On March 30, the Nizamuddin area in Delhi city was sealed. The reason: an event of the Muslim religious organisation called the Tablighi Jamat that was held in the neighbourhood early in March had been attended by a number of people carrying the novel coronavirus.
Given the Tabligh’s strong India-wide network (this event itself had people from 15 states), this led to a large number of cases of Covid-19 in several parts of the country being traced back to this congregation.
The Tabligh claims that it followed all the guidelines after the Union government called for a lockdown on March 22. However, things get more complicated when we look at Delhi government rules. Based on claims made by the Aam Aadmi Party that rules Delhi, the organisers failed to follow its directive on March 13 banning gatherings of more than 200 people and to quarantine people with a history of travelling to or from coronavirus-affected countries. Whether or not the Tabligh fell foul of the letter of the law, it is clear that the organisation was reckless in inviting people from coronavirus-hit countries such as Thailand.
To remedy this, a singular effort to trace everyone around India who visited the centre and quarantine them has become urgent. However, this intricate exercise has hit a communal maelstrom. The Tabligh’s Muslim identity led to it being attacked on communal grounds on social media, the press and by politicians. One TV channel that supports the Union government even went so far as to label this act of terrible negligence as “corona jihad”. Another opinion piece addressed “Muslims” as a whole as it went on to criticise the Tabligh.
Since then, top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have described the incident as an “Islamic insurrection” as well as “corona terrorism”. A BJP MP has even called for the use of sedition laws – the colonial-era provision that penalises “disaffection” against the government.
Holding India’s 200 million Muslims collectively responsible for this incident is simply a form of bigotry. The communal distraction means large parts of the media is not taking the Union government and Delhi state to task on how they allowed this and other gatherings to take place even after it became clear that Covid-19 was a threat.
Apart from letting the administration off the hook, this constant demonisation of 200 million Indians makes the country’s fight against Covid-19 even more difficult. Given India’s poverty and weak public health infrastructure, the country is severely hobbled when tackling a pandemic of this scale. For the country to fail to come together to tackle this grave crisis and continue to squabble on communal lines is to shoot itself in the foot.
In this specific case, for example, the avalanche of hate means that contact tracing will become more difficult for the authorities, since people who attend the Tabligh event will be hesitant to identify themselves.