Coronavirus update: Now a disease hub, Jamaat defied series of anti-Covid curbs
Delhi Police on Tuesday registered a case against Maulana Saad, the head of the Tablighi Jamaat, and other officials of the group for defying a series of government orders that restricted gatherings in the city in a scaled manner between March 13 and March 21, before a full-fledged national lockdown was put in place on March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
In the first information report (FIR), parts of which were reviewed by HT, the police have claimed that they have recovered an audio recording in which Maulana Saad was expressly heard asking people to “defy” the government’s lockdown and prohibitory orders. The charges include sections of the epidemic diseases act -- meant to punish a person not following directions meant to stop an epidemic -- and those relating to criminal conspiracy.
The police have also mentioned that on March 23, they apprised the officials of Tablighi Jamaat about the need to maintain social distancing in the building, which was not followed. News agency ANI late on Tuesday released a purported video recording of the conversation at the Nizamuddin police station. HT could not independently verify the video.
The Jamaat, which issued a statement defending its actions earlier on Tuesday, said its centre -- known as a markaz -- is routinely occupied by followers who come from pre-scheduled events, and that hundreds of them were stranded as the government gradually tightened its curbs on people’s movement to stop Covid-19 from spreading.
Over the past three days, close to 2,000 people have been evacuated from the Tablighi Jamaat’s markaz building in Nizamuddin and 24 of them tested positive in New Delhi alone till Monday night, according to the health bulletin released by the government. At least 117 more who visited the complex have tested positive for Covid-19 across the country and close to 3,000 others are feared to have been exposed to the virus.
According to health department officials, some of the people in the building may have tried to hide their symptoms such as fever by taking medication prior to being evacuated over the last two days. According to a home ministry official asking not to be named, around 164 -- including 146 foreign nationals -- left the facility and are spread in other parts of the national capital.
On March 13, the day the Delhi government banned gathering of more than 200 people in the city as one of the key measures to prevent the spread of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covis-19, the Tablighi Jamaat -- a Muslim missionary group -- hosted a congregation of over 1,800 people in its premises, according to multiple people aware of the matter.
Those in attendance included preachers from across the country and several foreign nationals . The six-storey markaz building has residential rooms for guests, and can accommodate about 2,000 people. Even as some of the preachers left after March 13, other groups continued to pour in at the headquarters to participate in the programmes organised inside the building. The congregations continued till the evening of March 23, despite the Delhi government banning any form of religious events on March 16, further restricting gatherings to 50 peole or below, and then 20 people of below (March 19), and the police issuing prohibitory orders under Section 144 across the city on March 22. The Tablighi Jamaat, in a press statement issued on Tuesday, said that the people who were inside the headquarters were trapped because of the March 25 lockdown.
A senior government officer, however, dismissed this contention, saying the matter should have never reached that stage. “By the first week of March, the coronavirus scare had already hit Delhi. Schools were ordered to close on March 6. For the first time, the Holi celebration was also cancelled by the state government. Even at the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) level, they had announced that Holi would not be celebrated. Advisories were issued by different departments. In that scenario, if the government issued order on March 13, the organisers of the mosque should have compiled. The impact of the damage would have been less,” said the official who asked not to be named.
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday said the organisers were “highly irresponsible” and “extremely wrong” in defying the orders. He also said that lapses, if any, found on the part of any Delhi government officer would be acted upon. “If we find that any officer has failed to deliver his/her duty properly or there has been any kind of negligence, strict action will be taken.”
After the evacuation of over 200 foreigners from the building, police have found that several of them violated visa norms by coming to India on a tourist visa rather than the mandatory Missionaries visa.
Though the Markaz building is a venue for such congregations throughout the year, the largest influx of people from abroad and other states was on March 10 and 15, according to people aware of the developments.
A police officer who is probing the case said: “The government order was widely reported by the media but the organisers paid no heed. At that time, there was no lockdown. All airports, bus stations and the train services were open and yet they continued to gather inside the mosque. The organisers should have asked their guests to vacate the headquarters and return to their home towns. It was their responsibility.” He asked not to be named.
Police also said that on March 22, a day after the completion of the one-day “janta curfew” imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, section 144 was imposed across the city, and the Jamaat officials were asked to shut the centre. Under section 144, gatherings of no more than four people are allowed.
“Section 144 was imposed across the city at 9pm on March 22. The following day, the local police also sent them a letter to shut the headquarters but they did not act. While some 1,500 persons left the mosque on the morning of March 23, another group of around 1,500 preachers came to the mosque in the evening. They should not have allowed the group inside,” another senior officer said. The Tablighi Jamaat’s statement said that the Delhi government sealed the city’s borders starting 6am on March 23, ”diminishing any chances of these visitors availing road transport for their journey back home”. The statement added: “Despite this challenging situation, with the help of Markaz administration, around fifteen hundred visitors left Markaz Nizamuddin by availing whatever meagre transport was available. On the evening of 23rd March, a further nationwide lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister with clear message for people to stay-put wherever they are. Under such compelling circumstances there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions.”
The Jamaat’s spokesperson also shared a copy of the letter they wrote to Delhi Police on March 24 in response to the police’s directions to close the mosque. In the letter, they said they were trying to evacuate the people from the mosque but were yet to get curfew passes from the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). The letter by spokesperson Maulana Yousuf mentions that while police advised them to get pass from the SDM, they were yet to get the curfew passes. In response, a second senior Delhi government officer, who did not wish to be named, said that the requests were sent too late. “They should have followed the orders in the days leading to the lockdown. The local administration was not clear about whether e-passes to the Markaz administration should be issued or not. The request for car passes for 17 vehicles came after the nationwide lockdown was imposed. It was kept in abeyance because there was confusion on whether issuance of the e-passes to them would have violated the lockdown norms as movement of every body, except those engaged in essential services, is banned during this period. The directions of the PM were clear, people had to stay where they are. Also, their request does not under essential services.”