Bengaluru: On the evening of 4 May, 22-year-old Abdul (name changed) was getting ready for his night shift to man the Covid-19 helpline in Bengaluru when his phone started to buzz incessantly. They were calls of concern from his family in Bengaluru and from friends and relatives in his home town 200 km to the West.
Abdul did not know that his name, along with 16 other Muslim colleagues, featured in a series of viral messages claiming that “a team of terrorists” was using the helpline to scam desperate patients by offering ICU beds at a fee or blocking beds for Muslims. The flood of hate began soon after a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament and three members of legislative assembly, with no evidence, cherry picked their names from a list of 205 municipal helpline operators.
The viral messages only listed the names of the 16 Muslim operators. Other variants of the message contained pictures of a Muslim doctor, the name and designation of a Muslim municipal official and pictures of a Christian doctor.
“I was confused. My mind boggles thinking about how these messages travelled from Bengaluru to even small villages in the state,” said Abdul, whose primary role was to receive calls redirected from the Covid-19 helpline. “I’m lucky the message had only my name and not my picture.” His brother, who worked at the same centre, was also mentioned. A majority of the callers were families of critically-ill patients seeking intensive-care-unit (ICU) beds, which are in scarce supply in a city that now has more active Covid-19 cases than any other Indian city.
“I am scared, I am saddened,” Abdul told Article 14 over the phone. “Thousands have seen my name associated with some scam, portrayed as some kind of terrorist. People who know me know the truth. What about the others?”
The names of the workers, all in their 20, who spoke to Article 14 are being kept anonymous for fear of reprisal and further harassment. They are now under suspension and are ordered to report for questioning to a local police station, where they are made to wait for hours, once till 3 am.
Muslim Names Scattered Through List, Cherry Picked
Only a few hours before the flood of hate, Bengaluru South member of parliament (MP) and BJP Youth Wing President Tejasvi Surya and three of his party’s legislators arrived angry at the Bengaluru south “war room”, which handles Covid-19 calls for the area.
Surya singled out 16 names, all Muslims working at the war room. After reading out their names, he asked: “How did you appoint these people? What was the process?” The confrontation was being telecast via Facebook live on Surya’s account. In the video, BJP MLA and Surya’s uncle, Ravi Subramanya, asks: “Have you appointed them to some sort of a madrasa or a corporation?”
A few moments later, the group of elected representatives held a press conference alleging an ICU-bed scam run by Covid-19 war room employees, who, they said, were blocking beds in private hospitals and selling them to desperate patients for Rs 40,000 and more. While they presented examples, they did not name who was responsible.
While Surya later denied he intended to accuse only Muslims and returned two days later to offer a qualified apology—”If anyone or any community is hurt emotionally by my visit, I apologise for that,” he was quoted as saying—the Muslim names were scattered through the list of 205 employees and had quite apparently been cherry picked.
By then, an Islamophobic tide had washed over Whatsapp, Facebook and other social media, as right-wing Hindu groups deliberately conflated the alleged scam and the religious profiling by Surya and the three legislators. “He (referring to a Muslim doctor at the helpline) and his team of terrorists listed below are involved in hospital bed booking scam,” one message read. “They have blocked and booked over 4000 beds over a period of two weeks by taking amounts of 40k from patients. If any Bengaluru South resident have (sic) lost their loved ones due to non-availability of bed, the below terrorists are responsible.”
The forward listed the names of 16 Muslim workers as well as aBruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officer, whose responsibilities are unconnected to bed allocation. Abusive responses unrolled below this message. “Hang them at crematoria (sic),” someone commented on a Facebook post. A Kannada video seen by thousands on Facebook shows a man pledging his support to Surya, as he demands the Muslim war-room employees be “hanged within 20 days”. The responses are full of anti-Muslim abuse: “Jihadis”, “terrorists”, “Mullahs” “Covid Jihad”.
While the police have arrested seven people, the 16 Muslims in the Whatsapp messages are not accused of a crime. All were suspended after Surya’s press conference. Those in the war room—205 of whose numbers were leaked online—were inundated with Islamophobic calls and messages. Others working there said operations had slowed down as a shroud of fear settled in.
Abdul’s family saw these messages on Whatsapp. Some extended support, some asked if they were true. “My family has been asking me to leave saying it was not safe to continue,” he said. “But, if I leave on my own, people will say I was fired because I did something wrong.”
