Readers are advised that this essay contains potentially offensive images.
When I wrote this article on Covid-19 in India, vaccinated and relatively safe, India was reeling from a new, tragic wave of infections. Thousands have died and the country is in the news for its inadequate handling of the crisis and the immense strain on a medical infrastructure that is struggling to keep up with the number of infected. News reports have been bringing us pictures and horror stories of oxygen crises, families wiped out, public funeral pyres, and floating dead bodies. These tragedies of 2021 were already in the making in 2020. From mismanagement of medical supplies and attacks on doctors to the prolonged suffering and deaths of internal migrant workers who had to flee from cities to their hometowns and villages due to the lockdown,1Darshana Mini and Anirban Baishya, “Reimaging the Migrant in the Time of the Pandemic” in COVID Assemblages: Queer and Feminist Ethnographies from South Asia, eds. Rohit Dasgupta, Niharika Banerjea, and Paul Boyce, (Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2022), 34–44. the ramifications of the pandemic in India exposed social inequalities at various levels. Globally, the pandemic has accentuated underlying biases toward certain demographics, seen for instance in the case of rising anti-Asian hatred in the United States.2Jennifer Lee and Monika Yadav, “The Rise of Anti-Asian Hate in the Wake of Covid-19,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, May 21, 2020. But much like the pandemic itself, such hatred is not merely a US problem. In the context of India, with its increasing levels of ethnic, religious, and political violence, the language of the pandemic offers new opportunities for hatred, especially in connection with the Hindu right wing’s ideology (Hindutva) of ethno-religious exclusion.“Author Ziya us-Salam…notes how the pandemic opened the gates for the ‘easy victimization of the Tabligh in particular and the entire Muslim community in general.’”
India went into lockdown on March 24, 2020, in response to the pandemic. Norms for social distancing were soon enforced and public advisories on health and hygiene were also widely publicized. In March 2020, the Islamic religious movement, Tablighi Jamaat, held a congregation in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, India’s capital. The Tablighi Jamaat event was immediately labeled a coronavirus super-spreader event. However, as one news report astutely pointed out, such statistical singularity was fallacious, since other religious mass gatherings in the country around the same time were not subjected to the same kind of tracking and quarantine standards. Author Ziya us-Salam also notes how the pandemic opened the gates for the “easy victimization of the Tabligh in particular and the entire Muslim community in general.”3Noida: Harper Collins India, 2020More Info →
This also contrasts starkly with the Kumbh Mela event a year later in March–April 2021, when millions congregated in Haridwar, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand for a Hindu religious festival just prior to the deadly surge of Covid-19 in the country. The handling of the Kumbh Mela has been generous to say the least and, prior to the event, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the event in a full-page advertisement inviting visitors despite the risks associated with large gatherings. Even after the Kumbh Mela, government agencies and the popular press have denied the associated risks, with one official even going on to say that “it was unfair to call it a Covid ‘super-spreader’” despite evidence to the contrary. The Kumbh Mela case is a clear example of media reportage and social media circulation creating different narratives about comparable events. In the case of the Tablighi Jamaat event in 2020, the tone was remarkably different.
Following widespread news coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat event and its aftershocks, India’s mediascape also began to see the circulation of videos and images that unfairly singled out India’s Muslim population as the cause for the spread. In a study on the temporal patterns of Covid-19–related misinformation in India, Akbar et. al state that “Muslims became an important part of the misinformation spread as spreaders of the coronavirus and provokers of chaos and violence, following the Nizamuddin Markaz incident.”4Syeda Zainab Akbar et al., “Temporal Patterns in COVID-19 misinformation in India,” April 16, 2020. Media Scanner, a fact-checking site, lists a sizeable number of “fake news” items—both textual and image-based—that directly indict India’s Muslim population for an alleged deliberate attempt to spread Covid-19, reflecting what Eviane Leidig describes as the Hindu right’s attempt at “scapegoating Muslims as the cause of transmission.”5Eviane Leidig, “‘#CoronaJihad’: How the Far-Right in India is Responding to the Pandemic,” GNET, April 15, 2020. But what are the actual modalities through which these false accounts perpetuate?
Networks of virulence“The Tablighi Jamaat case was a media event in which television news and virally circulating hashtags cocreated a perception of deliberate biological terrorism.”
