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The Nizamuddin Markaz fiasco is the biggest unfolding tragedy in India’s fight against the global pandemic of the Coronavirus. It is clear that the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz held in New Delhi was the most potent local COVID-19 hotspot in the country.
The Markaz story catapulted into national attention on March 30, when the Telangana government announced the death of 6 persons in the state who had attended the annual Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation (Ijtema) between March 13-15.
Founded in 1926, the Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Muslim religious organisation that focuses on travelling in groups (Jamaats) to mosques around the world enjoining Muslims to be steadfast in their practice of Islam. The Nizamuddin Markaz being its global headquarters, huge cohorts of travellers lodging at the Markaz throughout the year is business as usual and happens with full knowledge of the government and other law enforcement agencies.
What is truly shocking is the huge delay in action despite the fact that the Nizamuddin Police Station shares a wall with the Markaz building and has knowledge of all the relevant details regarding events and visitors well in advance.
Still, the response of everyone party to the controversy has been one of characteristic buck-passing, with most of the blame being pinned on the members of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Markaz officials. The attitude of certain sections of the media to communalise the issue at such a critically sensitive time for the country has also been disappointing.
In a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s direction to the media to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and not create panic, certain TV channels have used this tragedy to engender communal disharmony by using the most incendiary, vitriolic and Islamophobic ad hominems against the Tablighi Jamaat and Muslims at large.
The proliferation of fake news with replete conspiracy theories on social media about the deliberate spread of the Coronavirus by the Tablighi Jamaat are also disconcerting.
In such circumstances, it is important to objectively examine the facts of the entire controversy in the sequence of events that led to the present disaster.
Pertinently, as there has already been an FIR in the case and the entire issue is under investigation, the present analysis is not intended to pre-judge the issue, but to only encourage an informed debate on the controversy.
After being declared as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on January 30, 2020, the Government of India is reported to have taken various steps to screen international passengers coming in from the infected countries.
However, on March 6, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued an advisory to all airport authorities to start ‘Universal Health Screening’ of all international passengers entering India.
"5. All international Passengers entering into India are required to furnish duly filled self-declaration form (including personal particulars i.e. phone no. and address in India) to Health Officials and Immigration officials and undergo Universal Health Screening at the designated health counters at all Points of Entry."
March 6 Travel Advisory
With such a blanket order for screening, it is unbelievable how so many infected foreign nationals were not apprehended at their very entry into India. It is a clear failure on part of the airport authorities.
Subsequently, on March 10 and 11, further travel advisories were issued by the Health Ministry, advising all passengers arriving in India to self-monitor their health and follow Government guidelines on self-isolation.
Further, on March 12, the Delhi government notified the Delhi Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020, which stipulated that all persons with a travel history to one of the countries infected by Coronavirus should isolate themselves for 14 days, even if they did not have symptoms.
Despite the advisories and regulations, between March 13-15, a religious congregation (Ijtema), which was reportedly attended by 8,000 persons including foreign nationals and people from across the country, was organised at the Nizamuddin Markaz.
It was indeed irresponsible to cram a huge gathering which included foreign nationals in the Markaz when the deadly nature of the Coronavirus was well-established and various injunctions on quarantining and self-isolation were in place.
Not only are such statements irresponsible, they are also against injunctions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who ordered people to pray in homes in times of plague and even during heavy rains. When even the pilgrimage to the two holiest Islamic sites in Makkah and Medina have been suspended as a result of the Coronavirus and only a few persons are being allowed inside the mosques, such a huge gathering could have been avoided.
While the actions of the Markaz were irresponsible, they weren’t an exception. A number of public events were held, and religious places were still functioning with thousands of attendees at the same time as the Ijtema. In fact, even the Government of India, as on March 13, maintained that the Coronavirus was not a health emergency and that there was no need to panic.
A common allegation in relation to the Ijtema which must be clarified is the assertion that the congregation in itself was illegal. The Delhi government has cited an order of March 13 prohibiting certain gatherings which included “all sports gatherings and seminars and conferences of more than 200 persons”. It is misleading to use this order as it was never intended to regulate religious congregations.
The prohibition on religious congregations was made in an order of March 16, which was after the Ijtema had ended. This is also clear from a plethora of evidence of religious places being open in Delhi till March 16 and even after that. The Ijtema being held under the strict observation of the Nizamuddin Police is further proof of the fact that there was no prohibition on the religious congregations.
Having said that, it was also irresponsible of the Markaz officials to have not made adequate efforts to empty the Markaz premises during the time between the March 16 order and the lockdown.
