Coronavirus and Nizamuddin: TV news returns to bigotry with a bang

Primetime debates talked up ‘corona bombs’ and ‘Muslim enemies of Modi’, completely ignoring the role of the government apparatus.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
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For two weeks, a strange calm settled on Indian TV news channels. As the novel coronavirus pandemic made inroads into Indian states, primetime slots saw doctors, health experts and policymakers engage with viewers and inform them. The reluctance to question the Narendra Modi government remained, but the high tide of hate-mongering, which had started after the nationwide citizenship law protests, subsided.

On Tuesday, hate returned with a nicotine rush.

Tablighi Jamaat is a transnational Muslim missionary movement headquartered in Delhi’s Nizamuddin West, which is now one of 10 “hotspots” of coronavirus in India.

A religious congregation organised by the Jamaat in Delhi between March 13 and 15 became the talk of the town. Eighteen of the 25 cases of coronavirus reported in Delhi on Monday came from South Delhi’s Nizamuddin West, the headquarters of the Jamaat and the site of the congregation.

The event was attended by over 2,000 delegates, with reportedly hundreds of them from outside India. At least eight attendees have already died of coronavirus — six in Telangana, one in Maharashtra, and one in Kashmir. Others who returned to different parts of the country after the event have tested positive for Covid-19, including at least 50 in Tamil Nadu.

Several parts of Nizamuddin West have been quarantined; they have been barricaded and are being monitored by drones. Over 150 people in the area have been hospitalised. The Indian government is tracking at least 1,600 people in India and Southeast Asia who might have attended the congregation.

The Delhi Police has filed an FIR against members of the Jamaat under the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 and various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including criminal conspiracy.

Perfidy on primetime

India TV broadcast a “complete inside story” on the Nizamuddin cluster case. One of the banners it ran during the show was “Corona aaya...Maulana laya”, meaning maulana brings coronavirus. The show also talked about a “superspreader maulana” who transmitted the virus to Kashmir, Jammu, Delhi, Telangana, Saharanpur, Deoband, Meerut, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

They were referring to a 65-year-old businessman from Srinagar who tested positive for the virus and died on March 26. India TV’s claims are doubtful since only four people are known to have been infected by the businessman – all in Kashmir’s Bandipora. There are currently no reports of this patient infecting others in Uttar Pradesh or the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This information can be sourced to the same Press Trust of India report that first used the term “super spreader” for the businessman.

'Corona aaya...bimari laya' on India TV on Tuesday.

On News18 India, Amish Devgan invited filmmaker Ashoke Pandit to offer his prized opinion on the matter.

Pandit, whose ability to craft fictions extends to the domain of news, said “those responsible” for the spread were “anti-national” and “enemies of the nation”. When another panelist told Pandit that he was stretching it by claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus across the world, he asked: “What is wrong with that?” The channel switched off his mike.

In another segment, when a Muslim panelist told Devgan that he should not introduce a Hindu-Muslim angle to the issue, the anchor feigned rage and asked him to “shut up and sit down”. This panelist was also muted.

Earlier in the day, the channel showed snippets of a man claiming that “some Muslim extremists” were flouting the lockdown because of their enmity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The channel also inexplicably ran a segment on how the Tablighi Jamaat had helped convert Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Yousuf to Islam.

Ashoke Pandit calls Jamaat spokesperson an ‘anti-national’ on News18 India.

On his Zee News show, Sudhir Chaudhary accused the Jamaat of “lying and betraying the nation in the name of Islam”. Chaudhary’s segment was so replete with anti-Muslim dogwhistiling that at one point, he tried to preempt it: “We know we’ll be accused of being communal and bringing religion into the coronavirus discussion,” he said, adding that he was aware that people of “a certain religion” were angry with his channel. “But these are the same people who have problems with Ramayana being broadcast during the pandemic,” Chauhary exclaimed indignantly.

