A week into the national lockdown, the 1,400-strong workforce at the Haldia riverine port near Kolkata had been on edge. Incoming merchant ships, port officials feared, would bring in the novel coronavirus. There weren’t enough masks or protective equipment to go around even as the port, being an essential service, continued operations. Then, on April 3, panic set in. Mohammed Bilal, 38, one of the workers at the general cargo berth, tested positive for COVID-19. Operations at eastern India’s largest port complex ground to a halt, eight-port officials who had come in contact with Bilal were home-quarantined; three others, including an employee at the canteen, were confined to a port guesthouse hastily turned into a quarantine facility. Operations at the port, officials say, have been hit since then, only one cargo vessel has been moving in each day instead of the usual six.
Port officials say Bilal was tracked down by ‘government agencies’ and forced to undergo a COVID-19 test by port authorities. This was after it emerged that he was a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic evangelical movement whose congregation at its global headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in the first half of March has turned out to be a source of coronavirus infection across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir to Telangana and Rajasthan to Assam.
Bilal was among the estimated 3,500 people who attended the convention at the Jamaat’s Nizamuddin Markaz. On return, he resumed work as a berth supervisor at the Haldia Port. Bilal is now being treated for COVID-19 at a government hospital.
When the Delhi police intervened on April 1 to have the Markaz evacuated, it had already turned into a disease cluster, reporting six COVID-19 cases on March 28. Around 2,361 people were shifted out in a 36-hour-long operation; 617 out of them were ferried in buses and quarantined on the outskirts of Delhi. The area was cordoned off and the Jamaat headquarters sanitised and sealed. Many Jamaat members who had dispersed towards the end of March had become vectors of COVID-19, carrying the disease with them to villages, towns, and cities across India.
“There has been a surge of over 30 per cent in coronavirus cases because of the Tablighi Jamaat,” Lav Agrawal, joint secretary in the Union ministry for health and family welfare, grimly told the media on April 4. In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said that 168 of his state’s 343 COVID-19 cases were connected to the Tablighi Jamaat. One of the fallouts of the virus spread has been calls for the Jamaat to be banned, a petition filed by a Hindu Mahasabha activist in the Supreme Court has sought a complete ban on the organisation’s activities.
The Tablighi Jamaat is not under the scanner in India alone. It has been accused of being super-spreaders of the coronavirus in other countries as well. Pakistan has placed the entire town of Raiwind, south of Lahore, under quarantine, this was where over 200,000 Jamaat activists gathered mid-March. In Malaysia, a late February gathering of some 16,000 Jamaat followers led to the detection of 620 COVID-19 cases a week later.
The reasons for the spread are not difficult to understand. Jamaat gatherings bring thousands of followers in close social proximity, eating, praying and living in crowded dormitories. Jamaat activists also travel frequently to preach, thus increasing the risk of spread.
Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, the leader of the organisation that claims to have over 100 million followers worldwide, including 25 million in India alone, has now gone into self-quarantine at an undisclosed location. The Delhi police have filed an FIR against the maulana and the crime branch has issued two notices to him to appear before them. As of April 3, the Union home ministry said, nearly 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat members and their primary contacts had been quarantined across the country. Several states, including Punjab, have issued notices, asking the Tablighis to step forward and identify themselves.
‘A small pucca mosque, a shed, a living apartment and a few Mewati and non-Mewati students’ was all Tablighi Jamaat founder Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi inherited after his older brother passed away in 1915. Described in a 1978 biography of his, this location, near the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, was the ideal setting for the Deoband cleric to launch the Tablighi Jamaat, Arabic for ‘the group that propagates the faith’, in 1926. After bringing the Mewatis, a community of Muslim Rajputs in modern Haryana, back into the Tablighi fold, the maulana expanded the Jamaat across the Indian subcontinent. The missionaries, or Tablighis, can be easily identified by their attire and appearance, long Pathani kurtas with salwars grazing the ankles, distinctive turbans with sashes, and flowing beards with shaved upper lips.
Maulana Kandhlawi held proselytising to be as vital as the Umrah, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Little has changed since then, the Tablighis still go among Muslims, urging them to offer namaaz five times a day, sport Islamic attire and avoid ‘un-Islamic’ practices such as worshipping at the tombs of Muslim saints. The communal riots during India’s Partition, in which the Mewatis bore the brunt of violence, strengthened the Tablighi movement and got it many adherents even as the organisation took on the Sufis or the Barelvis. “Riots work as fodder for the Tablighi Jamaat in its exercise to eclipse Sufism,” says Manzoor Raza Qadri, a Sufi preacher from Seoni in Madhya Pradesh.
It was Kandhlawi’s son Maulana Muhammad Yusuf who expanded the movement outside India to Pakistan, Southeast Asia and Europe in the ’70s. A decade ago, several prominent members of the Pakistan cricket team, including captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, were Tablighi Jamaat adherents. The organisation’s movements, though, are restricted in Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which endorse their own brands of puritanical Sunni Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism.
