This article originally appeared on VICE India.
A religious conference held early in March in New Delhi has become the heart of the latest coronavirus cluster in India and Pakistan. As authorities in both the countries lead massive search teams to track down those who attended the event organised by a missionary group called Tablighi Jamaat, New Delhi’s city administration has identified the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin as one of the major clusters in the country.
The Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi has led to positive COVID-19 cases in at least six Indian states including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Telangana and Maharashtra, among others. As the total number of positive coronavirus cases crosses 1,300, many reports are calling this gathering as a “super spreader” of the infection, which has reportedly led to deaths in Telangana, Srinagar, Andaman and Nicobar. Local reports say that around 2,500 people from different nationalities assembled on March 10, who then dispersed to different parts of the country after the event.
"During the probe, it came to light that more than 3,000 people were in the markaz (mosque) between March 10 and March 15,” a Delhi police official told India Today. “Among the participants, foreign nationals from Indonesia, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arab, China, Ukraine, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh were present. After the lockdown, many of them left the place but around 1,600 were stranded inside the [Nizamuddin center in Delhi] including 200 foreign nationals.” For now, the Nizamuddin centre has been cleared and sealed.
Tablighi Jamaat is a Deobandi Sunni Muslim missionary movement, and every year, its followers congregate in different cities of South Asia. At the moment, the group’s branch in New Delhi has been flagged as a coronavirus hotspot by the health ministry. However, they are among 300 people who have shown symptoms and have been moved to different hospitals to be tested. 700 others have been shifted to quarantine centers.
According to The Hindu, around 824 foreign Tablighi members, who came on tourist visa and participated in the March meeting, are set to be blacklisted by the Home Ministry. The Tablighi members have been under the radar in the Asian region for over two weeks now, after it was reported that a 16,000-strong gathering at their four-day conclave in Malaysia has created “the largest known viral vector in Southeast Asia.” The aftermath of the gathering led to Malaysia sealing its borders, and positive cases in countries like Brunei and Thailand.
While the Delhi administration observed that “social distancing and quarantine protocol were not practised” despite the lockdown, the Tablighi Jamaat officials have said they didn’t break any rules. If anything, they claim to have been forced to accommodate visitors after the Indian government imposed the 21-day lockdown overnight. "A rumour started gaining ground across social media that allegedly people affected with COVID-19 are present in Markaz. It is also being circulated that certain deaths have occurred due to the same,” said the group in a press statement. "Under such compelling circumstances there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions till such time that the situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities.”
In the meantime, the Pakistani authorities have sealed off the Tablighi centre in Lahore, along with other preaching centers across the country after 143 Tablighi members reportedly tested positive and three died. At the same time, the Delhi Police has registered a case against the group for violating ground rules under the Epidemic Disease Act 1897.
Additionally, the group has been widely criticised by the Muslim community for holding the congregation despite warnings. Some even feel that the “guilty should be punished.” “But it should not be done through a media trial. Governments and legal systems should decide the punishment. Their version should also be heard,” Maulana Mahmood Madani, a former Member of Parliament and the general secretary of Muslim organisation Jamiat Ulema I Hind, told The Hindu. “Lakhs of people were on the roads after the lockdown. This is one reason why some hundreds of people were stuck in their office. The mismanagement in carrying out the lockdown is also to be blamed for what happened,” Madani said.
Predictably though, this development has spurred Islamophobic sentiments across India. Ever since the reports about the congregation emerged, #CoronaJihad has been one of the trending hashtags, and many hardliners are blaming the community for the spread of coronavirus in India. This prompted Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, to tweet that the Islamophobic sentiments are “more dangerous than any virus nature could ever conjure up.”
However, it should also be noted alongside that this isn’t the first and only case of breaking social distancing. In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath participated in a religious event in Ayodhya during the 21-day lockdown. In addition, the crisis of migrants coming on the streets in huge numbers to go back to their home states, has also been looked as one of the demographic for whom social distancing is not possible.
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