Coronavirus Outbreak: Nawayath Muslims in Karnataka's Bhatkal junk orthodoxy of Tablighi Jamaat, help authorities quarantine vulnerable, feed poor

When the rest of the country was grappling with Tablighi’s googly, Muslims from Bhatkal did not wait for the community leaders from the state outside to give diktats or plead them to cooperate with the government for implementing total lockdown or social distancing.

Bhaskar Hegde April 10, 2020 13:56:00 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Nawayath Muslims in Karnataka's Bhatkal junk orthodoxy of Tablighi Jamaat, help authorities quarantine vulnerable, feed poor

The news channels have continued to feed the caged viewers in the lockdown with stories of how Tablighi Jamaat is culpable in spreading coronavirus. On the other side are the argumentative Indians on social media; one set of social media warriors is seriously attempting to preach scruples while the others are showing their hawkish nature as ever.

In the middle of the cacophony are the efforts of fighting the pandemic by authorities and public unnoticed by news channels and social media and the experiment in Bhatkal town in Uttara Kannada district is a case in point.

Coronavirus Outbreak Nawayath Muslims in Karnatakas Bhatkal junk orthodoxy of Tablighi Jamaat help authorities quarantine vulnerable feed poor

Jamia Islamia Bhatkal. Image courtesy Arfa Ekkeri/Wikipedia

The imposition of curfew, voluntary screening, maintaining total lockdown and keeping the suspect under quarantine without any hassle in a Muslim dominated Bhatkal town can be a lesson for others. Of course, the district administration could not have achieved what they intended to do unless the local Muslim Jamaat joined hands with the authorities.

Bhatkal, a quick look

The coastal town of Bhatkal in Uttara Kannada district has over 50,000 Muslims. They believe their ancestors were the Arab sailors and traders who came to visit India nearly in the eighth century or so. The community got a piece of evidence for their ancestry is a mosque, Jamia Masjid which is 650-years old. Here in the district, Bhatkal Muslims are called Nawayath Muslims. In the Persian language, Nao Aayed means newcomers and it is no secret that Nao Aayed has become Nawayaths over the years. Nearly 10,000 of Nawayaths would work in the Middle East and due to economic stress there, over 4,000 have come back.

“Even to date, 35 doctors from our community serve in the Middle East. Of the 10,000 nearly 4,000 have returned to Bhatkal and our Majlise-Islah-O-Tanzeem, the local Muslim welfare social organisation helps them now,” says Syed Pervez, the president of Tanzeem.

In the early 90s, the town witnessed unprecedented communal violence that ended in the murder of sitting BJP MLA U Chittaranjan. Thereafter, the town and the innocent Muslims here had to bear the brunt, when Indian Mujahideen roots were traced to Riyaz Bhatkal and others in the first decade of this century.

For years, they came under intense surveillance and perhaps during this period, people had realised it was better to live a new life, law-abiding by being cooperative with the authorities. Ever since no untoward incident happened. To the extent that, when the recent anti-CAA protest had taken place, the local Muslims penalised some of the mischief-makers from the community for crossing the fine line, says a senior police officer who refused to come on record.

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Muslims in Bhatkal consider themselves superior to some of the local Muslim groups because of the differences in skin colour and the looks. The police officer maintains that Bhatkal Muslims have reportedly fallen out with the Delhi Tablighi Jamaat.

Fast forward to March 2020

When a few patients tested positive for COVID-19, the focus again turned towards Bhatkal, because all the nine COVID-19 cases reported in the district till Thursday are from Bhatkal town alone.

When the rest of the country was grappling with Tablighi’s googly, Muslims from Bhatkal did not wait for the community leaders from the state outside to give diktats or plead them to cooperate with the government for implementing total lockdown or social distancing. Because they seem to be under pressure that all the cases reported in the district are from Bhatkal town and any mismanagement will be catastrophic for the community. Interestingly, Bhatkal has gone under stringent measures much before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced them. Many attributed this to deputy commissioner K Harish Kumar.

“When we first heard about the correlation between COVID-19 and foreign travellers, we focussed on two places first, Gokarna and Mundagod. Gokarna a village that attracts European tourists and Mundagod is a Tibetian settlement. Next, we had planned to focus on Bhatkal where people would return from the Middle East for Ramazan holiday. At around the same time launched a training programme for healthcare officials and paramedics which has come to our help now,” says Kumar.

Even before the first positive case came, the authorities had imposed Section 144 in Bhatkal on 19 March. Because, all the COVID-19 positive cases in Kerala got links with travel history to the Middle East and since Bhatkal too got similar social characteristic, the town may witness an outbreak of the disease.

"So to take preventive steps, we imposed Section 144 in Mundagod, Gokarna and Bhatkal,” says the deputy commissioner.

This coastal town clocks about 40 percent of the total foreign travellers who visit the district. When two people with travel history to the Middle East were tested positive in Bhatkal, the administration wasted no time and announced health emergency.

“This helped us to keep government machinery ready for the COVID-19 fight,” says Kumar. He also says that over 100 Tablighis tested negative for COVID-19.

A doctor from the community Mohammed Haneef Shabab narrates the difference between Tablighi’s and theirs.

“We are highly educated. That’s why we made our Ulema announce in the mosque and now, we are strictly following social distancing and lockdown. There is no confusion among us about cooperating with the authorities,” says Shabab.

The president of Majlise-Islah-O-Tanzeem Syed Parvez seeks to clarify on the Tablighi controversy and why it did not impact Bhatkal Muslims.

“Whatever be the portrayal of Tablighi issue, we are not like that. For instance, we dedicated a hostel block of the Engineering College for home quarantine patients where over 40 suspected were kept. Now, the majority have returned home after the swab test came negative. We also started supplying essential commodities to households. We give this service to non-Muslims. We take the help of our non-Muslim friends and supply commodities to non-Muslims who have a reservation in taking our goods,” says Parvez.

Interestingly, as many as 103 Tablighi members were quarantined in the district that did not hit the headlines and finally, reports of all came negative, according to Kumar.

Sharat Nayak, a doctor who is camping in Bhatkal to attend COVID-19 cases concurs with the Tanzeem president.

“All the nine cases tested positive in the district till now are from Bhatkal and the patients either have a travel history or they are members of the family who had travel history. We are now focussing on aged and young in the family of those tested positive. We finished survey of family members of the COVID-19 cases and we have asked them to bring the family members for intensive health check-up,” says Nayak adding that this time, people are cooperative to the authorities.

The author is a senior journalist and political commentator.

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