Jamaat does not explain why the 13-15 March programme at Nizamuddin was discontinued only on 22 March.
New Delhi: ‘There is a culture of secretism in the organisation, which develops suspicion. The movement was never viewed adversely by the government.” These words were used by the present National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, to describe Tablighi Jamaat, while speaking to a media organisation in September 2013. It would appear that the “culture of secrecy” was strong enough to ensure that the authorities in 2020 too did not view the Tablighi Jamaat adversely and ignored the vast meeting organised by the outfit in March, with participants from around five dozen countries. This looking the other way rather than blocking such a meeting, caused an alarming situation. Judging by the lack of official reaction to the event until the Tablighi Jamaat-caused Covid-19 fire started to rage in Telangana, it is apparent that seven years later, the observations of one of the world’s top security experts, Ajit Doval, continues to hold true. Followers of the Tablighi Jamaat, though not viewed adversely by the government, are now under the spotlight because many of them have become super spreaders of Covid-19, putting the health of an entire nation to risk. And it took the personal intervention of NSA Doval himself very late in the night to ensure that the congregation dispersed and its linkages start getting traced.
The members of Tablighi Jamaat (literal meaning: outreach society) are engaged in Islamic preaching through discourse while going from one place to another. It was founded in 1926 and stands accused, perhaps rightly so, of violating the rules that were imposed by the Delhi State and the Central governments to stop the spread of Covid-19. As of Friday, more than 400 positive cases of Covid-19 in India have been found among those who were a part of the
Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi on 13-15 March.
Starting March, when the entire country was moving towards a complete lockdown, around 2,000-3,000 Jamaatis (the actual number of those who were present at the site is hard to ascertain as no official record is there) from several countries and every state of India were converging at the Nizamuddin Markaz Masjid, the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, for the three-day religious programme. The programme was presided over by the 55-year-old Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, who is the great grandson of the Tablighi Jamaat founder, Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi who founded the same in Mewat, which was and still is one of India’s most backward regions. No effort seems to have been made by the authorities to stop the meeting from taking place.
Of course this Covid-spreader congregation could have been stopped well in advance. Tablighi Jamaat issued a press release on 31 March, after it emerged that six of their followers, who had participated in the 13-15 March congregation had died due to Covid-19. The release said that the programme was decided well in advance. It appears that visas were given liberally to individuals known in many of their respective countries for their extreme views. It may be mentioned that similar congregations of the same group had caused Covid-19 outbreaks in both Indonesia and Malaysia, yet this factor seems to have been ignored while visas were granted and the organisation was allowed to hold a mammoth indoor meeting in conditions that made possible for coronavirus to spread. The movement was clearly not “regarded adversely” by the current government, as had been stated by NSA Ajit Doval during the UPA period.
The news that six of their followers had died first become public after the Twitter handle of the Chief Minister of Telangana tweeted the information at 11.23 p.m. on the night of 30 March. It was after this tweet that the seriousness of the problem was realised by the Delhi government and the Central government came into action the next morning on Tuesday. It was on this day that the Delhi police filed an FIR against six functionaries of the Markaz at Nizamuddin, including its chief, Maulana Saad.
The Delhi government, in coordination with the Central agencies, was finally able to get the Tablighi headquarters at Nizamuddin vacated at 4 a.m. on 1 April. Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia stated that 2,361 Jamaatis were found in the building, out of whom 617 were sent to the hospital, while the rest of them were quarantined.
As per the press release issued by Tablighi Jamaat on 31 March, its followers had come to Nizamuddin for pre-scheduled programmes that were “not going to last for no more than 3-5 days”. The press release further goes to say that after the Janta Curfew was announced on 22 March, the ongoing programme was discontinued. However, the press release conveniently forgets to address two important points: first, that why the programme, which had participation from thousands of followers and was supposed to continue only for three days (13-15 March), was discontinued only on 22 March, at least seven days after it was supposed to end. Secondly, why were the directions of the Delhi government, the first of which was issued on 13 March and the second, which was issued on 16 March, prohibiting mass gatherings, including religious gatherings, blatantly ignored by the administrators of Tablighi Jamaat?
These two points have not been addressed in the more than 800-word press release, which, very deftly has been worded in a way to point the arrow of the “mishaps” that the Jamaatis are presently facing to the lockdown that was imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 March.
The Sunday Guardian reached out to the six other members, apart from Mohammad Saad, against whom the Delhi police have filed an FIR. All of them directed us to speak to Shahid Ali, who is a Delhi based lawyer and the “acting” spokesperson of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Ali told The Sunday Guardian that Saad and the six others were not “absconding” while adding that no congregation took place at the Nizamuddin Markaz on 13-15 March. “The Delhi centre at Nizamuddin acts as a base for the Jamaatis when they return after completing their responsibilities. They come here, give their report and wait for their next responsibility. This process goes on 24×7, 365 days. Every day, 4,000-5,000 people come at to the Markaz to report themselves and wait for their next assignment. No congregation took place between 13-15 March, this is absolutely false. If this is the crime that Jamaatis are being accused of then why was the event organised to honour Donald Trump where so many people were allowed to come together? When the lockdown was announced on 24 March by the honourable Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, in defiance of the lockdown, took oath where so many people gathered. The followers of Tablighi Jamaat are being singled out due to hatred for Muslims. This is nothing but communalism,” Ali said.
