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Tablighi Jamaat, Coronavirus and Muslim-Bashing

No doubt India’s Muslims feel angry with the Tablighi Jamaat, but their trust deficit with the government is wider.
Tablighi Jamaat, Coronavirus

For allowing devotees to gather at its Nizamuddin West headquarters in Delhi in large numbers, in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, Muslims are angry with the Tablighi Jamaat. The fact that the conservative outfit permitted its members from Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines to visit and stay at its markaz (headquarters) has left them feeling even more bewildered. For, early in March, the virus was already racing through Southeast Asia from China, where it is said to have originated.

Yet, for the Muslim citizenry, the last few days of mainstream media-led targeting of Muslims is also proving beyond comprehension. They feel that the Tablighi Jamaat is being used as a pretext to blame them entirely for the spread of Covid-19 in India. They are even more perplexed because it is taking place while the nation faces an unprecedented and ongoing 21-day lockdown. In fact, nobody is really sure right now if this curfew will end on 15 April as planned, because the Centre has now asked states to stagger the withdrawal of restrictions, based on prevailing conditions. 

Instead of directing all its efforts to fight the virus which has taken approximately 50,000 lives worldwide and infected over 2,000 in India, the Muslims feel that the media and the government are fixated on vilifying them. Talk about the lack of testing facilities, ventilators and other protective gear for medical staff and citizens alike, and unavailability of the right kind of face masks, has receded ever since the Tablighi Jamaat has entered the picture. Even the migrant worker crisis has been swept under the carpet.

For the record, the ordinary Muslims have unhesitatingly accepted that the gathering at the markaz led to the spread of Coronavirus, given that the pandemic came to India from overseas and the outfit had housed many foreigners in its Nizamuddin headquarters.

At the same time, says Imtiaz Ahmad, a political scientist and former professor of political science at JNU, there is a reason why the markaz, an organisation that was barely even known about a week ago, is suddenly the only thing that people are talking about. It is, he says, the antipathy towards Muslims that has been developing ever since the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. “Othering Muslims is part and parcel of the BJP and RSS strategy to continue in power and push their agenda of creating a Unitarian nation based on religious identity. Muslims have been an aid and asset in the pursuit of this agenda,” Ahmad explains.

The current round of Muslim-bashing over the markaz is also due to the complete failure of the government to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. The government initially slept over the threat. It did not prepare a contingency plan to handle the testing of the public for the infection, nor for the treatment of patients. Then, in a knee-jerk way, it declared the lockdown, which introduced a host of unanticipated problems, including the exodus of migrant labours. These workers were seen scrambling to reach their villages as they had no means to survive after their workplaces were shut. “Then, in another knee-jerk reaction, the government shut transportation lines, forcing people to walk and bear the humiliation of being sprayed with chemicals or they were stranded without food and water on the roads. This created resentment.

It is in plain sight that the moment the markaz issue came to light, the BJP, the central government and the RSS seized on the issue. Through it, they sought to blunt the resentment which had crystallised among the people, especially after the migrant crisis. “Hyping the Markaz issue is a tactic to deflect the blame from the government,” Ahmad says. Not just that. “Initially, Modi started out as the fulcrum of the fight against Covid-19, but he receded in the background as complications arose. Now, he has let the chief ministers of states take charge so that the blame for failures would go to them,” Ahmad adds.

It is also evident that the measures many countries took to fight the virus were not taken by India despite a lead time of several weeks. For instance, the export of materials for protective masks and other essential items was not halted despite an acute shortage for them within India. Even warnings by Opposition parties, including Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi, were ignored, though they were being issued in the very first week of February.

Until 13 March, the government held the opinion that the Novel Coronavirus is not a threat to India. International flights were still plying. International passengers, including those from the United States, which is also reeling from the pandemic now, and European nations, besides the East Asian neighbourhood, were not being screened until it was, perhaps, too late. “The markaz in Nizamuddin came as godsend for the Modi government and it diverted all attention towards the Jamaat to deflect from real issues,” says Obaid Nasir, a Lucknow-based political activist and senior journalist.

Anjali Puri, a senior journalist, tells me that there is no doubt that the Tablighi Jamaat has proved a disaster in Covid-19-affected parts of Asia. “They have created havoc in Malaysia and Pakistan in recent days, not just in India,” she says. Right now, Pakistan is engaged in the same kind of contact-tracing that is being done in India because of a Jamaat meet in Delhi. “The problem here is that the debate gets twisted because the IT cell and the media use the issue to score points against Muslims. If they did not, no one would hesitate to say loud and clear that the Tablighi Jamaat are agents of a health emergency in more than one country,” Puri adds.

