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Tablighi Jamaat and India’s Covid 19 fiasco

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BY: Dr. Bilal Ahmad Ganie

A mass Tablighi (evangelical) event held between March 13-15 in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, has sent shivers down the spine of a coronavirus-hit India. The congregation was attended by more than 2,000 people, including foreign delegates. However, by then, the Delhi government had already issued an advisory against large gatherings.

Not surprisingly, the event and the Tablighi Jamaat have now come under intense scrutiny, with its followers throughout the length and breadth of India being under the official scanner. However, such callousness isn’t restricted to any group or community in India. From none less than the President of India himself to popular temples, authorities, organisations, and event organisers have been found to tiptoe around advisories and the new pandemic norms in places across India, exposing hundreds.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, on the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8), organised an award ceremony, inviting a large number of people, including prominent public figures. The Delhi government had by then decided to shut down primary schools and had appealed to the people to avoid large gatherings. PM Narendra Modi had already called off his official Holi celebration.
  2. Aatukal Pongala, Thiruvananthapuram on March 8 started a 10-day-long temple festival, with hundreds of thousands in attendance. And this was done with the Kerala government’s permission. The Kerala government even defended the move stating that the festival could not be avoided as preparations were going on for months. On that very day, five new cases of coronavirus were reported in the state’s Pathanamthitta district.
  3. Ram Navami, at Ayodhya on March 24, was held despite the nationwide 21-day lockdown. It was attended by UP CM, Adityanath. He even tweeted photographs of the event, saying the first stage of the “grand Ram Temple” had been accomplished.
  4. Belagavi wedding in Karnataka of state legislator Mahantesh Kavatgimath’s daughter on March 15, was attended by hundreds of people including the Karnataka CM, BS Yeddyurappa.
  5. Birthday party in Lucknow, U P was attended by Kanika Kapoor, on returning from London. She had tested corona positive. The party was also attended by former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje and her son, Dushyant Singh, a sitting member of parliament. Singh later attended parliament, fueling fears that a number of Indian parliamentarians too may have been exposed to coronavirus. Other political attendees of the party included Uttar Pradesh health minister Jai Pratap Singh and Aam Aadmi Party’s Sanjay Singh.
  6. Sikh fair in Punjab was attended by a 70-year-old coronavirus-infected Sikh preacher on March 10-12, putting thousands at risk. The preacher himself died due to Covid-19 on March 26. Around 40,000 of his devotees are now under isolation.
  7. Vaishno Devi Dham, Katra, housed around 450 people from Patna, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Haryana who came for Yatra on March 20. They are stranded due to national lockdown. The devotees had return railway bookings on March 22. The UT administration on the directives of HC shifted them to hotels.
  8. PM’s 5 pm Cheering & Thali clanging, nationwide event in gratitude to medicos, soldiers and frontline staff fighting the corona threat on 21 March, was used by his cult as “symbolic, ritualistic and emotive mobilisation” to “sacralise” politics and build support. Worse, in many cities and towns, people thronged the streets in festive fervour – beating drums, blowing conches, clanging cymbals –- and in the process, defeated the whole agenda of social distancing. It was a strange, somewhat paganistic spectacle that drowned the real concerns of health workers struggling to cope with the rising caseload or the risk of transmissions as a result of large public gatherings.
  9. The migrant workers congregating in lakhs between 25 to 28 March near the ISBTs or on the highways. Television news programmes showed their long lines leaving big cities, starting the long walk, on empty stomachs and in blistering heat, to their homes in rural India.

Plus India is a vast market for low cost and cheap Chinese goods which for obvious reasons don’t last long. Presumably Indian masses took COVID-19 like an ordinary Chinese commodity. Besides, the virus being “non-heat resistant” made them complacent as Indian winter was over and summers fast approaching. In their hind was a perception that Indian hot summers would not let the coronavirus spread for long. Even the Telangana CM went on to say that a paracetamol would be enough to cure Indian Covid patients if any at all.

Add to it the world did not take Covid seriously until March as till then it was thought as the problem of China, Italy and Iran. Gulf in mid-Feb had attendance from all over the world. Saudi banned flights from mid-March. So was the case with USA, Britain, Spain and other nations of Europe.

In such an environment, the Tablighi Jamaat too swam with the tide. No doubt it is run by educated people, and not illiterates, but even they didn’t pay heed to closure of Makkah and Madinah for Umrak and possibly also for this year’s Hajj.

Keeping the Tabligh Markaz open is an error no graver than any other mistakes listed above. But it is too much to expect Tablighi Jamaat to have cancelled the travel plans of its cadre visiting the Markaz from January.

The reality is that the government in (not) preparing for Covid 19 has goofed up and so did the people from all walks of life (including religious groups). The point here is – why is only one community being singled out? The answer is – it’s politics, rather than anything else.

In itself, branding of Tablighi’s as “Corona Carriers” is a compelling strategy to package an otherwise frail narrative, and only adds to the leader’s appeal as the ‘man of the hour’, the ‘lone saviour’. But ultimately, it is designed to convince people to overlook their own pain, regardless of the fact that timely government response could have allayed it.

Whatever the end game be, there is little doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic will only intensify the cult-building project. BJP, with some help from intellectual subjects, will continue to project Muslims as the trouble creators, be it terrorism or the CoVid 19 in India. This will intensify the fear and hatred for the Muslims and this hatred in turn will convert to votes. Add to it government’s actions as naming the crowd funded special emergency fund to tackle the pandemic, as “PM-CARES Fund”. It is clear indications of projecting Modi as a sole and only bold problem-solver.

It will definitely cover up the government’s substance lacking policy to counter Covid-19. And the flattering rhetoric on social media and WhatsApp will compensate for this and sell Modi as an indispensable, singular solution to the pandemic. This is particularly because the fundamental nature of this crisis is non-political: it directly affects the life of every Indian. Hence, more and more people will now be willing to repose faith on the projected man of the hour – PM Modi. The Indian media, as we all know, is a propaganda tool in the hands of the right wing. It is habitual of portraying anything that helps the government to negotiate crises and provides a counter narrative to people so as to divert their attention from the immediate problems they face. This time the Tablighi Jamaat provided them the rope. This media witch-hunt of Tablighi Jamaat is thus not a surprise.

To end this it won’t be a misplaced notion that all Muslim organizations have a lot to learn from Sikhs, who by their apt response to calamities across the globe are lauded for their actions. These organizations will have to shun the attitude of finding problems in others, and instead go for introspection and stop playing the victim card.

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