The Tablighi Jamaat case demonstrates a convergence of online and offline forces that shape public perception and perpetuate hatred toward certain groups while simultaneously bearing serious effects on legal proceedings. It also showcases the blurring of the gap between online trends and “news.” The Tablighi Jamaat case was a media event in which television news and virally circulating hashtags cocreated a perception of deliberate biological terrorism. The virus was mobilized in a political and conspiratorial role, which fueled the Islamophobic rhetoric of the right wing. On Twitter, for instance, the hashtag “#Coronajihad” became a rallying cry against not just those belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat sect, but Muslims in general. As historian Manan Ahmed points out, the terminology of “coronajihad” not only pathologizes Muslims biologically but also politically,6Manan Asif Ahmed, “Virulence of Hindutva” in The Pandemic: Perspectives on Asia, ed. Vinayak Chaturvedi (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2020), 153–165. as seen in its strong resemblance to the term “lovejihad”—a conspiracy narrative that purports that unsuspecting Hindu women are being lured by Muslim men in the name of love and being forcibly converted.7Also see Charu Gupta, “Hindu Women, Muslim Men: Love Jihad and Conversions,” Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 51 (December 19–25, 2009): 13–15. This is also evidenced by many Twitter posts blaming the Tablighi Jamaat, which carried hashtags such as “#NizamuddinTerrorists,” “#bioterrorism,” “#Jihadivirus,” “#tablighijamaatvirus,” “BanTerroristJamat,” and “#COVID786” (referring to a verse in the Quran), all of which perform rhetorically similar work by equating the virus and its spread with a certain community. Research has shown that, apart from having a metadata function (i.e., to collect different kinds of speech under a single hashtag), hashtags also “function semiotically by marking the intended significance of an utterance,”8Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4–17. while also enacting an experience through shared, participatory visual and linguistic coding, that may not be directly spelled out in a Tweet or a post.9Michele Zappavigna, “Searchable Talk: The Linguistic Functions of Hashtags,” Social Semiotics 25, no. 3 (2015): 274–291. Thus, hashtags, such as the ones mentioned above, become political utterances in the context of the pandemic experience in India by signaling the connection between Covid-19 and the Tablighi Jamaat.
But hashtags are only part of the story. The force of this kind of utterance is also carried by images and text and this cuts across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. AltNews, a leading fact-checking website in India, debunked one older video that originated on TikTok and was recontextualized during the pandemic for circulation on Twitter as a video of a Muslim man promoting the spread of the virus. Similarly, WebQoof, a fact-checking initiative started by The Quint, also debunked a video claiming that Muslim men were licking plates in an effort to spread the virus. As the WebQoof investigation showed, the video originates in 2018 and features a group of men from the Dawoodi Bohra sect “licking the utensils in an attempt to follow their belief of zero wastage of food.” Such recontextualization of older videos constitutes what Britt Paris and Joan Donovan have called “cheap fakes”—relatively easy and low-tech manipulation of digital media by amateur users.10Britt Paris & Joan Donovan, Deep Fakes and Cheap Fakes: The Manipulation of Audio and Visual Evidence (Data & Society: 2019). What we encounter in these recontextualized videos are digital fragments that circulate almost independently of their original and are made whole by attaching them strategically to propaganda narratives. As Albrecht, Fielitz, and Thurston have written, such media strategies not only “normalize access to far-right ideas, they also normalize the ideas themselves” and veer into the territory of dangerous speech.11Stephen Albrecht, Maik Fielitz, and Nick Thurston, introduction to Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US, eds. Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (Bielefeld, Germany: transcript-Verlag, 2018), 8.
If hashtags and circulation/recontextualization form part of this machinery of hatred, some of it is plain old rhetoric of the image.12Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977) 32–51. A popular visual template that I encountered is that of a supply chain with distribution and circulation agents. One variant of this meme, also analyzed by Manan Ahmed, shows two figures, both with heads drawn in the image of the virus—China as the “producer” and a figure wearing a skull cap invoking the Tablighi Jamaat as the “distributor.” Other variants of this meme also exist with slight modifications—one shows four images, Xi Jinping as the producer, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as the distributor, Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi (head of the Tablighi Jamaat) as the wholesaler, and masked, skullcap-bearing crowds (again invoking the Tablighi Jamaat) as the “retailers.” In others, the chain eliminates all other agents except the Tablighi Jamaat—in one CGI variant, Muslim devotees are shown entering a mosque and exiting it with the virus itself replacing their heads.
