When stark ignorance, coupled with stupidity, overtakes individuals immersed in core religious fundamentalism, sidetracking any other issue of human suffering and social significance, they can go to any extent in their idiotic absurdity and ill-judged conduct. At a time when the world is engaged in the most gruesome, painful battle against the deadly coronavirus, which has by now affected 12,82,365 people, killed 70,182 of them globally including at least 118 in India, thousands of delegates from different parts of the country and Asia thoughtlessly gathered at a convention of Islamic “preachers” at the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin last month, in violation of government-directed safety norms of social distancing, isolation and sanitization, the lone effective defence against the pandemic.
Lockdown, of course, came later on, but the need of absolute ‘social distancing and physical isolation’ was already in the air as the nations kept losing their citizens to the pandemic in hundreds and thousands. But the organisers of this movement, that has over the years evolved also as a terror-producing machine, had no consideration for human lives. Why, then, not ban its operations from an Indian base with immediate effect?
Tablighi Jamaat hypocrisy at its worst
Before moving over to the COVID-19 crisis details, have a look at the credentials of this shady Tablighi Jamaat movement. Questions are being raised now why such an irresponsible, callous, careless and indifferent organization as Tablighi Jamaat has never been banned by the successive governments in India. For this, the simple explanation seems to be that it wears the mask of a Proselyting Society, an Islamic missionary movement, that denies any affiliation in politics, focuses on the Quran and Hadith and “rejects violence as a means for evangelism.” Its accent is on urging Muslims to return to practising their religion as it was practised during the lifetime of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, particularly in matters of ritual, dress and personal conduct. That is the reason why this Muslim group has grown very popular and has roughly 250 million followers, the majority being in South Asia, and has a presence in some 200 countries. It is deemed as one of the most influential religious movements in 20th century Islam.
Established in 1927 by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi in Mewat region of India, it began as an offshoot of the Deobandi movement, and as a response to “perceived deterioration in moral values and supposed neglect of the aspects of Islam.” The movement aims at the “spiritual reformation of Islam by working at the grassroots level.” The Tablighi Jamaat teachings are expressed in “Six Principles”–declaration of faith, prayer, knowledge, respect of Muslim, sincerity of intention and proselytizaton. All that is fine, good enough not to cause problems to others. But let there be no flaunting of falsity or humbug here.
Clear links with terror outfits
Now, look at its other side and view the sharp contradiction here. If the movement claims to have apolitical credentials, then how come, the group intently continued the broader trend of Islamic revival in India in the wake of the collapse of Muslim political hegemony to the Maratha Empire and the subsequent consolidation of the British Raj? Its emergence also represented the intensification of individual reformation aspects of the original Deobandi movement. Over a period to time, the movement looked serving as a fertile breeding ground for radical Islamic militancy in numerous countries.
The emergence of the Tablighi Jamaat also coincided closely with the rise of various Hindu revivalist movements, such as Shuddhi (purification) and Sanghatan (consolidation), launched in the early 20th century, to reconvert Hindus back to their faith, who had converted to Islam and Christianity. That means while on the one side, the movement claimed to reform Islam, on the other, it indirectly worked against the interest of other communities, trying to secure precedence and supremacy for Islam.
A fertile breeding ground for terror
Now, the question arises: Why did this movement so hypocritically take a turn to serve as a fertile breeding ground for radical Islamic militancy in numerous countries. It has had a long history of ties with Pakistan-based banned terror outfits like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). The founders of this terror group, known for the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999, were members of Tablighi Jamaat. HuM participated in the jihad backed by Pakistan against Soviet forces to overthrow the USSR-allied regime in Afghanistan.
Intelligence experts estimate that over 6,000 Tablighis were trained in HuM terror camps in Pakistan. Both HuM and HuJI (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami) groups operated in Kashmir after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians. HuM later joined the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror outfit founded by Masood Azhar, who had been released by India in exchange for IC814 passengers. Some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda suspects reportedly even stayed in the Tablighi Jamaat premises in Nizamuddin. The worst was the Jamaat’s alleged involvement in the burning of 59 Hindu Kar Sevaks in the 2002 Godhra train torching incident in Gujarat.