“ICU Bed Scam”
Bengaluru has 313,000 active Covid cases—the highest for an urban area in India—and adds over 23,000 fresh cases daily, making up around half of the total cases in Karnataka.
Each helpline operator responds to an average of 200 calls during a nine-hour shift; the helpline gets over 5,000 calls daily. “There is no break between calls at all,” said a helpline operator, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have been overwhelmed. Many of us leave our shifts teary-eyed because we are moved by the distress around us and we feel helpless.”
On 4 May, Surya and the BJP delegation conducted a surprise audit of the BBMP centre and claimed to have found instances of bed blocking and illegal bribe-for-bed activities. Jayanagar police in South Bengaluru had filed a case under section 53 (misappropriation of funds) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating) and 384 (extortion) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
“A day before the press conference, we had arrested two-three people based on information that they had illegally obtained beds,” said Harish Pandey, deputy commissioner of police (South). “Once the press conference aired, we felt there was a genuine complaint and filed a suo moto case.” Based on the police investigation, four people were arrested, including two doctors.
Asked if the Muslim names read out by the BJP MPs were being investigated, Pandey said: “We have called workers from across the centres for questioning and gathering of information. We have been working based on discrepancies in bed allocations and summoning people for questioning. We have not taken any data or any list of individuals from the MP or the MLAs.”
The City Crime Branch is now entrusted with the investigation. On 5 May, three people were arrested, including two connected to a private hospital and another appointed as an Arogya Mitra (a primary contact for patients at hospital). A majority of those arrested are not Muslim.
Senior police officials said there was no evidence of any religious angle to the scam and that the motives of those arrested so far were monetary gain from patients desperate for a hospital bed.
“Our investigation is following set procedures. We are working on certain evidences (sic) and statements on record. We are working in a professional manner and not basing our investigation on media reports or social media,” said Kamal Pant, commissioner of the Bengaluru City Police.
‘Muslim Colleagues Being Targeted’
The 16 helpline workers Surya named were asked by shift supervisors and the local police to head to the police station where they spent the major part of two days. On the night of 5 May, all were told that they were “suspended” until the police investigation ended.
BBMP Commissioner Gaurav Gupta did not respond to calls or messages from Article 14. We will update this story if and when he responds.
“Clearly, only the Muslim workers have been told to go to the station. We were there till 3 am on one day, and on 5 May, we were there all morning and afternoon,” said a 23-year-old who had been working there for 10 months. “There was no space (sic) to listen to our explanation. We sat outside, as if we were criminals only to be asked to go home and return the next day.”
He had been hired through an external agency and his job included data entry. He updated the long list of those who were positive into a spreadsheet. “Where will I get contacts to promise beds?” he said. “I don’t even talk to patients.”
A majority of the 16 workers are in their mid-20s, and many had been hired by an agency a few weeks ago to man these lines. Many have undergraduate degrees. They were paid Rs 13,000 to either answer calls or enter data into the database.
All calls to the helpline were recorded. “It’s just a matter of looking at the recordings,” said a telecaller who has been working there for over 10 months. “We don’t give out our private numbers even when callers ask for it.”
Without the 16 people, the burden on the control room has only risen. A few helpline workers staged a sit-in on 5 May against the harassment of their colleagues. “There is no Hindu-Muslim division in this,” said one operator, a Hindu. “We are all working together. For the mistake of others, our Muslim colleagues are being targeted.”
Inside the control room, those manning the lines said there was a rise in angry, hateful calls.
“We are used to anger over the phone, we are used to receiving abuse when they do not get beds,” said a worker. “But since the press conference, we are getting people calling us up saying we are corrupt and [accusing us] of giving beds only if they pay money. ‘We’ll throw money on your faces,’ shouted one caller. Some just call up to ask why we are giving beds to Muslims only and not to Hindus.”
Another helpline operator spoke of a mood of demoralisation. “For months, we’ve been attending phone calls. People begging us, people crying on the phones. We are helpless too as there are no beds. It takes a mental toll on us, and yet we continued to work non-stop,” the operator said. “But since yesterday, we’ve been getting hate.”
It wasn’t the money that attracted Abdul to the job. Abdul is a commerce graduate who lost his job as a manager at an IT company during the lockdown in 2020. He spent most of his time since sending job applications and preparing for interviews. When the second wave of Covid ravaged the city, he decided to offer his services to the call centre to help covid patients.
