I first heard of the Tabligi Jamaat in the mid-1990s – 1996, to be precise – although it had been founded decades ago, pre-dating even Independence and the partition of India.
All I knew then about this sect was that they were Sunni Muslims, or rather just one section of Sunni Muslims, who had gathered in large numbers at the Bandra Reclamation ground in Mumbai, bang in the middle of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's backyard. The permission for the gathering had come right from Matoshree, that is Thackeray himself.
The Shiv Sena had come to power in Maharashtra the previous year on the back of the bloodiest Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 and it was curious, to say the least, that Thackeray should have given them the permission to crowd his backyard in such large numbers. But Thackeray had been startled by the victory of many of his candidates from Muslim majority areas and knew that could not have happened without a substantial number of minorities voting for his party. That was their olive branch to him and this was his return gift to them - as was the later extension of the Floor Space Index for mosques to help get the worshippers off the streets and stop them from jamming traffic on Fridays or causing provocation by the simple act of namaaz on the roads.
As I asked around, I was told that the Jamaat was actually a cult of a section (not all) of orthodox Sunni Muslims. But not all Muslims or even Sunnis approved of it and particularly not the modern, upcoming ones among them. Because the Jamaat wanted to take their community back to the times of the Prophet, to live, eat, dress, pray like the followers did then.
In the modern day and age that was very cumbersome. For example, some of the boys wanted to force their modern educated mothers into burquas when they wanted to dress freely and be indistinguishable from everybody else. That led to many a quarrel in many a household, one Muslim friend told me then. “We used to hunt for our food in the times of the Prophet because there was simply no other way. Is it possible to go out onto the streets today and shoot for food? We have supermarkets now and malls and modern-day packaged foods that were not available then. The world has evolved from those medieval times. We must too.”
The three-day gathering behind Bal Thackeray's house was like a 'Retreat' for members of the sect, I was told. Now that I understood, having studied in Christian missionary schools, where I would find the nuns and some of my classmates disappear for three to four days at a stretch from time to time.
They would read the Bible during this time of silence, a priest would guide them through their doubts and they would re-emerge from the Retreat refreshed and with renewed faith in their religion. “The same happens with the Jamaat but with the Quran,” my friend told me.
The act of self-renewal seemed harmless enough and, unlike those belonging to the Sanatan Sanstha, another cult (this one claiming to be the real Hindus), I never heard any of the Jamaatis had taken to terrorism.
However, I have been told that particularly since 2014,when atrocities against the minority community intensified across India, the Jamaatis have become both defensive and aggressive and highly determined to keep their faith and cult alive. Modern Muslim families who had earlier forbade their sons from joining the Jamaat, somehow found themselves agreeing, even willing, to let the boys attend the retreat every year – slipping from modernity to ancient practices.
The near disappearance of resistance from within the community is actually a fallout of the aggression of the Sangh Parivar towards them and a resistance to their ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ policy that directly goes to the core of the Indian Muslims' instinct for survival.
Perhaps that is why the organisers of the Nizamuddin Markaz resisted the exhortations to cancel large gatherings. I find that no different from Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s initial insistence on holding his planned Ramnavmi Mela in Ayodhya during the Chaitra Navratri from March 25 to April 2 this year. It was Narendra Modi's decision to lock down the whole of India for 21 days from precisely the beginning of Navratri that got in the way, which has proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Otherwise there are enough numbers of stubborn devotees, even among Hindus, who either would not have understood the dangers of crowding or thought they were insulated and protected by Lord Ram - and for that reason they would never catch the virus. Which is exactly what the Jamaatis thought. But Allah did not come to their aid either.
Having said that, I think it is neither right of people to defend the Jamaatis nor of a section of the media to communalise the Coronavirus. I had a spat with a friend the other day who informed me woefully that "Muslims have spread the virus across India.”
Knowing he was a fan of certain television channels, I asked him if he had been in contact with any Muslim, let alone someone belonging to the Tabligi Jamaat, who had attended the Delhi retreat.
“Of course, not!” he said.
“So why are you bothered?” I queried. “You will not be infected by the Coronavirus, but you certainly are by the communal virus. Stay away from all communal propaganda.”
But as I told him, it may not entirely have been the fault of the Tabligi Jamaat that their gathering was allowed to go through. The Thane police cancelled a similar gathering planned at Vasai near Mumbai, and I also saw a small notice outside a mosque in Navi Mumbai informing their members that their scheduled retreat had been cancelled. So why did the Delhi police allow theNizamuddin gathering to go through?
With so many of the Jamaatis succumbing to the Coronavirus, it should now be apparent to all orthodox people of all religions that not God, but only testing, quarantine and doctors can save them from certain death. As Sanjay Raut, the Shiv Sena MP said recently, “from Kaba to the Vatican, from Bodh Gaya to Siddhi Vinayak all the gods have run away from the battle field”.
It is now left to only scientists, doctors and health workers to pull the world out of the pandemic. Science, not religion, will be our saviours. Just as science and the researchers of previous centuries found vaccines and cures for pandemics like Small Pox, Plague and Tuberculosis, they will find a vaccine for this disease too. Until then we have to vest complete faith in them and follow the rules diligently.
This pandemic is a very secular devil and cannot be fended off by any god or voodoo magic like beating pots and pans or lighting candles. Anything apart from pure science is just a WhatsApp rumour or television propaganda.
(The columnist is a veteran journalist and author based in Mumbai. Views expressed are her own.)