Other cartoons eschew the supply chain metaphor and focus singularly on the Muslim as a figure of threat. One of these shows a “before/after” transition—the figure of a suicide bomber is shown with a belt of dynamite, juxtaposed with a similar figure wearing a belt of viruses. In yet another, the face of a bearded man wearing a skull cap is shown with tentacles sprawling across the Indian map, not unlike a 1938 anti-Semitic cartoon by the Nazi cartoonist Josef Plank. Such image tactics draw on preconceived notions about Islam as being the religion of the aggressor/other and draw on an intertextual field of references, often handed down by representation in film, television, and other forms of media discourses. As Priscilla Wald’s work on SARS has shown, “techniques of othering in epidemiological narratives equate the disease with cultural difference and expresses the destructive transformative power of the group.”13Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2008), 8. Their repeated circulation over social media platforms and the anchoring of their context through textual captions and hashtags represent disgust and depict the Muslim population as a biological threat. As Sara Ahmed writes, disgust reactions are “about objects that seem ‘lower’ than or below the subject, or even beneath the subject.”14Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 89. Within the framework of Hindu right-wing thought and action, Muslims are regularly framed as alien or abject objects—often as former aggressors who must now be tamed through violence. As Audrey Truschke notes, this has led to a project of historical revisionism that imagines a “Hindu golden age of scientific progress interrupted by Muslim invaders who sought to crush Hindu culture and peoples.”15Audrey Truschke, “Hindutva’s Dangerous Rewriting of History,” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, no. 24/25 (2020). The status of the true subjects of the country’s history, then, is reserved for the imagined citizens of the aspired theocratic state. In the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, its members were already assumed guilty, barbaric, and fixed in images of disgust framed by “lick, spit, sneeze, piss,” as Ziya Us Salaam puts it.16Salam, Inside the Tablighi Jamaat. Misinformation, memes, and doctored videos, then, are essential to this discourse of framing the political other as biologically inferior or suspect.
News, law, and the “virtual”“Though no Tablighi Jamaat member has been convicted yet, most of the cases have been subsequently quashed, and while the Bombay High Court labeled TV and print media’s participation in this narrative as unwarranted propaganda that made scapegoats out of the attendees, the damage had already been done.”
But what is striking in the Tablighi Jamaat case is how viral rumor attained the status of “news.” Mainstream media was mirroring the structure of the ideological assemblage observed online. Certain news channels and newspapers have been documented as spreading conspiracy theories and peddling narratives of disgust (involving defecation and spitting) that normalize narratives of biological contagion and insidious intent. Some news reports also made baseless connections between the Tablighi Jamaat and terror outfits, adding to the conspiracy theory, while the donation of blood plasma by Tablighi members who had recovered from Covid-19 for the experimental convalescent plasma therapy went highly underreported by the mainstream news. Simultaneously, the law was also deliberately directed against Tablighi Jamaat attendees, with the Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) and the Disaster Management Act (2005) being used to justify the arrest and initiation of legal proceedings against the congregation. Though no Tablighi Jamaat member has been convicted yet, most of the cases have been subsequently quashed, and while the Bombay High Court labeled TV and print media’s participation in this narrative as unwarranted propaganda that made scapegoats out of the attendees, the damage had already been done.
In conversations with journalists, it became abundantly clear that, because many mainstream news outlets ignored fact-checking and reporting ethics, victims of viral rumors can be subjected to the power of the law. In a recent piece, Daniel Karell notes that “online extremism spills over into offline harm more frequently and in more varied ways than widely assumed.”17Daniel Karell, “Online Extremism and Offline Harm,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, June 1, 2021. This is certainly true in the case of India where “pure random violence against Muslims and corresponding legal and political shifts in the standing of the Muslim citizen” have become increasingly prominent since 2014.18Ahmed, “Virulence of Hindutva,” 155. Such harm is manifested both in terms of physical violence and death as well as the mobilization of law and state machinery to the disadvantage of minoritized groups and communities.“What we encounter in the Tablighi Jamaat case…is the sheer weight of the virtual on the body politic.”
In that sense, the Tablighi Jamaat case in 2020 was not just an outcome of Covid-19, but of a deeper epidemic of virulent fundamentalism, which “entrench as hegemonic common sense”19Noida: Harper Collins India, 2019More Info → narratives of cultural otherness, disgust, and hatred. As AltNews founder Pratik Sinha explains, while misinformation forms part of the tactical weaponry of the right wing, not everyone sharing it is a creator of such content or aware of its provenance. Many people who share such content genuinely believe the contagion narrative of #Coronajihad—a result of what he calls the “incremental polarization” of opinion through media circulation.20Ayan Sharma, interview with the author, March 19, 2021. What we encounter in the Tablighi Jamaat case, then, is the sheer weight of the virtual on the body politic. Veena Das describes this as the “volatile form” taken by distrust engendered through rumor at a moment of crisis when the “worst becomes not only possible but also probable.”21Veena Das, “In the Region of Rumor,” in Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Oakland, CA: University of California Press), 134. The normalization of Muslims as figures of threat, distrust, and even disgust in the Hindutva imagination has a long history22Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020More Info → that has been reinvigorated through repeated incantations in the 24-hour news cycle and on social media—the virus is a gateway to this malaise.
The author would like to thank journalist Ayan Sharma for his extensive help in data collection and interviews for this research.