Covid-19 Pandemic and Responses from Religious Communities in South Asia
While Covid-19 responses by religious communities in South Asia have largely been encouraging, in some instances, however, minority communities and groups felt having been left out and also stigmatized. It is responsibility of religious and community leaders to propagate humanity and empathy among people so that marginalized groups are not discriminated in situations of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the governments should develop and make operational the existing platforms of regional cooperation and connectivity. Improved state-to-state relations and cooperation in South Asia will also help in strengthening people to people contacts, which are currently at a much lower level.
These were some of the key arguments shared by the participants of a Webinar organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies on Friday, August 7, 2020. The purpose of the discussion was to evaluate religious communities’ responses o Covid-19 in South Asia and analyze their implications for religious harmony and bilateral relations among the South Asian nations.
The discussants included Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni, founder of the Forum for a New South Asia, India; Dr. Qibla Ayaz, chairman of Council of the Islamic Ideology, Pakistan; Mr. Yubaraj Sangroula, executive director of Kathmandu School of Law, Nepal; Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, regional director of International Media Support in Sri Lanka; Zillur Rahman, executive director of the Center for Governance Studies, Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Muhammad Amir Rana, director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan, who also moderated the discussion.
While introducing the participants to the purpose and key points of discussion, Mr. Amir Rana said that the Covid-19 had certainly influenced public and policy discourses in South Asian nations, but with varying degrees. In some countries, the role of religious leaders and scholars was more visible in people’s understanding of and responding to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. In that context, it is important to understand how religious communities perceived and responded to the Covid-19 challenge, and explore useful parallels or success stories which could be employed to develop effective Covid-19 responses. At the same time it is imperative to understand how Covid-19 responses have been shaping bilateral relations between countries in South Asia.
Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni noted that in the month of May 2020, SAARC Covid-19 conference was held on video link but it went unsuccessful because of lack of trust and cooperation amongst the SAARC members. He stressed that as South Asia is home to all religions of the world, South Asian people should learn to respect their religious diversity and help each other in hard times. “Unfortunately, the world will remember India’s internal migration of labor during the pandemic for many years,” Mr. Kulkarni stated. He also underlined that there was a big gathering of Tableeghi Jamat in India just before the lockdown. During the lockdown, such news was spread on the media as if the Tableeghi Jamat alone was responsible for the spread of the pandemic in India. Through the media, this message of hatred was spread all over India. Although there were many gatherings of Hindus as well, but it is unfortunate that a specific religion was targeted. However, during all this negativity, there were also positive aspects, he said.
Mr. Kulkarni lamented what he said the lack of empathy in South Asia and elsewhere in the world. In situations like Covid-19, when marginalized communities suffer the most, empathy is needed more than ever. He emphasized the need to put more focus on public health and make related facilities available to marginalized communities.
Dr. Qibla Ayaz said that at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Shia pilgrims coming from Iran were blamed for the spread of the disease in Pakistan. Other than that, we did not see any such propaganda in Pakistan against any religious minority or community. Even the propaganda against the Shia community dissipated soon without marking any influence in society. The government also responded well and developed good communication and collaboration with religious leaders, and luckily, the majority of the religious circles followed pandemic-related health instructions. As for Shia Muslims, initially, there was propaganda that the UK and the US are spreading the virus in the Muslim countries but soon the situation was totally changed. Majority of the people now believe that it is a natural pandemic.
He noted that harmony between religious communities and groups of India and Pakistan could result in good relationships between the two countries. By strengthening people’s role in SAARC, we can initiate a culture of dialogue and harmony in the whole region.
Dr. Yubaraj Sangroula noted that during the pandemic there was complete religious harmony in Nepal, including between mosques and temples. Mosques were providing food, shelter and medicines to the people. “In Nepal, we have ethnic conflicts but do not have any religious problems. Muslim community looks after our temples and Hindu community looks after our mosques. You can find many such examples in Kathmandu and other places in the country,” he underlined.
To strengthen people’s confidence in regional cooperation and contacts, SAARC could be a good initiative. Dr. Yubaraj lamented the non-functionality of SAARC. “We have been inviting students from all over the SAARC countries for the last three years [to our school of law in Kathmandu] and [believe that] such efforts should be repeated across the SAARC nations. Academia should be engaged in this regard. Religious groups should get together to promote harmony. Academia, students and civil society should come forward and do something,” he stressed.
Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya stated that despite the coronavirus pandemic, Sri Lanka held its general elections. The pandemic hit Sri Lanka right one year after the heinous Easter attack, so the religious sensitivity was at its peak during the election campaign, which was based on ethnic and religious sensitivity, among other things. The elections indeed multiplied the existing hatred amongst different religious communities.
Dr. Ranga noted that when the Sri Lankan government imposed lockdown in March, Muslim community was being accused of being the source of the spread of pandemic; there were many incidents where Muslims were attacked. In April, the federal government ordered to cremate the bodies of those who died of pandemic and it caused anger in the Muslim community. Media played a negative role because it ignited the division between Muslims and Buddhists. Similarly, the allegations that were put on the Tableeghi Jamaat in India for spreading the virus were felt in Sri Lanka as well. There is a saying here these days that “corona started in China, [and was] promoted in the US, baptized in Europe, Islamicized in India, and [was then] sent to Sri Lanka.” He underlined that rightwing nationalists of South Asia were responsible for spreading the fake news on social media and the Muslim community of Sri Lanka was direct victim of these false news.
Mr. Zillur Rahman stated, while responding to Mr. Amir Rana’s comment that religious gatherings were considered one of the main reasons for the spread of the virus in Bangladesh, that in his country there was no hatred or division on the basis of pandemic. He explained that after the government decided on lockdown, religious institutions played an effective role in creating awareness among the people to follow the protective measures and regulations set out by the government. They successfully convinced the people to stay at home and follow health guidelines. He also noted that unlike some other countries, there is no pandemic-related blame game in Bangladesh.