Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

The Markaz culpability in Covid-19 spread in India and Myths about Tablighi Jamaat

Tablighi Jaamat’s criminal negligence, deceit and denial before and after the congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz from 13-15 March, surely not ignorance, as they had prior knowledge of similar events contributing to major cases of infections in Malaysia and Indonesia,has undoubtedly triggered the biggest cluster outbreak of Covid-19 in India. As of 7th April, more than 1450 and one third of the total number of cases spreading over almost 20 states in India, — from as far as Andaman and Nicobar Islands are attributed to their irresponsible behaviour, perhaps deliberate, as they have not only defied, Delhi government’s order on 13 March prohibiting any gathering of more than 200 people under the Epidemic Diseases Act, but also violated and mocked the subsequent lockdown. Their supreme leader and ‘Amir’ has absconded avoiding arrest orders leaving his followers in lurch and fend for themselves.In an audio clip of a sermon posted on March 19 on Markaz’s YouTube channel, Maulana Saad called coronavirus an “azaab” (God’s punishment) and asked his followers to run to the mosques. He also called the assertion that people gathering in the mosque will lead to more infections as “baatil khayal” (falsehood).He has now allegedly sent a video message asking them to follow norms of lockdown and quarantine, from an unidentified location. He has also demanded that all cases against him have to be dropped before he resurfaces.

More and more new cases of infection from them will emerge as time passes, as the whereabouts of some of the attendees are not known as yet.While in quarantine and in the hospital, the Tablighis have refused testing, providing data to the medical team, worst of all spitting at the doctors and making lewd gestures towards the female supporting medical staff; demanding cigarettes, playing music, some of them half nude, busts some of the myths associated with this organization. So much for their perceived pious and un-worldly character. There are also reports that some of their supporters had attacked doctors and policemen in some parts of the country to prevent them from performing their duties. These reprehensible behaviour surely do not present them as innocent proselytizers of the faith.

Jamaat’s delinquent behaviour in India

Surprisingly, Jamaat’s behaviour in India stands in sharp contrast with their attitude in the countries of Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, where movement control and lockdowns were in place even before India. Even while they resisted testing for covid-19 even in those countries, as they believe that this deadly scourge is essentially Allah’s displeasure with the non-Muslims and non-believers, and as such Muslims will be protected by the will and grace of the Almighty, there has never been any instances of their misbehaviour of the type in India. This may give rise to a suspicion that they might have thought that they could get away with any kind of defiance and reprehensible behaviour, perhaps due to the existing political environment in the country when any action against them might be interpreted as targeting the minority community in the country. At least, certain sections of the political publics in India are defending the group and justifying the Markaz congregation by saying that other religions had also kept their doors open for a long time. This is perverse logic, as the Jaamat’s culpability cannot be compared with any other group,as people from the gathering continued living in the area even after the event exposing themselves and the people who came in contact with them to a greater risk of contamination.

Jamaat already held responsible for infections in Southeast Asia

The Markaz congregation was not the only event that helped the Jamaat to earn the sobriquet ‘super spreader’.In fact, the Jamaat was already held responsible for having spread the virus to half a dozen nations in its 27 February-1 March gathering in Malaysia. As far back as March 3, a New York Times report stated that this meeting had become the “largest viral vector in Southeast Asia”. The Malaysian event hadkick-started the epidemic resulting in the biggest increase in Covid-19 cases,with almost two thirds of the 673 confirmed cases in Malaysia linked to this event by 17 March. Most of the Covid-19 cases in Brunei originated here, and other countries including Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines have traced their cases back to this event. Despite the outbreak, Jamaat organised a second international mass gathering on 18 March in Gowa Regency near Makassar in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Though the organisers initially rebuffed official directives to cancel the gathering, they subsequently complied and cancelled the gathering. All these prove beyond doubt the culpability of the Jamaat in spreading the virus with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.

Busting the Myth about Jamaat

Is Tablighi Jamaat a non-political organization, as it claims? Late Mushirul Hasan, former Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, was reported to have labelled their attitude toward politicsas “very convenient” statement. For one, no movement of such magnitude can be called apolitical. Every movement has an objective,” Hasan averred. For another, arguably the very birth of Tablighi Jamaat, founded in 1927 by Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in the Mewat region ostensibly on the ground that that the faith of many Muslims had been weakened as a result of their attachment to all things worldly and materialistic, and they believed that one has to renounce attachments to worldly things in order to be truly free to believe sincerely, but in reality was a movement directed against the syncretic cultures of the educationally and economically backward Meo peasants, who were Muslims, but mostly followed several Hindu traditions,like practising pheras during marriage, believed in the gotra system, and celebrated Holi the same way as they celebrated Eid. The proponents of the movement, calling themselves as reformists, wanted to rid Islam from those aberrations to purify Islam. It was also in response to the progressive Hindu movements and organizations (such as the Arya Samaj), which launched the Shuddhi (purification) and Sanghatan (consolidation) launched in the early twentieth century to reconvert Hindus who had converted to Islam and Christianity,and thus propagated a return to the ways of the world and an itinerant preaching philosophy. The reason could be religious, but undoubtedly had social and in turn political implications.

Tablighi Jamaat focuses on urging Muslims to return to practising their religion as it was practised during the lifetime of the ProphetMuhammad, and particularly in matters of ritual, dress and personal behaviour, leading to many Indonesian Muslims, who at one time practiced syncretic and moderate Islam, to call the Tablighis as‘Jamaah Jenggot’ (beard congregation)   because of   their   beard  and ‘jamaah conkrang’ because of their pants above the ankle. The Jamaat initially had its entry into Southeast Asia through the Indian diaspora living in the region, but has now expanded its membership among the local people with the global transformation of syncretic Islam to an exclusivist and textual Islam having political impact on the Islamic countries of the region. Its conservatism and teaching of puritanical Islam has often led many of its adherents to radical and extremist path. Kafeel Ahmed, one of the suspects from India arrested for the failed attack on Glasgow airport, happened to be associated with the movement. Two of the 7/7 bombers, Shehzad Tanveer and Mohammed Siddique Khan, had also prayed at a Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, which in no way proved that the Tablighi Jamaat was involved, but added to the suspicion. So is the involvement of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar in various cases of radicalism in Indonesia. Both of them had participated in the early movement of Tablighi Jamaat in Solo. All these suggest that while the Jamaat may not be avowedly political, but the consequences of their teachings and their activities bore political inference and implications.

(Former Professor and Chair in South and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University & Distinguished Fellow, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi)

(Writer ia a secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies; Former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)