Coronavirus Outbreak: Tablighi Jamaat’s act of criminality and govt’s serious administrative lapses have brought India to brink of disaster

The holding of the large gathering of around 4,000 people (some reports put the figure at 8,000) wasn’t just an immoral and irresponsible act, it was patently illegal.

Sreemoy Talukdar April 02, 2020 09:30:22 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Tablighi Jamaat’s act of criminality and govt’s serious administrative lapses have brought India to brink of disaster

As we crept past March into April the coronavirus , till the time of writing, has claimed over 45,000 lives and affected over 900,000 people worldwide. In the US alone the death toll has crossed 4000 while there are 200,000 confirmed cases, while in Italy Wednesday brought 727 new deaths pushing the tally up to 13,155 — the highest in the world.

Yet amid this global carnage, it looked as if India may escape relatively unharmed. The outbreak of the virus in Wuhan in December followed by bungled responses from the US and Europe over the next couple of months gave India enough time to calibrate its strategy. From airlifting Indian nationals from China, the first travel advisory on 11 January to the first set of travel and visa restrictions on 3 March — at a time when World Health Organisation was still warning against travel bans and was yet to call the outbreak a pandemic — India took a series of timely, even preemptive and tough steps to stretch the time it takes for the outbreak to reach Stage 3 when local transmissions take place.

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Several people who attended an event in Nizamuddin have been quarantined. PTI

India was the first country to announce a total nationwide lockdown for three weeks (China’s lockdown applied to only Wuhan) on 24 March when local infections were just over 500. The move was vital and audacious.

A billion-plus people went into self-imprisonment, economic activities stopped as a nation grounded to a halt, sending its poor and lower middle class into an uncertain future. All this pain to break the chain of transmissions and flatten the curve so that our rickety public healthcare system does not suffer a total collapse. In terms of arresting the number of positive cases, India was doing a reasonably good job.

There’s a real danger that all that concerted, collective effort may now go down the drain. One fell blow of security lapse, intelligence failure, administrative oversight, lack of political will and criminal acts of negligence and defiance on the part of organisers and attendees of the Nizamuddin Markaz event in New Delhi has brought India to the precipice of calamity.

On Wednesday, India reported 437 new cases in a span of 24 hours — the biggest-ever single-day surge largely attributable to the “super spreaders” of Tablighi Jamaat preachers who formed a sizeable amount of the positive cases. In Tamil Nadu alone, 190 of the 234 confirmed cases were linked to the Nizamuddin Markaz event — a congregation of Islamist proselytizers with global headquarters in New Delhi’s Banglewali mosque.

Amid the wildly fluctuating numbers that are floating around in media, one thing is certain. Around 4000 Islamist preachers from India and around the world gathered in New Delhi for the event in mid-March and post an outbreak amid the cluster, the preachers fanned out across India, carrying out “chilla” (proselytising activity) and spreading the virus in the nook and corners of India spanning 20 states.

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What kind of public health emergency are we looking at? Media reports say six deaths in Telangana are attributable to the Nizamuddin Markaz attendees among 20 positive cases, 190 in Tamil Nadu, and 24 in Delhi.

According to Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, the government has evacuated 2,361 people in the past 36 hours from the facility in Nizamuddin where the preachers were holed up, out of which 617 have been admitted to hospitals while the rest quarantined.

Another report gave a breakdown of the nationality of people who had congregated at New Delhi for the 13 March event. There were 72 Indonesians along with 34 Sri Lankans, 33 from Myanmar, 28 from Kyrgyzstan, 20 from Malaysia, nine each from Nepal and Bangladesh, seven from Thailand, 4 from Fiji, 3 from England and one each from Algeria, Djibouti, Singapore, France and Kuwait. Among Indians, preachers came from Tamil Nadu, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Telangana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Andaman Nicobar Islands, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab and Meghalaya.

Why is this breakdown important? We now know that a bulk of these preachers who were infected with the virus (including foreigners) were carrying on with their proselytizing activities across the length and breadth of India.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, that studied the outbreak in Wuhan, China, each infected patient would spread the virus to at least 2.2 individuals. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to figure out that we are staring at a cataclysmic humanitarian disaster, precisely the sort that we worked so hard to avoid.

The situation in India due to the Tablighi Jamaat spreaders is not unlike that in South Korea where more than half of the cases were linked to a secretive religious sect called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. One super spreader had managed to infect 37 individuals in a week — an unusually high number of people — eventually leading to a surge in cases. As the New York Times points out, members of the proselytizing faith eventually accounted for a large majority of the country’s more than 7,500 coronavirus patients. They were linked to Shincheonji Church members in Daegu, a city in the southeast, or people who had come into contact with them.

​ In India, Tablighi Jamaat has denied culpability. In a statement, they blamed the turn of events for the fiasco, clarifying that “ongoing program” in the Markaz was discontinued when prime minister Narendra Modi announced the ‘Janata curfew’ for 22 March, and the attendees were forced to be locked in since the curfew kickstarted a series of lockdowns and travel restrictions leading to the announcement of three-week lockdown starting on 24 March.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s explanation is not only misleading but patently false aimed at avoiding responsibility for their actions. To begin, the organizers were well aware that many of the foreign attendees were arriving from nations experiencing widespread contagion.

According to a press release by Union Ministry of Home Affairs, 2100 foreign nationals had entered India since 1 January, 2020, for the 13 March event. For an event that necessitates close proximity among members, this alone should have been cause enough for postponement.

On 4 March, the prime minister announced that he will refrain from attending any Holi Milan programme to “reduce mass gathering to avoid the spread” of contagion.

