With the dramatic rise of Hindu majoritarianism in the national politics India’s Muslims are a community that is hopelessly beseiged. Supported by theprogressive sections of the society, they sought to break this seige over the past few months by waging a relentless struggle against CAA-NRC-NPR combine. Over this period, no other community in India would have paid as much obesience to the Tricolour and Indian Constitution as Muslims did, yet we only know too well about the insistence of the majoritarian forces to paint them as anti-nationals. I shudder to think of what the sense of being beseiged, in a society which has increasingly normalised such a discourse, can do to the social, economic and psychological wellbeing of a person; to her ability to perceive and react to the routine big and small events that characterize our lives; and to her ability to confront adversity as it ought to be confronted.
It is in this context that the corona outbreak at Markaz Nizamuddin has provided another pretext to the Hindu communal forces for fortifying the seige around Indian Muslims, where cracks had appeared. Those who are irremidiably doctrinized with communal loathing are already proclaiming ‘corona jihad’ theory in social media platforms. This only makes the task of a reasoned understanding of the developments all the more acute in order to nuance our strategy of combating this pandemic successfully.
It is indeed tragic that nearly 200 out of 4000 or so followers who attended the Jamaat congregation between the 1st to the 24th of March, 2020 had tested positive as of 1st April, 2020. Even more worrisome is that an indeterminate number of carriers from the gathering in Delhi have possibly transmitted infection in different parts of the country. This poses an additional challenge in stemming the tide of the ongoing epidemic.
One cannot help but wish that none of this had happenned. But now that it is there, mounting a vilification campaign on this count against Muslims in general and the Jamaat in particular, is not only counter-productive but is actually an attempt to communalize the pandemic for diverting attention from the enormous human tragedy that has been unleashed by the irresponsible manner in which the government has imposed the country wide clampdown, uprooting people from their homes and hearth, and its lack of preparedness to handle the consequences.
Tabligh’s congregations are a well publicised annual affair. Every year the government issues thousands of visas to followers coming from different countries for the congregation. In a report by Deeptiman Tiwary published in the Indian Express on 1st April, 2020, even this year 2000 foreigners of Tablighi association from 70 countries came for the Jamaat’s congregation (Tiwary, 2020). Most of the followers who come for these congregations live and dine together at the Markaz because furthering a sense of community and identity is at the core of these congregations. Given the social and political milieu that obtains in India today, it is impossible that the authorities would not have kept a watch on such a gathering of Muslims, especially as the Nizamuddin police station is just next door to the Markaz.
Even if we presume for a moment that it is the criminal lack of concern on part of the Tabligh leadership (though they have strongly contested such allegations with facts of their own) which was responsible for this tragedy, does it absolve the government of its responsibility to have taken all the necessary measures for containing the outbreak by moving out the persons in the Markaz building to safe quarantine facilities and arrange for their testing? On March 16 the Delhi Chief Minister announced a ban on religious, social, political gatherings of more than 50 people in the capital until March 31. Now it is claimed that the Delhi government had passed the necessary orders, but the Jamaat ignored them.
The Jamaat leaders may or may not have acted responsibly, but can a government merely make an announcement and then leave it to the proven or unproven ability of an organization to safely evacuate such a large gathering in a short time. Indeed, such an evacuation could have been meaningful only if those symptomatic of infection were separated, appropriate medical care, including testing facilities were arranged, and their contacts safely quarantined. It would indeed be miraculous were the Tabligh to have such a logistical capability, especially as there were enough reports around to point to central government’s failure in arranging proper facilities for isolation, quarantine and testing of those flowing into India from abroad. Added to this were the reports of VIPs dodging screening at airports and people escaping from the unsatisfactory conditions at the quarantine facilities. If the insistence of the government was only for somehow having the Markaz building evaculated, unmindful of attendent necessities, then it was only asking for ‘dissipation’ without ‘mitigation’, for, in all probability enough people at the Markaz had already been infected with the virus before 16th of March as the following discussion shall bear out.
The connection of the spread of COVID-19 infection from the Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin was first established after a foreigner who had participated in the congregation tested positive in Telangana on 17th March, just a day after the Delhi Government banned gathers of more than 50 people. The same report of Indian Express quoted above states (Tiwary, 2020):
It (Ministry of Home Affairs) added that as of March 21, some 1,746 persons were staying at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Markaz. It is not clear what action was taken between March 18 and 21 to screen these people, or to get the Markaz vacated. The Delhi government had on March 13 issued orders banning assembly of more than 200 people for any kind of “sports activity or seminars.”
Interestingly, medical screening of those at the Markaz started only on March 26, after the death of a Tablighi associated COVID-19 patient was reported from Telangana.
There are other questions as well which beget an answer. When were the visas issued to the Tablighis who came from other countries, and when did they actually arrive in India? Was this before the pandemic or after it had set in? In the case of latter why did the government not stop this year’s congregation at Tabhligi Jamaat’s Markaz, especially as there was enough of information available to back such an action?
