India cracks down on Muslims under cover of coronavirus

Indian police are arresting high-profile Muslim activists and ordinary civilians under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic in a crackdown that follows anti-government protests and communal riots this year.

Over the past five weeks since India imposed a lockdown to curb the spread of the disease, New Delhi police have been “indiscriminately” arresting people, lawyers and activists said. The controls on movement were limiting detainees’ access to legal assistance.

Criminal lawyer Nitika Khaitan said at least 50 people had been questioned, detained or arrested in connection with the riots in February, which killed more than 50 people. 

“We have been receiving daily calls from people for help,” said Ms Khaitan, who is part of a collective of lawyers offering assistance to those affected by the violence. “We fear that arrests happening now are not on strong grounds.”

Religious tensions in India have been building for months since the Bharatiya Janata party-led government of Narendra Modi introduced a citizenship law that critics argue discriminates against Muslims.

India’s minority Muslim community is also facing a backlash due to the coronavirus outbreak after members of Tablighi Jamaat, an influential Islamic missionary movement, were identified as a big source of infections in the country.

Rightwing Hindu politicians have cast coronavirus as a Muslim disease while pro-government television channels have declared war on “corona jihad”.

Rightwing groups have distributed saffron-coloured flags, the colour of the ruling party, to identify Hindu food vendors after rumours spread over social media that Muslims were spitting on fruits to deliberately spread coronavirus.

Academics said the pandemic has amplified the religious prejudice that has defined Mr Modi’s second term in office after he won a landslide election in 2019. 

“The government has seized the opportunity of the lockdown and coronavirus crisis to go after Muslim activists,” said Gilles Verniers, a political-science professor at Ashoka University.

Aysha Renna, a member of the Jamia Co-ordination Committee, a body set up to organise protests against the new citizenship law, said police had arrested three members of the group in the past month and accused them of sedition, murder and rioting.

“At this moment . . . we aren’t able to resist, we aren’t able to hold a protest against this,” said Ms Renna, a 22-year-old masters student of history at Jamia Millia Islamia University. “They are arresting the maximum amount of people.”

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A New Delhi police spokesman said investigations were continuing during the lockdown. “We are only arresting when there is sufficient evidence,” he said.

As of mid-March, 2,647 people had been detained or arrested after the riots, said the Indian government in a statement. But it declined to comment on arrests during the lockdown.

In Muslim communities across the capital, the crackdown has contributed to anxiety over what residents see as persistent discrimination.

Raqib Ansari, a resident of Mustafabad, a neighbourhood hit by the February violence, said police arrested his 51-year-old father in late March, saying he was captured on video footage of the riots holding a stick. 

“They have put him in jail without any charges, we don’t know how he is doing,” said Mr Ansari. “The worst impact of the lockdown is that we can’t get justice for him. Muslims are not being treated equally.”

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