On April 1, residents of Tatpatti Bhakal area in Indore city, Madhya Pradesh, pelted stones at healthcare workers and policemen who had gone there to look for a suspected coronavirus patient. As videos emerged of the attack the next day, it was promptly seized upon to demonise the Muslims community, feeding into whipped up by the Indian media over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation which led to Delhi’s Nizamuddin West being designated a coronavirus hotspot.
Tatpatti Bhakal, like Nizamuddin West, is populated predominantly by Muslims.
So, why did the poor residents of this Indore slum attack healthcare workers?
Newslaundry spoke with residents, police officials, local journalists, and reviewed video footage to piece together the sequence of events. Here’s what we found.
A day after the “janta curfew” of March 22, a Tatpatti Bhakal tailor, aged around 70, was admitted to hospital with suspected pneumonia. “First, he was taken to a private hospital which refused to admit him and told his family to take him to Maharaja Yashwantrao Hospital,” said Mohammad Yakub, 58, a resident of Tatpatti Bhakal who runs a small business. “He was there for two days and then died. No doctor or staffer informed his family that he had died of coronavirus. His body was handed over to his family in a normal manner. He was buried in the presence of his family members since the lockdown had not been announced yet.”
Two days later, however, the hospital informed the family that the elderly tailor had died of coronavirus. “After he was declared to have died of Covid, the authorities came to our area and took away his family members as well as 20 other families living around them to a quarantine facility,” Yakub said. “No one raised any objection and cooperated fully with the authorities.”
But why did the hospital take two days to inform the family? “I have to check the particulars, but I can tell you what could have happened. It seems the family was informed only after the coronavirus test report was received by the hospital. It takes at least 20 hours to complete the whole procedure and get the report. And in the initial days, we had to get the tests done in Bhopal. He must have been admitted and his samples must have been sent for a test. Unfortunately, he died before the report came back,” said Jyoti Bindal, dean of the MGM Medical College, with which the Maharaja Yashwantrao Hospital is affiliated.
Why did the hospital authorities not follow the protocol for handing over bodies of Covid-19 victims to their families? Bindal ducked the question. Instead, she talked about how the hospital was following all the WHO guidelines for handing over bodies.
Nobody in Tatpatti Bhakal knew where the families had been taken for quarantine, Yakub said, sparking paranoia. Then, in the last days of March, a message about “a big conspiracy against Muslims in the name of tackling corona” started circulating on Whatsapp. It falsely claimed that Muslims were being deliberately infected with coronavirus and then killed by a “poisonous injection”.
“People from Muslim slums are taken for checkups and given fake corona positive reports. Instead of hospitals, they are taken to some other places where they are injected with corona positive blood. Indore has such a huge population, then why are only names of Muslims being revealed as Covid patients? Because they want to scare Muslims in the name of corona and take them away,” the message read. “After being made corona positive, when that person reaches the last stage of the disease, he is given a poisonous injection and his body is thrown away.”
The message went on to ask Muslims to “be careful”. “In case any doctor or cop comes to your area, tell him to check you at your home only. Tell him that if your test is positive, you will lock yourself inside your own home. Now matter how hard they insist, don’t go with them, for God’s sake.”
Around the same time, a video started circulating. Purportedly, it shows one of the quarantined families of Khajrana area of Indore complaining about being held in isolation without reason and not being tested properly. “In the video, they claimed they have been trapped and the authorities have declared them corona positive without reason,” Yakub said.
These two messages were the main trigger for the violence on April 1, Yakub claimed. “After seeing these messages, people in the area decided that they would not let health officials take anyone away with them from Tatpatti Bhakal.”
Maksood Lodhi, a social worker who lives in Tatpatti Bhakal, confirmed Yakub’s testimony and echoed his opinion that the messages were key to instigating violence. “People were unaware of the whereabouts of the quarantined families and these messages fuelled their fears,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the people fell victim to such fears and rumors.”
On April 1, the healthcare workers arrived in Tatpatti Bhakal for coronavirus screening. “Generally, medical teams working in this area coordinate with us social workers, but that day unfortunately communication wasn’t established,” Lodhi said.
The screening started without incident “but when they asked an elderly woman to go with them for quarantine because they suspected her to be a Covid-19 suspect, the problem started”, recalled Lodhi. “The fake message of killing Muslims by poisonous injection and that video of the family had created fear in the minds of the people. So, they said they won’t let them take away any resident. An argument ensued between the cops and the residents which culminated into an attack on the healthcare officials and the cops. It all happened because people got influenced by those fake messages. Those who spread those messages did a shameful act and should be punished. This happened because of illiteracy within the community.”
Rajesh Dandotiya, additional superintendent of police, Indore, said, “The Whatsapp message related to the corona was widely circulated within the minority community. It was one of the important factors that resulted in the attack. There were other factors as well but this was important. Some extremist people are taking advantage of the situation and trying to disturb communal harmony.”
A day before the violence, Saddam Multani, a member of the quarantined family of Khajrana, released a video message apologising for the misleading video. He also said the authorities were taking good care of his family. “By the time he gave an explanation, the first video had done the damage. His first video went viral but the second video didn’t circulate much,” said Lodhi.
A few other quarantined residents of Tatpatti Bhakal also released videos in the wake of the violence, appealing people not to fall for rumors.
“I am requesting you, my brothers, not to believe the message that says coronavirus is being spread among Muslims as part of a conspiracy. The Indore administration is taking good care of all its citizens, Muslim or Hindu,” one of them appeals. “Please do not believe rumors. There are 70 Muslims in the quarantine center, and our Hindu brothers are taking care of us.”
After the attack, a case was registered at Chhatripura police station and 13 people were arrested. Four of them have since been booked under the National Security Act. They have been identified as Mohammad Mustafa, 28, Mohammad Gulrez, 32, Shoheb, 36, and Majju, 48, all from Tatpatti Bhakal.
Asked why the four men had been booked under an anti-terror law rather than the criminal or penal code, Harinarayan Mishra, deputy inspector general of police, said, “They were involved in instigating the crowd against the medical team and creating an atmosphere of fear in the area. This strict action will also deter future attacks on medical teams working during the corona crisis.”
The other arrested persons include the administrators of Whatsapp groups which circulated the fake message. Irshad Khan, 24, a resident of Indore's Azad Nagar, was the administrator of "Masti ki Pathshala" Whatsapp group. He was arrested while his accomplice, Sameer Sheikh, a resident of Khargone, is absconding. They also arrested Arif Khan, 26, a resident of Ashrafi colony and the administrator of two Whatsapp groups, "Teri Rehmaton ka Dariya" and "My Life My Work".
“We are still looking for the originator of that message, and we’ll arrest the culprit soon,” said Dandotiya. “We won’t spare anyone involved in creating panic, spreading misinformation, or disrupting communal peace in this situation.”