“Saad has not gone underground, I am speaking on his behalf. He is not absconding, there is a lengthy process to declare someone an absconder. For that, a notice has to be issued by the police and if the person does not respond to the notice, the police approaches the court and it is the court’s decision to declare someone an absconder or not. So far, even now, no notices have been issued by the police to him to join the investigation. A communal propaganda is being spread that he is absconding. He is very much available to questioning. The sections under which the FIR has been filed against him does not require even arrest. I believe Delhi police has honest and sincere officers and they will investigate the matter without any bias or favour”, Ali said.
TURNED A BLIND EYE TO COVID-19 RELATED DEVELOPMENTS IN INDIA
It is clear that the Tablighi Jamaat organisers knowingly chose to turn a blind eye to the developments that were taking place around them. Developments related to Covid-19 that were very massively covered in the print and electronic media.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) released its first ever press release on Covid-19 on 17 January. Subsequently, the Ministry of Civil Aviation started screening of select passengers at airports from 18 January including thermal screening at the international airports of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Cochin from 20 January.
The first high level meeting by the Cabinet Secretary to discuss Covid-19 took place on 27 January, which was also attended by Secretaries in the Ministries of Health, External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Labour, Defence, I&B and Member-Secretary, National Disaster Management Authority and DG (Armed Forces Medical Services).
On 31 January, two quarantine centres were set up at Manesar (managed by Armed Forces Medical Services) and Chhawla Camp (managed by ITBP).
The first high level Group of Ministers (GoM) to review management of Covid-19 was held on 3 February. On 7 February, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Health & Family Welfare gave a suo-moto speech in the Rajya Sabha regarding Covid-19 on the steps that Government of India was taking to tackle the infection.
On 5 March, Delhi government decided to lock down all the primary schools in the capital.
On 11 March, two days before the congregation at the Nizamuddin centre was to begin, World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. On 13 March, the government told the media that there were 81 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country
However, unmindful of these headline generating happenings around it, the decision makers at the Nizamuddin headquarters, decided to continue with the gathering and as on March 21, as per the numbers given by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), 1,746 persons were staying at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Markaz. Of them, 216 were foreigners and 1,530 were Indians.
The MHA further estimates that since 1 January, approximately 2,100 foreigners had visited India for Tablighi activities. While 824 of them, as on 21 March, got dispersed to different parts of the country, 216 of them were staying at Nizamuddin Markaz. The rest are likely to have left the country before the lockdown.
ALLEGED TERROR LINKS
The followers of Jamaat have been, in the past, found to be associated with terror groups, including Al-Qaeda. A secret US document released by WikiLeaks in 2011 had revealed that some Al-Qaeda operatives had used the New Delhi-based Tablighi Jamaat in July 2007 to get visas and fund their travel to Pakistan and lived for a while in and around Delhi.
“The followers of Tablighi Jamaat, in India and in almost all Western countries, have been for years now, kept under a lot of scrutiny. It is a loosely structured organisation and there have been cases in the past where a follower of Tablighi Jamaat has been caught or accused of being a part of a terror plot”, said a senior official with one of the intelligence agencies.
The fact that it is a global 100-million strong group which functions silently, and with close contacts with groups in Pakistan active in operations against India, has given rise to suspicions against them. “It is more of a network rather than an organisation. People come, work for it and leave”, a former intelligence operative said, adding that “they had come under a lot of scrutiny post 9/11 but we found no instance of the organisation as such indulging in terrorism or espousing it”.
Saudi Arabia, the biggest centre of Wahhabism in the world, has officially banned Tablighi Jamaat from operating in their country. Wahhabism is a militant form of Islam, which is practised by Al Qaeda and other terror groups. In fact, the Wahhabi ulema have issued fatwas declaring Tablighis as deviants and forbidding followers from participating in Tablighi Jamaat. No Tablighi literature is allowed in Saudi Arabia. Even the Taliban have spoken up against the Tablighi Jamaat while accusing them of not supporting them in their “war to save Islam”.
INTROSPECTION BY MHA
The recent developments are likely to be the subject of introspection by the MHA. Despite having every detail of the huge number of Jamaatis, including foreigners, congregating at one place, that too at such a sensitive time and location, the various arms of the MHA, which is responsible for the internal security of India, allowed the congregation to go ahead rather than halt it and thereby pre-empt the massive repercussions of allowing the massive meeting to go ahead in the heart of the national capital even after the experience of Malaysia and Singapore.