“I used to earn Rs. 25,000 per month (more than double his current wage),” said Abdul. “This job was never about the money. I came onboard only because I thought I could help people during the time of crisis.”
Over the week, he had taken over 1,000 calls, many of which had reduced him to tears. His training included handling angry kin who often blamed the helpdesk for the lack of ICU beds. “The kin of the patients do not have an outlet for their anger against the government and they would take out their frustrations on us,” said Abdul. “Now, this government is taking out its frustration on mishandling the Covid crisis on Muslim workers like us.”
A list of these workers, along with their numbers, were circulated. A few reported getting threatening calls. “I have stopped taking calls from unknown numbers,” said one worker. “I’m just tired of this.”
‘Stop Defaming My Name’
It isn’t just the 16 workers who were targeted. Family photos of a doctor with the BBMP, who has since been arrested by the police, are being circulated. Another doctor, a Christian general physician with a private clinic, also features in some of the messages. Her pictures have been taken from an online profile and are being circulated as the “kingpin” of the racket.
She was forced to clarify on social media that she had no power to allot beds. “Kindly stop maligning and defaming my name,” she said in a post that has received no traction. Her photos, however, have been circulated in right-wing Hindu groups with tens of thousands of followers.
Among those targeted in the messages is Sarfaraz Khan, a joint commissioner with the BBMP. He has filed a complaint with the Bengaluru City police and expressed his anguish on Facebook.
Khan said he was “shocked” to see his name as he has no role in the War Room nor does he know doctors there. His job for the corporation is to take care of the BBMP’s Covid Care Centres. He said he was “pained” by the “communal angle” despite his work on the ground to help migrants, distribute food relief and work to convert the Hajj Bhavan into an oxygenated Covid care centre occupied by people from all religions.
Surya’s ‘Desperate & Pathetic Attempt’
The action by the BJP legislators was widely criticised by civil society organisers, the media and the opposition.
A statement signed by 316 activists, academicians, lawyers, individuals and 18 human rights and legal rights organisations called for the arrest of the four BJP legislators for circulating statements and messages that promoted enmity among communities.
“But what the four BJP legislators have done is to dish out communal hatred in the name of uncovering a scam in his own government….Tejasvi Surya’s listing out of Muslim volunteers only is a desperate and pathetic attempt to communalise the pandemic…It also appears that there is a clear attempt to circulate this message with an intent to create and incite enmity,” the statement said.
Former Chief Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Kumaraswamyaccused the BJP of “doing politics” when people are dying. Former chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiahtweeted: “Treat the communal virus in your brain, that’s more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
Calls to Surya went unanswered. Talking to Times of India, he denied communalising the incident, even though he had cherry picked Muslim names: “Why would I be so stupid to convert this humungous fraud into a communal issue? I’m not from that tribe of politicians who milk tragedies.”
Others in the BJP reinforced Surya’s allegations. B L Santosh, national general secretary of BJP, tweeted: “After @Tejasvi_Surya exposed the hospital bed booking scam of BBMP all were silent for a while. Suddenly everyone started shouting realising that the names were from a single community. Their secularism was in danger. @INCKarnataka leaders are bankrupt both in thoughts & action.”
Communalising The Pandemic
Like much of the country, a virulent strain of communalisation has marked Karnataka’s Covid efforts since May 2020.
Muslim Covid-19 volunteers were assaulted while distributing relief materials. A rumour that the BJP-led government was going to forcibly quarantine Covid-19 positive persons from a Muslim-majority area called Padarayanapura resulted in a mob situation and vandalism when health officials arrived. Local TV channels, who repeatedly used the term “Jihadi virus”, falsely claimed officials and policemen were attacked.
“Things were bad then. There were many issues when we were working,” said Mohammad Ismail, a software engineer who volunteers with Mercy Mission, a coalition of NGOs that has been working on Covid-19 relief for a year.
Many of their volunteers and partnered NGOs are Muslims, and their work has been ubiquitous: from ensuring dignified cremations to arranging for oxygen cylinders to scrambling for hospital beds. With the BBMP helpline functioning hit, calls to Mercy Mission have increased over the past two days.
“The community as a whole is shaken due to the comments made by the MP,” said Ismail. “But, we are undeterred. There has been a sea change in opinion on the ground. People whose oxygen levels are reducing do not care about religion. People who need a bed do not care about religion. Unlike last time, this polarisation is not going to work.”
(Mohit Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)