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Marco Antonio Olivera

Muslims: scapegoats in a secular India dominated by Hindus

- What about detention centers for ''illegal immigrants'' in India? Muslim Indians have suffered from violence, harassment and hate campaigns.

Muslims: scapegoats in a secular India dominated by Hindus

He rails against the Chinese central government for its crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the so-called "concentration camps" they are sent to, but what about the detention centers for "illegal immigrants" in China? India? Muslim Indians have suffered violence, harassment and hate campaigns; they are accused of being terrorists and of serving as spies for Pakistan; labeled a ''demographic threat'' as they plan to decrease India's Hindu population; they are locked up in detention centers as illegal immigrants; now, they are blamed for the spread of COVID-19, and all this is happening in their own country.


Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of the Republic of India.

He and Hindu extremists are using Muslims, 175 million people or 15% of the population in all of India, as scapegoats amid the pandemic. All the minorities in this country are affected by the policies and strategies of Narendra Modi and the ruling party, but this time only Muslims will be discussed. India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, behind only Indonesia and Pakistan.

To begin to understand why Indian Muslims have been vilified in their own country, we must start from the mention of the Yamaat Tabligh, a global Islamic movement founded in 1926 in the Mewat region of northern India, whose objective is to promote the ideals of Islam among Muslims. It has followers in more than 80 countries and has representation in each of them, but its spiritual center is Markaz in the city of Delhi.

Between March 18 and 19, an audio was uploaded to the YouTube channel Delhi Markaz, in which the head of the Jamaat Tabligh, Maulana Saad, called the coronavirus a punishment from God and encouraged his followers to continue attending the mosques. to pray. Also, he described as false the affirmation that the congregation of people in these religious centers would cause more infections of the virus.1

Since March, the Jamaat Tabligh has been the target of attacks by a large part of the Indian population, because, according to government authorities, a celebration organized by said movement in its spiritual center caused a significant transmission of coronavirus among the attendees. The dates of the festival vary between the media, but it is believed that it started from March 1 and lasted until the 21st of the same month. Of the 4,440 confirmed positive cases in the first week of April in India, a third of them were related to that celebration.2


Photo of Jama Masjid Mosque in New Delhi.

On the other hand, a massive pilgrimage to a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, became another major source of contagion. 16,000 people and 1,500 foreigners gathered and hundreds of new infections in Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia itself had this celebration as a source of infection.

The religious meeting was held at the end of February and was organized by none other than Jamaat Tabligh. Members of the Islamic movement traveled to India after this event, specifically to the city of Markaz for a new celebration (previously mentioned)3 and the Indian government confirmed the visit of more than 8 thousand people, including foreigners, to this city.4

Furthermore, on March 26, the Home Ministry revealed that around 2,000 Jamaat Tabligh members from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand entered India on tourist visas and were potential carriers of COVID-19, according to with a letter sent by the ministry to Indian states affected by the virus.5

After all this information was made public, the Islamic movement and nearly 200 million Indian Muslims were vilified in India by various ruling BJP (Indian People's Party) leaders, by the media and by Indian Hindus. Social media was flooded with fake news, fueling conspiracy theories. They released videos where Muslim Indians allegedly sneeze and cough on people, spit on the police or on the very food they themselves trade to spread the virus on purpose; these videos and information have been taken down from Twitter for violating its policies. Likewise, there was a constant forwarding of WhatsApp messages in which the population was encouraged to boycott companies owned by Muslims.

#CoronaJihad and #CoronaTerrorism were trending on Twitter. Tweets with the first hashtag were counted from March 28 to April 3: there were 300,000 and, potentially, they were seen by 165 million people, according to data presented by activists from Equality Labs to Time magazine.6

Holding two religious gatherings when it had already been declared a global pandemic was an act of tremendous irresponsibility by Jamaat Tabligh. However, academics, health experts and members of civil society also blamed the central government for its late response and for allowing foreigners to enter the country, especially those from countries with high coronavirus cases . On March 24, Narendra Modi declared a full lockdown for all of India, and just a day later, they began testing the people staying at Markaz.

