How fake news, rumours are driving call for ban on Muslim vendors in NW Delhi
A Facebook video in which residents of Shastri Nagar threaten to impose a ban on Muslim vegetable vendors went viral. Asiaville visited the area and tracked down the people involved in the meeting. We discovered that a cocktail of fake news, rumours, and Tablighi Jamaat coronavirus cases had led to the Hindu neighbourhood taking such a communal call. Infact, in the past week, reports of targeted attacks on Muslims in the name of containing Covid-19 have surfaced from across North India.
A dangerous cocktail of fake news, rumours, and Tablighi Jamaat coronavirus cases is emerging as the latest threat to the Muslim community street vendors during the 21-day lockdown.
Once they are identified as Muslim, they are being forced to shut shop. In North-West Delhi’s Hindu dominated localities, street vendors complain that many buyers seek their identity cards to ascertain whether they are Hindu or Muslim. These concerns seem to stem from one or the other viral video in which Muslim men are accused of spitting in neighbourhoods or licking their fingers before touching food items. The localities are putting restrictions on the movements of Muslim street vendors.
Mohammad Salman, 21, has been a fruit vendor in North West Delhi since his childhood. Initially, he used to assist his brother, and has been running his own business for the past couple of years. However, rumours around the COVID-19 outbreak have made his business prospects critical. Salman claimed that he was being abused by the locals in Shastri Nagar, and that fruit and vegetable vendors are being targeted because of their identity. “They target us because they saw a video in which an elderly Muslim man can be seen touching fruits with his spit in hands. But because of the mistake of one individual, why target the entire community?”
A video being circulated on Facebook showed residents holding a meeting in Delhi seeking a ban on Muslim vegetable vendors. The man shooting the video can be heard saying that the meeting is being held in Shastri Nagar: “Our Mandal (branch) meeting is going on. Don’t let Muslim vendors enter your neighbourhood. Muslims are making the situation worse.”
The man turns his camera towards the vegetable vendors who had just entered the lane. They are quizzed about their religious identity and warned to carry their identity proofs henceforth. Towards the end, the man shooting the video says how they had managed to nab a Muslim who was portraying himself as some “Mishra” (as a Hindu).
In order to check the authenticity of the video and verify the claims being made on social media, Asiaville visited the locality and tracked down the people who were attending the meeting.
MK Sharma, a local resident of Shastri Nagar’s B Block, rejected outright the claims being made on social media. Sharma, a property dealer, said, “The video is not from this area. In fact, in this locality, we don’t discriminate with anyone. Everything is peaceful.”
However, his claims didn’t hold water even for minutes. Barely a few metres away, we enquired with local vegetable street vendors Ranveer Singh and Shyam. And the truth was out.
“It’s not the police. Rather the locals are asking for our identity cards. Those without ID proof are being scolded,” 22-year-old Singh told Asiaville. His associate, 34-year-old Shyam added, “It’s been three to four days since all this began. They check our identity before buying anything.”
Soon after, both Singh and Shyam showed us their documents. “I am keeping my Aadhaar card, voter ID and other documents handy. We don't want to get into any trouble,” Singh added while showing us his documents one after the other.
When asked what could have triggered this sudden communal discrimination, Shyam responded, “Ever since the rumours have spread that the Muslims are spitting on food items before selling them.” They confirmed the problems being faced by Muslim vendors as claimed by Salman as well. Shyam said, “Mostly, the Muslim vegetable and fruit sellers have stopped entering the locality.”
Looking at the video of the meeting seeking a ban on Muslim street vendors, both Singh and Shyam were able to identify the neighbourhood. They confirmed that many of those attending the meeting were local residents of the lane where the video was shot.
As we moved around the area, another vegetable vendor confirmed the restriction being imposed by the locals. “Mohammad logon ke chakkar mein ID card puch rahe hai. Mohammad logon se grahak sabzi nahi leta hai (It’s because of the Muslims that the locals have started to check the ID cards. No one wants to buy vegetables from a Muslim in this area),” the vegetable vendor said. However, he didn’t share his name. He too claimed that the rumours have spread due to the videos of Muslim fruit sellers doing the rounds on social media.
It was because of such videos that the residents of Shastri Nagar’s B Block held a meeting and imposed a ban on Muslim street vendors. The meeting, visible in the viral Facebook video, was held on April 5 in Good Living Society.
We tracked down at least three members who could be seen participating in the meeting. Seeking anonymity, a former MNC employee turned businessman, identified himself in the video.
The 48-year-old resident said, “We have seen so many videos on social media where Muslims can be licking their fingers while touching fruits and vegetables. That could spread Corona. There is so much in the news. And rumours were spreading because of this. There is Muslim dominated locality right next to us and we were afraid that these rumours could end up triggering riots.”
