Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

As covid-19 takes hold worldwide, fear is fuelling already entrenched religious hatred—and hindering public health, writes Sonia Sarkar


Mohammad Ibrahim, a resident of the lower middle class Mangolpuri area of New Delhi, has never contracted covid-19 but was forced to spend 41 days in quarantine.

Ibrahim is a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement that has at times been eyed with suspicion by Indian authorities. On 31 March, Ibrahim voluntarily informed police about the arrival of seven Indonesians at his local mosque. “The police accused me of bringing in people from different countries to spread the infection in India,” he says.

Over 3000 members of the Tablighi Jamaat subsequently spent more than 40 days in quarantine with government authorities refusing to discharge them.1 The Indian government levelled charges of culpable homicide at Tablighi Jamaat chief Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi when at least six of the group died of the infection after attending an event in March, before the countrywide lockdown.2

India’s 201 million Muslim citizens now find themselves blamed for the country’s covid-19 outbreak. In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, two Muslim men were reportedly beaten and made to kneel and apologise for “spreading the virus.”3 In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Muslim vegetable vendors were allegedly stopped from selling their goods by locals, who accused them of being members of the Tablighi Jamaat.4 In another northern state, Himachal Pradesh, a Muslim meat seller committed suicide after returning from quarantine to a social boycott by his neighbours. He had tested negative for coronavirus.5

In press briefings, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has highlighted the Tablighi Jamaat’s role in coronavirus spread,6 though a government spokesperson told The BMJ that India “doesn’t discriminate against anyone based on religion.”

Miles away, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Muhammad Aman’s community has also been labelled as a “carrier” of the infection. Aman is one of the 900 000 members of the Shia Hazaras tribe in Pakistan (most Pakistanis are of Sunni origin). He says they have been targeted by state authorities and individuals alike after some Shia Hazaras who returned from trips to Iran tested positive for covid-19.

In March, at least 1500 Hazaras returning from Iran were subsequently quarantined, while other citizens returning from Europe, the UK, and the US, as well as non-Hazara businessmen and tourists returning from Iran, were not. “In some cases, non-Hazaras who came in from other countries were allowed entry without basic screening,” says Jaffer Mirza of the London based Centre for Academic Shia Studies.

Saqib Khan Kakar, additional deputy commissioner of Quetta, who was in charge of the quarantine centres, told The BMJ, “There was no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.”

Discrimination without borders

In Cambodia, Buddhists are blaming Muslims. In Israel, Jews are blaming Arabs (13-15-link below). Fear and misunderstanding are stoking hatred worldwide—and it’s harming the fight against the pandemic.

In South Korea, the members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus—labelled “heretical” by fundamentalist Protestants—are facing a probe after a congregation became the centre of the country’s biggest outbreak in February.7 But what’s striking is how discrimination played a part before the outbreak.

“Members of the church refrained from being tested to avoid discrimination,” says Willy Fautre, executive director of Human Rights Without Frontiers International. “This was detrimental to them and public health as well.”

“When people with prejudices are worried and feel that they have no control over a scary threat like pandemic, they will turn to the tried and true tactic of scapegoating the usual suspects: religious minorities and other persecuted communities,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre, a US based think tank.

This is not new. Jews were blamed during Black Death epidemics in Europe in the 14th century. In 1545, religious dissidents in Geneva were blamed for an outbreak of plague.

In both India and Pakistan the pandemic has exacerbated and intensified longstanding cleavages, says Kugelman, hindering the response to covid-19.

“The initial cluster [Tablighi Jamaat] was unduly highlighted, leading to communalisation of the pandemic,” says Srinivas Rajkumar T, general secretary of the residents’ doctors association at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. An Indian doctor told The BMJ under anonymity that the government has emphasised contact tracing of people linked with the Tablighi Jamaat while tracing in other cases was not done with the same intensity.

Epidemiologist Jayaprakash Muliyil says that targeting a community in a pandemic “sets a bad precedent” for the public healthcare system. At least one government hospital in the western state of Gujarat has segregated Muslim patients with covid-19 from Hindus, claiming it is under local government orders and for both sides’ safety.8 Abdullah Azmi, a doctor in a government hospital in India’s northern city of Lucknow, told The BMJ about a social media campaign that targeted a Muslim doctor who had admitted an ailing Tablighi Jamaat patient to his hospital.

In Pakistan, residents opposed a quarantine centre the government had intended to build for Hazara patients set up in a non-Hazara area, according to Yasin Nadir, a Balochistan based activist who champions Shia Hazara rights. He told The BMJ that another quarantine centre for Hazaras was burnt to the ground by local residents.10

Amid catcalls of “Hey, corona,” 275 Hazaras are known to have contracted the virus. Many government and private hospitals refuse to treat them. Quetta’s civil hospital has asked Hazara employees, including doctors, not to come to work.9 Aman says that Hazara employees of some private and government hospitals and government banks were forced to take leave while their non-Hazara colleagues were allowed to work, adding that the police and water and sanitation departments have also asked their Hazara employees to go on leave.

Misinformation is a trigger

It is difficult to counter centuries of stigma, but government authorities, the media, and social media can help fuel or extinguish the fervour.

Fautre says that media stories debunking some of the myths around religious communities can help. “The other step could be raising awareness among human rights non-governmental organisations and scholars in religious studies, inside and outside the country, because they are non-partisan. Also, take those who demonise minorities with fake news to court,” he said.

Debunking is more difficult to do on social media, however, where the hashtag #coronajihad and the term “Quran-e-virus” trend regularly among Indian Twitter users. WhatsApp groups are dominated by rumours and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In Pakistan, phrases such as “Shia virus” and “Shias bring viruses to Pakistan” circulate on WhatsApp.

In April, a south Asian community technology organisation, Equality Labs, wrote an open letter to the Indian prime minister, the director general of the World Health Organization, and the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter, asking them to help stop the spread of Islamophobic hate speech and disinformation related to covid-19.11

There is evidence that such efforts could help. “Misinformation related to cures for covid-19 gradually started declining after mid-March,” says Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, who has studied covid related misinformation in India.12

“Part of this can be attributed to the fact that key leaders—including prime minister Modi —publicly said that there is no real cure for covid-19,” he says. “When such information comes from a trusted source, it holds weight.” He urges public figures to do the same where it concerns religion.

But that may not be enough. On 19 April Modi tweeted, “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language, or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”

Fautre, however, says that such statements are useless for scapegoated religions. “He should have said that accusing the Tablighi Jamaat of being negligent about and responsible for the fast spread of covid-19 is baseless. He failed to do it because it’s not profitable from an electoral point of view and keeping an ambiguous position enables him to capitalise on existing anti-Muslim prejudices.”


  • Commissioned, not peer reviewed.

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.







The story was published in The British Medical Journal:



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  • About 350 start-ups have sprung up since 2015, the year a deadly earthquake and a blockade imposed by India nearly ruined Nepal’s economy
  • While they are flourishing, red tape coupled with China and India’s preference to invest in infrastructure projects may hamper the start-up scene’s growth
When Meena Gurung graduated with a fashion degree four years ago, she headed straight home to Nepal from Ireland.

Rather than building her career overseas, the 28-year-old was keen to create her own eco-friendly clothing brand. Her dream led her to start Bora Studio, which she launched after a year-long stint as an intern for a Nepali artist.

“I always thought that we must make use of what we have and produce things of the highest quality,” Gurung said. “I want Nepal to have its own identity and become self-reliant.” Bora Studio is among about 350 startups in Nepal that have sprung up since 2015 – the year tourism collapsed after a deadly earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people. Several months after that, India imposed an unofficial trade and humanitarian blockade on landlocked Nepal, causing the economy to spiral further downward.

Nepal’s GDP growth fell from 3.32 per cent in 2014-15, to 0.59 per cent in 2015-16. About 5.6 million people – about one in five people in the country of 28.1 million – lost their jobs.

To help the country cope with being cut off, many entrepreneurs began providing solutions to reduce Nepal’s reliance on imports, experts said.

More than 80 per cent of products in Nepal, a country locked between India and China, are imported, with oil, gold, iron and steel, pharmaceutical products, cement and electronic appliances among the most common goods brought in.