On 7 March, the prime minister sent an advisory to citizens to avoid falling prey to coronavirus that contained, among other things, clear instruction to avoid large gatherings.

Simultaneously, the Indian state was busy issuing a number of travel advisories starting 11 January. Important advisories were released on 3 March (banning visas of multiple nations including China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan, advising home isolation and self-imposed quarantine for incoming international passengers and finally, on 11 March, cancelling all existing visas (except diplomatic, official, UN/International Organizations, employment, project visas) till 15th April 2020 from 1200 GMT on 13 March, 2020.

Were the Tablighi Jamaat members and the Markaz organisers completely unaware of these developments? These advisories make it clear that a large gathering of foreign nationals may prove fatal during the contagion.

Still, assuming the organisers and attendees were blissfully ignorant, they couldn’t have missed the directive of Kejriwal government in Delhi. On 12 March — the day before Markaz event — Delhi declared COVID-19 an “epidemic” and shut down cinema halls, schools and colleges.

The day after, the AAP government, exercising powers conferred by the Delhi Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 , Regulations, 2020, and the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897—prohibited all sports gatherings, including IPL matches, as well as conferences and seminars having 200 or more people.

The holding of the large gathering of around 4,000 people (some reports put the figure at 8,000) wasn’t just an immoral and irresponsible act, it was patently illegal. That’s not all, however. By their own admission, the Tablighi Jamaat members were still carrying on with their evangelical activities up till at least 22 March when Modi announced Janata curfew. This was a clear violation of all central and state government directives, advisories, notifications and laws. At this stage, many Jamaat members were already infected with the virus.

Around this time, nearly all Indian states had started announcing lockdowns banning all travel and non-essential business. Rajasthan announced a lockdown on 21 March, West Bengal on 23 March, Maharashtra on 22 March, Uttar Pradesh on 24 March and Delhi on 23 March.

As the MHA release notes, “about 824 foreigners had been, as on March 21, doing Chilla activities in various parts of the country. Also, a large number of Indian Tabligh Jamaat workers were also engaged in different parts of the country.”

Willful disobedience, at this stage, ceased to be callousness or irresponsibility and became an act of criminality that put the attendees and lives of ordinary people in danger.

Sadly, the story turns grimmer still. A Delhi Police video reveals that organisers of the Markaz, upon being asked to vacate the premises to avoid further spread of contagion and enable quarantine of occupants, were lying about the number of members still holed up and refusing to comply with the orders. The clip shows a cleric claiming that around 1000 members were still occupying the Banglewali mosque premises, but we now know that police have evacuated over 2300 people over 36 hours.

And the organisers led by Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi were still refusing to vacate the premises and disregarding “pleas” from Delhi Police until the MHA presses National Security Advisor Ajit Doval into service.

At this stage, over 200 foreign nationals were still holed up inside the mosque while 800 had fanned out in different parts of the country. All had violated their visa norms in attending a religious conference and carrying out evangelical work while on a tourist visa. This was a well-planned out, devious strategy.

A lot can still be said about the Tablighi Jamaat and their radical ideology that has been linked to terrorism. As ORF Senior Fellow Sushant Sareen writes: “From Harkatul Ansar and Harkatul Mujahideen to Jaish-e-Mohammad, the entire menagerie of Taliban groups, to sectarian terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, all have been associated with the Tablighi Jamaat.”

Its chief, in the middle of a pandemic, was asking followers to resist social distancing — calling it a conspiracy of the government to separate Muslims, and death due to contagion the will of Allah.

This lack of compliance and defiance of the law of the land arises from a sense of entitlement that sits at odds with the mood of citizenry amid a crisis. The acts of political manoeuvring even after being caught points to an obstructionist attitude and a belief in violence veto as a strategy.

Some Jamaat members at a quarantine facility in southeast Delhi reportedly even “misbehaved” with and “even spit” at doctors and healthcare personnel attending to them on Wednesday.​

It would be misleading to blame the catastrophe on Tablighi Jamaat alone. The event in question was an annual affair, and the MHA, by its own admission, was aware of the fact that a large gathering is going to take place in the middle of March when the country is battling a pandemic through social distancing. Why was the event allowed to go through?

Some of the foreign nationals who attended the event came from nations where the virus had already been wreaking havoc. Visas require political and even security clearance considering the fact that these were members of a radical ideology linked to terrorism. Why were their visas not cancelled? Didn’t allowing them entry into India potentially compromise national security?

The Delhi government cannot escape culpability either. The Kejriwal government waited for a public hue and cry before filing an FIR against the organisers when it had prior knowledge that such a gathering is taking place that violates its own order. The FIR seems more a political face-saver.

Interestingly, in February, a gathering in Malaysia of Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s largest Islamic missionary movement, was responsible for what New York Times calls the creation of “largest known viral vector in Southeast Asia.” The proselytizers “spread the coronavirus to half a dozen nations”. More than 620 connected to the four-day conclave tested positive in Malaysia while most of the 73 cases in Brunei were tied to the gathering, as are 10 cases in Thailand.”

Was the Indian government aware of this development? If the answer is no, it is a critical intelligence failure. If yes, the question remains why the state did not ask the organisers to postpone the event.

There’s more. The connection between Tablighi Jamaat and Coronavirus was discovered on 17 March, when a Telangana case turned positive. Yet the move to draw up the list of foreigners or mapping Tablighi members’ activities throughout the country did not start before 21 March.

It seems likely that the administrative failure was caused by lack of political will because the BJP government did not want to be seen cancelling an important Islamic event after getting a lot of flak on passing the CAA. If this assessment is correct, then it points to dereliction of duty. Political correctness cannot come before public health and safety.

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