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The religion of business

The call for ‘economic boycott’ of Muslim businesses is a banal yet dangerous trend

Cipla chairman Yusuf Hamied; the company manufactures key antiviral drugs.
Cipla chairman Yusuf Hamied; the company manufactures key antiviral drugs.

On the night of 8 April, a Twitter hashtag started trending across India and many parts of the US. Hashtag #StopCovidIslamophobia was started by US-based South Asian feminist collective Equality Labs to counter the hate speech that had proliferated on Twitter and Facebook over the past few days. “Ironically, this Twitter storm itself was a target of trolls who posted Islamophobic slurs on our original post," tweeted Equality Labs, adding that this wouldn’t deter them.

In the early days of the pandemic, the inevitable “who should we blame this on?" response from a large section of the Indian middle class landed squarely on the Chinese— anger, racist humour, xenophobic attacks against Indians from the North-East were all deployed to vent anger and frustration at an unprecedented situation. Since a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in March was linked to several clusters of covid-19, however, this anger and frustration has found another target: Muslims.

And while there were a few calls for boycotting Chinese businesses in the initial phase, they weren’t widespread enough to get much attention on Twitter and Facebook—who can resist the lure of cheap Chinese stuff in the long term? No such deterrent existed, however, for Muslim-run businesses operating in fiercely competitive markets where alternatives exist. In line with the call for boycotting brands whose ambassadors criticized some aspects of the Union government’s functioning, calls for boycotting Muslim-owned businesses started growing loud on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

Even big businesses that employ thousands have been targeted after “Coronajihaad" rumours—allegations that Muslim restaurant workers and food-business owners had been instructed to spit into or otherwise defile food items to spread the virus started doing the rounds. When Bengaluru-based iD Fresh Food, a packaged food firm founded by Kerala-born P.C. Musthafa, tweeted about its “store finder" feature that would help customers locate places where its products were in stock, many of the responses were bizarre. As a Muslim-owned business, were they ensuring their packers did not “indulging in mischief by spitting into the food"? “iD must be mixing harmful chemicals to put down Humans," one tweet said. A company spokesperson told Lounge they had no comment at this point.

Meanwhile, a Facebook group posted a call for “#economy_boycott" of MK Agrotech, a 24-year-old Mandya-based firm that sells cooking oils and sugar under the brand names Sunpure and Palmpure, because its directors are Muslim. There have even been hashtag campaigns against popular short-format video platform TikTok based on allegations that it is “spreading jihaad".

These hashtags continue to live on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Searching with the hashtag “Coronajihaad" yields thousands of results on Twitter, including “pledges" by ordinary Indians to stop doing business with Muslims. Neither Twitter nor Facebook have felt it necessary to shut down these often-trending hashtags. In fact, one of the action points of Equality Labs’ campaign is to bring these hashtags to the notice of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and demand their removal from the platforms—so far, there has been no response.

Unlike Twitter or Facebook posts, WhatsApp videos cannot generally be traced to an original poster. Even as they create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, their authenticity or lack thereof cannot be established beyond doubt. One such video shows a van full of vegetables driven by a Muslim man in a Bengaluru neighbourhood being questioned aggressively by a man off camera about where they are from, why they are in the neighbourhood and who “gave them permission". The visibly scared driver reverses and drives away. The text accompanying the video makes several insinuations—don’t allow unknown vendors into your neighbourhood, “these people are spitting on the roads and washing their hands in public".

While the authenticity of this video could not be ascertained, the very fact that it is being widely shared is dangerous, especially during a time of heightened paranoia, like the WhatsApp forwards about children-stealing strangers that led to several lynchings across India last year.

Even as these hate-filled hashtags rage on, Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla, founded in 1935 by the nationalist Khwaja Abdul Hamied and now headed by his son Yusuf Hamied, is joining hands with the Hyderabad-based government-run Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) to work on the development of antiviral drugs to contain covid-19. Currently, Cipla stock is climbing up on the news that the US food and drug administration has approved its generic version of an anti-asthma drug for the treatment of the viral disease.

It does make one wonder if the “economic boycott" brigade will care to find out the provenance of the drugs they may be forced to take if the pandemic reaches their doorstep.

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