The start-ups offer goods and services ranging from apparel to tech products, and operate in sectors as varied as horticulture, organic food chains, disaster recovery and the vehicle industry. The entrepreneurs are usually people between the ages of 22 and 35 who have been educated in universities overseas.

Some of the start-ups began operations with only one or two persons, and with a capital of as little as 70,000 Nepalese rupees (US$600). Rising start-up brands include coffee chain Red Mud Coffee, e-commerce platform Foodmandu and ride-sharing app Tootle.

While most of the products are aimed domestically, some items, such as textile, clothing, tea, coffee and PET bottles are exported. The top five exports from Nepal are palm oil, coffee, tea, spices and textiles.

The concept of start-ups is new in Nepal, where large family-owned corporations dominate a private sector that employs some 1.75 million people and contributes to 22 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Chandan Sapkota, a Kathmandu-based economist, said after the earthquake hit, young entrepreneurs began coming up with solutions for massive logistical challenges and ways to make relief distribution efficient. “Similarly, during the blockade, some car and bike pooling start-ups came up to facilitate the transport system,” he said.

Shabda Gyawali, investment director of Nepal’s Dolma Impact Fund, said he had observed a range of e-commerce platforms emerging after 2015.

“After the blockade, Nepal’s push for self-reliance was seen in energy security, hydro power and agriculture,” he said. “Also, urban firms dealing in transport, logistics, e-commerce and fintech had grown.”

Puspa Sharma, the executive director of South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment, said a number of hydroelectricity projects were currently being developed.

“In a few years, Nepal might not only have enough electricity for domestic consumption, but also for exports,” he said.

Sharma said the value of Nepal’s imports was 15 times greater than its exports. “In an economy that produces around US$30 billion of annual output, it has around US$15 billion of imports and US$1 billion of exports of merchandise annually,” he said.

Experts list a number of other factors that pushed the growth of start-ups – political stability, the rise of digital technologies, the introduction of private equity and venture capital funding, and the growing international exposure of young Nepalis.

Investment director Gyawali said a year after the earthquake, the credit boom in the private sector picked up and there was a significant uptick in the stock market following the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution.

While a boom was expected, the rate of growth surpassed expectations. “In 2016, the GDP growth rate was 7.7 per cent as per central bank estimates. Nepal had not witnessed such a strong growth rate in more than 20 years,” Gyawali said.

Sharma said that improved electricity supply and wider internet services reaching over 17.5 million users, had helped “e-commerce models of business gather steam”.

Some economists warn though, that start-ups alone would not be able to help Nepal achieve self-reliance, and it would be “unrealistic” not to continue attracting foreign investment.

In 2018-2019, the actual foreign direct investment (FDI) in Nepal was about US$161 million, the second-lowest in South Asia.

Given its location, Nepal is uniquely placed to receive investments from both India and China. According to Nepal’s department of industry, India in 2018-2019 had committed investment in 53 projects, including construction of a strategic broad-gauge railway line between Kathmandu and the border town of Raxaul in Bihar. In the same financial year, China invested in 160 projects, including Huaxin Cement Narayani Pvt Ltd, a joint Nepali-Chinese venture with Investment Board Nepal (IBN) to establish a US$140 million cement plant in Nepal.

Barely any Nepalese start-up has caught the eye of any Indian or Chinese company yet, though.

“Both Indian and Chinese investment in Nepal are focused on traditional capital expenditure-heavy infrastructure projects in hydropower, cement and manufacturing sectors besides the service industry such as restaurants, hotels, educational consulting companies and health care firms, rather than the small start-ups engaging young entrepreneurs,” Gyawali said.

Red tape and a minimum foreign investment threshold of US$500,000 are also likely discouraging investments in Nepal’s start-ups.

Bu Suraj Shreshtha, 33, the CEO of Anthropose, Nepal’s sole eyewear brand, noted Nepal did not have a strong manufacturing infrastructure, leading it to be “always dependent on China and India for business”. Anthropose manufactures its products in China.

Rhea Pradhan, 25, a fashion stylist and blogger, said the fast-fashion market in Nepal was dominated by China.

“Chinese goods are popular because of their affordability factor – a polyester T-shirt is available for less than US$1 and a pair of trousers for US$3,” she said. “The indigenous brands can never sell anything so cheap because the cost of production in Nepal is high.”

High taxes, the lack of start-up friendly policies, regulatory barriers and red tape in getting government licences are also viewed as slowing innovation and the growth of entrepreneurship in Nepal. The Global Innovation Index last year ranked Nepal 109 out of 126 countries.

Ajay Shreshtha, former president of Nepalese Young Entrepreneurs’ Forum, said the biggest challenge for a start-up was to raise capital, since banks offer only collateral-based lending, with real estate the most preferred collateral.

“A lot of start-ups run in losses before picking up or shut down in early years as venture capital funds are not available due to the primitive ecosystem,” Shreshtha said.

Gurung, the fashion label owner, believes if these “hurdles” are addressed, Nepal’s fortunes will grow.

Nepalese start-ups have the “potential to do business internationally”, she said.

Ranjan Ojha, who started Nepal School of Entrepreneurship in 2016, said the image of entrepreneurs was increasingly attractive to young people.

“Men and women from both lower and upper middle-class families want to be entrepreneurs now, and contribute to the country’s economy,” he said.

  • Outrage over the death of a pregnant elephant has shone a spotlight on the violent methods used to protect crops
  • Some 338 elephants died of electrocution in 13 states between 2007 and 2014
Outrage over the death of a pregnant elephant that bit a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers in the southern Indian state of Kerala has shone a spotlight on the violent methods farmers use to keep animals off their land.

Besides using food laced with country bombs, farmers living near the forests use live-wire fences, iron leg-hold traps, steel-jaw traps, poisons and snares to ward off tigers, elephants, wild boars, nilgais, deers, peacocks and monkeys to save their crops.

On Wednesday, 12 men in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were arrested for killing a jackal by packing explosives in meat that blew up its mouth when it took a bite. Last week, a man in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh was arrested for feeding a pregnant cow an explosive-laden wheat-flour ball that blew its jaw off.

According to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), some 338 elephants died of electrocution in 13 states between 2007 and 2014. The WTI rescued nine leopards caught in jaw traps between 2012 and 2016 in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

One person has been arrested over the death of the elephant last month, a case which caused an outpouring of grief including from Bollywood stars. The post mortem report found the elephant died after water entered her lungs when she immersed in a river to soothe her wounds.

Meanwhile, in a similar case, three people arrested over the death of another female elephant, which in April also ate a fruit stuffed with explosives, revealed the bait had been intended for wild boars.

Recently, the state has given permission to shoot wild boars, subject to conditions, but the farmers still used explosives.

Joshy Joseph, the general secretary of Kerala Farmers’ Federation, said that mostly, the farmers living close to forest land in his state used electric fencing with relatively harmless direct current running through it. “They also construct cracker-laden fences to ward off wild boars,” he said.

Conservation biologist Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch said the raw materials to make such explosives were often available in areas next to the forests, as in the case of Ranthambore tiger reserve in the northern state of Rajasthan.

In 2017, a nationwide study on human – wildlife conflict mitigation conducted over 5,000 households around 11 reserves by Krithi K. Karanth and Sahila Kudalkar of Bangalore-based Centre for Wildlife Studies found 71 per cent of the households surveyed had suffered crop losses due to attacks by wildlife.

Traditionally, Indian farmers have chased animals, pelted them with stones, brandished fire torches and constructed fences.

Sunilam, the president of a farmers’ struggle group, Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, added that the farmers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh put up boundaries, installed scarecrows and blew horns all night to ward off wild boar and nilgai but “these methods haven’t been effective”.

Vijoo Krishnan, the joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, which represents peasants, said natural calamities and the cutting of subsidies had worsened an “agrarian crisis” and pushed farmers to take “desperate” methods to ward off animals.

Clearly, the use of violent methods won’t end, despite the recent outrage. “This outrage took place because a pregnant elephant unsuspectingly ate the bait trap and died. The incident wouldn’t, perhaps, have grabbed the spotlight if a wild pig picked up the explosive-laden fruit, although they have continued to fall prey to such methods,” Chatterjee said.

But Chatterjee this could change if farmers constructed low-cost and easy to maintain animal-proof fences and developed cheap early warning systems. “Also, the governments and agencies working for the cause must involve the farmers to jointly look for, and implement solutions,” he said.