In that regard, it is also important to remember that the Nizamuddin Markaz is not just a mosque and global headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, it is also a musaafirkhaana, a lodging place with a capacity of 10,000-12,000, for the thousands of visitors who visit the Markaz for the religious congregations and other religious events.
Therefore, the Markaz provided refuge to a number of persons who were stranded in Delhi due to the lockdown and had no place to stay in this time of crisis.
With the Prime Minister himself appealing the people to not travel in order to stop the spread of the virus, and especially in light of the migrant labour crisis, it is unfair to criticise the Markaz for aiding the implementation of the lockdown.
On March 19, the Prime Minister appealed to the people of the country to practice social distancing and declared Janata Curfew to be observed on March 22 all over the country. The Janata Curfew was accordingly observed, after which suddenly on March 23, the Delhi government announced a state-wide lockdown and even more sudden was the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25.
This meant that the Markaz was under an effective lockdown since March 22. On March 23, the road leading to the Markaz was sealed by the police. This meant that no person could enter or leave the Markaz premises without vehicle passes and necessary permissions.
Between March 24-30, as the details have emerged in a Press Note released by the Tablighi Jamaat, various attempts were made by the Markaz officials in the forms of correspondences with the Nizamuddin Police and the SDM to procure vehicle passes for the persons who could not leave the Markaz because of the lockdown.
The Markaz officials claim that while there was cooperation from their side, there was no cooperation from the side of the Delhi Police to arrange for evacuation.
The failure of the Delhi Police to ensure enforcement of the March 16 order to limit religious congregations to 50 persons despite being completely aware of details of the number of persons present at the Markaz, is inexplicable. There was also failure on part of the Delhi Police to track the travel histories of the foreign nationals who visited the Markaz, particularly when all information was made available to it beforehand.
A video of an interaction between the Delhi Police and Markaz officials on March 23 has been released by the police, wherein a police officer at Nizamuddin Police Station is seen to demand the Markaz officials to evacuate the premises in light of the lockdown.
However, no details have been shared by the Delhi Police, particularly the police at Nizamuddin Police Station, of the steps taken by it to facilitate the evacuation of the Markaz premises in light of the fact that the road leading to the Markaz was sealed and the lockdown was already in force. Further, no details have been shared by the Delhi Police regarding efforts made by it to facilitate medical examination of persons who developed symptoms after the lockdown.
The evacuation was carried out by the Delhi Police only after March 31, when the story had received national attention and reports of persons having attended the Ijtema testing positive came from all over the country.
At the same time, reports of non-cooperation of the patients with the police and medical professionals have made it extremely difficult for the government to manage the crisis. Such was the complacency that a high functionary like the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, had to intervene for the premises to be evacuated, disinfected, and all possible infected persons to get medically examined.
On a holistic examination of all the facts and the role of all parties to the controversy, it is clear that the Nizamuddin Markaz fiasco is a collective failure of monumental proportions.
Chronologically, if the airport authorities had identified the infected foreign nationals at their point of entry, the problem would have been nipped in the bud. Subsequently, if the Markaz officials of the Tablighi Jamaat had learnt from the suspension of the Ijtema in Pakistan and heeded the various advisories and regulations in place by the government, the virus would not have spread across the country.
While the complacency of all actors prior to the lockdown is unfortunately common, the delay in action by the Delhi Police, particularly the SHO and other responsible officers of the Nizamuddin Police Station, after a stringent lockdown was imposed, is dumbfounding.
For 8 days from March 23 to 31, there was virtual inaction by the authorities and that has aggravated matters beyond control. In addition to that, reports of Markaz attendees in various parts of the country not coming forward and identifying themselves has further muddied the waters, forcing a virtual manhunt to locate such persons.
The people of the country are still grappling with an unplanned lockdown which has left thousands stranded. A number of religious organisations have come forth to provide food, give shelter and aid the lockdown. It is unfair to attack these organisations for performing the functions for which arrangements should have been made by the government.
Recently, there is also news of a similar FIR against the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee for sheltering 200 persons inside the Majnu ka Tila Gurudwara.
With the Markaz officials also having offered their premises as a quarantine facility to the government, it is unfair to accuse them of ‘hiding’ persons, when it was only sheltering those stuck there to aid the lockdown.
It is not the time to register FIRs against such religious organisations, but to work in coordination with them to make India’s fight against COVID-19 a success. At the same time, it is also extremely important for such organisations to ensure maximum cooperation and strictly implement the norms of social distancing.
The authors are advocates practising at the Supreme Court of India. Views are personal.