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Caught in Missionary Position with Coronavirus

John Kenneth Galbraith, who at one time was the US Ambassador to India, described our country as a “functioning anarchy”. He was not completely wrong. Our achievements can seldom be attributed to governments, and institutions. The success of India has always been a product of the ingenuity, and the relentless struggle of its billion and a half citizens. And therefore, whether or not India finds its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic with minimal collateral damage, would depend on the will, and the wisdom of its people. At a time when the possibility of large-scale community spread looks imminent, how we choose to perceive the crimes of the likes of the Tablighi Jamaat will determine the fate of India’s national response to the pandemic.

Emergence of Tablighi Jamaat as South Asia’s Largest Known Vector of COVID-19

Tablighi Jamaat is a conservative Islamic missionary movement, which literally translates into ‘Outreach Society’. A religious congregation organised by the Jamaat from 13-15th March in Nizamuddin, Delhi has emerged as the super-spreader of the COVID-19 virus in India. It is noteworthy that a similar congregation was organised by the Jamaat in Malaysia, from 27 February- 1st March, wherein, a total of 1290 Malaysian attendees contacted the virus, in addition to those who took it back to other countries. Undeterred by the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Jamaat took its faith campaign to Pakistan, by congregating no less than 2.5 lakh people in camps near Raiwind, Lahore, on 13th March. These congregations have made the Jamaat, the largest known vector of the disease in the whole of South Asia. This is not the first instance of a religious organisation having spread the virus. In South Korea, a mysterious cult which describes itself as the Shincheonji Church, has been responsible for most number of cases. Similarly, pilgrims returning from the holy city of Qom in Iran, wherein some people defied all protocols by licking, and kissing the gates of the holy shrine, have also emerged as carriers of the virus.

The Story of Tablighi Jamaat’s Defiance

27th February- 1st March: Tablighi Jamaat organised a mass gathering at the Sri Petaling mosque, outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with attendance from over 30 countries.

6th March: Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India issued a Memorandum recommending individual state governments (including NCT of Delhi) to avoid allowing mass gatherings, and take necessary action in this regard.

9th March: Brunei health authorities confirmed that a 53-year-old Bruneian man who returned from the aforesaid congregation had tested positive for COVID-19.

10th March: Union of India directed passengers with travel history to China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany to undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival.

11th March: World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak, a pandemic.

12th March: Malaysian Health Minister confirmed that the congregation was attended by people who had tested positive, and appealed to all those who attended the aforesaid congregation to come in for screening.

13th March: Order was passed by the Health and Family Welfare Department, Government of NCT of Delhi, directing that all public gatherings beyond 200 people were prohibited in NCT of Delhi.

13- 15th March: Despite knowing the fact that the Malaysian congregation had facilitated the spread of the virus, and in open defiance of the aforesaid Orders issued by the Union of India, and the NCT of Delhi, a congregation was conducted at Nizamuddin, Delhi.

More than 3,400 delegates, including people from affected countries, attended the congregation.

Authorities suspect that most attendees, speakers, and members appear to have visited India on a tourist visa, and did not hold the requisite missionary visa.

16th March: Notwithstanding the 13th March Order imposing a ceiling of 200 people, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that no religious, social, political gatherings of more than 50 people would be allowed in Delhi till 31st March.

Despite the said announcement, over 1,000 attendees continued to stay put in Nizamuddin.

20th March: 10 Indonesians who attended the gathering in Nizamuddin, Delhi tested positive for COVID-19 in Telangana.

22nd March: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Janta Curfew was observed across the nation. No public gatherings were allowed for a day.

23rd March: As seen on the recorded video, Delhi Police reiterated its warning to the senior members of the organising group, to vacate the Markaz, and follow guidelines.

24th March: PM Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. Police continued to appeal to the organisers, to vacate the area.

26th March: An Indian preacher who attended the gathering in Nizamuddin, Delhi and was tested positive, died in Srinagar. Reports of spread started emerging from other parts of the country.

28th March: Reports suggest that when Maulana Saad, head of Nizamuddin Markaz, refused to yield to pleas from Delhi Police and security agencies to vacate the Banglewali Masjid, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval reached the area around 2.00 am, and convinced Maulana Saad to get the occupants to be tested for the COVID-19 infection, and be quarantined.

1st April: An audio recording emerged in which Maulana Saad is purportedly heard asking his followers to flout social distancing guidelines.

Maulana Saad was reported to be on the run, a day after a case was filed against him for defying restrictions on gatherings.

Reports emerge that the attendees of the Jamaat who were quarantined on NSA’s request, misbehaved with doctors, and spit at them.

Road Ahead

It is abundantly clear that the organisers, and participants of the congregation defied all possible governmental directives, and societal norms. The deplorable conduct of the Tablighi Jamaat warrants investigation. But the fact that the Jamaat was given a free-run also demonstrates the abject failure of the intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Directives of both Government of India, and Government of NCT of Delhi were flouted, and the administrative machinery failed to enforce the same. The incompetence of erring officials is unacceptable, and warrants disciplinary action. The authorities now need to formulate a cluster-based approach, and conduct extensive contact tracing, to minimise the damage.

Ever since the advent of social media, India has developed a new appetite for outrage. It is most unfortunate that some among us have chosen to manufacture logic, misrepresent facts, draw false equivalencies, and accordingly absolve the Jamaat of its crime. Doing so is against societal interest. As is attributing the Jamaat’s actions to a religious community, and linking it with politics of victimhood. Media’s reportage has been as sensational and polarising as ever, and the same deserves deepest condemnation.

Image Source: PTI

Gaurav Sansanwal
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