“In one of our projects in the north-eastern state of Assam, locals suggested an elephant-proof fence be erected to reduce crop damage from elephants, which they built and maintained themselves.”

R. Mohammed Saleem, of Coimbatore-based Environment Conservation Group, said the frequent sensitisation programmes for the farmers, held by forest departments, helped the situation.

Vikas Rawal, professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the failure of the government to develop “policies on appropriate land use and wildlife management plans” was the main problem.

But Sunilam said the government must “compensate for the loss” that farmers suffered from damage caused by animals.

“Tigers and leopards have lost lives accidentally due to electrocution from live fences which were put up to protect farms from crop raiding species, especially in the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” said Mayukh Chatterjee, who heads the WTI’s human-wildlife conflict mitigation department.

In this man-animal conflict, there are cases in which animals have died after inadvertently eating food wrapped in country bombs meant for wilder species.

By Sonia Sarkar

A crackdown saw a generation of young men go missing at the hands of Indian security forces.


The January night was dark and dull. Sitting on a charpoy bed, 21-year-old Harjinder Singh Rana was playing his one-string tumbi, a traditional instrument, and singing, “Nanak dukhiya sab sansar.” Lord, the whole world is ridden with sorrow. At about 1 am, his music was interrupted when two police officials came knocking at the door. Rana, who worked as a special police officer, went with the men, thinking he was headed off on a mission. Eight days later, he was dead: His colleagues had killed him, saying he’d been a “militant.” 

That was 1994, and Rana’s octogenarian father, Sohan Singh, is still awaiting justice. “I want to see the guilty punished,” says Singh, a resident of Kahnuwan at Gurdaspur in India’s northern state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan. “I want the court to tell the world that my son was not a militant,” he says.

Rana was not alone. Three other men, ages 17 to 35, were killed alongside him. In the ’80s and the ’90s, state-sponsored violence was routine in Punjab: Tens of thousands of Sikh men, according to estimates, were detained, tortured, killed and unlawfully cremated.


A man shows photos of his sons who disappeared during the Indian government’s counterinsurgency campaign in Punjab.


Originally, the police crackdown was a response to the Khalistan movement, a radical Sikh cause that advocated for a separate Sikh homeland through a violent campaign that included hundreds of murders in the early 1980s and the hijacking of an Indian jetliner. In an attempt to weed out potential militants, police targeted young Sikh men. Some young Sikhs were privately commissioned as special police officers — but as Rana’s case made clear, that didn’t necessarily protect them. Human rights activist Jaswant Kaur recently released a 70-minute documentary entitled Punjab Disappeared about the region’s legacy of violence. Kaur recalls the case of 18-year-old Balwinder Singh, who was dragged off a bus by the police while traveling with his mother and was later killed. The next day, Kaur says, the police officials apologized to the mother saying her son wasn’t the Balwinder they were looking for. “Ironically, the officers were promoted,” Kaur says. The trial is still pending.

A 2003 report described many cases where men were thrown into irrigation canals with their hands and feet tied. Torture was also routine. In a series of cases, police carried out cremations and unlawfully kept it a secret from the family members. In 1995, Punjab-based human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra — who was abducted and killed by the police the same year — filed a petition with the Supreme Court stating police had cremated 25,000 bodies, which they labeled “unidentified” and “unclaimed.”

The police didn’t hand over Rana’s body to his family members either. “The cops showed us the bullet marks on his neck and leg. But we were not allowed to perform the last rites,” recalls Singh. Two months after his son’s death, Singh petitioned the Supreme Court to charge 27 police officials in the case. The court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into it, but there has been no breakthrough, and Singh’s case is still pending. Still, Khalra’s investigation and death sparked international interest in the killings, which may be why after the mid-90s such disappearances became far less common.

Over the last 25 years, lawmakers and political parties have shied away from the issue of these extrajudicial killings. In 1997, Shiromani Akali Dal, the regional ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, promised to set up a truth commission investigating the crimes … but nothing ever happened. “A generation was lost but nobody wants to talk about it,” laments Singh.

But there is a renewed hope now. Kaur’s documentary, released this spring, has renewed calls for an inquiry into 8,257 disappearances, extra-judicial killings and secret cremations across 14 Punjab districts from 1984 to 1995. Kaur, who is British, came to India in 2008 to investigate these cases and started an initiative called the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP). The documentary is the result of 10 years of research.

“It stresses the need of the families for answers to questions that have eluded them for over two decades,” Kaur says. “Many don’t know if these men who went missing are alive. They never received their bodies.”

This month, Kaur’s PDAP is expected to present its findings in a petition to the Indian Supreme Court, seeking justice for people like Rana. That could reverse decades of secrecy, but it can’t undo the toll taken on families whose children never came home. Singh says that since Rana’s disappearance, police have harassed his family and offered him money to withdraw the case. But, he says, ”I won’t shut up unless I get justice.”


The story appeared in Ozy:

Muslim women the world over are making a visual treat of traditional wear, says Sonia Sarkar

By Sonia Sarkar Published 25.06.17


Shazia Bargathullah’s Instagram page, the_devil_wears_parda, has photographs of herself in trendy hijabs. The hashtags run thus – zipperhijab, indowesternfashion, hautehijab, hijabiandfab, modestfashion and so on. Turns out, the 21-year-old from Chennai designs these hijabs herself. She also designs long jackets, duster coats, maxi dresses and maxi shirts. “I do anything that can be teamed up with a hijab and looks modest,” she says.

Mohamed Maaz is also from Chennai, a production engineer-turned-retailer. Two years ago he set up an online Islamic shopping store, It has a men’s section too, but it is the women’s section that is more elaborate. Here again, we find hijabs – jersey, dua prayer, daily wear. And next to it a section headed “Hijab Pins” – brooch, crystal, rose model… On Ramadan this year, the store launched a new collection of hijabs and abayas in bold, bright colours – instead of the traditional black – in a variety of styles.

A “hijab” in its very basic sense is a veil worn by Muslim women outside of the immediate family and covers the woman’s head and neck. “Abaya” is a loose over-garment, somewhat like a robe.

It is ironic that at a time when Islamophobia is at its peak, Islamic fashion is also peaking, in India and also globally. Reina Lewis, author of the 2015 book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, has a theory. “Globally, as more and more young Muslim women have access to education, to careers and to the power to control their own expenditure, they are likely to want clothing to take them through their lives and their different roles,” she tells The Telegraph in an email from London.

It is, therefore, perhaps natural that most designers, retailers and promoters of this specialised line of clothing are Muslim women of a certain demographic.

UAE-based designer Rabia Z. tells you that her fashion epiphany happened soon after 9/11, when she saw a lot of her friends forced to take off their hijabs. “After 9/11 when hate crime was on the rise, it [her brand Rabia Z] started with a personal need for versatile modest clothing which extended to the clothing needs of family, friends and communities in need of modest style solutions,” reads her mail.

Rabia might call it “style solution”, but in a world in which the horrors of 9/11 were still fresh, the operative word was possibly “solution” – a life solution.

By the time Mumbai-based Farheen Naqi started writing her fashion blog “Filter fashion” in 2014, the scenario had changed. In her email to The Telegraph, she says how she would get queries from young Muslim girls asking her where they could get themselves fashionable hijabs. “It made me realise there was a big gap in the market,” says Farheen, who started her label, Little Black Hijab, in 2016.

Farheen’s hijabs – lacy, floral printed or otherwise embellished – come in fabrics such as crepe, viscose, jersey and chiffon. And the stress on “style” and “solution” is equitably distributed.

And it is not just the Rabias and Farheens. In the past three years, global brands such as Uniqlo, Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY, H&M and Mango have also got into the business of Islamic fashion. Various online stores such as Hijab Loft, Austere Attire and Hijab Junkie have also been launched in the West.

Reina Lewis, who also teaches Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion, a constituent college of the University of the Arts, London, touches on the “why”. She says, “This is a big shift. For decades, it was a well-known secret that super-rich Gulf clients were important to the viability of European couture houses, but there was little public acknowledgement of this. High street brands were often averse to being associated with Muslims. Now, being associated with Muslim consumers is being seen as an asset.”