Muslims have not been the only group in India to have ignored social distancing instructions; unfortunately, he is the only one singled out as a scapegoat.

On March 25, Yogi Adityanath, the Governor General of Uttar Pradesh, attended a large Hindu celebration at a temple.

The governor of the most populous and important state in India is one of the main Islamophobic figures in his country, he is also very close to Narendra Modi and is considered a possible successor to the prime minister. Adityanath has made statements like this:

’’if they kill even one Hindu, we will kill 100 [Muslims]’’.7

Photo by Yogi Adityanath.

These expressions of Islamophobia in India are just a sample of what Muslims have experienced since the rise of Narendra Modi and the Indian People's Party (BJP). This is demonstrated by an article published in _Strategic Studies_8, since the state of Muslims has deteriorated significantly.

Violence and discrimination have increased, becoming commonplace. The incidents against the various minorities at the hands of Hindu extremist groups are daily and multiple; aggression and intolerance have become acceptable; The situation has become so normalized that these groups have the support, in one way or another, of important politicians of the ruling party, as they encourage, praise and protect the perpetrators of hate instead of condemning them.

Human rights reports from international organizations are recovered, such as the 2018 Human Rights Watch report, which points to the complicity of the government in acts of violence.

The attitudes and behavior of the Indian People's Party (BJP) towards minorities is explained in large part by Hidutva, the extremist Hindu ideology under which this organization was founded, whose aim is to form an Indian nation based on Hinduism, achieving the absorption and assimilation of the multiple religions and cultures that inhabit India. **Although the word ''Hindutva'' has taken on completely different meanings for various groups, this is the more extreme connotation and advocated by the National Volunteer Association or National Patriotic Association (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, also known by the acronym RSS) **. This group considers itself a cultural organization, with no political ends, but it is one of several extremist Hindu organizations in the country and several members of this group formed the People's Party in 1980. Narendra Modi started out as an activist in the RSS in 1969, then became a militant and became a propagandist for it.

The ruling party has championed Hindutva through its members equally affiliated with the RSS, trying to portray Hindus as the only accepted model of Indian and what everyone should aspire to be. The BJP grew as a party and gained popularity in the last decade of the 20th century thanks to their own fear-mongering of the growing Muslim population in India.

Since then, abuses of minorities, especially Muslims, have existed; however, its importance and extent has intensified under the BJP rule.

The Strategic Studies article also notes that

»BPJ politicians appeal to Hindu extremism to appease the Hindu masses. The undermining of minorities has become a political strategy to hide failures in majority-centric development goals, so that if development doesn't work, then the BJP-RSS jointly pushes Hindutva politics, mobilizing the community polarization while calling for integration through development.

One of the latest acts carried out by the BJP against Muslims was the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on December 11, 2019, where it is proposed that the population Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, Jain and Christian minorities from countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have entered India as undocumented migrants can obtain citizenship, but those who profess Islam are excluded under the Indian constitution guarantees the equality of all people and prohibits religious discrimination. During the discussion on the amendment to this law, the interior minister, Amit Shah, announced the realization by the government of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to national level, interpreted by many as a census to identify illegal immigrants, especially Muslims, to detain or expel them.

That same day, protests broke out in the Indian capital and in some states in the north of the country where civilians clashed with security forces. Several people lost their lives, the majority being Muslims.

While the dispute over the Citizenship Amendment Act sparked the riots, on Thursday, December 24, 2019, a new controversy reignited the spirits of Muslims, as the Indian government gave the green light to update the National Population Register. (National Population Register, or NPR), something defined by the government as a "list of habitual residents of the country."

The issue of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and National Citizen Register (NCR) is somewhat complex and has caused a lot of confusion in India, further fueling uncertainty for Indians. Muslims. To understand this, we must explain what each of them consists of and also define the population census planned for 2021.

National Population Registry (NPR) is a list of "usual residents" of the country. All ''habitual residents'' – a habitual resident is defined as a person who has resided in a local area for the past six months or more, or a person who intends to reside in that area for the next 6 months or more- are required to register, this includes both Indian nationals and foreign nationals. The objective of the NPR is to create a database of each habitual resident in the country, being in 2010 the first time that they were collected by the government and should be done every 10 years.