It need be noted that an outbreak of coronavirus had already happened from a similar gathering of Jamaat held in Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur from Feb. 27 – March 1. The pandemic spread from Malaysia to other countries of South-east Asia like Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam (Benar News, 2020). In the wake of this outbreak, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, cancelled a similar multi-day congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in Sulawesi island which was to attract followers from a number of countries (Benar News, 2020).
There had been other forewarnings of possible spread of coronavirus from religious congregations, and not necessarily from those of the Muslims alone. South Korea, which was one of the earliest countries after China to have faced the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic, traced 60 percent of its 6,767 corona virus patients to a single point source i.e. Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu (Reuters, 2020). Two of the biggest virus clusters in Singapore were found to be connected to Churches. Likewise, the holy city of Qom was the top hotspot of the pandemic in Iran (Beech, 2020).
The diligence excercised by the Government of India authorities in controling the import of corona virus from other affected countries can be judged from the travel advisories issued by the government of India. We need to see these especially with respect to the inflow of people from the countries relevant to the Nizamuddin hotspot.
The 3rd March, 2020 (by this time the huge corona outbreak in Tabhlighi Jamaat gathering in Malaysia had already happened) advisory issued by the ‘Ministry of Home Affairs’ states:
Passengers (foreign and Indian) other than those restricted, arriving directly or indirectly from China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan must undergo medical screening at port of entry (BOI, 2020).
As per the same advisory only visas granted to travellers from five countries – China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan were rescinded. Visitors from the South-East Asian countries were not even designated for any kind of quarantine. In fact, the words ‘compulsory quarantine’ are included in the travel advisory for the first time as late as 16 March, wherein ‘compulsory quarantine’ became enforcible with respect to only 9 countries – China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE (Mody, 2020). The countries of South-East Asia remained notable absentees from this list despite huge corona virus outbreaks having occurred there.
That the government allowed the Nizamuddin congregation to happen under these circumstances, was certainly not borne out of its desire to attest to a spirit of liberalism or bolster its secular credentials. It was simply because of its indifference towards the wellbeing of the people at large and Muslims in particular; and, as someone has said, indifference is worse than hate.
Some commentators have needlessly gone in to a hyperbole by linking the fall out Tabligh’s congregation with the medieval moorings of Islam in general and Indian Muslims in particular. It is advised by them that “India’s Muslims have to free themselves from the medieval fantasies of maulanas, and embrace more contemporary attitudes” (Jung, 2020). Embracing a progressive scientific outlook is indeed an eminently desirable objective for entire humanity, and not just for a community. If not less, the ‘medieval fantasies of maulanas’ are about as ‘mirthful’ or ‘melancholy’ as the pre-medieval prescriptions of ‘gau mutra sevan’ (drinking cow urine) and ‘gobar snan’ (bathing in cow dung slush) having the potential to cure corona virus infection. The moot point is that such attitudes are cultivated and maintained by the vested interests through well recognized social, economic and political processes, religious obscurantism being one among them. Those at the lowest rungs of the society are the most gullible victims. It is perhaps some of this kind among those evacuated from the Markaz, who have been reported to have misbehaved with the nurses and other hospital staff in a hospital in Gaziabad where they were kept in isolation.
If Muslim bashing in ‘godi media’, that quickly followed this incident is anything to go by, then it needs be admitted that those who gain by driving the wedge deeper between the Hindu-Muslim divide, have succeeded in their gambit. Just survey the following headlines that tickered on a leading Hindi news channel:
– Desh mein corona ke kusurwar maulana ko jaaniye (know the maulana responsible for spreading corona in the country).
– Maulana ki kartut ne phaila diya corona (Maulana’s doing leads to spread of corona).
– Corona factory wale maulana ki sampoorna kahani (Full story of the maulana of corona factory).
Such brazenly upfront bigotry, which has increasingly become the norm with mainstream media, rather than an exception, to the extent that one feels disspirited to even attempt a rebuttal. Yet, one could easily replace the ‘Maulana’ in these headlines with the ‘Leader’ who facilitated the spread of corona in the country by triggering distress migration of hapless and helpless starving labourers; or, the ‘local ruling party leaders / workers / district magistrates / senior police officers etc.’ who helped spread corona by leading huge thali clanging crowds, even as ‘social’ distancing (the term should actually be ‘physical’ distancing) lay demurred by the way side. Needless to say, that none of those who were set foot marching to to their rural bases, or those who joined with gusto in the thali clanging jumbooris, shall be tested for the virus to document its propagation engineered through them.
The processes by which a pathogen destroys individual bodies may biomedical in the main, but the processes through which a pathogen of an epidemic / pandemic proportions destroys human societies and civilizations are social, economic and political in the main. It is impossible to effectively take on such epic tragedies from a base of a society where social solidarity lies systematically shattered, economic miseries of the overwhelming majority have comprehensively undermined the most elementary material necessities of physical existence, let alone a dignified human existence, and where the polity has begun to take pride in devising ever more contorted devices to milk human misery. The ostracization of Muslims in their own country and of the millions upon millions for whom daily earning is a necessary condition of daily living does not augur well for India’s fight against COVID-19.