It would be too simplistic to look at this phenomenon of Islamic fashion in terms of demand and supply. Every other spin on every bit of traditional Muslim attire seems to say something about the different takes on Islam.

The colours, the prints, the fabrics, the cuts are all really different ways of communicating an alternative image of a faith and its followers – modern, integrative, flexible, and most importantly perhaps, less menacing. Stockholm-based fashion designer Iman Aldebe has actually named her turban line, launched in 2013, “Happy Turbans”. Her creations reflect a mix of African and Middle Eastern influences.

“Islamic modest fashion movement does have at its core a need to respond to allegations that the Muslim dress – the hijab, in particular – is drab, oppressive, and a result of male coercion,” reads Asma Uddin’s email from the US. Asma is founder of “altMuslimah”, described as “the only media platform that is wholly dedicated to stories and commentary on gender-in-Islam from the male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim perspectives”.

Asma adds: “Women behind Muslim fashion lines, particularly the chic ones, are saying to the world – ‘we wear these clothes of our own free will’. These clothes are empowering and fashionable.”

Hear. Hear.

Big Buck Trend

  • In 2015, Muslims across the world spent USD 243 billion (Rs 24,300 crore) on apparel and footwear
  • By 2021, it is expected to reach $368 billion (Rs 36,800 crore)
  • A compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2 per cent is spurring this trend
  • Rafi-uddin Shikoh, CEO, Dinar Standard, attributes this to the wider appeal of ‘modest fashion’ among women worldwide
  • In 2015, India’s 172 million Muslims spent an estimated $11 billion (Rs 1,100 crore) on clothing
  • By 2020, this is expected to become $20 billion (Rs 2,000 crore), piggybacking a CAGR of 13 per cent

Sources: State of the Global Islamic Economy
Report 2016-17 produced by Reuters; and
DinarStandard, a New York-based Growth Strategy Research & Advisory firm

Published in The Telegraph:

Nepal’s recovery from the 2015 quake is in a pitiful shambles

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 16.10.16


Bricks lie in the midst of a road. Carved wooden columns — rescued from a collapsed temple —  have been stacked up in the corner of a courtyard. Temple tiers, covered with huge plastic sheets, are being held up with the help of wooden panels.

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has a story to tell — that of apathy and neglect.

In April 2015, a massive earthquake shook Nepal, causing untold death and destruction. Durbar Square — a mesh of courtyards, palaces and temples in Kathmandu — is still to recover from that upheaval. Also in a state of disrepair is Patan’s Durbar Square, some five kilometres from Kathmandu. Angry cracks disfigure red brick walls. The panels in the wood-carved latticed windows — locally known as aankhi jhyals — are falling apart. Many of the shrines surrounding the courtyard, such as the Char Narayan and Hari Shankar temples, as well as the Bhimsen Mandir, have been badly hit. Some of the damage cannot be repaired, but little is seemingly being done to restore even that which can be put together.

A temple in Patan. Pic: Sonia Sarkar

Restoration, the locals stress, has been exceptionally slow. It’s a painstaking task to sort, identify and repair the ancient structures, intricately and delicately carved. Nepal’s wood carvers, stone sculptors and metal workers have to restore their lost heritage, but there is little sign of activity. The government, however, had announced soon after the quake that craftsmen were being put to repair work.

One afternoon late last month, while walking down the lanes of Bhinchebahal in Lalitpur, a hub of stone sculptors and metal workers, I find the workers sitting idly. There are not enough funds for the restoration, they complain.

“There are only a few orders. Nobody has the money to invest in these things anymore. Nobody from the government approached us with any bulk orders either,” says an artisan, Vijay Kumar Shrestha.

A few blocks away, I catch up with S.K. Mahajan, who is a wood carver. Instead of a knife and chisel, his thin fingers hold a pack of cards, to be dealt to the men sitting with him in a circle. Behind him, a series of wood crafted windows, cornices and lintels are lying unsold in his shop. Mahajan laments that business has been slow since the earthquake. This year, his two sons left home to work as daily wagers in the United Arab Emirates and Mauritius because there was no money in the business back home.

People have been trying hard to pick up the threads of their lives. But it’s not just the earthquake that continues to trouble them 18 months after the grounds shook. The other development that caused tremors — and is still a matter of heated discussions — was the crushing economic blockade that Nepal faced barely six months after the quake. A casual chat with anyone on the streets — or in a curio emporium, over a cup of spiced Nepali tea — veers around to the difficult days.

The Nepalese are convinced that the blockade of fuel, medicines and even earthquake relief material was engineered by India, because Kathmandu did not pay heed to New Delhi’s advice on altering Nepal’s Constitution to accommodate the demands of ethnic groups such as the Madhesis. The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates a loss of $1 billion because of the four-month blockade that started last year before Dussehra, or Dashain, as the popular festival is called in Nepal. People are still angry about it.

“After the earthquake, we were trying to stand up with the help of crutches. But then India took away our crutches,” a shopkeeper at Durbar Marg says.

Suspicion rules in Kathmandu. People continue to blame India for the blockade, though New Delhi has denied any role in it. The locals also believe that money donated for post-quake work has been siphoned off by politicians. International donors are believed to have contributed $1.3 billion for rebuilding heritage sites. But little of that has been put into use. The homeless were promised about $2,000 in aid. Only a few hundred people have received the first $500 instalment.
The Nepalese stress that many people are still spending nights under makeshift roofs of tarpaulin and plastic sheets. “A tarpaulin is all we had. It survived one winter and two monsoons. I am not sure how many more winters we need to spend like this,” a rickshaw puller at Durbar Square says.

But tarpaulin sellers are also being accused of corruption. Nepal’s anti-graft body has filed charges against half a dozen civil servants and tarpaulin suppliers for submitting inflated bills for low quality tarpaulin.

Tourism has taken a hit — the government estimates that the footfall of foreign tourists in Nepal touched a six-year low of 5,38,970. Some hotels in the busy area of Thamel, barely two kilometres from Durbar Square, were damaged, too — most of them are now back on their feet.

Thamel’s dance bars and clubs come alive at night with psychedelic trance music. The streets are crowded even at 1.30am. Grass is always available, as is liquor. Thamel never sleeps.

Tourism may have declined, but the backpackers continue to throng Nepal. Hippies — men and women who thumbed their noses at the Establishment — are still visible in Kathmandu. At midnight, a group, with their trademark long hair and headbands, walks by, singing Bob Seger’s Katmandu.

“I’m tired of looking at the TV news,” they sing in chorus. “I’m tired of driving hard and paying dues/ I figure, baby, I’ve got nothing to lose/ I’m tired of being blue/ That’s why I’m going to Katmandu.”

For shattered and cash-strapped Kathmandu, that’s good news — for the present.

This story was published in The Telegraph:

‘I thought I won’t be able to survive after that night’

Jharna Mondal, 45, Part-time house help


It was 1.30pm. After finishing lunch—rice, boiled lentils and mashed potatoes—Jharna Mondal of Jagatpur, about 5km from the airport, noticed the overcast sky and understood that the cyclonic storm the authorities had been warning about would arrive anytime. But she did not anticipate that it would blow away the roof over her head and leave her virtually homeless. “It was about 6pm when strong winds started blowing, I realized that the nails holding the tiles of the roof were loosening, bit by bit. After a while, I heard the crackling sound of the tiles flapping in the wind. In another hour, a large chunk of tiles from the roof of both rooms of my house were blown off,” recalls Mondal, who used to work as a part-time house help till the lockdown was imposed in March.


She, along with six members of the family, including her two-year-old grandson, sat all night under a makeshift roof they fashioned from a torn tarpaulin sheet in the house. “It was raining heavily, we could only manage to cover our heads, we were half-drenched. I thought I won’t be able to survive after that night. But I prayed to God about my grandson. I wanted him to remain unharmed,” Mondal says.

The next morning was another ordeal. Both rooms were flooded and water from an overflowing drain was entering the home. A sack of rice, stored during the lockdown, was damaged. “Somebody had given me one sack of rice for free during the lockdown, this is all that I had in store for now,” Mondal says.

Mondal used to earn about 10,000 a month, while her two sons together earned 12,000 a month by driving autorickshaws and selling fruits. They have been confined to their homes since the lockdown and have exhausted their savings. They have no money to fix the roof and the landlord has ignored their plea to repair it. “Living under a tarpaulin sheet is our new normal,” says Mondal.