“The Tablighi Jamaat has a sense of other-worldliness. It operates with a sense of exclusivity as being the only ones doing God’s work,” says Adil Rasheed, a research scholar at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The organisation was banned in Russia in 2009 and security forces there routinely carry out raids, arresting its preachers. The group has also been banned in the Muslim-majority former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and is viewed with suspicion by western intelligence agencies, which see it as a breeding ground for extremism.
The Tablighi Jamaat leadership has never endorsed terrorism, but several of its followers are known to have launched terrorist groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Maulana Masood Azhar being a case in point. Analysing the organisation in an article in 2006, French security expert Marc Gaborieau wrote: ‘The Jamaat’s ultimate objective is nothing short of a planned conquest of the world in the spirit of jihad. Perhaps 80 per cent of the extremists in France come from amongst the ranks of the Tablighi Jamaat. European security officials call the Tablighi Jamaat an “antechamber of fundamentalism”.’ In 2003, the FBI’s international terrorism wing wrote of Al Qaeda as ‘using the Tablighi Jamaat for recruiting now and in the past’.
In its birthplace in India, the movement has thrived, barring occasional efforts to curb its activities. As the home minister of Gujarat, Amit Shah had, on one occasion, enabled the deportation of a dozen Yemeni Tablighi Jamaat preachers on technical grounds. On another occasion, Shah helped save a dargah Jamaat activists were allegedly trying to take over in Navsari, Gujarat.
However, Shah’s Union home ministry, to which the Delhi police report, had been slow in taking action when the Jamaat’s congregation at the Nizamuddin Markaz continued despite the Delhi government’s March 13 order restricting large gatherings. The group’s initial wariness in scaling down the event or informing the state government about the numbers of its infected adherents played a part in the virus spread, ‘criminal negligence’ as Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal called it.
SECURITY THREAT OR ASSET?
It took the March 31 visit by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to the Nizamuddin markaz to convince the Jamaat leadership to disperse and allow police and health workers to enter the premises. Doval reportedly maintains excellent ties with the group’s leadership. The Jamaat’s vast global network of preachers apparently gives India’s security establishment an insight into several countries of interest, particularly in the Islamic world.
The Jamaat has so far largely flown below the radar. “This is because it is an apolitical organisation, but narrow-minded and obscurantist,” says a senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer. Indian security experts point to instances when Jamaat followers stopped youths from becoming terrorists or convinced those who had joined terrorist ranks to abandon violence. This came to light when police contacted parents of Indian youths who had joined the Islamic State terror group.
The Union government, sources say, has repeatedly rejected offers from Sufi or Barelvi groups to join hands against Wahhabi-like movements like the Tablighi Jamaat. The sources say the soft approach towards the Jamaat and its parent body, the Deoband school, is part of the Modi government’s strategy to contain terrorism. Not everyone, though, seconds such a strategy. A source in the Indian security establishment says: “Cancer should be finished, not tolerated for other larger objectives.” Another source, however, differs: “Using a carrot-and-stick policy with an organisation whose reach is phenomenal and then weakening its hold over the masses is the correct strategy.”
This perhaps explains why the Jamaat has continued its activities unhindered and attracted none of the attention foreign evangelical groups have in India. Thousands of Jamaat preachers have, over the past few years, entered the country on tourist visas in blatant violation of norms. Preachers require a separate missionary permit where they have to explicitly state that they are travelling for proselytising.
In the wake of the COVID-19 spread, it was the intelligence agencies that had begun tracking the Jamaat activists spilling out of Nizamuddin and into the hinterland. On March 29, IB director Arvind Kumar told state police chiefs to trace the movement of Tablighi Jamaat members in their respective states and conduct contact-tracing and take steps to screen them medically.
It will be interesting to see how, in the wake of the spread of the disease, the Modi government deals with the group’s alleged hawala dealings and evidence of Maulana Saad’s luxurious lifestyle, marked by huge bungalows and foreign luxury cars as opposed to his call to his followers to live an austere life. The government has already filed cases against the Jamaat’s foreign missionaries who had come on tourist visas, impounded the passports of those still in the country and banned their future entry.
Post the COVID-19 crackdown, it may no longer be business as usual for the Tablighi Jamaat. Representatives of other Deobandi organisations, such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, are apprehensive that the Jamaat’s transgressions are giving the novel coronavirus pandemic a sectarian hue. ‘The unfortunate incident regarding the Tablighi Jamaat is being used to demonise and blame the entire Muslim community,’ the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind said in a statement. The organisation has also moved the Supreme Court, seeking directives to the government to stop the dissemination of coronavirus-related fake news portraying Muslims in poor light. Wasim Shaikh, president of the Sunni Youth Wing, that preaches against terrorism, says: “The battle between us and the Wahhabi Tablighis is for the heart of Islam. If we lose this battle, all will be lost.” But as the country battles COVID-19, a lot more than spirituality and religion could be at stake.