If official statistics were to be relied upon, India is as yet nowhere near to the scale of the COVID-19 calamity that has already visited countries much smaller in population as compared to India’s, with the singular exception of China. Yet from none of these countries have we heard of victims of the pandemic being treated as culprits or criminals; unlike India, from nowhere else we have had pictures of police beating the life out of those distressed by this enormous misery; of people running amok with hunger; and of people being treated like tics, quite literally. At a time when when countries have been converting their stadiums into field hospitals, the rulers in India are defining the norms of civility by converting stadiums into temporary jails where to confine the wagabond, irresponsible migrant labourers who cannot but think only of their and their children’s stomachs.
The gusto of thanks giving by thali clangers notwithstanding, we have known of doctors engaged in providing medical relief to those struck by the virus being turned out of their rented homes and being virtually forced to expose themselves to the worst consequences of corona infection in face of an enormous shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Air India pilots and cabin crew who rescued Indians stranded in countries worst affected with corona are now ostracised by their neighbours. What then makes us believe that all the Tablighis who are now traversing across various parts of India, or the migrants headed home shall reveal themselves to the authorities were they to fall sick with corona. Their treatment as the villians of the piece, above all by the agencies of the state, will only help making their presence all the more obscure, and will make them think twice before even seeking medical attention. The consequences of this need not be lost on the readers.
By the way, at a time when they could have truly contributed to their professed passion for upholding Indian nationalism, all the ‘senas’ – the Hindu Sena, Gaurakshak Sena, Karni Sena, Ram Sene et.al. seem to have become conspicuous by their absence; though it is still to be confirmed if they were busy in lending professional help to the authorities in setting right the irreverent migrant labour, besides of course the Muslims.
The ‘Pradhan Sewak’ (care taker in chief) has described the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest calamity faced by the world since World War II. Under the circumstances the country expected him to be seen to be leading India’s fight from the front; he instead seems to have mastered the art of performing a Houdini act with his long disappearences between his addresses to the nation. The people expected ‘The Great Leader’ to inform the country about the measures being planned to strengthen the health services system down to the village level; measures for creation of new hospital beds and necessary medical equipment to take care of the expected surge in corona patients; measures for provisioning of adequate PPE to protect medical personnel, perhaps the most vital resource in the fight against COVID-19; measures to provide proper nutrition and economic support to the poor to enable them to weather the onslaught of corona; and above all an impassioned plea to forge unity of all sections of Indian people to unitedly take on this humongous tragedy.
The Leader instead advised the people to take care of themselves against the disease in his first address to the nation; in the second address he advised each well to do family to take care of 9 indigent families during the lockdown; and in the latest address he has sought to put together 9 pins by advising people to light candles at 9 pm for 9 minutes on the 5th of April. At this rate we may soon be called upon to prepare for a ‘cow urine drinking’ party followed by a collective ‘gobar snan.’
The choice before us is clear – to drown ourselves in the disingenious slush of ‘Gobar’ politics, or to forge boradest possible unity of Indian people in this fight against corona.
· Benar News (2020): ‘Coronavirus: Indonesia cancels mass Muslim gathering at last minute’, www.berarnews.org, 3 March. Available from https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/indonesian/indonesia-coronavirus-03182020201554.html on 3 April, 2020.
· Beech Hannah (2020): ‘None of us have a fear of corona: The faithful at an outbreak’s centre’, New York Times, 20 March. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/world/asia/coronavirus-malaysia-muslims-outbreak.html on 3 April.
· BOI (Bureau of Immigration) (2020): ‘Advisory: Travel and Visa restrictions related to COVID-19’, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, 3rd March.
· Jung Najeeb (2020): ‘The crisis in a larger frame’, Indian Express, 1st April, Wednesday.
· Mody Anjali (2020): ‘India’s travel advisories since Jan 17 suggest Covid-19 policy was designed on a wing and a prayer’, Scroll.in, 29th March. Available from https://scroll.in/article/957563/indias-travel-advisories-since-jan-17-suggest-covid-19-policy-was-designed-on-a-wing-and-a-prayer on 3 April.
· Reuters (2020): ‘South Korea’s coronavirus cases rise to 6,767 with most cases traced to church.’ The Economic Times, 7 March. Available from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/south-koreas-coronavirus-cases-rise-to-6767-with-most-cases-traced-to-church/articleshow/74524331.cms on 3 April.
· Tiwary D (2020): ‘Tablighi Jamaat Congregation; First link was spotted on March 17; list of foreigners took till 21st, Indian Express, Delhi edition, Wednesday, 1 April.
Dr Vikas Bajpai