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Dawn Editorial 27 April 2020

India’s Muslims

FOR Muslims in India, the situation appears to be deteriorating by the day. Indeed, things were never going to be easy for the community under BJP rule, considering that the RSS — the BJP’s ideological parent — had never accepted Muslims as ‘true’ Indians, and peddled the myth that the community comprised permanent outsiders. This despite the fact that Muslims can trace their roots in the subcontinent as far back as a millennium. Under the Narendra Modi dispensation, Muslims have been pushed to the fringes of society, as Nehruvian/Gandhian secularism has been dumped in favour of a muscular, toxic Hindutva narrative. Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 pandemic rages across the planet, the situation for Indian Muslims has become even more dire, as elements within the Indian establishment and media attempt to blame the infection’s spread on the community. This has had devastating consequences for India’s Muslims.
Mistakes may well have been made by Indian members of the Tableeghi Jamaat — which has its headquarters in New Delhi — but to blame the spread of Covid-19 on the entire Indian Muslim community is unacceptable. Moreover, those pointing their finger at Tableeghi preachers for holding a congregation after preventive measures were put in place conveniently skip the fact that the UP chief minster — a rabid Hindu priest — also held a religious gathering in Ayodhya the day the lockdown went into effect. Regrettably, facts and common sense matter little in today’s India, as a populist media and rabble-rousers within the political establishment have found a golden opportunity to pillory Muslims. There have been boycotts of Muslim traders, Muslim patients have been denied admission to hospitals, while two babies reportedly died as hospitals refused to treat their mothers on the basis of faith. But the Hindutva state remains unmoved as millions of people in India are disenfranchised by a violent, majoritarian narrative. Courageous non-Muslim Indians who raise a voice against these injustices are hounded by the Hindutva establishment, with bogus cases filed against them to snuff out dissent.
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi hit the target when she said the BJP was spreading the “virus of communal prejudice” while Pakistan’s Foreign Office has rightly said Indian Muslims face violence and exclusion in the midst of a pandemic. Of course, in times of crises people’s biases come out. Indian Muslims provide an easy target for the shock troops of the Sangh Parivar, as the saffron brigade has been emboldened by state support. The colonial lockdown of India-held Kashmir; the exclusionary legislation designed to disenfranchise Muslims, and now, the spurious allegations of ‘corona jihad’, are all part of a sick pattern to strip Indian Muslims of their rights. It appears that the comparisons between Nazi Germany and Hindutva India are quite apt. The champions of democracy and human rights in the world must speak up before the ogre of Hindutva devours the Indian Muslim community.


‘Track and trace’

THERE seems no doubt that state authorities see the threat posed by the spreading Covid-19 contagion as serious in the extreme, indeed one that is on par with national security imperatives. Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed during a telethon on Thursday that in order to reinforce the efforts against the pandemic, the ISI has given the government access to the track and trace technology it employs in its anti-terrorism operations. Mr Khan, who earlier in the day had been given a briefing at the intelligence agency’s headquarters, said the system would enable computer tracking of coronavirus patients.
The public health crisis engulfing the country is undeniably grave. However, there will be a time after Covid-19, and the prime minister’s rather casual disclosure on live TV belies the profound and conceivably long-term ramifications of using this technology as a pandemic-fighting measure. Unless appropriate safeguards are instituted, employing a system used for hunting down terrorists to target possible coronavirus patients is a disturbing new trajectory. Fundamental rights are often sacrificed at the altar of fighting militancy, and the approach is unlikely to be different when the same tools are being deployed against the contagion. History is replete with instances where emergency situations have been seized upon by states to justify and then normalise extraordinary measures. Moreover, a captive citizenry can be manipulated into ‘willingly’ ceding its personal freedoms on one pretext or another. That leeway can be used to cast the net wider and more expediently. Today, it may be possible Covid-19 patients; tomorrow, tax evaders; after that, political opponents may become the target — in short, this could be the slippery slope to an authoritarian state. As it is, no legislation for personal data protection has yet been enacted in Pakistan, even though it is sorely needed. Unlike traditional human intelligence, modern technology enables the monitoring of citizens around the clock. Countries like China have successfully used invasive mobile tracking and mass surveillance tools such as facial recognition cameras to corral suspected coronavirus cases, and everyone with whom these individuals have come in contact. There is no word yet on what the intelligence agency’s ‘track and trace’ system entails. However, there must be more transparency on this score: the people have a right to know the extent to which their privacy is being compromised. The government should also guarantee that after this crisis is over, the intelligence technology will revert to its originally intended use.


Empty stomachs

AS if the present state of affairs around the world were not already near-apocalyptic, the World Food Programme has now warned that the novel coronavirus pandemic could lead to multiple famines — “of biblical proportions” — with those living in conflict zones most vulnerable to hunger and starvation. Last week, the WFP released its fourth annual report on global hunger. Amongst other startling revelations, the report stated that approximately 135m people faced acute food insecurity in the preceding year (2019), while another 183m were precariously standing on the edge of disaster, at risk of falling over and plunging into severe food shortages, if pushed by a major economic or environmental stressor. This year, however, the WFP has said that these figures could potentially double, as the rapid spread of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns in major cities around the world takes a toll on the global economy and food supply chains. Unless urgent interventions are effectively put in place and enacted by governments around the world, we could soon be witnessing scenes of mass human misery and political and social unrest, particularly in developing countries. Earlier this month, the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation too had warned of looming food shortages and rioting if governments do not act quickly to avert the situation. Already, food riots have erupted in parts of South Africa, Nigeria and India. Italy, too, had to deploy thousands of soldiers in its southern parts, fearing food rioting and crime would grow out of control amidst a strict lockdown.
In Pakistan, grotesque social inequalities have been further exacerbated in these difficult times, and there is fear and anxiety that hunger will soon set in, particularly felt by daily wage earners who are most severely affected by the lockdown. While there is no way of saying just how long the present situation will continue, no matter what decisions are taken under these circumstances, someone or the other will suffer.


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