New Delhi: The Tablighi Jamaat continues to grab the headlines for allegedly flouting lockdown and going ahead with a “pre-scheduled” congregation at its Markaz (headquarters) in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area from March 13 to 15, which — according to authorities — helped contiguous vectors spread COVID-19 across several states.
After the Delhi Police registered a first information report (FIR) on the direction of the Delhi government against Tablighi Jamaat’s chief Maulana Saad and others under Section 3 of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 read with IPC sections 269 (negligently spreading an infection or disease dangerous to life), 270 (malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life), 271 (disobedience to quarantine rule) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) for violation of government directions, cops have launched a manhunt to trace the Jamaat’s preachers and have reportedly served second notice for them to appear before the investigators.
All those against whom the case has been registered are said to have gone absconding, an allegation strongly refuted by their lawyer who said they are quarantined under the police watch and are ready to cooperate.
“The reports that Maulana Saad and others are absconding are mischievous. We all know that the Markaz has been locked down and the people who were there are quarantined and are almost in the custody of the police. They are already in Markaz and accessible to the police. Whenever any cooperation is sought, they will appear before the investigators. So, all the rumours that they are absconding are wrong and very unfortunate,” Markaz's counsel Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, advocate-on-record in the Supreme Court, told NewsClick.
Asked to comment on slapping of criminal conspiracy charges against his clients, he refused to comment and said, “We have got to know through the media that an FIR has been registered against Maulana Saad and others associated with the Tablighi Jamaat. We are still awaiting a copy of the FIR to be served to us. It is not the right time to comment on the merit and validity of the case until we officially get a copy of the FIR.”
Asked if he does not think organising a congregation at a time when the country is faced with the outbreak of a communicable disease was wrong on part of the Tablighi Jamaat, he clarified, “The apprehensions have been portrayed wrongly with regard to a congregation at the Markaz from March 13 to 15. There was no new programme and invitations. Everything was pre-scheduled a year ahead when international flights were allowed to land and take off and when there was no lockdown in the country at all. The delegates came here as per their predetermined programme.”
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“Since there was no embargo and ban on any movement, people continued coming in. As far as the allegation of the Delhi government’s prohibitory orders on March 13 and 16 are concerned, no invitation was sent out after the directions. The invitations were sent out a year ago, people were on their way, they landed and took part in the congregation in the normal course. When the Janta Curfew was imposed for March 22, we discontinued all the programmes and the Markaz was closed. We wish we, all authorities, governments and other stakeholders would have been more careful in the past,” he added.
“The MHA has now realised that they were coming on tourists visas. We and all authorities will take corrective measures. We will follow the guidelines. The underlying fact is that the Jamaat and its functionaries have been following all guidelines since beginning in letter and spirit,” said the counsel.
THE TURN OF EVENTS
It all started when 10 Indonesians were admitted to a hospital in Telangana on March 16 after one of them showed symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Later, by March 18, eight of them were tested positive.
After four days, two Thai nationals were tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Tamil Nadu. A resident of Kashmir died of COVID-19 infection on March 26. It was the first fatality for the virus in the state.
They all had attended a gathering at Banglewali Masjid — the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters at Nizamuddin West in Delhi — from March 8 to 10. The Indonesians had attended the meet between March 13-15. From Delhi, they moved to South India, where they showed symptoms of COVID-19.
It’s true that there was no congregation at the Markaz on or after March 22, when the lockdown began.
Now coming to the Delhi government’s guidelines, the order to file an FIR against the Tablighi Jamaat preachers was based on two sets of orders — one on March 13 and 16. The Markaz has been accused of violating the government’s March 13 notice, forbidding the gathering of over 200 people.
“Strong action should be taken against the administrators of the Nizamuddin Markaz who organised a 3-day religious gathering, with 1000s of people from 13th-15th March, when Delhi Govt orders had expressely forbidden gatherings or more than 200 persons on 13th March itself,” Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislator Atishi had tweeted on March 31 attaching the March 13 order. (sic)
However, the order referred to in the tweet talks about “all sports gatherings (including IPL)/conferences/seminars”. It is not clear that religious gatherings were also under the ambit of the order.
On March 16, the Delhi government specifically banned religious gatherings, in addition to discotheques and theatres in another order. Issuance of the second order makes it clear that religious congregations were not covered under the March 13 guidelines.
Since the congregation took place before the March 16 order, it is unclear how that order can be deemed to have been violated.
Defending action against the Tablighi Jamaat representatives, the Delhi government has cited its March 12 order, which states that anyone with a travel history from COVID-19-affected countries has to self-isolate.
“Moreover, notification by Delhi Govt on 12th March stated that anyone with a travel history from COVID-19 affected countries have to self-isolate, then why did the administrators of the Markaz not ensure isolation of residents coming from those countries?” questioned Atishi specifically referring to Clause 8 and 9 of the order.
Clause 8 says that if any person with a history of travel from a COVID-19-affected country in the last 14 days who is witnessing coronavirus symptoms, must report to control rooms.
Clause 9 says that any person with a travel history from a COVID-19-affected country in the last 14 days and who is not developing symptoms, must quarantine themselves.
As per the two clauses, a few foreign nationals at the Markaz might be at fault: (a) those who arrived in India from a COVID-19-affected country after February 27 and failed to report to the control room despite developing coronavirus symptoms, (b) those who arrived in India from a COVID-19 affected country after February 27 and didn’t self-quarantine themselves.
But it is not clear how many people are there in these two categories.
Notably, March 13 and 16 orders put onus on the organisers of the events, while the March 12 order makes individual travellers responsible.
The Markaz was vacated on April 1 after around 1,900 people, who were stuck inside because of the lockdown, were pulled out by the police. Those who had developed symptoms of the infection were taken to hospitals for testing and treatment. A total of 24 of them were later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The rest have been quarantined at different locations in the national capital.
Soon after the police vacated the Markaz, a large section of the media began giving the raging coronavirus crisis a communal angle. The entire Muslim community is being blamed for the situation in the country now. There is a series of media reports, accusing the Tablighi Jamaat preachers of misbehaving with hospital staff in Uttar Pradesh. Several of the reports were later refuted by the police. Several TV channels were openly accusing the minority community of lapses leading to widespread reaction in various parts of the country. Government officials too repeatedly said that a high proportion of cases were due to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, thus seeming to be implying that otherwise, the pandemic was in control.
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