"The Markaz mayhem explodes," read the breaking news ticker of an English news channel on Tuesday morning after at least seven deaths -- six in Telangana and one in Jammu and Kashmir -- linked with a religious congregation in Delhi's Nizamuddin area sent the national media into overdrive.
The religious gathering was organised by Tablighi Jamaat -- a religious group with its India headquarters at Nizamuddin in Delhi -- which focusses on urging Muslims to return to practising their faith. Following the reports of several people leaving for various parts of the country poured in, "TablighiVirus" and "CoronaJihad" were among the trending topics on Twitter. "How come such a large gathering was allowed in the national capital," asked many.
Shahid Siddiqui, a former member of Parliament and a resident of Nizamuddin, said a crowd of over a 1,000 or more is not unusual for an organisation (Tablighi Jamaat), which is going to complete 100 years in 2027.
Commenting on how the debate around the virus suddenly turned communal, Siddiqui told Outlook that a section of media is playing a very negative role. "They turn everything, every issue into something to do with Islam and Muslims."
Communal virus is thriving in India with the support and backing of a section of the Media and political system. Real threat to our nation comes from this virus https://t.co/b3cdrd46vk— shahid siddiqui (@shahid_siddiqui) March 31, 2020
"Today it looks as though the problem of the virus has been resolved and Nizamuddin dargah is the Centre of everything," Siddiqui told Outlook.
He added: "This will cause more harm to the nation. It's turning a virus issue into a communal issue. You can't fight one virus by spreading another virus."
The Aam Aadmi Party MLA from Okhla, too, tweeted that he had informed the DCP South East and ACP Nizamuddin, on March 23, of the presence of close to 1000 people at Markaz. "Why didn't the police arrange for transport to send them back?" he asked.
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In an official statement, the Markaz said they had been cooperating with the appropriate authorities and keeping them apprised of all the developments the entire time.
Sequence of Events
"A congregation was held in Malaysia in February end, and some people had gone there from the Nizamuddin centre," Siddiqui said, "and they returned in the first week of March."
"Along with them, came some Malaysians, to participate in another congregation here," he said.
On March 11, 12 and 13, a bigger group congregated at the Nizamuddin Markaz, which again wasn't a unique occurrence, Siddiqui, who himself has been a vocal critic of Jamaat, said.
Interestingly, on March 13, the Health Ministry had said the coronavirus was "not a health emergency". India had 81 COVID-19 positive cases at the time and multiple ministries had cautioned the country against panicking.
On March 16, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that religious, social, cultural and political gatherings as well as protests comprising more than 50 people will not be allowed in the national capital till March 31. While a large group of people continued staying at the Markaz premises, no fuction or special prayer happened after the directive was issued.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his first address to the nation on the Coronavirus pandemic on March 19, requested everyone observe a "Janta Curfew", and come out to their balconies and terraces to applaud and express gratitude to those at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19.
Officials at Markaz say the ongoing program in Markaz Nizamuddin was discontinued immediately after PM's announcement.
They add that a large group of visitors, who were to depart by way of railways, was stuck at the premises after train services were cancelled on March 21.
On March 22, the Markaz directed everyone "not to venture out until 9 PM as desired by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, therefore the plans to move back to their native places by way of means other than railways also did not materialise."
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the same day, announced that the national capital was being shut down -- beginning 6 AM on Monday, March 23 till March 31, 2020.
The Markas says the move further diminished any chances of these visitors availing road transport for their journey back home.
"Despite this challenging situation, with the help of Markaz administration, around fifteen hundred visitors left Markaz Nizamuddin by availing whatever meagre transport was available," it said.
In another address to the nation on March 24, Tuesday, at 8 PM, the prime minister announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown and urged the people to stay put wherever they were.
"Under such compelling circumstances there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions till such time that situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities," the Tablighi Jamaat HQ said.
The Markaz administration, after having received a notice issued by SHO, police station Hazrat Nizamuddin On March 24, seeking closure of Markaz premises, responded, stating the compliance of the directions regarding closure was already underway "and around 1500 people had departed the previous day, thus leaving around 1000 visitors belonging to different states and nationalities at the spot."
The following day, on March 25, the Tehsildar along with medical team visited the Markaz and inspected the premises while the administration prepared a list of visitors, many of whom were examined by authorities.
On March 26, the SDM of the area visited the premises and called the administration there for a further meeting with the District Magistrate.
"We met the Ld. DM apprised him of the stranded visitors and once again sought permission for the vehicles arranged by us," the Markaz said.
The next day, March 27, six people were taken for medical check-up; another 33 were taken on March 28 following a visit by SDM and a team of World Health Organisation (WHO).
The office of ACP, Lajpat Nagar, issued another notice to the Markaz the same day, "reiterating the prohibitory orders and warning of legal action".
The Markaz responded to the same in detail vide letter dated 29 March 2020, saying it had abided by all the orders and had not allowed a single new person to enter the premises.
Delhi, Assam Take Notice
On Monday night, around 100 suspected coronavirus cases were evacuated from the religious complex in buses. They have been kept in isolation in Narela area of Delhi.
Those who were ill were admitted to various hospitals.
While the police have cordoned off a major section of Nizamuddin West, intense sanitization is underway in the locality.
On Tuesday, twenty-four more people, who attended the congregation, tested positive for Novel Coronavirus, Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain said.
Jain said he was not certain about the number of people who attended the gathering but estimated that 1,500-1,700 had assembled there. The minister said that 1,033 people have been evacuated so far, adding 334 of them have been sent to hospital and 700 to quarantine centre.
He slammed the organisers of the event saying they had committed a grave crime. "Event's organisers committed a grave crime. Disaster Act and Contagious Diseases Act were enforced in Delhi," he said, "No assembly of more than 5 people was allowed."
Various state governments have taken notice of the people, who attended the congregation before returning home. Assam government said it had a list of 299 people who were present in and around the hotspot near Nizamuddin Dargah.
"We've alerted dist admins to find out if these people have returned to Assam and strict instructions issued to quarantine them if they are in the state," Assam Minister Himanta Bisawa Sarma said.