Pakistani security expert calls it ‘gateway to terrorism’
The movement’s six principles suggest Islamic piety in its extreme. But that is its cosmetic exterior, inviting the innocent and idealistic young Muslims into an ideological line that ultimately turns them as terrorists. The less known and dangerous side of the century-old movement began unfolding the world over since 2001, but not in India. Dr Farhan Zahid, a Pakistani counter-terrorism and security expert, says in his analysis, titled “Tablighi Jamaat and its links with terrorism”: “Tablighi Jamaat is another system driver and integral element of Islamist Violent Non-State Actors’ internal dynamics; in many cases, it has acted as a nursery for indoctrinating Islamist terrorists.” Dr Farhan adds: “Tablighi Jamaat in a way plays the role of recruiter and sympathiser for terrorism. Tablighi Jamaat’s congregation allows radical elements worldwide to meet and discuss violent activities and provide them with the best opportunity to coordinate”. Adding that “many of its followers have dual and overlapping membership with jihadist groups”, Dr Farhan cites references and says, “Tablighi Jamaat has now been considered a ‘gateway to terrorism’.
Why was the menacing event not stopped?
No doubt, the administration had forewarned the event organisers but didn’t proceed to stop the convention which later became instrumental in tragically spreading the virus across the country. At least 25 per cent of coronavirus cases in India are linked to hundreds of Tablighi preachers who fanned out to different parts of the country after the event. Although the stay-at-home-mandated national lockdown has done its bit to control the contagion, the coronavirus-positive cases in India have crossed a horrific 4,314 mark, with many of them linked to the Tablighi event. It is shocking to observe that though it was a three-day convention, from 13 to 15 March, the attendees started pouring in much earlier and thousands of them overstayed right up to 31 March, huddled in a six-floor dormitory in Nizamuddin, presenting a terrific chock-a-block scenario, contributing to the exponential spread of the pandemic.
The people who have been evacuated from Banglewali Masjid now reveal that they had to lie on the floors in halls at a gap of inches were maintaining physical distance was not possible as the building was packed beyond capacity. Rooms meant for the guests were crammed with people. The visitors were asked not to tell anyone how they had been boarded or looked after by the organisers.
It is strange that Jamaat continued interactions with the participants who stayed back, even after the “Janata Curfew’ came into force and the police approached them repeatedly to vacate the mosque. Photographs and videos show the delegates hugging each other at a time when social distancing was essential to break the chain of corona transmission. The biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the country, thus, has been the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz whose credentials and intentions have so far remained hazy and distinctly blurred.
Who is responsible for the fiasco?
In the midst of this tragic episode, a myriad questions crop up that cannot be overlooked under cover of any amount of blame game. Isn’t it mind-boggling how such a huge number of foreigners and native citizens was allowed to enter the city, even as social distancing was in force? While the organisers remain the villains of the piece, with no excuses smiling on their slushy side, other players too can’t be absolved of their obligations. What is more shocking is the fact that the number of the ensuing gathering for the convention was in the knowledge of authorities.
The first and the foremost among these basic questions is: Why were the foreign entrants not subjected to thorough check-up and quarantined if needed? And when so many people had gathered at one place in the Capital, which continued to be in the grip of coronavirus, why didn’t it occur to the authorities to disperse them by persuasion or by force? Why did the authorities jump to act so late when 6 people who attended the congregation died in Telangana? Does religion provide a licence to a community to conduct as it likes, even if it means defying the officially ordained safety diktats? Didn’t the organizers know that by holding such a large convention in times of a national crisis caused by the virus, they were committing an act that could prove catastrophic not only for their Muslim community but also for thousands of others in the country? I don’t think there are any valid answers to these questions.
Faith is not meant to cause chaos
Why do people insist on religious congregations even in times when gatherings can be indefensibly fatal? If the first case of suspected infection was reported from Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid, the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, why was the alarm not felt deeply by the organizers who evidently found pleasure in defying the safety norms? Why did the Jamaat host worshippers from so many countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan, the countries that had their own corona problems? Why were the people from South Indian states, that had a history of too many virus cases, allowed to participate?
Now 2,000 people who took part in the event are at risk. The responsibility for the chaos must, therefore, be equally shared by the NCT government, headed by CM Arvind Kejriwal, the Centrally-controlled Delhi police and the organizers of the event. The Union Home Ministry, under whose jurisdiction lies the Capital’s law and order and controls the police, also can’t escape its responsibility. Why? It should have asked the administration to apply force to disperse the crowd that apparently looked unmanageable and visibly inviting contagion.
Tablighi chief’s suicidal outbursts
Tablighi Jamaat chief Maulana Mohammad Saad Kandhalvi, grandson of the movement’s founder, who is now absconding after an FIR was filed against him and many others, had spoken quite virulently against the lockdown and anti-corona safety precautions, obliquely suggesting that all that constituted a “conspiracy against Muslims”.