He claimed that the meeting was held for a “Roti-bank” being run by the locals for stray animals and birds. “Someone raised the concern during the meeting that Muslim vendors should be stopped from entering the neighbourhood considering the kind of videos surfacing on the social media,” he said.
The local residents claimed initially that they had sought to place a blanket ban on Muslim vendors; however, later it was decided that only known vegetable and street vendors would be allowed to enter the neighbourhood.
Sanjay Kumar Jain, another resident of the society, in an attempt to tone down the issue said, “We didn’t have any communal intention. It’s not about Hindu-Muslim.” He further added, “Yesterday, a rumour had spread in Shastri Nagar that a Muslim man was spitting in the locality. And he was nabbed after a while. In order to avoid any untoward incident, we have started seeking ID cards and allow only known vendors in the society.”
However, the residents claimed that they don’t know the person who shot the video of the meeting and did an impromptu commentary – appealing to others to ban Muslim vegetable vendors in their localities.
Notably, a young man flipped when this correspondent sought his permission to click his picture. “You will blow the issue and make it even a bigger problem for us,” the man, who refused to share his identity, instantly retorted.
The locals claimed the police had not questioned them so far about the meeting.
However, ACP R K Rathi said that a first information report (FIR) has been lodged into the matter under the relevant sections with Sarai Rohilla Police Station and an investigation has been initiated.
In order to avoid the repetition of such events, the Delhi Police is making announcements in the neighbourhoods, asking the locals to refrain from passing any such order. ACP Rathi said that if anyone is found spreading such messages, criminal charges would be lodged against them.
While the police are trying to ensure incidents such as the one in Good Living Society don’t get repeated, the street vendors say that such communal restrictions have increased their troubles.
Akash, who hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Gazipur, has been selling vegetables in the area for more than a decade now. He says the locals had never checked whether the vendor is Muslim or a Hindu.“They are asking Muslims vendors to leave. The Jamaat workers committed blunders (by organising religious congregation in Delhi in the wake of Covid-19 outbreak) and now local Muslims are paying a heavy cost,” Akash told Asiaville. He further added, “During the lockdown, many of daily wagers have already lost their jobs. And this (selling vegetables and fruits) was the only way to earn money during the lockdown. But they have made it (COVID-19) a Hindu-Muslim issue.”
Vendors complained that they were facing similar problems in localities such as Trinagar and Sawan Park.
Meanwhile, fruit vendors such as Salman and Mohammad Anas have stopped visiting the Hindu dominated localities of Shastri Nagar out of fear.
“They called me names. In Shastri Nagar, a group of men told me - Behen###d tum Musalmano tum ye Corona faila rahe ho (you Muslims are spreading Corona)”.
The sales were already down during the lockdown, and such restrictions are further hurting them economically. “We are facing similar problems in a locality called Gulabi Bagh area. They accuse us of spitting on fruit. We are paying for the mistakes of one individual.”
Mohammad Anas said that the locals threaten to vandalise their carts. “Hindu buyers don’t buy fruits from us. The sale has gone down from Rs 4000-4,500 to merely Rs 1,000-1,500.”
Salman is unable to fathom why the entire community is being targeted because of the act of a few members from the community.
“The other day, a group of eight customers were buying fruits from us. And suddenly a Hindu man came on a Scooty and threatened us. He told the customers – despite being a Hindu, why are you buying fruits from a Muslim?” Salman shared the incident from last Monday. “The customers left without buying.” Kapil, a fellow fruit vendor, vouched for Salman’s and Anas’s claims.
The targeted boycott of Muslim vendors in the name of containing the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed deep-rooted communal discrimination expanding in our neighbourhoods. It is not just one incident in North West Delhi, but rather Northern India that has been a hotbed of communal discrimination over the past week.
A Muslim youth, who had just returned from Bhopal, was beaten up in West Delhi’s Harewali Village. In Gurugram’s Dhankot village, four men opened fire on a local mosque. In Uttrakhand’s Haldwani, a group of men made a minority community fruit vendor close down his shop. In Jharkhand’s Gumla district, rumours of “spitting” triggered Hindu-Muslim riots in a village. Tribal youth was killed in this violence on Tuesday.
Each of these incidents has happened over the past 72 hours, and are all connected with rumours related to COVID-19 and Muslims. It indicates a national trend of targeted acts on the minority community in the name of containing the global pandemic.
It is important to note that the video in question, in which an elderly man can be seen licking his fingers while managing fruits in his cart, is an old video from February 2020. The fact checking website AltNews had tracked down how this video was first picked up by a random right-wing Twitter handle on April 3rd, and later by a Hindi News channel. From there it reached an even bigger Hindutva echo-chamber. It spread like a wildfire. Vendors like Salman said that they started facing discrimination over the past four days. That means that the culture of discrimination began right after old unrelated videos were shared across social media.