Pak scrambles to track Tablighi Jamaat followers after Covid-19 cases rise
As the head of the Faisalabad chapter of the Tablighi Jamaat died of coronavirus on Friday, the Pakistan government has said it is still trying to trace and isolate thousands of members of the organisation who attended a religious gathering on the outskirts of Lahore in mid-March.
This effort comes at a time when the Pakistan government and religious organizations, including the Tablighi Jamaat, are in talks over holding congregational prayers during the holy month of Ramazan that starts in about a week.
There is confusion within the Imran Khan government on how to proceed. While Prime Minister Khan has not spoken his mind yet, his cabinet colleagues are divided on the issue.
While de-facto health minister Dr Zafar Mirza has pushed for the ongoing restrictions on congregation prayers to continue, senior minister Shaikh Rasheed told the media on Saturday that he was not in favour of such a ban. Science minister Fawad Chaudhry, in a tweet, singled out the Tablighi Jamaat for the spread of the virus in Pakistan.
It is this confusion, say observers, that will push up the numbers of those infected by Sars-CoV-2 virus in the days to come. With over 7,600 confirmed cases and deaths nearing 150 count, experts have warned that numbers could balloon in days to come.
An important role in the spread is being played by the members of the Tablighi-Jamaat.
Police officials say that about 100,000 people attended the Raiwind Ijtema, which is an annual event, at a time when the coronavirus crisis was brewing. The Jamaat estimates over 200,000 attended the congregation.
This included the 3,000-odd people from abroad including China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Afghanistan, the organisers said. About half of them are now quarantined in Pakistan, the others left the country without being tested.
Gaza’s health ministry confirmed last month its first two cases of coronavirus were Palestinians who had attended the gathering.
On the whole, about 7,000 followers have been quarantined in Lahore, while all over Punjab 10,263 quarantined of which 539 have tested positive for the virus so far. Almost 600 members have been quarantined in Raiwind itself. In Sindh province up to 8,000 Tablighis have been quarantined.
Local media quoted health officials in Punjab as saying that that the coronavirus cases are rising in Punjab because of the ‘carelessness’ of the Tableeghi Jamaat members who keep on meeting the public as a part of their preaching after their return to the areas they belonged to.
Looking back, many have questioned why the government allowed the gathering to take place in the first place. One reason for this could be the cozy relationship enjoyed by the Tablighi Jamaat and the Pakistani establishment.
The Jamaat has a big following within the Pakistan armed forces. A number of Generals have been members of the Jamaat. Many serving and retired officers attend the gathering each year. In the early 90’s, the head of the ISI - General Javed Nasir, was also a Jamaat member. Given such influence, it is hard, say observers, to challenge the Jamaat’s decisions.
Some insist that the change would have to come from within the Jamaat. One of the leading figures of the Jamaat, Maulana Tariq Jamil, is considered a mentor by prime minister Imran Khan. The prime minister has repeatedly turned to the cleric for guidance on religious issues. It is believed that Imran Khan’s stance on the coronavirus is tempered by the statements made by Maulana Jamil.
After the Lahore event, Tariq Jamil gave a speech in which he said: “God chooses who is infected and who is not, and God will save us.”
By 1 April, Jamil had changed his views somewhat when for the first time he described the virus as life-threatening.
But Jamil and others continue to resist calls for restrictions on congregational prayers. In fact, some fear that Jamaat supporters would resort to violence if forced to stay away from mosques. In the Punjab city of Layyah, a member stabbed a police officer while trying to escape from a Tablighi Jamaat centre as quarantining measures were being enforced.
Negotiations have brought some results as well. Last week, Tablighi Jamaat elders sent out a letter to the movement’s followers instructing them to stop their door-to-door visits and not to congregate.
And yet the Pakistan government is shy of a complete lockdown on prayers and other activities that the religious organizations are calling for. Possibly if the situation deteriorates, the army leadership will once again have to step in to let sanity prevail, say some.