Chaudhary then speculated on why the Delhi police couldn’t interfere with “those who make a mockery of law and order and the Constitution in the name of religion”. His theory? “There are areas in every city where the police are scared to go. Nizamuddin is one such area. Those who live in Delhi know what it’s like to cross Nizamuddin. It is just like Shaheen Bagh.”

Sudhir Chaudhary’s DNA on Zee News on Tuesday. The map shows ‘Palestine’ but in Africa.

News Nation also used the Shaheen Bagh ploy, but there were more disturbing things in their segment. Their primetime show started by flashing pictures of Muslims. The anchor asked: “Are there corona bombs in your neighbourhood?”

The man who told News18 India that the cluster case was a result of “enmity” with Modi found space on News Nation too. Here, he went even further, comparing the case with suicide bombing and terrorism. The anchor’s running commentary asked if the Jamaat’s “corona bombs” were “treasonous”.

News Nation’s primetime show on Tuesday.

On Republic Bharat, Arnab Goswami launched into a spiel accompanied by repeating visuals of Muslims in Nizamuddin. “Is this being done deliberately? Is this a conspiracy to turn Delhi to Italy?” he asked. The show claimed the whole nation was paying for one mistake, and that the entire process had begun at Shaheen Bagh.

A good portion of the remaining show, which stretched over 45 minutes, had Goswami shouting at Jamaat members, including once when he asked them if they were part of India or a separate nation altogether.

Navin Kohli, a BJP spokesperson who joined the show as a panelist, pursued Republic’s line of questioning (or vice versa). “Is this a conspiracy? What is the source of funding?” Kohli asked.

The primetime debate on Republic Bharat on Tuesday.

On Republic TV, Goswami said, “We have seen people die in traffic jams because of Shaheen Bagh and now Tablighi is spreading coronavirus deliberately in India”.

No one died in traffic jams because of the Shaheen Bagh protest.

BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya, probably sleepless after witnessing Goswami beat him at his own game, tweeted around 2 am. He grouped the cluster case with the anti-CAA protests and called it an “Islamic insurrection of sorts”. “It needs a fix!” he declared.

Some questions

The central and state governments will not walk into our newsrooms and present the shortcomings of their pandemic strategy. The shortcomings will have to be revealed through questions and investigations by the media.

The negligence involved in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation could have been avoided had Delhi’s government and police gone beyond cramming bureaucratic decrees down the throats of their citizens. The Aam Aadmi Party government issued two orders between March 13 and March 16. The first was a vaguely worded 50-word order prohibiting “sports gathering/conferences/seminars” with over 200 people.

The second order came on March 16, a day after the congregation ended. It banned all social, political, religious and academic gatherings with more than 50 people. It also ordered the closing of gyms, clubs and spas.

But if the Delhi government took the Jamaat event as seriously as it’s projecting – Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called it a “criminal act” – then why did its governance reach only as far as the papers and not the streets of Delhi? Organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat did not flout the order because of some larger conspiracy, but because they could get away with organising a big function while the state machinery was missing in action. The local police station and the AAP government did not do anything to deter the thousands who crammed into a dense Delhi neighbourhood.

The Delhi police’s directive to evacuate the mosque came only on March 24. Their public relations officer, Mandeep Singh Randhawa, has claimed that the guilty would be punished.

On Tuesday, the Delhi police released a video showing the station house officer of Nizamuddin West police station scolding members of the Jamaat for not evacuating the Markaz mosque. He dismisses them when they pose their problems, and even shouts at one of them for not having the phone number of the sub-divisional magistrate.

A screenshot from the video released by the Delhi police.

But problems like these could be nipped in the bud if the media were in the habit of questioning governments instead of ordinary countrymen.

The Jamaat has offered a half-hearted defence that it did not flout the law and tried to evacuate its delegates. They also claimed that the body cooperated with the police.

The Jamaat is right to point out that the lockdown disrupted its evacuation process. The migrant exodus across North India, the street celebrations in Indian cities after the janta curfew, and the bustling vegetable markets in metropolitan centres emanate from a common error: blaring decrees that are either ill-conceived or not enforced.

With inputs from Jigyasa Agarwal

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