In a leaked audio clip, the Maulana can be heard instructing followers to not abide by the government’s safety guidelines with regards to the coronavirus outbreak. He said, “If you think you will die once you assemble in a masjid, let me tell you, there is no better place to die… It’s time to stay in mosques, Allah will save us. This is not the time when you leave your prayers or meeting people just because doctors are saying. When Allah has given this disease, then no doctor or medicine can save us.”
Thousands of people were inside the Nizamuddin Markaz when this speech was delivered. This reflects on how these suicide-inclined orthodox Tablighi preachers and their followers are. Clearly, they are criminal-minded, not bothered about the safety of others.
Foreigners scare is even more serious
Though the organisers didn’t reveal the exact figure of attendees, rather underquoted it at “2,000 to 3,000”, media reports and some inside information indicate that more than 8,000 people, a horrific number during national lockdown, attended the convention. The sudden spurt in the corona-positive cases across the country is now attributed to this massive gathering and the citizens are asking questions if the organisers’ insistence on holding the event, bapassing all the warnings, has anything to do with their madness, “blind belief” in the power of “self-realisation and collective prayers in a mosque”. The evidence of this comes from the Maulana Saad’s speech.
The early fallout of the event was detected when more than a dozen foreigners, who attended the Jamaat, tested positive after they visited a hospital in Telangana. Six people died there and a few more in other places after attending the event. Some of the deaths in states like Maharashtra, the worst sufferer so far, may also have links to this congregation.
Religious events across Asia spread pandemic
Searches are now on for hundreds of foreigners who attended the event that has triggered several corona clusters. While nearly 825 of them had dispersed to different parts of the country by 21 March for “preaching”, 215 still stayed at the Markaz. Authorities are now trying to verify the number and identities of the foreigners who might have left the country before 22 March when India announced closing down its international air traffic movement. An elaborate exercise is now on to identify and zero in on the status of over 2,100 foreign nationals, from over a dozen countries, who had participated in the event.
Religious gatherings across Asia have been at the forefront of spreading the virus, whether churches or mosques in South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, and we see that happening in India too now. Tablighi Jamaat is particularly blamed in Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia for mass gatherings in the face of massive corona threat. It is shocking that their counterparts in India failed to learn from the experiences of these countries.
Tablighis face Muslim society’s ire
Tablighi Jamaat has drawn widespread condemnation from the Muslim society for holding the congregation, in defiance of the warning of authorities. Muslim clerics and academics are angry because the event has resulted in the spread of COVID-19. They, however, expressed concern at the attempt to paint the whole community as being responsible for the spread of the disease for the “foolish act” of one organisation.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind general secretary and former MP Maulana Mahmood Madani wants “punishment for the guilty, but the governments and legal systems should decide the punishment and not the media… Already, there is Islamophobia in the country. Such incidents should not add to this problem.”
Tablighis save face by lame excuses
Now when the government is getting tough, the organisers are making a futile attempt to justify the congregation on the alibi that it happened much before the lockdown was announced. Didn’t the Maulana know that in view of the severity of the global situation and the fast-spreading infection in India, schools and colleges had by then closed across the country?
Not only that, but even government and private offices had also issued a work-from-home directive and all visas had been cancelled. As the situation worsened, even President RN Kovind and PM Narendra Modi cancelled their public engagements. By then, both the Union and the Delhi government had issued orders that no function hosting more than 50 persons be held anywhere in the city. Right from 11 to 13 March, over 3,400 attendees gathered, following which, reports said, the number swelled to 8,400.
Failed to learn from Pakistan
Subsequently, the PM had in two nationally televised addresses, appealed to the people to practice social distancing and even home confinement to break the deadly chain of the virus transmission. In his impassioned addresses, he reminded the people, “Jān hai to jahān hai.” Why are the organisers, then, feigning ignorance? Do the organisers believe that withholding such religious meets and the collective prayers, due to the threat of a virus, would mean losing faith in Allah’s commandment?
This also probably means that they believe their faith to be much more pious and strong than that of the rulers of many Islamic countries who are religiously practising social distancing, isolation and adopting many other safety measures to escape the corona siege. The organizers conveniently forgot also the Pakistan experience of the Tablighi Jamaat’s 25,000-strong congregation in Lahore in mid-March which spread the virus across the entire Muslim world.
Why were some Delhi mosques kept open? In Delhi, bout 300 Jamaat-linked people showed symptoms of coronavirus. They were shifted to quarantine locations in the city. What made the situation difficult to handle is the fact that after the event, most of the local worshippers went back to continue with their prayers at mosques in the city, with membership running into several lakhs. At a time when most of the mosques across the country have shut their doors on congregations, some mosques where the influence of Tablighi Jamaat is paramount defied the social distancing norm by keeping their doors open, believing that a “collective prayer” is the need of the hour.