India has launched a massive search to track down those who attended an event organised by a Muslim missionary movement after dozens of people test positive for coronavirus and at least seven reportedly die.
Authorities in the Indian capital on Tuesday sealed off the premises of Tablighi Jamaat, accusing it of organising a religious gathering from March 13-15 and ignoring the threat of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Delhi government also asked the police to file a criminal case against the group, one of the country’s oldest Islamic organisations, for flouting guidelines and not maintaining physical distancing.
Authorities said around 2,000 people were found to be staying at Markaz Nizamuddin, the New Delhi headquarters of the group, founded in 1926.
Delhi’s Health Minister Satyender Jain told reporters at least 24 people staying there had tested positive for the coronavirus, while seven people who attended the congregation have reportedly died.
Delhi police on Tuesday said they have filed cases, including criminal conspiracy, against the organisers.
Tablighi Jamaat denied accusations it had broken social distancing laws, saying it was forced to accommodate visitors stranded by the lockdown announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, with just four hours’ notice.
In a press statement, the group said: “A rumour started gaining ground across social media that allegedly people affected with COVID-19 are present in Markaz. It is also being circulated that certain deaths have occurred due to the same.
“Under such compelling circumstances there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions till such time that situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities,” the statement said.
However, Delhi legislator Atishi tweeted that strong action should taken against the organisers because “Delhi government orders had expressly forbidden gatherings of more than 200 persons on 13th March itself”.
A case has been registered against Maulana Saad and others of Tablighi Jamaat u/s 3 of Epidemic Disease Act 1897 read with Section 269, 270, 271 and 120-B IPC for violation of government directions.@PMOIndia@HMOIndia @LtGovDelhi
— #DilKiPolice Delhi Police (@DelhiPolice) March 31, 2020
According to a senior official quoted in The Hindu newspaper, the Ministry of Home Affairs is set to blacklist hundreds of preachers from Indonesia that attended the congregation.
“They came here on a tourist visa but were participating in religious conferences. This is violation of visa rules. We are going to blacklist around 800 Indonesian preachers so that in future they are not able to enter the country,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Yasmin Kidwai, a councillor from the Nizamuddin area where the congregation took place, asked why the government had issued visas to them in the first place. “We had enough time to prepare for coronavirus,” she told Al Jazeera. “Why weren’t visa restrictions in place?”
Delhi-based author Rana Safvi also accused the Tablighi Jamaat of being “irresponsible”. “Was Tablighi Jamaat aware of the Delhi government’s order? it is highly irresponsible of them to have gone ahead with it,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I am worried, therefore, about two things. The spread of the virus, and the spread of Muslim bashing. So far most of the media had nothing much to talk about, they have suddenly got a lot of material,” she said, referring to the media’s negative portrayal of Muslims.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had previously been criticised for the manner in which Modi announced the lockdown just hours ahead of it being imposed.
The timing of the announcement left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded in cities, forcing many to attempt to walk hundreds of kilometres to their villages. Pictures of stranded workers showed Modi’s government in a poor light.
The congregation at Markaz Nizamuddin has since provided an opportunity for BJP government supporters to attack Muslims for spreading the virus.
Soon after reports of the gathering hit the headlines, the hashtag #CoronaJihad trended on Twitter, with many tweets blaming Muslims for the spread of coronavirus in India.
— Abhijit Majumder (@abhijitmajumder) March 30, 2020
Videos, images and text messages shared on social media appear to show crowded Muslim gatherings and police attacking Muslims for defying coronavirus orders or offering namaz (prayers).
Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, tweeted that the incident “will become a convenient excuse for some to vilify Muslims everywhere, as if we created and spread COVID around the world”.
Many people on social media also pointed out that similar gatherings by people of majority faiths did not attract such prompt attention by authorities.
Two days after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, a large number of Hindu pilgrims gathered in Maharashtra’s Sai Baba temple.
Days later, in the central Madhya Pradesh state, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the ruling BJP took an oath as the chief minister surrounded by a large crowd, ignoring Modi’s message of social distancing.
A day after Modi announced the lockdown, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, had organised a group religious ceremony in Ayodhya town in an apparent violation of lockdown rules.
Writer and journalist Saba Naqvi told Al Jazeera the Tablighi incident has given the right-wing government and the media a diversion from the difficulties thousands of migrant workers had been facing since the lockdown began on March 25.
“For the first time, I saw so much attention on poverty or migration workers even in the media. And the Tablighi issue has allowed a diversion,” she said.
“The BJP has taken that opportunity. And it is not even a manufactured case of outrage. There was a class element so far around the lockdown. Now there is a communal element. All the horrors of India are unfolding.”
I was waiting for RW to link corona to religion. The tragic deaths of people after a Tableegi Jamaat congregation has provided that chance. To link corona to religion when thousands across the world ACROSS religions are dying is INHUMAN. Let’s for once keep religion out of this.
— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) March 31, 2020
Senior TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai echoed Naqvi’s sentiment but added that Nizamuddin was a “one-day tragic breaking news story” and that the migrants crisis will “sustain for an extended period”.
“The stories of migrant workers are enduring stories. Their tragedy and their long walks will remain with people,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Hashtags like #CoronaJihad are typical of the Islamophobia,” he said, adding that such social media trends will “actually rebound on those who spread them”.
“Because everybody is hurting today cutting across all boundaries.”