‘As a storm chaser, I was scared as hell’

Chirasree Chakraborty, 46, Photographer and storm chaser


Two days before cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata, cloud chaser Chirasree Chakraborty found that the clouds were intensifying into a supercyclone. Initially, she was excited and wanted to visit the coastal areas of the state on the eve of the landfall but she didn’t because stepping out of home would have meant risking the health of elderly members of the family in this time of pandemic.

“I decided to document the cyclone from my terrace. I also decided not to shoot during the landfall as a safety measure. There were risks of being hit by flying debris or lightning during the shoot,” says Chakraborty, a member of Kolkata Cloud Chasers, a team of photographers who track, chase and document storms and clouds.

Then came D-day—20 May. It had been raining since morning. At 4pm, the news flashed on television that the head or main part of the cyclonic storm would hit Kolkata around 5-5.30pm. “The head of the cyclone is the most dangerous as this causes the maximum destruction,” Chakraborty says. “I prepared myself to document it. But, at 5pm, it started raining heavily, with wind speeds of around 110 kmph. Sadly, though, all my balconies and doors face the east. Despite taking adequate precautions, our three-storeyed building was flooded.”

Instead of taking pictures or recording the video of the storm, the storm chaser got busy mopping the floor. “The sound of the wind was scary, almost resembling the howling sound of a heavy machine. Sometimes there was a whistling sound too. At around 8pm, the eye of the storm arrived in Kolkata, giving an indication that it will calm down,” Chakraborty says.

Indeed, it did. Suddenly. Chakraborty went to the balcony to clear it of water and to look at the clouds as her mobile phone was flooded with messages from Kolkatans wanting to know when the cyclone would leave the city. By 11pm, Amphan had departed, leaving a trail of destruction in the city and several other parts of the state. “I have witnessed many storms, including the landfall of cyclones Bulbul and Fani last year and cyclone Aila in 2009. But Amphan sent a chill down my spine. Amphan was one of the fiercest cyclones experienced inrecent times. As a storm chaser, I was scared. I was scared as hell.”

At about 6pm on 20 May, when she started hearing the sound of glass shattering in the neighbourhood, she ran to the bedroom of her third-floor apartment to check if the window glass was intact. “I had tied the window firmly with the iron grills with the help of a rope, so they survived the storm, else they would have met the same fate as many others in my residential complex,” says Karanji, a resident of upmarket Salt Lake.

Hearing the relentless sound of howling wind, Karanji opened the door of her balcony partly, only to find branches of a gulmohar tree laden with flowers blocking it. Some of her plants had been crushed.

“I couldn’t keep the door open for long because the wind was strong. But I started capturing the scene outside on my mobile phone through the glass windows,” Karanji says.



‘I am privileged enough to have a roof over my head’

Chhanda Karanji, 74, Actor


As a single woman in the city, actor Chhanda Karanji is always prepared for the worst. She knows she has to fight the odds alone. This time too, when she heard the warning bells of Amphan, she took every precaution possible. She charged her mobile phone. She filled her water bottles. She kept essentials handy—candles, matchstick, torch and a long rope.

An hour later, rainwater gushed into her bedroom, kitchen and dining room. Water seeped into one of her book shelves, damaging books and special editions of old Bengali magazines. “This was most painful, there is no way I could recover all of them,” Karanji says.

The downpour continued all night. But she says she was not scared. “I deeply believe in Rabindranath Tagore’s words: ‘It is not my prayer that you save me from all perils, I pray that I should not fear when faced with odds.’ This kept me going all night,” Karanji says.

Karanji, who is also a translator, adds that her inspiration to stay put on the night of the cyclone came from the resilient O-lan, the wife of the protagonist in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. “I realized that I must believe that I too have the power to face mighty nature,” Karanji says. “Plus, I can never deny that I am privileged enough to have a roof over my head which many people don’t have.”


[These personal accounts were published in Mint Lounge on May 30–

Coronavirus survivors: aged 93, this Indian man did everything with his wife. Including getting Covid-19 Thomas Abraham is thought to be the oldest coronavirus survivor in India He and wife Mariyamma, 88, have never been apart since marrying in 1947. ‘If we can recover at this age, we could have a few more innings together,’ he says

By Sonia Sarkar

When 93-year-old Thomas Abraham was being treated for Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Kottayam, southern India, the one thing he missed was making black coffee for his wife, Mariyamma, 88.

He need not have worried, the two would soon be having their morning cuppa together again – Mariyamma had contracted the disease too and both were being treated in the same hospital.

“[At first] we were in separate wards but when both of us started missing each other, the doctors moved us to a two-bedded ICU,” recalled Abraham, now back at his house in Pathanamthitta, Kerala.  Abraham is thought to be the oldest coronavirus survivor in India . The doctors treating him called his recovery “a miracle” because any patient above the age of 65 is considered high risk.

Abraham, his wife and six other members of his family are thought to have caught the virus from his youngest son, Moncy Abraham, his wife Remany Moncy and son Rijo, who arrived in Kerala from Italy at the end of February.

About a week after the trio arrived Abraham and Mariyamma, who was suffering a mild fever, both tested positive for the virus and two days later, Abraham fell seriously ill.

The doctors did not want to take any chances so they moved the elderly couple to the more advanced Government Medical College Hospital at Kottayam, 58km away from their home.

Two days later, Abraham suffered a heart attack and was put on ventilator support for a week. During that time, all Abraham could do was think about his wife.


Indigenous groups with ‘no concept of social distancing’ at risk from outsiders

NEW DELHI — After 33 coronavirus cases were reported in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote crescent of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, experts began worrying about the indigenous people who live there.

“Even though all reported cases are among nontribals, our biggest challenge is to protect the aboriginals from COVID-19,” said Anup Kumar Mondal, a tribal welfare officer with Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), a government-run tribal welfare body. “If one person in the tribe gets infected, the entire community will be at risk because there is no concept of social distancing among them.”

Three indigenous groups, the Great Andamanese, Jarawas and Onges, who live in the Andaman island chain are vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their contact with the outside world. The fourth group in the islands, the Sentinelese, who killed an intruding American missionary in 2018, is said to be safe because their land remains off-limits to most outsiders.

The Andaman Islands are within easy range of poachers from neighboring Myanmar. This puts the indigenous population at risk of contracting the disease.

As a safety measure, AAJVS in February relocated all 547 Jarawas, mostly inhabiting South Andaman and Middle Andaman islands, to the western coasts of the Middle, South and North Andamans, which are patrolled by government agencies to keep poachers at bay.

“But the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high among the Jarawas because many suffer from respiratory complications caused by measles outbreaks in 1999 and 2006,” said Sophie Grig, a senior research and advocacy officer with London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.

The Great Andamanese, who now number just 76 and have had problems with measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis over previous decades, are also at high risk.

About 124 Onges living in Little Andaman Island who survive on government aid are also vulnerable. “Officials who are sent to their territory are screened to ensure that they are not carrying any infection,” Mondal said.

“None of the tribes have the immunity to fight it,” according to Survival International’s Grig.

Several government interventions meant to “civilize” the groups have instead made them “vulnerable to diseases,” said Ratan Chandra Kar, former deputy director for tribal health and welfare in the islands.

In 1970, the Indian government moved the Great Andamanese to Strait Island, 70 km from Port Blair, the capital. Now, the group is “dependent on the government for food, shelter and clothing,” and “alcohol abuse and tuberculosis are rife,” Survival International says on its website.

Similarly, the Jarawas have developed a taste for biscuits and bread, which they get from mainlanders who travel on the highway that cuts across their land. Some even prefer to wear clothes, provided by government agencies, which have given them skin infections.

Local doctors warn the risk of indigenous people contracting COVID-19 will rise during monsoon season.

“Cases of cold and fever are common among tribals between May and July, the months of [the] monsoon, every year. They may contract the infection when they visit hospitals,” said a doctor at a primary health care center for Jarawas, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But government officials say they are well equipped. Abhijit Roy, an official in charge of handling COVID-19 for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said about 52 beds are reserved for the tribals. “Also, we are trying our best to keep them confined to their own habitat.”