The information taken in this registry is merely demographic data such as the name of the census recipient, parents' names, spouse's name (if married), sex, date of birth, marital status, place of birth, occupation, nationality, address of current residence, etc.

Documents are not required to be registered, since any information provided by the respondent is considered correct and biometric data is not required, however, people who refuse to provide information for registration or who deliberately provide incorrect information can be fined . Although the NPR process and the population census would begin simultaneously in April of this year, it is not a single record.

The difference between the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Citizen Register (NRC) is that the former is a database of people living in India, whether they are citizens or not, but the NRC is a database of Indian citizens. Proof of citizenship is required of respondents in the NRC registration process, and those found without proof can face the law.

The controversy arises because several opposition leaders have stated that the NPR may be laying the groundwork for the NRC, furthermore, if the government so wishes, it can at any time legally use the data collected from the NPR for the NRC.

However, the difference between the National Population Registry and the census is that the latter contains a wide variety of statistical information on different characteristics of the population such as economic activity, literacy, housing services, etc. and it is done every ten years, while the NPR only contains demographic information. The 2021 census was planned to be conducted in two phases; in the first one, it would be carried out together with the NPR, carrying out house-to-house from April to September 2020; in the second phase, the enumeration of the population would be carried out in February 2021.

Indians have questioned why the NPR is conducted if there is a census, Home Office officials say the former helps to identify the current demographics of actual residents who may be direct beneficiaries of any scheme launched in the area.

On the other hand, there is no direct relationship between the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and the amendment to the Citizenship Law (CAA), however, it is believed that when people are excluded from the final registration of citizenship, the CAA can help non-Muslims to apply through the CAA and Muslims would be left behind.9

However**, in the state of Assam, governed by Narendra Modi's Indian People's Party, a citizenship verification project similar to the one proposed in the National Citizens Registry (NCR) has already been carried out since 2018, and it has excluded almost two million people**, both Hindus and Muslims, the latter being the majority. Many of them claim that they have proven to be legal, but their applications have been rejected and they are being sent to detention centers for people declared to be foreigners when in reality they are not.

However, proving citizenship is not easy. An investigation carried out by _The New York Times_10 gives an account of the process that millions of Muslim Indians have followed and the series of arbitrariness under which it is decided whether or not they are citizens. First, they are called to a court called the ''Foreign Court'', then they must bring a series of documents proving a line of ancestry going back several generations such as refugee registration, birth and marriage certificates, as well as such as land ownership records and court documents; such documents are to be handed over to a government appointed official and he decides whether the applicant is an Indian citizen or a foreigner. The The New York Times team also conducts an interview with one of those citizenship verification officers. This person rendered decisions in more than 600 cases, in which she found the majority to be Indian citizens. After that, she was fired from her; she states that her dismissal was due to not having declared enough Muslims as foreigners. However, she spoke with five other officials who, like her, accused the state of attacking Muslims. Only one of them agreed to appear on camera, as the others feared reprisals.

Muslim Indians accuse authorities of intentionally making typographical errors in official documents; At the time of presenting them, they are rejected for these mistakes and, therefore, do not appear on the citizenship lists. For this reason, some have ended up, and it is feared that many more will, in detention centers that are being built in the country.

In the same state of Assam they are erecting another center to house 3,000 people. The complex extends over a 2.5-hectare space, surrounded by high walls with watchtowers. It will house detained men and women, and a hospital and a school will be set up inside the center. It is inadmissible that public resources are allocated to the construction of what some call ''concentration camps'', since this has had a cost of approximately 465 million rupees (6.5 million US dollars) when Assam, a tea-growing state, it is one of the poorest in India, and its growth has been one of the lowest in the country.11


This is what the Goalpara detention center for foreigners in the state of Assam, India, looked like in September 2019. Ten detention centers are operating, three are under construction or ready to start operations, and the location of another three has been identified. Photo: Anuwar Hazarika | Reuters

A center for 3,000 people, but what will happen to the two million human beings left off the list? People have spent years in these centers and have described the inhumane conditions under which they are kept: dozens of they are crowded into a room, detestable hygienic conditions and without enough food for all of them.

