The Tablighi Jamaat, relatively unknown until quite recently, doing its work away from the public gaze, has hit the headlines. Unfortunately, for all the bad reasons. The quiet missionary movement is, in principle, more focused on good deed than jurisprudence. It has remained aloof from the dominant political issues of contemporary Islam, for which it has received criticism from other sects of Islam. It is useful to know that its centre in India is close to the shrine of sufi saint Nizam ud Auliya. It draws people from various countries and regions of India, a meeting point of Muslims from all races and colours, a virtual melting pot, is now embroiled in a controversy. Was it right on its part to assemble so many people when a ban had been put on the meeting of around 200 people by Delhi government? Was it socially and ethically irresponsible or was it not criminal negligence on the part of authorities to let people gather, and create a conducive atmosphere for the virus to spread? These and other questions must be investigated. The perception created now is that the Tabligh is a vector and not merely an apolitical missionary movement; probably a general quarantine is in order against its operations shortly, from a ruling system whose immunity levels are quite high against the proselytising variety among the Muslims. The Tabligh may turn out to be the new Shaheen Bagh for a media compromised to its roots.
Fatalism or Conspiracy
A number of the Tablighis had come from outside the country. Like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Gulf. A virulent section of the media will even go the extent of attributing terrorist designs on the Tabligh. That the superspreading operation was planned from abroad, and a couple of men had arrived with a load of virus to cast in the assembly, and then when the members would go to their respective places in India, the pandemic would cast dense footprints in India. In the current polarised atmosphere in India, there are many takers for any kind of theory which will boost the motivated reasoning. However, in that case it is also an intelligence failure at many levels; the international, national and the local intelligence unit have been caught with grass growing under their feet. There will remain unanswered questions: who allowed the international vectors to come inside India? What were the local law enforcement agencies doing when they noticed a huge assembly of people gathering under their ear? Once caught assembling—an assembly of such enormity cannot go unnoticed, and after the local government had issued warnings—the local police should have come down like a ton of bricks on them. None of that happened, blame it on the lackadaisical nature of the law enforcement institutions or pure dereliction of duty, the woeful result is for all to see.
But it is irresponsible to absolve the Tabligh from blame. When it was public knowledge that assemblies have been banned, it was criminal to assemble and create a situation for mass spread of the disease. Did they not know that the holiest sites of Islam had been closed in Mecca; that Umrah has been suspended, and the call to prayer in some Muslim countries asked worshippers to pray at home. No doubt administration cannot wash its hands of responsibility, but there was an information downpour, and continues to be about the catastrophic situation unfolding around the world. They cannot excuse themselves that they could not move out because of the lockdown. Even before the lockdown there was strong evidence, and insistence from the administration to adopt social distancing (physical distancing is a better term) and prevent the virus from spreading. The administrative responsibility is fine, but how can one excuse from personal responsibility? And this personal responsibility not just for the safety and security of one’s corporal self but that of the collective humanity with which one is in close contact. The lack of comprehension concerning that is a common aporia in the context of some religious constituencies.
The problem is that, when we come out of the ‘sophisticated’ discussions about individuals and communities and organisations, it is a common observation that most of them are grounded in an acute form reason-defying faith. They are rarely amenable to rational explanations. From observation and previous experience, perhaps neither authorities nor the Tabligh did anything intentionally to produce the ‘epicenter’ of the coronavirus. The reason may be, despite being surrounded by inventions of reason-based science, their fatalistic nature. While they may travel in planes, take off from meticulously designed runways, and land at an appropriate altitude, the modes of behaviour of most of the people in South Asia are still oriented towards belief. This mode of behaviour cuts across all kinds of boundaries. It may well be that the Tabligh people stayed put with the belief that whatever destiny has scripted for them will happen, no matter what they did. Just to exemplify this point about fate-governed mode of behaviour; all of us witnessed how both Modi and Imran made appeals for social distancing, and called upon all academic institutions to close for some time. But both remained cautiously silent about the Mosque and the Temple, two places where most of the assemblies take places, where social closeness is rife, and thus potential cites for corona virus to thrive. You do not need to be a social scientist to explain that careful silence.
The demonisation of the Tabligh and the community to which it belongs may go for some time. It is forgotten that the people with whom these potential vectors came into contact are fellow Muslims. And the evidence so far is supporting the same. A man in Kashmir, apparently a pious human being, returned from Tabligh activity and spread the virus in his community. Most of the Covid 19 cases so far in Jammu and Kashmir are contacts of Tabligh members, who had recently arrived from outside the state. Same in other states of India, and even in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. It was not planned but a happenstance, which could have been avoided, if, for a while, reason had been given space against an extreme fatalism, and if the administration had swiftly moved into action. However, Covid 19 does not begin or end with Tabligh, the latter is just an isolated dot in the furious march of the pandemic.