Tablighi Jamaat Fiasco Bears Southeast Asian Imprint

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Tablighi Jamaat HQ at Nizamuddin, New Delhi.

Syed Ali Mujtaba | Clarion India

CHENNAI — A 49-year-old man from Thailand, who had travelled to India on a religious tour, died at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital in Tamil Nadu on March 17, 2020. He was tested negative for Covid-19 and the cause of death was renal failure and septicemia.

Inquiries about him revealed that he had travelled from Thailand in a group of seven people. Two days later, some others were also identified to be part of his group, of whom, two were tested positive for the dreaded virus.

A chance encounter with the Thailand national at the Coimbatore airport in Tamil Nadu has triggered a nationwide search for the Southeast Asians who had come to India to attend an Islamic congregation held in New Delhi during March 13-15.

After the event, many participants went back to their native places. While some travelled inside India for religious preaching, many stayed back in the dormitory of the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz till March 15 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lock down, on March 24.

Among the 3,000 people who attended the Delhi congregation, at least 10, who had been tested positive for Covid -19, died of the viral infection.

Indian Home Ministry, in a press release, said, “As many as 2,100 foreigners visited India for Tablighi activities since January 1, 2020.  While as on March 21, approximately 824 of them were dispersed in different parts of the country, 216 of them were staying in the building in New Delhi.”

The foreign nationals mostly belonged to Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar among others and had come to India for Tabligh activities.

Among the foreign nationals, 50 were tested Covid-19 positive. Of them, 16 belonged to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The Tablighi Jamaat is an evangelical organisation that has presence in several parts of India as well as in countries in South Asia and South-East Asia.

In a press briefing in Chennai, an official of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu said there were a total 167 foreign nationals who came to the state for this purpose from New Delhi.

“Seventy-eight of the 167 foreign nationals have gone back to their respective countries. Eighty-nine are still in Tamil Nadu and have been quarantined,” the official added.

Among them, 14 Indonesian Islamic preachers were found positive in Salem district as on 25 March, the official said.

In related development in the nearby Telangana state, seven Indonesians were tested positive for Covid-19, in Kurnool district as on March 16.

Meanwhile in Jharkhand, the eastern state of India, a young Malaysian woman tested positive on March 30. The woman was among the 24 persons, 18 foreign nationals and six Indian citizens, who stayed in a mosque in the state capital Ranchi.

According to news reports, authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia are investigating to determine how many of their citizens may have been infected as part of a new of Covid cluster emerging from the Muslim congregation held in New Delhi.

Indonesians and Malaysians were reportedly among the majority of the foreign nationals who attended the event held in the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz at Nizamuddin in New Delhi.

At a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, “There were 731 Tablighi members from Indonesia who had gone to India, but I am unaware of their status who had attended the New Delhi event.”

A similar report from Malaysia says its Health Director-General, Noor Hisham Abdullah, had said that he was investigating about his countrymen who had attended the gathering in India. “We are trying to get more information from our counterpart in India,” he told reporters in Putrajaya.

In India, there is a big debate over the Tablighi Jamaat’s culpability in the matter even as blame-game is going on in a circle between the government and the organisers of the event accusing each other of negligence and indifference towards the human tragedy.

The organisers say it was the responsibility of the government to screen the foreign nationals at the airport before sending them to the conference. Secondly, even after their repeated notice, the government did not heed to their predicaments.

The government, on the other hand, accused the organisers of negligent and irresponsible behaviour for not stopping their activities even when the Covid-19 monster was looming large.

While it appears both the government and the organisers have valid points in their defence, the fact remains that the foreign nationals’ presence at a huge gathering resulted in a cluster Covid positive cases.

There are two basic lessons to be learnt from this episode. One, foreign participants should be screened for before being allowed to participate in such conferences. Second, seeing the gravity of the situation, the organisers should cancel the events.

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(Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. Views expressed here are his personal and Clarion India does not necessarily subscribe to them.)

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