A BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh, caught on camera warning people against buying vegetables from Muslims amid the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, has come under severe criticism. A defiant Suresh Tiwari, an MLA from Deoria, has defended his outrageous comment, saying: "Did I say anything wrong?"
In a 14-second clip widely shared on social media, the 74-year-old BJP leader is heard saying in Hindi: "Keep one thing in mind. I am telling everyone openly. There is no need to buy vegetables from 'Miyas' (Muslims)." He is making a reference to the vegetable vendors from the Muslim community.
The BJP MLA was speaking in his constituency, around 300 km from state capital Lucknow, days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke against communalising the pandemic.
Asked about the controversy, Suresh Tiwari admitted making the comments last week. "I was in my constituency and I was interacting with a group of 10-12 people. We started having a conversation over the lockdown. I was told that Muslim vendors who are selling vegetables are spitting on them," he said.
"So I told them that I cannot do anything but they should avoid buying from these vendors to make sure that they don't get coronavirus. When people are asking what to do.... what should a MLA say? Did I say anything wrong? Why make it a big issue?" he asked.
Insisting that he saw nothing wrong in his comments, the MLA referenced AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi.
"(AIMIM chief Asaduddin) Owaisi says objectionable things about Hindus. No one bothers and an MLA just told people in his constituency something for their benefit and so much of an issue has happened," he told the reporters at his Deoria home.
The clip that shows Mr Tiwari making the remarks has been criticised by many on social media. Among those who slammed the BJP leader for his comments was Congress leader Nagma, the actor-turned politician.
Last week, PM Modi had said the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone equally. "COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together," PM Modi said in a post on LinkedIn.
In Uttar Pradesh, amid repeated appeals from the state government and police to avoid believing rumours about coronavirus, several incidents have been reported where Muslim vendors have been targeted.
On Monday, a Muslim fruit vendor in Lakhimpur town was cornered by a few people in a locality and accused of spitting on watermelons before selling them.
In a video, the man was seen crying and pleading with his hands folded that he did nothing wrong and he should be allowed to go. A team of the UP police reached the spot and rescued the man. Later, the police also issued a statement saying that all allegations against the vendor were found to be false.
A few days ago, vegetable vendors in Mahoba district complained in a letter to the district administration that they were being threatened. The district administration held an inquiry and said no evidence was found to substantiate the allegation.