Why secular liberals are wrong about Nizamuddin
As the full scale of the damage to public health caused by the Tablighi Jamaat meeting — and its aftermath — in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area emerges, there are some things we can be clear about.
One of them is that attempts by Hindutva communalists to try and turn this into a Hindu-Muslim issue are despicable. It is shameful that TV channels allow terms like bio-jihad to be used or let guests suggest that those who visited the Markaz Nizamuddin were out to poison Hindus.
In fact, the vast majority of those who were infected were Muslim. So, far from being a jihad against Hindus, this an act that, so far at least, has risked more Muslim lives.
The second thing we can be certain of is that various authorities are not blameless. There appears to have been laxness in granting visas. The Delhi Police, who have a station located next to the Markaz, failed to clear the building. The police have released a video of an officer speaking the leaders of the Markaz and asking them to vacate the complex. So not only were the police aware of the situation but they did not act even after the Jamaat leaders ignored their warning.
The police video also contains clear references to Delhi Administration officials which suggests that even the state government failed to act.
This may not be the best time to fix the blame but there can be no doubt that there is lots of blame to go around.
Equally, it is as clear that the Jamaat leaders behaved with extreme irresponsibility, using religion to encourage people to stay inside the building and to ignore health warnings. The videos and audiotapes that have now been discovered show Jamaat clerics saying things like “Yes there is a virus. But 70,000 angels are with me and if they can’t save me, who will? This is the time for more such gatherings.” A voice, believed to be that of Maulana Saad, is heard saying, “This is a plan to end amity between Muslims, to alienate them from each other.”
These are not videos recorded in secret as part of some sting. The Jamaat actually put them up on its YouTube channel and advised people that social distancing was an elaborate conspiracy against Muslims.
At a time when millions of Indians are making sacrifices to fight the coronavirus, this kind of behaviour is not just criminal, it amounts to attempted murder.
All this seems clear cut enough. So, why is there a problem?
Well, because of what seems like a knee-jerk reaction from sections of the secular establishment.
I cannot believe that any sensible person — Hindu or Muslim, secular or communal — can approve of the primitive fundamentalism of the Jamaat, an orthodox group that would take Islam back several centuries to fulfil its objectives.
And yet, such is the nature of our political dialogue that many secular liberals believe they must respond vigorously to everything that Hindu communalists say. So, if Hindutva extremists and trolls are using terms like jihad and using the incident to attack all Muslims, then the answer must be to find some way to defend the Jamaat.
And so, we have had the sad and pathetic spectacle of various people who should know better trying every trick in the book to find excuses for the Jamaat.
All of Wednesday, we heard the excuses. There was, first of all, the constant blaming of the authorities. “Why didn’t the police break up the gathering?” “The IB was keeping a watch on the Markaz: why did it allow the foreigners who had attended to travel around India?” And so on.
There are valid questions but they, in no way, lessen the horror of what the Jammat did.
A murderer is no less responsible for his actions because an inept police force failed to capture him in time.
To point to the mistakes of others to suggest that the Jamaat is only one of many guilty parties is like saying that the Holocaust was only partly Adolf Hitler’s fault because the global community could have stopped him earlier but did not.
When their explanations fail to hold, some secularists then switch to a tactic that is often associated with their ideological opponents on the right — whataboutery.
Ok, they say, if this was wrong, then why was it okay for parliament to remain in session even when social distancing was the norm? What about Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s victory celebrations in Bhopal when legislators hugged each other despite the risk of coronavirus infection? Why was it okay for Yogi Adityanath to refuse to call off Ram Navmi celebrations till the very end? Or even, what about the migrant exodus after the lockdown where there was no physical distancing?
There are two answers to the whataboutery.
The first is that not only were all of these things wrong, they were widely criticized and condemned at the time — by many people, including those members of the secular establishment who are now using them to offer tactical cover to the Jamaat.
The second answer is that it does not matter what else happened. You cannot explain away the 2020 Delhi riots by saying that the 1984 riots were worse. All riots are bad and should be condemned. So what if legislators hugged each other at Shivraj Chauhan’s victory celebrations? How does it make the behaviour of the Jamaat any less criminal?
The problem with knee jerk secularism is that it can sometimes offer up excuses for the indefensible. We think we are defending the Muslim community from attacks by bigots.
In fact, we are damaging Indian secularism.
Each time secularists take a stand that runs totally counter to morality or even to common sense, we damage the liberal idea of India. Yes, communalists will play the Hindu-Muslim game. But we must never fall into the trap of doing the same thing.
We must condemn disgraceful and criminal behaviour wherever we see it. Once we start defending people only because they belong to a particular religion, we are no better than the religious bigots on the other side.
It makes no sense to say, as some are now claiming, that the incident had nothing to do with religion. This was a religious gathering. And the reasons for the behaviour of the congregation were explicitly religious — they were told that 70,000 angels would protect them.
Secularism does not mean that you rush to the defence to every Muslim, no matter what he or she has done. It means that you fight against all religious bigots and their primitive mindset that ignores science and promotes religious mumbo-jumbo.
The issue with the Jamaat gathering is not only that it endangered the lives of so many people. It is that it did so in the name of religion. In the process, it strengthened the communal Hindu propaganda that Muslims are fundamentalists who do not regard themselves as subject to Indian laws.
Of course, this is complete nonsense. The average Muslim is as sensible and as patriotic as the average Hindu. Many influential Muslims have condemned the Jamaat.
But when secularists feel obliged to find excuses for Muslim bigots, they obscure this reality. If India is to move forward, then all of us should unite to fight bigots, no matter whether they are Hindu or Muslim.
Find excuses for one or the other and the battle is already lost.
The views expressed are personal