The Tablighi Jamaat is, by no measure, an organisation beyond reproach. In the over 90 years of its existence, the Jamaat has come to symbolize much that, within the progressive-liberal-secular worldview, needs reform in Islam. What the Jamaat preaches through massive congregations across the world is often rightly critiqued as a radical and regressive interpretation of Islam. And so, controversies and criticism may not be alien to this Islamic evangelical outfit.
Yet, can the follies in its past be a justification for the demonisation that the organisation and its followers have been subjected to within India over the past few days in wake of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic?
"Corona Jihad" and "Tablighi Virus" were trends pushed by Twitter users across India soon after reports emerged that a countrywide search was underway for over 2,000 Muslims, including many foreigners, who had attended a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin West in mid-March. The hunt was launched after it was revealed that five Covid-19 positive patients, who died in Telangana, had attended a Jamaat event between March 11 and 13. Later reports suggest nearly 100 participants – some within Delhi and others tracked down in different states – have tested positive for the virus and over a 1,000 people across 20 States and Union territories are now under quarantine. The Delhi police have also registered an F.I.R against Jamaat preacher Maulana Saad.
In this rush to paint the Jamaat – and India’s Muslim community – as the villain, several notable omissions were made. Scant regard was paid to the sequence of events recounted by the Nizamuddin Markaz (centre) where the congregation gathered. It was also conveniently forgotten that the pandemic had arrived in India much before the Jamaat members foolishly received hundreds of followers for their annual ijtema (congregation) at the Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid.
The ijtema is planned at least a year in advance to enable Jamaat followers to make their travel arrangements accordingly. The organizers should have exercised better wisdom to dissuade followers from descending in thousands at the Markaz when it was known that people had tested positive for Covid-19 in Delhi already and medical experts were actively advocating social distancing. That the Jamaat did not cancel its event as soon as the first Covid-19 positive case was reported in Delhi is a testament to the organisation’s obduracy but does it make the outfit the sole perpetrator and carrier of the pandemic as the Hindu-right is projecting it to be?
It is true that among those gathered at the Markaz were also people from Malaysia and Indonesia – both nations which had already recorded Covid-19 outbreak before India took note of its severity. These foreign nationals, along with Jamaat members from other countries, had reportedly arrived in Delhi earlier in March after attending similar congregations in Malaysia and Indonesia. If a comment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was widely publicized by the BJP in early-March is to be believed, we began coronavirus screening for passengers of all nationalities flying into India as early as mid-January. How then were these Jamaat members coming from countries already in the grip of the pandemic not screened, quarantined or kept track of?
The Markaz claims it had already received over 2500 people between March 11 and March 13. A simple Google search would demonstrate that the Union health ministry, at that point in time, was busy telling the country that the coronavirus spread was “not a health emergency”, even though some 80 cases of the infection had been confirmed across India. The Prime Minister had also not spoken a word about the safeguards people needed to adopt. The only person who had repeatedly warned the government and India of the lack of preparedness against coronavirus, ever since early February, was Congress leader Rahul Gandhi but then, in popular imagination, Rahul is a ‘pappu’ and is not to be taken seriously.
It must be pointed out here that most prominent religious places across India – Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple, the Vaishno Devi shrine, the Shirdi Sai Baba temple, Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath temple and scores of others – had continued functioning normally during this time. Each of these places of worship receives thousands of devotees every day. Had the opprobrium – distinct in its bigotry and communal hate – been the same if a devotee returning from Siddhivinayak or Kashi Vishwanath was a carrier of the virus and had infected others before being tested positive? Would we be fine with a Mandir Virus top trend on Twitter?
It was on March 19 that the man India does seem to take seriously spoke and exhorted the countrymen to observe a Janta Curfew on March 22. The Markaz claims it discontinued its ongoing program immediately after Modi’s first address to the nation on the coronavirus crisis. A day before the Janta Curfew was to be observed, the Union railway ministry decided to suspend all passenger train services. The Jamaat’s followers who had gathered in Nizamuddin from across the country were left stranded because trains were cancelled. They observed the Janta Curfew on March 22, staying indoors from 7 am to 9 pm. Perhaps not the best prescription for the epidemic in an area that is, like most Muslim neighborhoods, regularly derided for being a ghetto. What came as a double whammy for the Jamaat members was a decision by another man who Delhi takes seriously – Arvind Kejriwal. On March 22, Kejriwal had announced a lockdown of Delhi that would begin March 23 and continue till March 31. With train and flight services suspended and Delhi under lockdown, how were those gathered in Nizamuddin to decongest the area?
