Yes, Tablighi Jamaat Organisers Were Irresponsible. No, They Do Not Represent All of India’s Muslims

Around 20% of Covid-19 cases in India have been traced to the Tablighi Jamaat’s March 13-15 gathering in Delhi. The organisers have since been booked for criminal negligence. It was clearly an unpardonable act to hold such a large gathering despite the risk of the deadly coronavirus. Government directives on social distancing were ignored. It was highly irresponsible and apathetic of the Jamaat leaders to have subjected so many to danger.

However, it would be ridiculous to blame the entire Muslim community for the misdeeds of Tablighi Jamaat. Sections of the electronic media and some politicians are going around claiming that this is a deliberate act to hurt India and Indians. Hate is being freely peddled on social media against Muslims using this stupid and callous act as a pretext.

The Tablighi Jamaat does not represent all of India’s Muslims, who comprise 15% of the population. Just as violence by followers of a certain ashram or a certain dera cannot be termed “violence by Hindus”, the Jamaat event cannot be called “Corona Jehad” being carried out by Muslims. Such allegations are clearly driven by hate and bigotry.

Tablighi Jamaat is a missionary movement for spreading the Sunni Islamic faith. It was founded by a Deoband cleric named Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Khandhalawi in 1927 in Mewat. Its purpose was to bring Meo Muslims, who were practising Hindu traditions, back into the fold of traditional Islam in the 1920s.

Gradually, they established mosques and madrasas and expanded the network nationally and globally. Today, its various factions are spread across the US, UK, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan etc. This proselytising movement aims to reach out to ordinary Muslims and revive their faith, particularly in matters of ritual, dress, and personal behaviour. It is one of the several religious movements found in the community. Most Indian Muslims are not connected to it in any way.

The Nizamuddin Markaz faction of Tablighi Jamaat is headed by Maulana Saad Kandhalwi, great-grandson of the founder Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. Maulana Saad is now the key accused in the FIR registered by Delhi Police.

The Tablighi Jamaat event and the communally charged reactions signify a much larger malaise afflicting our republic. We may win the battle against coronavirus sooner or later. But it is uncertain whether we will be able to overcome the virus of religious polarisation and hatred that is spreading in our society.

Politics over religion has become a familiar pattern in our country. Irresponsible acts by men of religion will be exploited by those on the other side. The Tablighi Jamaat event is the latest in a series of acts that is being used as a pretext to demonise Muslims.

Fundamentally speaking, religion is a pact between the creator and the creation. All religions talk of humanity, compassion, peace and harmony. Right to religious freedom is a right granted by the Constitution to all citizens. All of us are free to follow a religion of our choice or choose not to believe. Increasingly though, this is changing. I can prove my Muslim-ness by strongly displaying hatred for a Hindu and vice versa. Religious identity and division have become an important dimension of everyday life for most of us.

If anything, the Tablighi Jamaat holding a large meeting in present times signifies the appalling crisis of leadership in the Muslim community. At a time when ordinary Muslims are struggling with the threat of coronavirus coupled with harsh economic realities, the aftermath of Delhi riots and political realities such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Tablighi Jamaat is merrily fiddling away with a gathering to spread religion.

Clearly, they are disconnected with the lived realities faced by ordinary Muslims. Rather than undertaking initiatives to bring about change in the socio-economic condition of the community, they are providing fodder to the communal forces to demonise Muslims. This is a great disservice done to the community by a religious movement.

The Tablighi Jamaat and similar religious organisations need to understand that Indian Muslims can do with a lesser dose of religion. Why can’t they see that Muslims, like all fellow Indians, need education and jobs? In times of coronavirus, Muslims need to follow social distancing like everybody else. They need health safety tips and doctors. Religious organisations must make themselves useful in the fight against coronavirus rather than hold proselytising sermons.

The state machinery has acted promptly to trace the participants of the gathering. The Delhi police has registered an FIR against the organisers. They need to show the same alacrity in dealing with those using this event to drive division in society. They must act equally promptly against TV channels that are openly peddling hatred in the name of this event. These are criminal acts and must be acted upon by the police and those in government. Equally, there should be action against others who congregated in large numbers around the same time in MP and in UP throwing social distancing guidelines to the wind.

There has been exemplary action against the Tablighi Jamaat leadership and towards tracing the contacts of participants in order to contain the COVID-19 impact. The PMO must intervene against hate peddlers, too, if it is serious in its fight against coronavirus. In doing so, it would be acting to uphold the long-term health of our plural democratic republic.

(The author is the founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Views express are personal)