InternationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 31

India’s deadly train crash: Forget the truth, blame it on Muslims

It happens only in India that even a train accident is used as an opportunity to demonise Muslims.

Just after the recent terrible train crash near Balasore station in the eastern state of Odisha, in which more than 280 people died, posts started circulating on different social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, blaming Muslims for the accident.

Could it be a coincidence that it was a Friday when three trains collided with each other in Odisha? As if the Friday angle was not sufficient, a lie was invented that the station master was Muslim. To make it look more sinister, the photo of a religious shrine near the railway track where the accident had taken place was spread on social media claiming that it was a mosque, suggesting that there must be some link between the mosque and the accident.

It was immediately exposed as a lie. It was a Hindu temple and not a mosque. But imagine if it had actually been a mosque – the baseless conspiracy theory would have received fresh wings.

Sadly, fact-checking only cements doubts created by fake news in minds that are already prejudiced against Muslims and are being told day and night that Muslims are conspiring against the nation. These are minds trained to think that there is a need to keep an eye on Muslims and to subjugate them using laws and, if necessary, violence.

The railway minister ordered an inquiry into the accident by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has long given up the pretence of acting as an independent investigative agency and is principally used to target political opponents and probe cases along ideological lines laid down by the country’s ruling masters.

In this case, handing the case over to the CBI circumvents the normal process in such situations, which is an investigation by the commissioner of safety. The result: Instead of paying attention to flaws in safety measures, which could raise uncomfortable questions for the government, the investigation into the accident will now keep alive a criminal conspiracy theory. It aligns with the rumours spread just after the accident.

Close on the heels of this accident, the chief minister of the state of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, made a speech to discourage the use of chemicals in farming. Giving it an anti-Muslim twist, he vowed that “fertiliser jihad” would not be allowed. He was using this occasion to target Bengali Muslims in his state, whose main occupation is farming. Suggesting that they were spoiling the land by using chemicals, he was giving yet another justification for evicting Bengali Muslims and taking away their land, building on a campaign he has relentlessly pursued in recent years.

Sarma is recovering from the defeat of the BJP, his party, in the legislative election for the state of Karnataka, where he was a star campaigner. He, along with other leaders of the BJP, turned the election into an anti-Muslim hate campaign, saying that he had closed hundreds of madrasas and would ensure that all are closed. He also parroted familiar tropes about Indian Muslims, portraying them as against family planning. Statistics show that rates of polygamy are almost identical among Hindus and Muslims in India, and Muslim fertility rates have fallen sharply in recent decades. But facts are inconvenient when the aim is to spread lies about a religious minority community.

Then there is the chief minister of Uttarakhand state, also from the BJP, who said that a background check would be done on all outsiders. This announcement, clearly aimed at targeting Muslims, was made just after a Muslim boy was arrested on allegations of trying to kidnap a minor Hindu girl. Posters are up in multiple towns in the state asking Muslims to leave the place and shut their business, or marking Muslim-owned shops with ‘X’ signs — reminiscent of Nazi Germany and the targeting of Jews. Rallies are being held demanding the expulsion of Muslims, and many of them have already fled. Instead of providing security to them, the chief minister is promising an identity check, apparently to prevent Muslims from entering the state. Again, this builds on similar lies peddled by the chief minister and his party alleging Muslims are engaged in land grabs, in part to set up religious structures. This was framed in the deliberately provocative language of an alleged “land jihad” and “mazar jihad”.

In yet another bizarre incident, violence broke out targeting Muslims in the state of Maharashtra over the alleged glorification of the Mughal King Aurangzeb and the former ruler of Mysore Tipu Sultan, in social media posts and in a rally. The BJP and its far-right allies blame these long-dead emperors as poster boys of alleged violence against Hindus by former Muslim rulers, though history shows they had far more complex and nuanced legacies.

Instead of assuring safety to Muslims and restraining violent mobs, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, threatened that the “progenies of Aurangzeb” had no place in the state. He thus justified violence against Muslims. To any outsider, it would be difficult to understand why a social media post hailing Aurangzeb should invite this response or be treated as a criminal act. But all this is seen as perfectly normal in today’s India.

Horrific accidents like the recent train crash invariably claim the lives of ordinary Muslims along with their Hindu compatriots. But an atmosphere of hate and division has been created that makes even collective grieving impossible. At a time when the nation is still asking how such an accident occurred when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims to have revolutionised the railways, the response is unbridled Islamophobia.

That is no coincidence. This is aimed at absolving the prime minister and his government of any responsibility in the accident. The country’s top auditor has pointed out that the Modi government has not utilised the amount earmarked for safety in the railways and has instead used it for other purposes. The prime minister has been busy flagging off new trains while their safety remains neglected. The media, which should be busy asking questions, is hosting shows on “gaming jihad”, claiming that gullible Hindus are being lured to convert to Islam through online gaming platforms.

All of this works in India. An infallible prime minister who must not be asked questions and who is an expert in leading his people into a state of denial every time a mass tragedy occurs. A pliant and sycophant media that proactively incites violence against Muslims while endorsing all moves by the prime minister, helping ensure that people forget their right to ask questions from the government and make it accountable.

In this narrative, even the messages of support that India has received from around the world since the train crash are being portrayed as indicative not of basic humanity but of the government’s achievement in making the global community acknowledge the country’s relevance.

All of this is happening even as young Muslim scholars and activists like Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Khalid Saifi and Gulfisha Fatima remain in jail, their bail petitions repeatedly rejected by Indian courts over more than three years. What was their crime? Agitating peacefully against the government for the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.

And as I write this, a message reminded me that Javed Mohammad, a community leader and peacemaker, has completed a year in a jail in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Which brings me to the link between these arrests, Islamophobic campaigns by the top leaders of the ruling BJP and the train accident.

Here’s the harsh truth: Law is no longer an instrument aimed at delivering justice in today’s India. It is instead a political sledgehammer, a tool used to often prosecute people based on their religion. Like the train in Odisha, India’s legal system has been derailed. And those guilty won’t be punished.