The Tablighi Jamaat administration has decided to keep the Markaz closed citing a continuous rise in daily coronavirus cases in the country
Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India
NEW DELHI – Nizamuddin Markaz or Bangla Wale Masjid of Tablighi Jamaat had caught national attention after it emerged as a coronavirus hotspot. It has been more than six months since that fateful event but the space is still shut for the general public for prayers and Tablighi work even as the government has allowed opening of religious places across the country.
The government authorities had locked up the building and seized the keys amid an uproar by right-wing forces for a punitive action against members of the Tablighi Jamaat resulting in many foreign members being detained and subjected to court trials.
For the first four months, the whole neighbourhood of Nizamuddin was converted into a fortress as paramilitary troopers put up barricades at the entry points to stop free movement of people.
The restrictions were lifted gradually as the countrywide lockdown eased up and, eventually, last month, after court interjection, the authorities handed over the keys to the Markaz administration.
But the Tablighi Jamaat administration has decided to keep the Markaz closed citing a continuous rise in daily coronavirus cases in the country.
According to one of the caretakers, the reason to keep the Markaz closed is that they feel it will be difficult to ensure that covid-19 guidelines are followed while the Tablighi work takes place inside the Markaz.
“This is not like any other mosque where people come for namaz and then leave. Here, people stay for night and do gathering and dawat work and not just namaz,” the caretaker said. “It will not be possible to ask people to vacate the mosque after namaz. Hence, as long as coronavirus does not subside, the Markaz will remain closed for the general public as well as the Tablighi Jamaat people.”
India has reported over 7 million coronavirus cases since the first case was recorded in early March making it the third country with the highest number of cases after the US and Brazil. For months, the graph kept on rising with one hundred thousand cases reported daily sometimes. However, in the past couple of weeks, the average daily cases are on the decline.
The government imposed a strict countrywide lockdown in late March to curb the spread of coronavirus. Around the same time, the Markaz, where Tablighi Jamaat members from all over the world had congregated, emerged as one of the first coronavirus hotspots.
The media coverage of the Markaz event demonising Tablighi Jamaat had sparked a new wave of coronavirus-related Islamophobia in the form of hate crimes against ordinary Muslims on the streets of India. Besides police cases and arrests of Tablighi members, government officials repeatedly peddled propaganda against the Tablighi Jamaat in coronavirus-related press conferences.
As vulnerable communities were targeted by far-right groups in several countries, the World Health Organization asked the authorities to refrain from profiling coronavirus patients by their religious identities.
This experience, the caretaker said, is another reason to delay the opening of Markaz. “We do not want to give any chance or excuse to the media to vilify us again.”
He said, “If there is one case from here now, imagine the reaction from the media and government. So, we do not want to take any chance to let the government blame us.”
Both caution and fear of demonisation is delaying the resumption of routine even as several high courts have exonerated scores of Tablighi members of any wilful negligence. The Bombay High Court went a step further by acknowledging that the Tablighi Jamaat was subjected to unfair treatment by the government. It said: “There is a probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats” by the political government.
The court orders have also trashed the argument of the home ministry that the foreign Tablighis violated the tourist visa norms by getting involved in religious activities. The court said that tourist visas did not bar people from attending religious gatherings as long as they do not indulge in conversion work.
The Modi government’s handling of the Markaz fiasco, including its stance on visa issue, is likely to create a hurdle in the activities of Tablighi Jamaat when resumed.
The home ministry had filed an affidavit arguing that the Tablighi work was violation of visa norms and blacklisted thousands of foreign Tablighi from entering India. The ministry also came up with a new clause wherein a foreigner applying for tourist visa has to declare whether or not they are going to “engage in Tablighi work” in India.
The Jamaat is both hopeful and wary over this question: whether foreign Tablighi Jamaat members will be allowed to visit India in the same numbers.
“We promote social good and peace; we stop people from taking the extremist path; that way we are helping the government. They should be happy if more and more Tablighis come here.” The Markaz caretaker revealed that their discussions with the government are going on to ensure that there are no visa hurdles in future.
The Markaz administration is using the crisis as an opportunity; these days, the Markaz building is undergoing renovation
The five-time daily prayers are being held for months inside the mosque at the Markaz but only a few selected members, including the regular imam and workers doing renovation, are allowed to participate.
Markaz is one of the main crowd-pullers to the spot and its closure means that the businesses and shops around it have taken a hit. “There is no work. We just open our shops for killing time,” said a shopkeeper selling skull caps and kerchiefs near Markaz . “Most of my customers are Tablighis. Since the Markaz is shut, I only see an occasional customer.”
A similar complaint was made by a cart-puller selling dates. “I do not make even 50% of what I used to earn before lockdown.”
Only those people open shops who own their establishments while those on rent have kept their shutters down. “There is no work, if they come and open shop, they will have to pay rent.”
The customers are mainly the locals and the visitors to the shrine of Nazimuddin located a couple of lanes away from the Markaz building. The shrine opened for visitors in July but has not yet seen a significant footfall. On Tuesday night, the shrine was given a customary bath on the eve of the birthday of Khwaja Nizamuddin. The next morning, the shrine wore a festive look. The pilgrims showed up that day bringing a semblance of normalcy to the place. But for the resumption of the usual rush at both the shrine and the Markaz, one will have to wait for months or until the coronavirus is completely over.