Ensuring that social distancing guidelines and the lockdown were complied with is the job of the police and the administrative apparatus. The Nizamuddin police station is situated next door to the Markaz. Did the police have no clue about the sheer number of people who had been stranded within Nizamuddin since the lockdown? Did the state and central intelligence, forever eager in surveillance of Islamic outfits, fail too, especially at a time when this gathering of Muslims was taking places just two months after Delhi witnessed its worst communal riots in recent years? The Markaz claims it reached out to the Delhi police for help in decongesting the area and helping those stranded travel out of Nizamuddin. A list of 17 vehicles was also submitted on March 24 to the sub-divisional magistrate seeking curfew passes so that people could be ferried out but the permission never arrived. The administration reportedly did not allow those trapped in Nizamuddin West to leave the vicinity because of prohibitory orders on movement. Essentially, the Jamaat and its followers were damned if they stayed put and damned if they moved out.
Meanwhile, much was still going on elsewhere in the country which those happy to bash the Jamaat for unleashing the coronavirus apocalypse, are blind to. The Parliament, with its 700 plus honourable MPs and staff of another few hundred was in session till March 23. In Madhya Pradesh, the political drama which began with 22 Congress MLAs being ferried out of Bhopal in chartered flights by BJP leaders on March 13 led to chief minister Kamal Nath’s resignation on March 20 and the BJP’s return to power under Shivraj Singh Chouhan three days later. A journalist who attended Nath’s resignation presser later tested Covid-19 positive and between March 20 and 23, BJP workers in Bhopal carried out massive celebratory rallies; one of which had in attendance Chouhan and other senior state BJP leaders. Singer Kanika Kapoor flew in to India from London, parties with several high and mighty, including BJP MP Dushyant Singh, before she was tested positive for the virus. Singh and his mother, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, went into self-quarantine once Kapoor’s diagnosis was known but the Lok Sabha MP had by then attended parliament and even met President Ram Nath Kovind over breakfast along with other MPs. Did anyone ask about the violation of social distancing guidelines then? What if a political leader had later tested positive for the virus?
In Indore, currently a Covid-19 hotspot, hundreds of BJP workers stormed the streets on March 20 to observe the Janta Curfew, clap, bang plates and blow conches. Has anyone come across reports indicating how many of these people have been tested or quarantined ever since Indore began registering new coronavirus patients by the hour a few days back?
Much condemnation has rightly come in for Muslims in an Indore locality who were videographed pelting stones at doctors who came to the area to screen people for the infection. The hooliganism deserves to called out, the culprits be dealt as per the law. But, obvious questions must also be asked. One of the doctors who was roughed up has told the media that she, along with another medic, had been visiting the locality for the past two days and the residents had been cooperative. On the third day too, the doctors had reportedly screened patients for nearly an hour before the mayhem broke out. There have been reports of how the doctors were accompanied by several policemen. Is it not logical to ask if doctors would have been accompanied by policemen while going into a predominantly Hindu locality? For a community that is still in the clasp of fear of being rendered stateless by the NRC-NPR combo, has for decades been asked to prove its patriotism as Indians and whose members become ‘natural suspects’ in any case of terror or even petty crime, is it not equally natural to be wary of policemen sauntering in for an essentially medical exercise?
By communalizing an epidemic with trends like Corona Jihad and Tablighi Virus, the Hindu-right can try to change the narrative over mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis by their political masters who remained deaf to alerts from across the world till it was already late. Knee-jerk initiatives to contain the pandemic have, so far, made the situation only worse with lakhs of migrants now stranded on roads and in camps all across the country and the economy taking a severe hit too. The communal virus may help some cope with the lockdown and even give them some sadistic pleasure from the hate such posts generate but the coronavirus won’t differentiate between victims of different faiths.
P.S.: Several suspected Covid-19 cases linked with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation have, as per news reports, tested negative for the virus. In Tamil Nadu, 18 men who had attended the congregation and returned to the state voluntarily went to Chennai to have themselves tested. The men reportedly waited at the Chengalpattu Government Hospital all day on March 31 but their samples were never taken for testing. Yet, the local media declared that the ‘Tablighi Jamaat' men’ had tested positive.
(Views expressed are personal.)