Just a week after the nation-wide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, Tablighi Jamaat, a twentieth-century reformist Muslim organisation, was blamed for spreading coronavirus. The national media, particularly Hindi news channels and newspapers, were at the forefront of selling the establishment’s agenda of putting all blame on this organization (read Muslims) for the spread of coronavirus. Such a trend has not stopped so far and the media continues to indulge in unethical practices.

The media, particularly Hindi Newspapers, has been preoccupied with “the ghost” of Tablighi Jamaat. Such leading dailies prominently carried the story of Delhi police filing charge sheets against the Tablighi Jamaat members. But the stories about their members getting bail or acquittal do not become news. Similarly, the Supreme Court serving a notice to the Union Government and the Press Council of India in connection with the fake news is suppressed. Only a few Urdu newspapers have saved them from being buried down.

As usual, the Hindi newspapers ran sensational headings against the Tablighi Jamaat members in bold letters. Some of them are as follows:‘Videshi Jamaatiyon ke khilaf charge sheet’ (Charge sheet filed against foreign national Jamaat members)’, Hindustan (Hindi, Delhi, May 27, p. 1.); ‘20 deshon ke 85 Jamaatiyon ke khilaf aarop patra dayar’ (Charge sheet filed against 85 Jamaat members from 20 countries), Dainik Jagran (Hindi, National, May 27, 2020, p. 2); ‘Videshi Jamaatiyon par kasa shikanja (Clampdown on foreign national Jamaat members), Pioneer (HindiDelhi, May 27, 2020, p. 2.); ‘12 Bangladeshi Jamaatiyon ko bheja Zila karagar’ (12 Bangladeshi Jamaat members sent to district Jail); Rashtriya Sahara (Hindi, New Delhi, May 27, 2020, p. 5). 

The English dailies also covered the Tabligh story and did not go beyond the police version. The Times of India (New Delhi, May 27, 2020, p. 3) carried this headline: ‘20 charge sheets in Jamaat case, 82 foreigners named’. ‘Saad [Tablighi Jamaat’s chief] told of Covid-19 threat, paid no heed: Police to HC’ was the headline of The Indian Express (May 27, 2020, p. 6).

Again these newspapers fail to carry contesting voices. The reporting was one-sided and was based on the police version. The accusations of the police were not contrasted with the views of the Tablighi Jamaat. Most of them approved of the establishment’s version.

For example, the opening lines of the Pioneer’s story were filled with bias. “The Delhi police have started clamping down on the Tablighi Jamaat which, having spread coronavirus across the country, gave birth to a crisis”. In a separate story, Hindustan (p. 5) broke the wall between news and views. It indulged in writing a biased piece and blamed the Tablighi Jamaat for carelessness, an accusation made by the police.

Ever since the raid on the Tablighi Jamaat was made in the last week of March, the media has been attacking the Tablighi Jamaat for spreading coronavirus. They have been blamed for holding an illegal religious gathering. Jehalat (ignorance), “suicide bomb”, “anti-national” and “terrorists” were some of the abusive terms hurled at Tablighi Muslims.

Several media organisations also carried fake news regarding the Tablighi Jamaat. They alleged that Tablighi Jamaat members were spitting, urinating, misbehaving with the medical staff in the hospital, and refusing to eat food. They were accused of insisting on eating “spicy biryani”.

As a result of this propaganda, attacks on Muslims suddenly increased. They were abused and economically boycotted. There were incidents where the poor Muslim vegetable vendors were not allowed to enter the so-called Hindu areas. In Gujarat, separate wards for corona positives were created in hospitals on religious lines.

Even the politicians have invoked the fear of Tablighi Jamaat to hide its failure. Amidst the worsening situation in Gujarat and being surrounded by the charges of sub-standard ventilators used in the Gujrat hospitals, the BJP chief minister again blamed the Tablighi Jamaat for the whole crisis. “Let me also remind you of the fact that Gujarat did not register a spike in Covid-19 cases until the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi.”

The worse part of the media is that it is suppressing other stories that do not fit into their agendas. For example, the day when the stories about the charge sheet filed against Tablighi Jamaat became the headings, the facts about their members getting bail or acquittal was side-lined. However, we owe a few Urdu newspapers to these facts.

For example, Inquilab (Urdu, New Delhi, May 27, 2020, p. 6) carried a small story about the bail granted to the members affiliated with Tablighi Jamaat. Let me paraphrase the story: 28 people affiliated with the Tablighi Jamaat were given conditional bail. They were picked up and jailed from a different location in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh.

On the same day, Inquilab (Mumbai, May 27, 2020) had a story on its first page about the acquittal of 57 foreign national Tablighi Jamaat members in Nuh, Haryana. As per the report, a local court in Nuh acquitted the Tabligh members and asked the Government to send them back to their home countries. Their release brought a great deal of hope of 1700 other foreign national Tablighi members. Most of them are either sent to quarantine centres or have been put in jail.

The next day, May 28, 2020, Inquilab (New Delhi) also brought to the public domain an important story about the Supreme Court sending a notice to the Press Council of India and the Central Government. The court issued this notice after a complaint was filed by the Jamiat Ulema Hind, a Deobandi-Sunni Muslim social and religious group, against the fake and communal news. The court asked them to send their reply about what action had been taken against these news channels accused of spreading hateful contents.

Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. from JNU. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. Earlier, he held a Post-Graduate Diploma in English Journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi and worked as a Delhi-based reporter with The Indian Express. You may write to him at debatingissues@gmail.com


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