Indian authorities had linked dozens of cases of the coronavirus to a Muslim missionary group that held its annual conference in Delhi in early March. States across India have traced more than 300 positive cases to the weeks-long event.
Coronavirus fears and religious tension were already at a fever pitch in India, and it didn’t take long for the two forces to intermingle. Videos falsely claiming to show members of the missionary group spitting on police and others quickly went viral on social media, exacerbating an already dangerous atmosphere for Muslims.
Overnight, Muslims became the sole culprits responsible for the spread of the coronavirus in India despite the fact that various religious groups held temple gatherings across India during the same period of time, putting many lives at risk. In the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, more than 25,000 people have been placed in quarantine after a man who traveled from Dubai performed Hindu rituals with 1,200 people on March 20.
Since March 28, tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter, according to data shared with TIME by Equality Labs, a digital human rights group.
Islamophobic memes have also been circulating – one meme, for instance, shows China as the “producer” of the virus, and Muslims as its “distributors”. One of the most popular false #CoronaJihad tweets claims to show a Muslim man from the Delhi congregation intentionally coughing on somebody. The tweet referred to Muslims as “such vile minded people” and listed hashtags including #CoronaJihad and #TablighiJamatVirus, a reference to the religious group that met in Delhi. But the video featured in the viral tweet was actually filmed in Thailand, not India, and there is no proof that the man was a member of the Delhi congregation.
Organisers of the event say they did suspend it ahead of the lockdown, and asked everyone to leave. But many were forced to stay back as India suspended international and domestic flights, and all other forms of transport.
Several prominent Muslims and their organisations have alleged that the government was attempting to cover its failure in dealing with lockdown issues and promoting communalism by linking the coronavirus spread in the country with the Tablighi Jamaat missionary congregation.
The swift communal turn has also unnerved Muslims – especially as it comes on the heels of deadly religious riots in Delhi, and a controversial “anti-Muslim” citizenship law that saw thousands of Indians take to the streets in protest.