From Nizamuddin, on the ground, the story of the Tablighi Jamaat
The Jamaat was wrong. So were State agencies which allowed the gathering to take place
At Nizamuddin, where otherwise the elite of Delhi come to buy organic produce at the masterfully refurbished Sunder Nursery, and where distinct class lines separate the well-heeled in the east of the neighbourhood from the more ordinary dwellers of the west, the images are now straight from dystopia.
I was on the ground over the past two days to make sense of how the Tablighi Jamaat — an orthodox, missionary Islamic movement — came to be a major virus vector for India. The facts reveal gross, even criminal, negligence by the Jamaat. They highlight a series of grave lapses by and sloppiness on the part of many other key players in the system.
As I watched doctors from the World Health Organization wade into the congested alleys of the mosque area and patiently evacuate Jamaat members in the hundreds, I shuddered just a bit, at the callousness and carelessness that has brought us to this point.
It could easily have been prevented. To understand how the contagion spread from the congregation that collected at the Markaz (centre) between March 13 and March 15, you have to first understand what happened in Malaysia in February. The Tablighi Jamaat, launched in Mewat in 1927, now has a following in over 150 countries. It is a non-political, but orthodox clergy that calls for Muslims to return to Islam as it was practised at the time of the Prophet. About 16,000 people collected at a Tablighi Jamaat meet in Malaysia. It was from this that the coronavirus infection first spread across six countries in Southeast Asia.
Despite this, Jamaat representatives from the coronavirus pandemic-hit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia were able to make their way to India for the annual congregation in March, bringing the virus with them and spreading it among the Indian Jamaat members, and then from there to multiple states across the country.
On the ground, the Jamaat leaders I spoke to defended themselves by arguing that the moment Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) and the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, issued a notice saying no gatherings of more than 50 are allowed, they reached out to the police and local administration for logistical help in getting the foreigners out. A trail of letters has been released by them that do indeed document this attempt.
But there is no explanation for why the March 13 order by the Delhi government, which stipulated that no more than 200 people should gather in one place, was flouted. There was also an absence of basic civic responsibility. By then, the coronavirus threat was known globally, Saudi Arabia had suspended congregational prayers in other mosques in the country except Masjid al-Haram and Masjid an-Nabawi, in Mecca and Medina, and the Malaysia congregation had proved to be a virus spreader. It should not have needed an official order to know that to proceed with a gathering of thousands, packed together in a small area, was a terrible idea. “We woke up late,” admits advocate Mujib Rehman, the lawyer for the Jamaat. “So did everyone else.” But he showed no regret for the Jamaat’s colossal mistake, nor was he able to give any explanation for Maulana Saad’s bizarre sermon in which he suggests that “if you’re dying, the mosque is the best place to come and die in,” as people can be heard coughing in background.
The role of the police is also bewildering. The local station virtually shares a wall with the markaz. The police maintain a register at all times of who goes in and out of the mosque. Why did they not step in way earlier? The video released by the Delhi Police, shows the local officer issuing an aggressive warning to the Jamaat, as of March 23. There is no answer for why the police did not try and do this before the congregation.
Also, how do hundreds of foreigners collect at a mosque at a time like this without the Intelligence Bureau, the home ministry and the external affairs ministry in the loop? It’s now clear that given the scale of the spread, travel visas for foreigners needed to have been suspended way earlier than March 12. And, in general, religious congregations should have been banned across religions, across India, in February.
But the Tablighi Jamaat’s whataboutery is adding insult to injury. Equally, using the indisputable negligence of the Jamaat to smear Indian Muslims at large is unacceptable. Terms such as “corona jihad” are being mainstreamed by some of our media networks, making trollspeak a respectable language.
The Jamaat leadership must be held accountable. But hundreds of people who attended the congregation without knowing any of this need to be urgently encouraged to come forward and disclose their identities to government agencies. This will not happen if they fear stigma and other consequences.
There will be enough time for apportioning blame. But it is self-destructive as a nation to get locked in some banal, toxic, Hindu-Muslim debate when there is the future of an entire nation at stake.