The National Hawkers Federation (NHF), in a statement, condemned the attacks and discrimination against Muslim vendors during the COVID-19 lockdown, saying that this is part of the atmosphere of hate against the community currently spread through social media by profiling individuals and groups in order to stop, harass and heckle them by vigilante groups.
“We are alarmed and disheartened to learn that hawkers continue to be intimidated and physically attacked in various parts of the country…These incidents seem to have been spurred by a maelstrom of disinformation and propaganda campaigns being run by motivated agents and spread amongst people through social media… The rumours and hoaxes particularly seem to be targeting those belonging to the Muslim community,” the statement signed by its office bearers from across different states and a group of activists, academics and lawyers read.
It said Muslim vendors were being discriminated against and being stopped from selling fruits and vegetables in some non-Muslim localities.
“Such behaviour by citizens should be punishable by law as set forth in Section 153(A) and Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code. To prevent this there should be a dedicated police helpline number for Muslim vendors or essential service providers so that they can launch complaints of discrimination and prohibition,” it said.
The group demanded that the government carry out awareness campaigns against discrimination and explaining the contribution of the vendors during the pandemic.
Read the full statement:
We are alarmed and disheartened to learn that hawkers continue to be intimidated and physically attacked in various parts of the country. We have come across several news reports documenting such incidents as well as received first-hand complaints from many members of our organisation/ association/ union/ collective. They are being profiled and surveilled, stopped and harassed, and heckled and beaten up by vigilante groups who are acting with complete impunity.
These incidents seem to have been spurred by a maelstrom of disinformation and propaganda campaigns being run by motivated agents and spread amongst people through social media like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and WhatsApp.
The rumours and hoaxes particularly seem to be targeting those belonging to the Muslim community. Cursory examination of the sampled videos, images, and text messages, which are being widely circulated suggests that Muslim hawkers are being blamed for the spread of the Coronavirus, resulting in their stigmatisation.
It bears remembering that the Emergency Programme Director of the World Health Organisation, recently reminded the global political leadership that countries should not profile novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) cases in terms of religion or any other criteria and cautioned against profiling the “the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines” on April 6, 2020. We have to remember that the virus does not care where someone was born, their status, the colour of their skin, nor the gods they worship.
In the middle of the nationwide lockdown, when curtailed movement and access to basic necessities is proving to be challenge for all of us, these hawkers are our veritable lifelines. To target and attack them is not only a violation of their dignity and most basic rights but also an unconscionable act on the part of our citizenry.
It is extremely unfortunate that a section of our society, whose livelihood is completely dependent on their daily earnings, are being subjected to humiliation and violence in the middle of one of the most unprecedented and challenging public health crisis facing the country.
They are a key part of our supply chain. They play a crucial role in improving last-mile access for millions of people every day. It is to their credit that they are continuing to their jobs in face of enormous personal risks, something that we all should be grateful about.
The protection of these hardworking people is of paramount concern. We owe it to these hardworking people, now more than ever, that they are allowed to carry out their small businesses without any fear or hindrance.
- Public campaign raising awareness on non-discrimination of vendors: The Government, Union and State, should come out with strong messages that do not condone religion-based discrimination especially in the time of a health and economic crisis in the country. There should be constant progressive notifications and orders being released by the Government to facilitate essential service provision to all people through fruit and vegetable street vendors/hawkers with all the safety and health precautions.
- Emphasising the valuable contribution of fruit and vegetable vendors during the COVID lockdown: Street vendors hawking fruits and vegetables along with other essential goods are absolutely essential to the depleted food economy as of now, as not every home has access to a departmental grocery store. In this unprecedented scenario, to discriminate against Muslim vendors is an act of ignorance which should be punishable by law.
- Guiding the media to not propagate anti-Muslim rhetoric: The government should try and ensure the minimising of anti-Muslim and communal reporting of the COVID crisis through most media outlets and should stop using one incident to demonise an entire community, especially those members of society which are essential service providers.
We, therefore, call upon the political leadership to send out a strong message among the people to cease hostility against hawkers and offer them due courtesy and cooperation.
We call upon the law enforcement forces to proactively put a stop to incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence and take exemplary action against those who break the law.
We call upon the mainstream media, a key stakeholder in all crisis communication, to play a positive role by working in the interest of the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Finally, we call upon our fellow citizens to realise the gravity of the situation and play a constructive role in helping the country tide over this crisis.
We urge everyone to keep track of government advisories and strictly follow the prescribed safety protocols to protect themselves and others from the pandemic.