(March 2020: The crowded convocation ceremony Home Minister Amit Shah attended at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh on Saturday, March 14. The mammoth Attukal Pongala in Thiruvananthapuram on March 9, in which lakhs of devout Hindu women came out on the roads to worship their deity. On March 22, the festive banging of plates and pans and clapping of hands in the streets across the country by tens of thousands at the end of the 'Janta Curfew'. The almost biblical exodus of migrant workers in their hundreds of thousands from Delhi after the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown at the ominous 8 pm timeslot. The much-peopled political dramas in Bhopal and Bangalore in connection with the unseating of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and the ‘Coronation’ of the new one. The historic and super-scientific Hindu Mahasabha congregation in Delhi in which cow urine was served as a panacea for COVID-19. The Ram Navami celebrations in different parts of India where all social distancing norms were flagrantly flouted. The massive crowds at so many temples and churches across India, including the tens of thousands at Tirumala temple, which was shut down only on March 22.)
Into this melee came the Tablighi Jamaat, throwing open a crowded mosque in Delhi’s Nizamuddin for COVID-19. With one stroke of a magic wand, they banished, from memory and contemporaneity, numerous instances of godly, ungodly, Hindu, Christian, secular events that must have made Coronavirus reinforce its confidence -- indeed, made it feel that “I am the monarch of all I survey”. The spectacular and mammoth idiocies on display at so many events in the month of March in different parts of India were no different from each other in their privileging of faith over science, nativist unconcern over global anxiety, and joy of the moment over the health of the species. However, the globalised, yet atavistic, stupidity of the Tablighi Jamaat is what ultimately triumphed in the contest for nationalising COVID-19.
Tabligh won the otherwise multi-religious competition only because they hosted many hundreds of foreigners from Corona-infested countries -- all 'desperately seeking paradise’ within a closed space -- and thus gave the virus a free rein. (That the legions that thronged the kosher venues mentioned above were not traced and tested with the same efficiency and alacrity could be a factor worth considering in normal times). Two weeks of collective frenzy and faith-powered intermingling -- speeches, communal dining, prayers and rituals -- allowed the omnipresent and omnipotent virus to disseminate its rather secular message with telling effect.
In a nation perennially in search of a new Muslim villain for every novel occasion, in this case the ‘novel Coronavirus’ occasion, the morons who congregated in Nizamuddin did not disappoint at all. The viruses that escaped from their pious mouths became the much-awaited fodder in the profane mouths of far more lethal, infinitely more murderous, bi-legged viruses that stalked the streets and alleys of India in search of bearded carriers. You finally witnessed the birth of history’s first circumcised, and perhaps even bearded (since I cannot say baptised) virus.
Now in a normal, decent, non-polarised public sphere, you could condemn in the strongest of terms the criminal culpability of the Tabligh and take the discourse forward, pointing at the numerous other, equally reprehensible, indisputably similar, incidents that demonstrated the same unconcern for the health of the fellow beings in the name of faith. The discourse could have, or should have, in ideal times, focused on our general contempt for scientific temper. Or on how people of most faiths threw to the winds all medical advice and preventive measures. Or why superstition always wins over Indian ‘mind’ (look at the Prime Minister’s trust in the magic number 9) and science fails to make even a fleeting impression. Or why many illustrious Indians (actor Mohanlal, for example) thought that the banging of plates by 130 crore people in unison can serve as a miraculous mantra and drive the virus away. Or how our governments utterly failed in anticipating, let alone containing, the spread of the virus at multiple levels. Or why the state and central governments did not take timely action to evacuate the Nizamuddin mosque in time to avert the crisis that now engulfed the entire country. Or why the people who came from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia were not screened at the airport and disallowed entry into the country. And many many other probing questions aimed at determining where the buck stops, ultimately.
Such fair and honest discourses happen only in normal societies. We have become abnormal and sick as a society and country a while ago and hence are doomed to exult in the toxic, self-righteous and minimalistic inanities that television anchors, communal bigots, and Whatsapp re-searchers spew at us day in and day out. Therefore, we come back to Tablighi Jamaat, as their phantasmagoria about both the virus and the Almighty as well as the Indian right wing’s phantasmagoria about the Jamaat (read Muslims) now dominate the airwaves. Corona Jihad has now entered India’s notorious national lexicon along with Love Jihad, Population Jihad and other such terms that our patriotic viruses coined over the years.
Credible reports are telling us that at least one-fifth of the people from our country who tested positive for the virus came from the ranks of Tablighi Jamaat. At the time of writing, the global chief of the Jamaat, Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, who also allegedly misconstrued the notion of social distancing as a conspiratorial ploy to keep Muslims divided (as if they were a united lot before Coronavirus), is missing. The police are yet to identify his whereabouts. The Jamaat is yet to issue an unconditional and genuine apology for the mayhem they have created in the country, and for the consternation they have caused for their co-religionists by handing over to the Hindutva zealots on a platter one more stick to beat the Muslims with.
It is the first time that the Tabligh, and their top leader, has gotten embroiled in an issue concerning the ‘here’, as opposed to the hereafter, since the entire organisation is unique in Muslim society for their pious, blissful, inane, theologically justified, socially insular, disregard for, alas, the world they live in. The world is something they consider only as a passing phenomenon, which it indeed is in the ultimate analysis though not in the reductionist manner in which the Tabligh construes it. As a matter of fact, it is the first time in its nearly a century-old history that the work of Tablighi Jamaat is having some impact on the real world! An organisation that is dismissive of the real world and pathologically obsessed with the eternal world-in-waiting post death, they are actually the least harmful of Muslim religious organisations in a political sense. Many of its members may not even be aware of the fact that India currently is ruled by an RSS-inspired dispensation. Even if they know, they do not care a damn. Efforts in India’s lapdog media to link it to some global terrorist conspiracy are totally off the mark.
That said, it is reasonably fair to assume that they knew the repercussions of holding the programme at a time when most of the mosques around the world, including the one in Mecca, were already shuttered. Their internal justification (I am sure this is the case) may be that they have entrusted everything to God and hence need not have worried about negligible issues like an invisible virus that less devout and less god-fearing people worry about. The problem with this line of (non)-thinking is that it was happening at a time when large majorities of people on earth had already collectively decided not to burden God with too much work, in spite of their faith. The worthies desperately seeking paradise in Nizamuddin surely did not conspire to weaponise the virus, but believed some weapon from God would protect them against the virus. God had other plans, or preoccupations. The result is what we see now.
The Tabligh has done its part. The viral and venomous macro-organisms that shape public discourse in India will continue to squeeze the maximum out of a micro-organism for their pet project of dividing India and pitting communities against each other. I ardently wish COVID-19 were, like the Sanghis, sectarian enough to inflict harms only on the Muslims. Although that would have put Muslim lives in jeopardy, we could have heaved a sigh of relief seeing our patriotic national mainstream rejoicing in the discovery of a new lethal ally! Alas, a virus is too secular to subject itself to our wishful thinking!!
(Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator, writing in English and Malayalam. Views expressed are personal.)