This story was published in Nikkei Asian Review on May 5 2020

After 33 coronavirus cases were reported in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote crescent of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, experts began worrying about the indigenous people who live there. Here is an inter view with Sophie Grig, a senior research and advocacy officer with London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.


By Sonia Sarkar

Q) Do you think aboriginal tribes such as the Great Andamanese and Jarawas  are at risk of contracting Covid-19? If yes, Why? Is it because of their contact with mainstream people?


A. Yes, I am very concerned that both communities might contract the disease and that it will have a devastating impact on them. The Jarawa (more information about them can be found here) still live self sufficiently in their forest, with limited interaction with outsiders. There are 4 main ways they come into contact with people from the mainstream, which are 1) Via the Andaman Trunk Road that cuts illegally through their territory. Usually hundreds of tourists travel through their reserve each day, trying to ogle at the tribe, in what is often described as a ‘human safari’. Fortunately, this form of contact has largely been stopped because all non-essential travel has been banned since the lock-down, and only one convoy a day of government officials and essential goods is allowed to pass through their reserve. 


The 2nd contact is with staff from the tribal welfare department and the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samity (AAJVS), welfare workers who support the tribe. It’s been reported that they have advised the Jarawa to go deep into the forest and avoid the road and contact with settlers and others. However, there is danger the AAJVS staff may risk bringing the disease to the tribe themselves. It’s reported that they have been instructed that if they have symptoms they should stay away, but as is well known that the disease can be asymptomatic and contagious before symptoms appear, so any contact can be dangerous. 

The 3rd form of contact is with settlers who live around the edges of the Jarawa’s reserve. The Jarawa interact with people in these villages, sometimes exchanging things with them and sometimes when the villagers come into their forests to poach the game the Jarawa rely on to survive. If the virus gets into these villages then there is a real danger that it will get passed on to the Jarawa. The lock down may make the villagers more likely to go into the forest to hunt, putting the Jarawa at greater risk. It’s vital that all efforts are made to ensure that no one enters the Jarawa’s territory and the Jarawa are warned, in their own language so they fully understand, of the risks they face from interacting with villagers at this time. However, of course the Jarawa must be able to continue to move around their forest in order to be able to hunt and gather all they need. If they were to be confined to their settlements they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves. 
Finally, there are poachers that come from the coast to fish and hunt for turtles etc in the waters close to the Jarawa reserve. These are sometimes local fishermen but they also travel from Burma. They often hide out in the Jarawa’s creeks, so there is a danger that the disease could enter the Jarawa community this way. 
The Great Andamanese live mainly on Strait Island, although they often visit Port Blair too. I think that they are mostly in Strait Island now, where they are also at risk from contact with AAJVS staff. Obviously if they visit Port Blair they will also be at risk, but this is unlikely to happen in the lock down. 

Q) Do they have the immunity to fight Covid-19?


No one has immunity to fight Covid-19, but the Great Andamanese have suffered many epidemics and there is a big problem of both TB and alcoholism within the community (as is not uncommon with peoples who have lost their land and have had devastating population declines (down from 5000+ in 1858 to around 50 today) and so have many underlying health conditions, which would make them very vulnerable to the disease. You can read more about them here

The Jarawa have also suffered two measles epidemics, first in 1999 and then in 2006. Complications of the disease left many facing respiratory problems, including pneumonia, possibly making them even more vulnerable if they contract Covid-19.
Q) How many Jarawas and Great Andamanese in the Andamands now? Do you think if one person in the tribe gets infected, the chances are everyone else in the tribe gets infected?

The latest census, in 2019 said there were 514 Jarawa. There are approximately 50 Great Andamanese. During the 1999 measles epidemic it’s thought that about 108 Jarawa were infected, which was more than a third of the tribe at the time. We know that Covid-19 is extremely contagious so there would be a huge risk to the survival of the tribe if were to start spreading within the community. The number of Great Andamanese is also very low, meaning that they too could risk extinction if the disease affects them. 

Q) What steps the government should take now to ensure that these aboriginals do not become more vulnerable to new infections anymore?

The important thing is to protect the land of the tribal people from intrusion from outsiders. It’s vital that, despite the lockdown, the waters around North Sentinel are properly policed and the island is protected from all intrusions.
The same goes for the land of the Jarawa and the other tribes in the islands. Now, more than ever, it is essential to ensure that no outsiders enter the territories of these tribes without their consent and that their lands are protected from poachers that steal the resources they need to survive. It is vital that any government officials or welfare workers interacting with the tribes (interactions should be at a minimum), or patrolling the borders of their territories, are properly quarantined and trained in order to reduce the risk of passing on the virus. Despite these precautions, it’s also necessary for emergency plans and actions to be put in place to provide effective and appropriate health care if the worst happens and the virus gets into any of the tribal communities. The Andaman Trunk Road should be closed through the Jarawa’s territory, necessary government supplies etc should go by ship and local communities must be informed of the dangers to the tribes and vigilance against poaching, by local settlers, must be stepped up.
Q) How do we make them go back to their original lifestyle or is it too late?

The tribal communities in the Andamans are continuing to go about their daily lives, despite the lock down. The Jarawa and Sentinelese are self sufficient and remain dependent on their forest for their daily needs. Obviously no one should be made to have a particular way of life, it’s up to them to choose how they live their lives. The Jarawa and Sentinelese still hunt, gather and fish because they have their forests, which enables them to do this and because they choose to. Unfortunately, the Great Andamanese lost their land, and most of the community, a long time ago and so are no longer self sufficient.

Arab netizens fire back as Indians step up anti-Muslim rhetoric on Covid-19

  • Discriminatory comments against Muslims, fuelled by the narrative that they are spreading Covid-19, have sparked anger
  • Some 8.9 million Indians work in Gulf countries and even a member of the UAE royal family has warned expats to watch their words

By Sonia Sarkar


Modi recently tweeted that “Covid-19 does not see race or religion”, but this has done little to change the narrative. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has urged the Indian government to take steps to stop growing Islamophobia, but India’s minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Tuesday said the country was “heaven for minorities and Muslims”.

On top of this, the perception that Indians are culturally diverse moderates and liberals is changing in Gulf countries. Khaled Al Maeena, a prominent Saudi Arabia-based political analyst who calls himself a “friend of India”, said its reputation was “down the drain” in the Gulf.

He added that a civil campaign had been started to highlight the “malicious propaganda by BJP and the RSS against Muslims” and “to decrease business relations” with India. “People are really angry here,” he said.

But will this social media outrage actually affect India’s relationship with the Middle East? Some 8.9 million Indians work in Gulf Co-operation Council countries, namely the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

India, whose yearly trade relations with these countries have passed the US$100 billion mark, imports 80 per cent of its oil requirements from the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have bestowed their highest civilian awards on Modi for bettering ties with these countries.

A BJP parliamentarian who has been closely associated with the party’s overseas affairs said on condition of anonymity that India’s ties with the Arab countries were “very strong,” and no outrage on social media over “allegations” about atrocities against Muslims in India would “affect it.”


Some Indians, however, ridiculed Arabs over their own poor record on “human rights.”

To this, Walid al-Hathloul, brother of a jailed Saudi Arabia woman activist, said that “human rights abuses can’t be addressed by whataboutism,” or by pointing on other human rights abuses to deflect from their own problems. Acknowledging that is a one step further to solve human rights abuses.


Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch said, “Whataboutery type comments as a way to deflect from valid criticism is often used as a shield. The truth is that prevailing islamaphobia has led to terrible violence including the pogroms in India. Calling out such violence and misogyny referring to the tweet is important. Indian authorities should tackle such forms of discrimination and violence and likewise, Gulf states should also tackle the xenophobia, discrimination in their societies along with the institutionalized systems that disadvantage migrant workers.”

Meanwhile, over the past month, at least six Indian nationals working in the UAE – where Indian expatriates make up 27 per cent of the country’s population – have been sacked by their companies or face charges for allegedly sharing Islamophobic posts on social media.

The UAE in 2015 enacted an anti-discrimination law, punishing any form of discrimination against people and religion. Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE, on Monday tweeted that any discrimination would not be tolerated and “Indian national in the UAE should always remember this”.


The hate speech issue comes at a time when Delhi is negotiating with UAE officials who have been pushing for India to repatriate thousands of stranded citizens who have lost their jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic.


