The annual congregation of Tablighi Jamaat at its Nizamuddin Markaj has been blamed for the spread of the virus in the country. The campaign by the media and political parties have sought to make the Jamaat a scapegoat while letting both the central and the Delhi Government off the hook.
It is easy to blame the Markaj for holding the congregation between March 13 to March 15; easier to forget that on March 13 Health ministry officials said on record that the coronavirus was not a health or national emergency. It is easy to blame the Markaj in hindsight and ask why the congregation did not leave after March 15 but perhaps easier to forget the confusion, chaos and conflicting voices emanating from the Government at the time.
On March 16 the Delhi Chief Minister announced a ban on religious, social, political gatherings of more than 50 people in the capital until March 31. But surely the government cannot merely make an announcement and then leave it to the uncertain ability of an organization to safely evacuate a large gathering in a short time.
A meaningful evacuation would have entailed that those showing symptoms were separated, appropriate medical care, including testing facilities arranged and their contacts safely quarantined. It would have been miraculous if the Tabligh had such logistical capability, especially as thegovernment itself was floundering in arranging proper facilities for isolation,quarantine and testing of those flowing into India from abroad.
What action did the government takebetween March 18 and March 21 to have the Markaz evacuated and the evacuees screened for the virus? Why had the Delhi government failed to enforce its orders banning an assembly of more than 200 persons issued on March 13?
The diligence excercised by the Government of India authorities in controlling the import of coronavirus from other affected countries can be judged from the travel advisories issued by the government of India.
By early March, by March 3 in fact, the huge corona outbreak from Tabhlighi gathering in Malaysia had already happened. Despite this the travel advisory issued by the ‘Ministry of Home Affairs’ on 3 March only advised medical screening (short of mandatory quarantine) of passengers arriving in India from specified countries. The list did not include the United States or any European country. Besides this the visas granted to travellers from only China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan were rescinded. Visitors from South-East Asian countries were not even designated for any kind of quarantine.
In fact, the words ‘compulsory quarantine’ are included in the travel advisory for the first time as late as 16 March, wherein ‘compulsory quarantine’ became enforcible with respect to only 9 countries – China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE; the South-East Asian countries were again missing from the list as were the US and European countries.
If Muslim bashing in ‘Godi media’, that quickly followed the screening of the congregation at Nizamuddin is anything to go by, then it needs be admitted that those who gain by driving the wedge deeper between the Hindu-Muslim divide, have succeeded in their gambit.
If official statistics are to be relied upon, India is as yet nowhere near to the scale of the COVID-19 calamity that has already visited countries much smaller in population as compared to India’s, with the singular exception of China.
Yet from none of these countries have we heard of victims of the pandemic being treated as culprits or criminals; unlike India, from nowhere else we have had pictures of police beating the life out of those distressed by this enormous misery; of people running amok with hunger; and of people being treated quite literally like tics.
At a time when countries have been converting their stadiums into field hospitals, the rulers in India are redefining the norms of civility by converting stadiums into temporary jailswhere to confine the supposedly vagabond, irresponsible migrant labourers who cannot but think only of their and their children’s stomachs.
Notwithstanding the gusto of thanksgiving by thali clangers, we now know of doctors engaged in providing care to those struck by the virus being turned out of their rented homes and exposing themselves to the infection in face of anenormous shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Air India pilots and cabin crew who rescued Indians stranded in countries worst affected by the virus are now ostracised by their neighbours.
What then makes us believe that the Tablighis or the migrants would willingly reveal themselves to the authorities were they to fall sick? Their treatment as villians, above all by the agencies of the state, would have made even other people wary. People would think twice before even seeking medical attention. This is the consequence of the mindless vilification of the victims of the disease.
The choice before us is clear - to drown ourselves in the disingenious slush of ‘Gobar’ politics of apportioning blame, or to forge the broadest possible unity of Indian people in the grim fight against the virus.
(The author is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University)