And the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, denied the existence of these just a few months ago, in December 2019 during a speech:

“No Indian Muslim is sent to detention centers and there are no detention centers in this country either’’12

It should be clear that Modi has never directly incited hatred or violence, but his silence and lack of condemnation of acts against minorities reveals his conservatism and contempt for non-Hindus.

How to understand religious intolerance in India? Perhaps the closest precedent could be traced back to the imprudent partition of the British Raj and from which India and Pakistan would emerge as sovereign states. The British, after 300 years of rule on the subcontinent, decided to call in a British lawyer from London, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to draw the borders of a place he had never been before in his life; it took Radcliffe just five weeks to carry out this work. Relying on maps and census data from the various regions to see which religious identity prevailed in each region, he decided that the Raj would be divided according to the two major professed religions, i.e. into an India for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims, but in many regions it did not predominate with any clarity: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, etc. lived there. On August 15, 1947, the Independence Day of India and Pakistan arrived. Millions of people suffered forced migration, leaving their homes and their possessions. Violence broke out and chaos reigned. The number of deaths is estimated at two million.

Just two months after the partition, India and Pakistan were fighting the first of three wars (1947, 1965 and 1971), the dispute over the Kashmir region being the reason behind it. The tensions between these countries would escalate until they threatened to destroy each other in a nuclear war, since India detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1974 and, 24 years later, it would detonate its first thermonuclear weapon; Pakistan responded with six nuclear tests the following year (1998). Until now the tensions between these two countries continue.

Religious differences within India have been expressed in shocking episodes, leaving a mark in the country's history; Such is the case of the following events:

The assault by the Indian armed forces on the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhism, in 1984 after Operation Blue Star; this was seen by the Sikhs as a direct attack on their religion.

Armed Sikh militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and a supporter of the Khalistan movement - a Sikh political nationalist movement, born in 1940, whose objective is to create an independent state for the Sikhs (Federal Republic of Khalistan) within present-day India - settle in the Golden Temple complex (Harmandir Sahib) in the city of Amritsar. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, ordered the attack and assassination of Bhindranwale.

The operation had a balance of 87 deaths of members of the Indian army and 400 civilian casualties, according to official reports. Every year the Sikhs commemorate this bloody and sad episode.

** Indira Ghandi would be assassinated on October 31, 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards as an act of revenge for the operation **. This event would lead to the Anti-Sikh Massacre, a wave of riots in the Indian capital that began just a few hours after the death of the Prime Minister. A massacre was unleashed in the streets against the sig population, about 3 thousand of them died.

Also, riots between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay, already a metropolis and the most important financial center of India, in December 1992 and January 1993, which broke out after a group of radicals Hindus destroyed the ancient Babur Mosque, built in the 16th century, in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. The mosque was built on a site that is also sacred to Hindus.

At least 2,000 people were killed, and on March 12, 1993, Muslims retaliated by detonating 13 bombs in the city, killing an estimated 260 people and injuring 700.

In another, the clashes in 2002 when Muslims set fire to a train in Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, in which Hindu pilgrims were traveling causing the death of 58 of them, and led to clashes between Hindus and Muslims leaving thousands dead , destroyed properties and looting in various states of India. At that time the General Minister was Narendra Modi and he was strongly criticized by some countries for not having acted to stop the tragedy.

To finish this first column of the Exploiting the Pandemic series, it only remains to say that the use of Muslims as scapegoats is a way to strengthen the BJP base, attract them to future elections and be able to push the Hindutva-based agenda. The series of injustices against Muslims are already a common feature in institutional processes and are part of a system dominated by the Popular Party. For now, the protests in India have been dampened by the measures taken to contain COVID-19 in India and Narendra Modi and the BJP are focused on the third phase of health. Hopefully Muslims and other religious minorities can put together a common front to demand respect for their right to live in a space they have inhabited for centuries.

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Antonio, Marco. “Musulmanes: chivos expiatorios en una India laica dominada por hindúes.” CEMERI, 14 ago. 2023,