John Calabrese, scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said it was unlikely the Gulf leaders would “engage in a war of words or impose a tangible cost on India” because of their existing extensive economic ties.


Indians work in white- as well as blue-collar jobs in the Gulf, while the region contributes more than 50 per cent of remittances to India. “What if Indians in the Gulf lose their jobs and are sent back to India?” asked Alam from Maulana Azad National Urdu University.


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also recently said it was concerned about stigmatisation and blaming of Muslims for the spread of the disease, and cited a report that a hospital in Gujarat was segregating patients by faith in Covid-19 wards.

A shorter version of the story appeared in South China Morning Post, April 22, 2020


The Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat has insisted they are being unfairly blamed after Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, who heads their New Delhi centre, was on Wednesday charged with culpable homicide for holding a religious event that fuelled a surge in Covid-19 cases in India.
“We are being targeted as if Indians are getting infected only because of us,” said Mohammad Ashraf, a Delhi-based member of the group, who said it was the victim of media “propaganda” and would fight the charges against Khandalvi in court.

Twenty-four people who attended a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi from March 13-15 tested positive for the coronavirus on March 31. The city’s authorities on Wednesday said 1,080 of the 1,561 cases in New Delhi were linked to the gathering, while more than 25,500 people connected to it have been quarantined.

India has 13,430 cases of Covid-19 and 448 deaths.

Soon after the cases were reported, the group’s international headquarters in Delhi’s mostly Muslim Nizamuddin area was sealed. Thousands of followers – including some from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh – were taken into quarantine by police after it emerged they had attended meetings there in mid-March.

Anil Mittal, a spokesman for the Delhi Police, confirmed charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder would be laid under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, saying: “Investigation is on and arrest will happen.”

Another senior Delhi police official, speaking anonymously, said those charges were added to the initial brief after the deaths of some members of Tablighi Jamaat.

Mittal described the allegation that Tablighi Jamaat had been targeted for being a Muslim group as “baseless”.

Authorities have said some of those infected at the gathering had died, although the numbers have not yet been released. They also said people from other parts of the country and abroad kept visiting the five-storey building, and that the group had delivered sermons to large groups of people despite government orders on social distancing.

Tablighi Jamaat member Ashraf, however, said the visits occurred before India imposed restrictions on movement or gathering.

“On a daily basis, hundreds of members who pass by Delhi stop by at the headquarters. There were many such visitors even in March,” he said. “Later, many members were stranded after the curfew was announced on March 22, and thereafter the nationwide lockdown on March 25.”

He insisted that local police were informed of the presence of many members inside the building and that the group’s members cooperated with medical officers who came to inspect the premises.

Once the lockdown was announced, Ashraf said other Tablighi Jamaat gatherings scheduled in India were cancelled. “We are law-abiding citizens, not criminals,” he said.

A gathering in Malaysia organised by the same group in February was attended by 16,000 people and resulted in more than 700 infections there, while attendees also spread the coronavirus to Thailand, Brunei and Singapore. A planned March gathering in Indonesia was cancelled at the last minute.

Legal expert Faizan Mustafa pointed out that charging Delhi chief Khandalvi with culpable homicide was “wrong” because he did not organise the event to cause death. “Khandalvi had put himself at risk too by organising the event,” he said.

Francis Robinson, a University of London professor who is an expert on Muslim politics and Islamic institutions in South Asia, said India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Delhi police had a record of “unfair action against Muslims”.

Khandalvi had on March 19 played down the risk of Covid-19 infection by calling the coronavirus azaab – meaning divine punishment – and said it was a falsehood that people gathering in mosques would lead to more infections.

When the content of his speech went viral on social media, many Muslims distanced themselves from the group by calling it “insensitive” and “foolish”.

Delhi Minorities Commission chairman Zafarul-Islam Khan on Friday called Tablighi Jamaat members “callous” for organising an event at a time when the coronavirus had spread widely in Southeast Asia, but he also blamed the government for allowing international delegates to enter India at such a time.

“The government should not have given them visas in the first place. Even if they had come, they should have been screened at the airport, how did they reach the venue?” said Khan, who added that gatherings in several Hindu places of worship had taken place around the same time.

Soon after the incident, a large section of right-wing Hindus ostracised Muslims on social media. Many Muslims were blamed for spreading the virus by not wearing masks amid claims they had attended prayers in the mosque even during the lockdown.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, last week blamed Tablighi Jamaat for a spike in cases in his state, but experts have since disputed his claim. Media reports on Wednesday claimed a government-run hospital in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, segregated coronavirus patients based on their religion.

“What is surely upsetting for Indian Muslims is the number of fake stories and images being circulated on social media under the hashtag #CoronaJihad,” said historian Shail Mayaram from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

Mujibur Rehman of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Centre for Social Exclusion said the government’s move to make the Tablighi Jamaat event look like the primary reason for the spread of Covid-19 in India was “wrong”.

This will eventually lead to more “disenchantment, frustration and anxiety among Muslims and also others who don’t want laws to be selectively used by the government against one community”, Rehman said.

Founded in 1926 in India, Tablighi Jamaat has a presence in nearly 200 countries and wields considerable influence in Islamic communities. The group is a global missionary society or initiative that champions practising Islam as it was during in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, from dressing to customs and rituals.

“One of the biggest motivations of Muslims who join the group is to move around in different places and preach Islam. But they travel and live moderately and are self funded,” Rehman said.

Robinson from the University of London said its members came from all classes but the bedrock of its support was “lower-middle-class Muslims”.

Additional reporting by Reuters


Doctors complain of intimidation for reporting shortage of safety kits, and attacks over suspicion they carry infection.

Sonia Sarkar

New Delhi, India – On March 28, when Kolkata-based oncologist Indranil Khan received images of doctors wearing raincoats in the COVID-19 ward of a government hospital, he shared them on Twitter.

The next day, the West Bengal state health department assured him that “immediate steps” would be taken to reject “substandard” personal protective equipment (PPE).

Within two hours of that assurance, Khan was detained by police for questioning.

“I was released the next day only after I posted on social media that the state government is working hard for doctors,” the 31-year-old doctor, who was charged with causing communal disharmony and criminal intimidation, told Al Jazeera.

Khan moved a local court to contest the charges. The court observed that no government can intimidate doctors, even those who brought “disrepute” to it.

West Bengal police official Gyanwant Singh, who is authorised to speak on the matter, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls and messages seeking clarification.

Harjit Singh Bhatti@DrHarjitBhatti

Doctors of AIIMS, RML, Lady Hardinge Medical College & allied hospitals refused to donate in They asked authorities to stop mandatory cuts of our salaries & instead provide us PPEs, security, accommodation, transportation & high risk allowance

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With 1.2 million doctors, the doctor-population ratio in India is 1:1456, much lower than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1:1000.

Yet, doctors across India have been reprimanded for highlighting the government’s inefficiency in providing them adequate protective gear to fight the pandemic.

Recently, four doctors of New Delhi’s Hindu Rao Hospital bore the brunt of the authorities for highlighting the lack of PPE. The doctors were threatened with dismissal.

The federal government’s Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi asked the administrators of their WhatsApp groups to provide their names, phone numbers and email IDs to share the details with the police.

The hospital’s medical superintendent Balvinder Singh Arora told Al Jazeera the circular “will work as a deterrent for people who spread fake news regarding PPE shortage on WhatsApp”.

Despite Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for data on the current stock of PPE and N-95 masks, no government official concerned with the matter responded.

In a press statement on Friday, the federal government stated that the availability of PPE with the states has “doubled” and another two million N-95 masks were provided.

Meanwhile, of the nearly 9,000 COVID-19 patients in India, at least 90 are health professionals. On Thursday, a doctor in the central Madhya Pradesh state died of COVID-19.

Doctors fear an inadequate supply of PPE makes them vulnerable to the coronavirus

AIIMS doctors write to Modi

Srinivas Rajkumar T of the resident doctors’ association at New Delhi’s premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said doctors and nurses in their COVID-19 wards were asked to wear the PPE usually worn while examining HIV patients.

“PPE kits meant for examining HIV patients are not equipped to resist droplets, and the coronavirus infection gets transmitted through droplets sneezed out or coughed up by infected patients,” Rajkumar T said.

