In the aftermath of the Tablighi Jamaat cluster case, Muslims in India have been earmarked as of the novel coronavirus. One specific form this prejudice takes is the coronavirus-positive Muslim fruit vendor. WhatsApp forwards, politicians, and even television news channels have participated in creating this typecast.
Last week alone, two elected local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh were caught on tape unleashing anti-Muslim slurs against fruit vendors in their constituencies. In Deoria, MLA Suresh Tewari was seen people not to buy vegetables from Muslims. In Lucknow, MLA Brajbhushan Rajput was humiliating a Muslim vendor.
In April, Newslaundry on how channels like TV9 Bharatvarsh lent legitimacy to such rumours by broadcasting misleading segments, coining terms like “corona criminals” for Muslim vendors. The Press Information Bureau, the information arm of the Indian government, a viral audio clip claiming that vendors lick vegetables and fruits before selling them. Fact checkers at Alt News busted a claiming that a Muslim vendor in Bijnor was sprinkling urine on fruits.
However, the discrimination is not limited to only rural pockets of North India. In Noida and Noida Extension, Muslim fruit vendors claim they have faced hostility and discrimination since the lockdown began. There are over 50 hotspots in Noida and Greater Noida combined. About 500 vehicles transport supplies in the area every day.
Newslaundry spoke to vendors who have been specially assigned by the district administration to supply fruits and vegetables in sealed hotspots. They speak of facing antagonism in high-end residential societies as well as in cramped urban villages.
Mohammad Tariq, 30, has been selling fruits to retail vendors for two years in Noida. After the lockdown, the administration asked him to supply these to Alpha One, a hotspot in Greater Noida. “Some people there looked at us with contempt and told others that they should not buy fruits from these Muslims,” Tariq told Newslaundry over the phone.
Tariq had ventured into the area with four other associates. “One of my boys is Hindu. But they were not asking us to leave on our face. A few people were telling others not to buy from us,” he explained. Tariq claimed that some people did choose not to approach him, but the rest bought what he had to sell.
But things got a little rough. “Once that did not work, they kept saying the Muslims are selling things at higher rates. They said we sold potatoes for Rs 50 a kilo — we didn’t! The penny dropped when the local Residents’ Welfare Association president threatened to call the police because of these higher rates. We packed up. I don’t want to go there again.”
This also happened with Imran, 24, who has been a fruit vendor since he was 16. After the lockdown, he was assigned to deliver fruits and vegetables in a few hotspots — all residential societies — in Greater Noida and Noida Extension. “We had a mobile stall near Gaur City in Noida Extension. We had to remove it,” Imran told Newslaundry. “On April 20, our boys returned from work and told me local residents were harassing them for being Muslims.”
Imran claimed that residents asked the names of his associates and where they were from. He said: “Two days after their inquiry, the boys said they were asked to leave. I asked them to stop going there after that. The residents found one of their own choice, a Hindu, and he’s the supplier there now.”
Imran has now shifted shop to Cherry County, a red zone, and Nirala Greenshire, a green zone, in the vicinity. He says he faces no discrimination there. “There are all kinds of people. I know how to ignore the wrong ones,” he said.
Khalid Khan, 30, another fruit vendor, moved his stall from a hotspot last week. “I had been assigned to Vishnoli village, a hotspot in Dadri, by the district magistrate’s office. Fruits and vegetables weren’t reaching there because of the quarantine,” Khan told Newslaundry. “I started going there in mid-April. For the first few days, people there bought whatever they needed. It seems like when customers were stocked up, they started spreading these ‘spitting’ rumours about us.”
He added: “They were very brash with me and my boys, and said we put our saliva on fruits and vegetables. The village head was especially abusive. He accused us of selling at higher rates and said this is how these Muslims are.”
On April 25, Khalid chose to abandon the venture. “This is happening because we are Muslims, and this never happened before,” he said. “I don’t understand why people have started behaving like this. I have seen these rumours spreading on WhatsApp but I just ignore them.”
Tariq also maintained that he did not face this kind of bigotry prior to the lockdown. “This government does not want this to not happen. They say it shouldn’t happen but don’t step in when it does,” he alleged. “The social mentality is changing. All this circulates on WhatsApp but why believe it?”
I told him that people do actually believe it. “They’ll stop believing it in five or 10 years when it’ll ruin them,” he said.
Imran is more optimistic. “I’ve been supplying fruits and vegetables at 10 to 15 other places. Things have been going fine there, without any problem. Sometimes, those with lower earnings conspire against the sellers who do better to get them out of the picture,” he said. “They want to make money. It happens. We’re not in this for money. This is a national duty.”
Santosh Yadav, secretary of the Mandi Parishad in Noida, told Newslaundry that no complaint of religion-based discrimination towards fruit vendors had reached the district administration. “It is a serious claim and it would have definitely reached the administration had it occurred. But to my knowledge, no such discrimination has taken place,” Yadav said.
He added that vendors continue to supply fruits and vegetables for more than two weeks without hassle.