New Delhi, Mar 31, 2020: By early March, Covid-19 cases were surging across the world and in India. A lockdown in the country was several days away. Ignoring the pandemic, an estimated 2500 Sunni Muslim men belonging to several nationalities, each identically dressed in white gowns and skullcaps, checked into a five-storey house called Markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, part of a year-round routine, Hindustan Times reported.
Markaz is a clearing house for these committed teams of Islamic missionaries known as Tablighi Jamaat. Individual missions are small, consisting of four or five men, each booked on flights and trains to various states and countries. The building isn’t a mosque. It’s a facility with bare dormitories. “It’s actually a transit point, where logistics are planned,” said Navaid Hamid, the president of All-India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushwarat.
Authorities now fear the markaz waypoint has become a coronavirus transmission hub, with 24 preachers testing positive, according to Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain’s comment to NDTV.
The markaz facility is also known as the global headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, a preaching movement founded in 1927 by Maulana Mohd Ilyas in Uttar Pradesh’s Mewat. Tablighi Jamaat (Arabic for ‘group that propagates faith’) is one of the most widespread missionary movements in Islam globally but seeks to be low-profile. It is not a sect in itself.
Members often describe Tablighi Jamaat to be non-political, committed to nothing more than goading Muslims into following Islam. Participation is purely voluntary and most members belong to professional occupations.
“Our groups aren’t large. We can’t afford it. It’s at best three or four,” said Syed Iran Malik, a resident of the old Delhi, who travelled to Malaysia and Indonesia in 2017 as a preacher.
Preachers usually put up in mosques and lecture people. Preachers usually carry nothing more than food stuff, sleeping bags and cooking stoves.
One key task is to make non-conformist Muslims to ‘return’ to the faith. They frequently quote from the Quran, highlighting passages that speak of certainty of hellish punishment for sinners and rewards for the virtuous.
Positive coronavirus cases among these preachers have set off alarm bells now, but the organisation says its members were trapped because of the lockdown. Authorities made no arrangement to evacuate them in time, it said in an official statement.
“On March 21, 2020, a large group of visitors who had to depart by railways got stuck in the markaz premises. On March 22, 2020, the Janata Curfew was observed and visitors were advised not to venture out until 9pm,” the statement said.
According to the markaz’s statement, on 24th March 2020, a notice was issued by police, seeking closure of the premises. “The same was responded to on 24th March 2020, stating the compliance of the directions regarding closure of markaz is already underway,” it said.
Alarmingly, a day before the notice, i.e. on March 23, around 1500 preachers had already managed to leave for various destinations, thus leaving around 1000 visitors “belonging to different states and nationalities inside the markaz”, the organisation said.
A few of them started developing symptoms, such as a temperature and cough, but nobody thought of the possibility of getting the coronavirus, a member of the markaz said. Members continued to be cramped because of the lockdown.
Tablighi Jamaat has no central administrative structure and its activities are coordinated by volunteers. Without an authority, there was no general guidelines to prevent Covid-19.
An administrator of the markaz house however said: “During this entire episode, markaz Nizamuddin never violated any provision of law. It did not let them (preachers) violate medical guidelines,” the statement said.
“Why did the authorities fail to move out the preachers to government quarantine facilities? Why were foreigners not separated from Indian nationals? The local magistrate should be sacked,” said Hamid of the Majlis-e-Mushwarat.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the group has been under scrutiny everywhere, including in India, because terror outfits have been found to disguise themselves as Tablighi Jamaat members. “This is a conspiracy against us. Coronavirus is worrying but Allah will guard us,” said Malik, the former Tablighi Jamaat member quoted above.