But those who raised such issues on social media were being intimidated by the authorities, he said.

However, AIIMS director Randeep Guleria told Al Jazeera the health professionals posted in COVID-19 wards were getting PPE and masks that “met the international guidelines”. He “advised” the staffers to discuss their problems “internally and not post them on social media”.

But the AIIMS doctors still wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the “harsh backlash” they faced from authorities for demanding professional safety equipment.

There has been no response yet from Modi’s office over the letter.

“There is no gag order or censorship on doctors or other health professionals by us,” India’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Harsh Vardhan, told Al Jazeera.

“But they must approach the authorities to get their grievances addressed instead of going to social media. They can even write to me,” he said.

Rajan Sharma of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), a voluntary national body of doctors, added: “Doctors can come to us and not sensationalise problems.”

However, geriatrician Harjit Singh Bhatti, who started a social media campaign called “DocsNeedGear”, argued: “The aim is not to sensationalise problems but to make the voices heard.”

Staff members of a hospital in Kolkata carry candles and oil lamps to show solidarity with people affected by the coronavirus disease. [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Recently, doctors in Indian-administered Kashmir were also threatened with “strict action” and up to six months’ jail for speaking against the government’s alleged failures in a circular.

“It [the circular] was for a group of health professionals who were using social media for a blame game,” the Himalayan region’s director of health services, Samir Mattoo, told Al Jazeera.

But Owais H Dar, the general secretary of Kashmir Doctors’ Association, said the doctors were sharing “only the truth” because they know the “ground realities”.

Political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy told Al Jazeera that by censoring doctors, the government was attempting to create “a sense of false self-image that covers up its limitations”.

Epidemiologist Jayaprakash Muliyil warned the authorities that censoring information would only add more confusion to the existing chaos.

“Doctors are busy fighting the pandemic, they don’t want to start a fight with the government,” he told Al Jazeera.

Priyanka Udasi@priyanka_udasi

Harrasing doctors is not helping. Let’s stand together in this and make it a better place to survive in. @narendramodi @PMOIndia @AmitShah @MHOIndia Make attacks on Doctors a non-bailable offence – Sign the Petition! via @ChangeOrg_India

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‘Fight inside and outside hospitals’

Besides facing censorship from the government on speaking out, Indian doctors have also faced attacks and social boycotts.

Last week, two female doctors at Safdarjung Hospital were assaulted by a resident for “spreading coronavirus infection”.

In the western state of Gujarat, a mobile video of a female doctor harassed by her neighbour for working with COVID-19 patients went viral on social media.

In Madhya Pradesh, health workers were attacked as they visited a neighbourhood to test some residents. Junior doctors in the southern Telangana state were labelled “dirty”.

On March 27, Al Jazeera reported that many doctors and health workers across India were evicted from their rental houses over fear of contracting the infection.

“I frantically looked for alternative accommodation but nobody offered one,” Shamima Yasmin, 23, a medical nurse in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, who was among those evicted from her home, told Al Jazeera.

The IMA condemned the social boycott of doctors.

But Bhatti said the medical body “did nothing” beyond the condemnation. “The doctors continue to fight their own battle – inside and outside hospitals.”


The story was first published on April 13, 2020 in Al Jazeera :

A combination of virus stigma, poor health awareness and ‘herd mentality’ have been blamed for the evictions across the country They come as epidemiologists warn India could have 915,000 coronavirus infections by mid-May, more than the caseload for the whole world right now

Cases of Covid-19 infection in India have ticked rapidly higher the past week, raising alarm over the ability of the world’s second-most populous country, with its fragile health care system and battered economy, to handle a future surge in cases.

While the country has officially seen 27 deaths and more than 1,000 cases so far, experts fear the real tally could be much higher and say the disease is already spreading in the community, a charge authorities have denied.

Yet even as the looming crisis unfolds, health care workers on the front lines of the fight against the virus are now being made homeless, thanks to what Mathur, the doctor in Jodhpur, blamed on “herd mentality”.

Some health care workers have been called “dirty” by their former landlords, while in the central state of Telangana, 22-year-old Nihal Mallela, a junior resident doctor at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital, said he hides the identifying markers of his profession such as a stethoscope and white coat out of fear people will look at him “with suspicion”.

“Doctors in other countries are fighting the virus but doctors in India are fighting the stigma,” said a senior resident doctor at the same hospital, who only gave his initials M. P.

India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan has moved to assure the public that all precautions are being taken by both “doctors and staff” treating coronavirus patients to ensure that they do not become disease carriers, and the authorities have warned of legal action against any landlords evicting tenants on such grounds.

But a general lack of personal protective equipment is leaving the country’s health care workers vulnerable to infection. There have been numerous complaints of staff having to work without face masks, sanitiser and various other basic pieces of kit, with one nurse at a hospital in Kolkata saying they had been told to wear raincoats in lieu of hospital gowns.

Leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV-Aids patients had all been similarly stigmatised in the past, he said, adding that this time the panic was particularly acute as many were “worried about how a resource-poor India will be able to survive this pandemic”.

Modi’s government has announced it will provide medical insurance cover of 5 million rupees (US$66,500) per person for all frontline health care workers fighting the virus, and on March 24 initiated the world’s largest quarantine by ordering the country’s population of 1.3 billion people not to leave their homes for three weeks.

But there is concern it still might not be enough, and such a large-scale lockdown will be difficult to implement, particularly in a place where the poor live in close quarters and the social distancing measures being advocated in the West are almost impossible.

Along with the lockdown, India has also acted to curb inbound travellers from overseas. Should these measures fail to halt the virus’ spread, though, epidemiologists say the numbers could be staggering. A University of Michigan-run study predicts the country could have 915,000 coronavirus infections by mid-May, more than the caseload for the whole world right now.

This is what is making landlords nervous, according to 33-year-old pathologist Anirban Dutta of West Bengal’s Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital, who was also evicted recently.

“I told the owner of the house that the infection is mainly transmitted through droplets that come out when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and I was not infected,” he said.

“Plus, we stayed on separate floors, we didn’t use common spaces or utensils, she could not have contracted the infection from me. But she was not convinced.”

Kolkata-based psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram said the “hypocritical” behaviour of landlords who applaud health care workers one day and evict them the next could be explained by “poor health awareness” in the country, as well as a cultural tendency for Indians to mistrust one another which “manifests in the form of stigmatisation”.

Last week, leading public health expert Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told This Week In Asia that

as many as 300 million people in India, or about 20 per cent of the population, will catch coronavirus

in the worst-case scenario. He maintained, however, that the overwhelming majority of these infections would be “extremely mild”.

In viral hotspots like China’s Hubei province, Italy, Spain and now New York, a rapid surge of infections brought a wave of patients to hospitals that exceeded their capacity for critical care. Doctors have been forced to effectively choose who lived and who died through the deployment of scarce resources like ventilators.

In India, that tipping point – if it comes – will arrive sooner.

Story was published in South China Morning Post:


The missionary group linked to an outbreak at Malaysia’s Sri Petaling mosque complex in February, has been criticised for holding an event in New Delhi This has snowballed into anger against Muslims in India, with social media posts suggesting they were the main carriers of Covid-19

Hafiza Sheikh, a homemaker in Greater Noida in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, was suddenly flooded with anti-Muslim messages on social media on Tuesday morning. Some of these called Muslims “illiterate” while others labelled them as “carriers” of the coronavirus infection.

Confused about the reason for these Islamophobic messages, she checked a news site and found out that 24 Muslims who recently attended an event organised by missionary group Tablighi Jamaat had tested positive in New Delhi.

“The entire community became the target of right-wing propaganda machinery,” Sheikh said. “Just once again.”

Social media users expressed anger at the organisation for holding an event in early March as the coronavirus pandemic was already raging across the world. A similar gathering by the same group in Malaysia’s Sri Petaling mosque complex in February, with 16,000 attendees, resulted in hundreds of infections across Southeast Asia.

The government has declared New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, a neighbourhood of narrow, winding lanes where Tablighi Jamaat has its international headquarters, as one of the country’s 10 coronavirus “hotspots”.

Authorities said people kept visiting the five-storey building from other parts of the country and abroad, and that the group had delivered sermons to large groups of people despite government orders on social distancing.

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