For the Tablighi Jamaat’s Nizamuddin markaz, the arrival and departure of visitors from around the world is no strange event. At any point of time people from dozens of nations flock the religious sect’s main office. When this author visited the Markaz last, early in February, a top Jamaat Maulana said people from at least fifty nations were present. Maulana Sailooni, a bespectacled 75-year-old cleric with a flowing beard and prayer bump (a mark of prayer) on his forehead said that he cannot even keep track of how many nationalities were dining at the community mess, which is open to all, on any given day.

There is no denying that the massive markaz can be a place where the virus can easily spread. For, its thousands of daily visitors offer prayers collectively in huge congregations at the building. They also wash up at communal taps and dine together, crowded around platters laid out on the floor, and share the food prepared at a community kitchen that functions until midnight.

That is also why people are pointing fingers at the management of this 100-year-old revivalist movement, for they fear that it has worsened the spread of the virus in the world’s second most populous nation. The Tablighi Jamaat’s office-bearers have been, perhaps understandably, defensive about the charge. “Many people are accusing the Tablighi Jamaat of spreading the virus deliberately—there can be no bigger lie than this. We have always followed every law of the land,” an office-bearer told me on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

There are accusations that the Jamaat chief, 55-year old Maulana Saad Kandhalwi, asked his followers to keep visiting mosques, and that a mosque was the best place to die if death indeed was coming. Of course, this is linked with another issue, that of Muslims in some parts of north India refusing to give up offering prayers at mosques despite the growing threat of the pandemic. The affinity of faithful Muslims to mosques is, in a sense, legendary. A large section of Muslims are habituated from their early childhood to visit mosques; and many do so five times a day.

For many a devout Muslim, praying at a mosque becomes routine, then habit, and then an indispensable daily chore. This is not very different from the Hindus who congregated in numbers at temples and other places on Ram Navami, which was observed on 2 April this year. Many Muslims—like members of other religions—conduct their daily affairs and plan their days in such a manner that they can visit the mosque to pray.

Praying in a group, and not individually, is an important feature of Islam in India and elsewhere—congregations become a part of life, not very different from habits of the unconscious self. For this reason, when Muslims learned of the restrictions imposed on offering prayers at mosques in Saudi Arabia, including Mecca and Medina, many reacted with derision and ridicule, some accusing the Saudi government of having ‘sold its soul’ to the West.

As the Covid-19 scare swept across India, and many scholars of Islam issued fatwas (religious edicts) asking Muslims to pray at home instead of congregating at mosques, there was a serious fight-back from conservative Muslims here, too. They accused the scholars of succumbing to government pressure and many mosques were forced to remain open. It did not help, in those early days of the Coronavirus scare, that many scholars were asking the worshippers to visit their mosques and organise prayers seeking atonement and safety from the virus and other threats. Some of this continued right until the Indian government announced a complete shutdown.

These days, a video clip of Maulana Saad of the markaz is doing the rounds, in which he is clearly enjoining his followers not to be deterred by Covid-19 and keep praying at the mosque. The point is, he is not alone. Many other Muslim outfits spoke in similar tones—though they were more measured with their words.

Nasir tells me that it was wrong to single out the Tablighi Jamaat for another reason: right until 23 March all political and religious functions were taking place with no restrictions imposed by the government.

Truth be told, the pilgrimage to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine near Jammu was going on too, when the government suddenly announced the lockdown. Some 400 pilgrims from Bihar were stranded as a result, and the Jammu and Kashmir High Court asked for them to be shifted to a safer place only on 30 March. Massive gatherings of devotees at the Tirupati Balaji Temple continued until 19 March. The temple was closed for visitors on 20 March.

For all these reasons, Muslims are both anxious and upset. They cannot help but note that nobody criticised their non-Muslim brethren for doing exactly what they had done—at least, never as harshly as the Tablighi Jamaat was condemned. They cannot also stop wondering why the same humane approach is not taken towards them. Z Jafri, a social worker asks: Why did the media not play the footage of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s offering prayers at Ayodhya, along with his staff and members of the public, a day after lockdown was announced?”

The answer, many would say, is self evident.

The author is a writer and columnist. The views are personal.

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