What's fuelling vaccine hesitancy among India's Muslims?

The state of Jammu and Kashmir has one of India's highest vaccine hesitancy levels. [Getty]
6 min read
01 July, 2021
In-depth: A mismanaged rollout, misinformation, and chronic mistrust of the BJP are driving high levels of vaccine hesitancy in India's Muslim communities, with potentially disastrous results.

To many across the globe, vaccines have represented a light at the end of the tunnel that is the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, in India, various myths and rumours are circulating social media platforms, casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines. Particularly among India's Muslim population, vaccine hesitancy is not only due to misinformation and misconceptions, but also a symptom of a significant lack of trust in the government. 

Many Muslims in India fear that they might die after taking the vaccine, or their life expectancy will be reduced.

"People are dying because of heart attacks [after the vaccine]," claims 52-year-old Shagufta Anjum, a resident of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

"I am not taking the vaccine as I do not know if and when I will get a second dose"

India's ineffective vaccine rollout

The mistrust in vaccines is playing hand-in-hand with a shortage in the supply of vaccines. While some are afraid of vaccine side effects, those who do want the vaccine are finding it difficult to register for a jab and find a slot without paying exorbitant prices.

After a drawn-out power struggle between state and the central governments, earlier this month, the federal government seized control over the procurement of vaccines. However, the central government's vaccination rollout plan is not clear for many.

This has become a point of contention. 

For example, Hamza Ahmad, 24, says,  "I am not taking the vaccine as I do not know if and when I will get a second dose," adding that taking the first shot and not being able to procure a second shot in time is a "waste of the first dose."

Ahmad reiterates that the government still has not satisfactorily explained why India donated vaccines to neighbouring countries at a time when there were not enough doses available for the Indian population.

Some analysts suggest that this act of "vaccine diplomacy" was taken to compete with Russia and China, who were donating their own vaccines.

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Misinformation, coupled with vaccine shortages, is fuelling fear in the population. 

India, the country with the second-highest number of recorded infections and home to the largest vaccine manufacturer of the world, the Serum Institute of India, has only vaccinated 4.1% of its population, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. This makes India very unlikely to achieve its target of a fully vaccinated adult population by the end of 2021.

"He believes that the BJP could use mass vaccination as an opportunity to further marginalise, or even exterminate Muslims"

Vaccine hesitancy and government mistrust 

A lack of trust in the central government has led many people, especially Muslims, to refuse vaccination. The consequences of this can especially be seen in Jammu and Kashmir, where reports of people being forcibly vaccinated have caught the headlines.

A student leader at Aligarh Muslim University, Amir Mintoe, explains that since the foundation of India's ruling BJP in 1980, it has used Islamophobic rhetoric and politics to appeal to its base.

The BJP has long used fear politics to stir up Hindu nationalists, for example, by sensationalising the Triple Talaq Islamic divorce and overhyping the population growth of the Muslim community. It also has repressed the Muslim population of the country, which makes up around 15% of the population, with controversial policies such as the proposed Uniform Civil Code, which would end the special status accorded to Muslims and Christians.

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Decades of systematic oppression and exclusion at the hands of a BJP-led government has resulted in the Muslim minority being hesitant to take part in the current vaccination drive.

"I do not trust this Government, they aim to make Muslims impotent through vaccination," a 27-year-old Muslim stated on the condition of anonymity.

He believes that the BJP could use mass vaccination as an opportunity to further marginalise, or even exterminate Muslims.

He is not alone. 26-year-old Shahrukh from UP says that he will refuse the vaccine, "due to Modi and Yogi's past." Yogi Adityanath is UP's Chief Minister and a hardcore Hindu nationalist. 

"Modi's reputation cannot escape the blot of 2002 Gujarat violence, which occurred under his tenure as Chief Minister"

BJP's troubling history

A closer look at the historical platforms of the BJP and its leaders further explains the mistrust of the Muslim minority in India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, first elected in 2014 and again in 2019, has tried to represent himself as a progressive symbol of modernity. However, his reputation cannot escape the blot of 2002 Gujarat violence, which occurred under his tenure as Chief Minister. 

The Gujarat violence began when two carriages of a train carrying Hindu activists were set ablaze in the town of Godhra, sparking intense and widespread backlash from Hindu groups. According to a Human Rights Watch report on the Gujarat violence, which names the Indian central government and state police as "complicit" in the violent backlash, the Indian government names the death count at 850 people, while unofficial death counts are as high as 2,000. The overwhelming majority of casualties were Muslims.

An unidentified convicted Indian man after a guilty verdict in the 2002 Gujarat riot massacre in Ahmedabad on 2 June, 2016. [Getty]
An unidentified convicted Indian man after a guilty verdict in the 2002 Gujarat riot massacre in Ahmedabad on 2 June, 2016. [Getty]

BJP leaders have never apologised for the demolition of the Babri mosque in UP in 1992, which instigated riots that claimed hundreds of lives and fuelled greater Hindu-Muslim animosity. The construction of the Ram Mandir Hindu temple on the site of the destroyed mosque has been on BJP's manifesto since the inception of the party.

The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 can also be attributed to BJP leaders egging the Hindu mobs to attack Muslims during a period of communal tension. These riots left 50 dead and around 50,000 Muslims displaced.

Recently, in 2020, the BJP's recent violent crackdown, causing at least 21 deaths, on protests against the Citizen Amendment Act, which granted preferential treatment to non-Muslim immigrants, and the National Register of Citizens, which would allow the government to identify and deport "illegal immigrants", has furthered feeling of animosity between Muslims Indians and the central government.

"A narrative will be built that Muslims are deliberately choosing not to get vaccinated in order to spread Covid-19"

Consequences of vaccine hesitancy

Muslim vaccine hesitancy due to this mistrust could lead to worse health outcomes and further marginalisation for the community.

Shariq Riyazi, 28, a resident of West UP says, "There is a high possibility in future when there is no vaccine shortage, and vaccination drive is in full swing… a narrative will be built that Muslims are deliberately choosing not to get vaccinated in order to spread Covid-19."

When the pandemic was sweeping across the nation, several media organizations and political leaders accused Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational Islamic missionary movement, of deliberately spreading Covid-19. Riyazi fears that this could happen, driven by vaccine hesitancy, creating an even more stark divide between the Muslim and Hindu communities in India.

Salman Saleem is a freelance journalist and a budding filmmaker. Rashi, who prefers to not use a surname, is also a freelance journalist and has experience in the field of research.