Until the other day, not many outside the Muslim community had heard of an organisation named the Tablighi Jamaat. Little did people know about this century-old India-born body which, today, is the largest apolitical, Islamic revivalist global movement. Notwithstanding this, a vast majority of Muslims ridicule and dismiss this “nutcase” movement as good-for-nothing. “Woh sirf zameen ke neeche aur aasman ke upar waali zindagi ki baat karte hain” (They only talk of life in the grave and in the Hereafter).
Today, the Jamaat has, virtually overnight, earned for itself the ill-repute of being the “largest known” COVID-19 source in South and South-East Asia. In India, many participants at an international gathering of around 4,000 Jamaatis at the Tabligh’s global headquarters — Nizamuddin Markaz — in Delhi held from March 13 to March 15 have carried back the coronavirus with them to distant corners of the country. An earlier international gathering of over 16,000 participants in Malaysia in February led to the transmission of the COVID-19 disease to several countries, including neighbouring Thailand and distant Brunei. In Pakistan, the Jamaat’s proposed assembly in March of 1,50,000 participants near Lahore was cancelled at the last minute. But by then, delegates from across the world had already landed at the venue, living in close proximity to one another. Following a screening of 35 members at their headquarters in Raiwind, 27 of the Tablighis tested positive for coronavirus.
On March 30, the Delhi government cordoned off the entire Nizamuddin locality once it became known that a startlingly high number of Covid cases detected across India until now were traceable to the meet in the national capital. Two days later, a total of 2,346 persons still residing at the Markaz were evacuated; 536 were admitted to hospital and 1,810 quarantined. An FIR has been filed against the Amir (chief) of the Jamaat, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhalawi, and several others for disregarding several directives of the Delhi government under the Epidemic Diseases Act prohibiting the gathering of more than 200 persons. Pleading not guilty, the Jamaat claims non-response from the authorities to its repeated pleas for help with transport to disperse those “stranded” at the Markaz (centre). Only an impartial probe can establish the role of the Jamaat as also the government authorities in the build-up of this hotspot within shouting distance of the Nizamuddin police station.
The Jamaat is by no means the only body culpable of gross neglect and irresponsible conduct in the current crisis. But it must account for its own idiotic role in the escalation of the pandemic. On January 30, a full six weeks before the mid-March meet in Delhi, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared a global health emergency. By mid-February, the coronavirus had surfaced in a number of south-east Asian countries. In the fast deteriorating scenario, why did the Jamaat leadership not cancel the event which included participants from COVID-19 affected countries?
No less disturbing is the audio-tape reportedly containing a message to his flock from Maulana Saad: “Don’t pay heed if they ask us to lock down mosques”; “There is no better place to die than a mosque”; “Allah is punishing us for abandoning mosques”; “Won’t pay heed if even doctors advise to not pray in mosques”. That this may not be a doctored audio tape is indicated by the fact that similar shocking sentiments have been expressed by the maulana’s counterparts from across the Wagah. Meanwhile, a second audio tape, also purportedly of the maulana, has surfaced, advising fellow Tablighis thus: “I am in self-quarantine in Delhi as advised by the doctors and appeal to all Jamaat members wherever they are in the country to follow the directives of the law”. The message warns that the coronavirus is an expression of Allah’s wrath because of the sins of us human beings.
Such may be the views of the Tablighi Jamaat, but by no means are they the consensus among Muslims. On March 20, Saudi Arabia suspended congregational prayers at Mecca and Medina. Taking their cue from a saying of the Prophet, similar restrictions have been placed on mosques and other holy places elsewhere in the Arab world as also in the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic of Iran. In India, the doors of mosques across India have remained shut since the national lockdown just as those of temples, churches and gurdwaras.
Yet, even as the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has warned that the world faces the most challenging crisis since World War II, the already rampant communal virus in India is gleefully piggy-riding on the novel coronavirus. The Tabligh’s highly irresponsible words and deeds are “fresh proof” to Hindutva that “Muslims are like that only”.
To their credit, the chief ministers of Kerala and West Bengal, Pinarayi Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee respectively, have been quick to caution against “sensationalising coronavirus” by giving it a communal complexion. Regretting that social media was being used for a “communal harvest” over COVID-19, Vijayan observed: “Coronavirus does not infect anyone looking at religion. What is important is that we stay together and remain vigilant. We should remember the exemplary action of all sections of society who have abandoned public gatherings at the behest of the government.”
In this moment of grave national and international crisis, such sagacious words should, above all, have come from the prime minister. But that, sadly, seems most unlikely. What we have, instead, are warnings from BJP leaders of “Islamic insurrection” and “corona jihad”. The Jamaat episode has also come in handy to the country’s lapdog media. It can now gleefully scapegoat Muslims, help divert public attention from the colossal mishandling of the crisis by the authorities. If the Jamaat leaders deserve an FIR what about the prime minister who with his thoughtless four-hour countdown for a national lockdown triggered a stampede across urban India (social distancing?) and a “reverse migration” that reminded some people of Partition times?
The need of the hour is national unity and international solidarity, not hate-driven divisive politics. Is that too much to expect from the BJP, the Sangh Parivar and its servile media?
This article first appeared in print edition on April 3 under the title “Tablighis, not Muslims”. The writer is convenor, Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, and co-editor, Sabrang India online
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