COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic movement at the heart of India's growing coronavirus pandemic

Men waiting in an ambulance that will take them to a quarantine facility in India on April 3, 2020.
Men waiting in an ambulance that will take them to a quarantine facility in India on April 3, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - The pious trooped in, hundreds of them daily over several days last month. They gathered at a multi-storey complex crammed into Nizamuddin, a historic Delhi neighbourhood, for a crash course on Islam.

Many of them subsequently even fanned out to different parts of the country in the first half of March, determined to share their newfound message of piety and bring back on track Muslims who had strayed from their faith.

This has been a regular practice for followers of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist movement founded in 1927 in India that relies on a loose but expansive network of itinerant preachers spread over 150 countries. This time, however, events took an ominous turn.

Among the visitors from around 45 nations at the Nizamuddin Markaz, the centre which serves as the movement's global headquarters, were individuals who had come in with unexpected baggage - the coronavirus. They transmitted it to many others at the markaz's packed shared living spaces and these individuals later dispersed far and wide, not just as faithful foot soldiers of the puritanical movement but also as carriers of the deadly virus.

It was this centre's network that found itself at the heart of India's Covid-19 pandemic over rapidly unfolding events last week . At least 1,023 coronavirus cases, spread in as many as 17 states in India, have been traced back to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. That number constitutes about a third of the total cases in India, which stood at 3,374 on Sunday morning. Some deaths have also been linked to the same gathering.

The movement has also been blamed for a surge in the number of cases in Malaysia following a mass gathering held at the end of February at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. A least half of the country's 3,300 infections as well as half the 53 deaths are those of Tablighis or others who came into contact with them.

That the gathering in Delhi was allowed to proceed despite this precedent in Malaysia has prompted worrying questions for Tablighi Jamaat as well as the authorities in India. The Delhi government had on March 13 even banned gatherings of more than 200 people in the city. Yet, people converged at the centre that is located just a stone's throw away from the local police station in Nizamuddin.

The Tablighi Jamaat has defended itself saying it had begun repatriating people before Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a "public curfew" on March 22. It added that individuals remaining at the centre were those stranded because transport services, including trains, had been suspended.

The Delhi Police last week registered a case against some Tablighi Jamaat leaders for violating government directions. They are also inquiring into the veracity of an audio recording that emerged online last week in which the voice of a man - alleged to be that of Mr Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, the 56-year-old head of the Tablighi Jamaat - calling on Muslims to reject social distancing and continue to gather at mosques. "They say that the infection will spread if you gather at a mosque, this is false," the voice on the recording says. "If you die by coming to the mosque, then this is the best place to die."

The Indian government, along with different state governments, has so far traced more than 9,000 contacts linked to Tablighi Jamaat. This includes 960 foreign workers, who have been blacklisted by the Ministry of Home Affairs for violating their visa rules that do not permit preaching as Tablighis.

 
 
 

The situation could have been far worse had the state of Maharashtra not forced the movement to call off a congregation that was going to be held near Mumbai on March 14 and 15 with an expected gathering of 45,000 delegates.

Among the visitors to the markaz in Delhi was an illiterate 60-year-old farmer from the state of Assam, indicating the group's wide reach and goal to empower commoners as preachers. Speaking on the phone from a quarantine centre, he said he had arrived on March 19 - his first visit to the centre - and claimed he was not aware of the coronavirus. The farmer was among the 2,000-plus people who were evacuated by the authorities from the spot last week. "If I had heard that such a thing is going around, do you think I would have come all the way here?" he told The Straits Times .

Meanwhile, the grave public health crisis has sparked another concern in India - rampant Islamophobia. Some have pinned the blame for this outbreak on the 200 million-strong Muslim community, further exacerbating religious fault lines in a deeply polarised country.

As details about the congregation's deadly fallout emerged, #CoronaJihad, #TablighiJamatVirus #NizamuddinIdiots trended on social media. Old videos featuring Muslim men were circulated, claiming that they were spreading the virus. Television media went unhinged too. "In the name of religion, they have put our lives at risk," warned one channel. A prominent host described it as a "deliberate" attempt to undermine India, and another, in an embarrassing faux pas, even referred to it as "Talibani Jamaat".

Media reports that some of the quarantined Tablighis misbehaved with medical workers and made unreasonable demands that further inflamed matters.

While criticising the Tablighi Jamaat, as well as the authorities for failing to stop the gathering despite evident warning signs, Mr Shahid Siddiqui, a former

 
 
 

"This is a symptom of the strained Hindu-Muslim relations and if this attitude continues, it may, who knows, even lead to a Rwanda-like situation where Tutsis were massacred after being blamed for everything going wrong in the society," he told The Straits Times.

The insinuations flew thick and fast even as gatherings of other faiths went ahead at the same time. This included a Sikh congregation in Punjab that was attended by a priest who returned from Europe and later died because of Covid-19. Authorities in the state quarantined at least 40,000 people last month following his death.

The Tablighi Jamaat, in a statement, on April 3 appealed to all its members to cooperate with the authorities. But there are concerns that the Islamophobic outburst against the movement and its members may force some of them to go into hiding, compromising India's campaign against Covid-19.