passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) last year. Together, both discriminate on religious grounds in violation of international law. Together, both are based on the paranoid sensibilities of Hindu nationalists who imagine the country is being overrun with Muslim immigrants.

But whereas 2019 was an annus horriblis for India’s 200 Muslim citizens, bookmarked by the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of Hindu nationalists in allowing the construction of a temple atop of the ancient ruins of the Babri Mosque, 2020 is one of existential crisis – a reality portrayed by the lynching murders of more than 50 Muslims during February’s New Delhi riots.

A month after Muslims lived through the worst anti-Muslim pogrom since the Gujarat Riots of 2002 – which left more than 2,000 dead during the course of three days of Hindu militant-inspired bloodshed – the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in India, thus compounding their persecution.

Islamophobia has been transposed onto the Coronavirus issue,” Amir Ali, assistant professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Time.

Essentially, the pandemic has exacerbated what the recent anti-Muslim pogrom in New Delhi started, providing another reason for the country’s militant Hindu nationalists to abuse and denigrate them – by falsely blaming Muslims for the spread of the Coronavirus.

“Attach Primacy to Unity”

Fake news stories accusing Muslims of spreading COVID-19 in restaurants, temples and crowded areas are doing what their publishers intended: incite violence and discrimination in the hope that life will become so unbearable for Muslims that they will have no choice but to self-deport.

Reports of Muslims being lynched to death by Hindu militant mobs, mosques set ablaze and Muslim-owned properties ransacked and destroyed are as common as they are widespread. Islamophobia has crossed yet another dangerous tipping point.

“This crisis of hatred against Muslims comes on the back of a massacre in Delhi, which was the result of people protesting against the anti-Muslim citizenship law,” Indian novelist Arundhati Roy said in a recent interview with DW. “Under the cover of COVID-19 the Government is moving to arrest young students, to fight cases against lawyers, against senior editors, against activists and intellectuals. Some of them have recently been put in jail.”

Roy made these remarks a day before news emerged that a number of hospitals across the country have been refusing access to Muslims – including heavily pregnant women – on the basis of their religious faith, with one losing her newborn baby in the back of an ambulance after being turned away.

“In the labour room, doctors asked my name and address,” her husband told The Indian Express. “I told them my name and that I had come from Nagar. They asked me whether I was Muslim. I said yes. The doctors got alert and said, ‘(if you are) Muslim, then you won’t get any treatment here’.”

These alarming developments have prompted condemnation around the world. While New Delhi has shown little concern for criticism flowing from Europe and America towards its human rights violations, it must be alarmed by the unfamiliar howls of rage emanating from Muslim-majority countries, particularly those in the Middle East.

Arab Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been staunch allies of the Modi regime, even dismissing New Delhi’s revocation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status as an “internal matter”, despite the fact that such a move is part of India’s strategy to transform the disputed territory into a Hindu settler colonial project.

On Sunday, the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said it “urges the Indian Government to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority as per its obligations under international law”.

Similar pleas have been echoed by dozens of Arab intellectuals and activists across social media, with many reminding New Delhi that Arab Gulf states transfer more than $55 billion to India annually and that Saudi Arabia has $100 billion set aside to invest in India, specifically in areas of petrochemicals, infrastructure and mining.

The Indian Prime Minister is acutely aware that a heavy economic cost is exacted on countries labelled as apartheid states, which might explain why, on 19 April, he tweeted that “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together”.

This from a man who has never once taken a backward step in advancing the Hindu nationalist agenda and who was once banned from entering the US because of his culpability in inciting the Gujarat Riots when he was the state’s Chief Minister. 

Time will tell whether or not Modi foresees apartheid to be a bridge too far for New Delhi’s international allies, but for now he can be sure the world is watching.

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