India’s Islamophobia Creeps Into Nepal
Nationalist media and pandemic fears have caused hatred to go viral.
KATHMANDU, Nepal—In Nepal, Muslims, who make up about 4 percent of the population, have lived peacefully alongside the majority Hindu population for centuries, arriving as immigrants from elsewhere but establishing strong communities. Nepalis pride themselves on a history of religious tolerance, even in a region where faith has often had bloody consequences.
But India’s right-wingers are trying hard to change that.
India’s Hindu nationalist fundamentalists and its Islamophobic media are taking advantage of the coronavirus to push hatred to Nepal through popular Indian news channels and social media.
The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his link to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization and its Hindu nationalist ideology, has strengthened the New Delhi establishment to the remaking of Nepal as a Hindu country again. In 2006, Nepal became a secular country after it ousted the old constitutional monarchy, when a more secular Indian government helped push former Maoist rebels to a peace deal and into mainstream politics. But it has been easy for Indian Islamophobia to spread to Nepal, thanks to the number of Hindi speakers there and the wide range of Indian TV available.
All this, mixed with yellow journalism in Nepal, has caused nasty rumors to spread fast. On April 16, a few rupee bills were found scattered in Janakpur, southern Nepal. One man picked up a note and offhandedly told a shopkeeper that the bills might be tainted with the coronavirus. A claim that two Muslim women had scattered the bills after spitting on them spread within no time, based on a CCTV video that showed the bills dropping out of their pockets. Islamophobic posts making claims such as that the women spat on the bills deliberately to spread the coronavirus went viral.
Meanwhile, the police tested the two women for COVID-19, and the initial quick test produced a positive result from one of the women. That sparked further hateful posts—but it later turned out that the test had been wrong and further testing gave negative results. In reality, the two women had just returned from the bankand had dropped the notes accidentally. The police pleaded for the public not to spread further rumors—but this particular incident didn’t spring out of nowhere. The groundwork had already been well laid.
A week earlier, on April 10, India’s right-wing media, particularly Hindi news channels, circulated sensationalized news that Pakistan might have sent coronavirus-infected Muslim men to India via Nepal. They coined a new term: “corona-jihad.” The claims were based on an unverified and largely unsourced report sent by the state of Bihar to the Indian Home Ministry, which included false claims that Jalim Miya, a Muslim politician in Nepal, was behind the supposed plot and that the group of men were taking paracetamol to suppress their fevers and pass undetected. Miya explained exasperatedly that there was no such plot and was backed by Nepal’s central government. It echoed earlier allegations and faked videos that Muslims traveling between the two countries were superspreaders. The Nepal-India border was sealed on March 30, and a large number of Nepalis and Indian migrants were quarantined at the border on April 2.
On the one hand, such cooked-up stories have damaged the image of Indian media in Nepal. The hashtag #RIPIndianMedia trended in Nepal. Yet even Nepali journalists, online news portals, and the public engaged in Islamophobic posts and tweets—resulting in #IslamophobiaInNepal going viral.
Hajji Abdullah Miya, a former member of the Hajj Committee of Nepal, told Foreign Policy: “Especially after the rise of Modi, the attitude towards Muslims in India has changed. In any case, the general tendency to portray Muslims negatively is old in India. India used to spread rumors against the Muslims of Nepal to create animosity with the Indian Muslims. Whether in the name of mosques and madrassas in the Terai border region or on other issues, India has always attacked Nepali Muslims.”
Nepal’s Muslims are worried about the rise in Islamophobia—but they hope their friends and neighbors will stop things getting worse. They point to the failure of the 1992 riots around the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque built on a site also revered by Hindus in Ayodhya, India, to spread over the border. But there has been a steady rise in attacks against Nepali Muslims on social media. The majority of Nepalis, however, continue to reject the attempts to whip up hatred, and there have been no reported physical assaults on Muslims.
India’s right-wing is well entrenched, as is its Islamophobia. Nepal is likely to keep seeing the Hindu nationalist agenda pushed hard by its giant neighbor. But even amid the pandemic, Nepalis can still choose to reject hatred as they have done in the past.
Arun Budhathoki is a Nepalese journalist and poet.