Questions Remain About How Delhi's Nizamuddin Became a Coronavirus Hotspot

The media is using the COVID-19 outbreak at the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters to polarise people on religious grounds instead of debating the weakness of India's public health management system.

New Delhi: The national capital’s Nizamuddin area, home to the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), has emerged as one of the COVID-19 ‘hotspots’ in India. 

On March 30, a large number of TJ workers suspected of being infected with the novel coronavirus were taken from the Jamaat’s headquarters, or Markaz, and sent off to quarantine centres in Delhi.

On Tuesday, March 31, Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain told The Wire that so far 1,033 people have been taken out of the Markaz at Nizamuddin and 24 of them have been found to be virus positive. The minister also disclosed that so far, 334 people from the area have also been sent to hospital as they reported symptoms of the virus and they are being tested for it. He said 700 people have been put under quarantine.

Apart from holding major events across the country which can see attendance running into lakhs, the TJ’s headquarters sees a steady stream of Jamaat workers throughout the year who pass through Delhi before and after embarking on preaching tours – known as ‘chilla’ – across India. These visits are scheduled well in advance and it is not unusual for the Markaz to play host – essentially as a hostel – to upwards of 8,000 people at any one time. While at the headquarters, they take part in ongoing instructional activities. The premises can hold up to 10-12,000 people, Mujib-ur-Rahman, a TJ representative told The Wire.

Though the government of India had begun to put in place restrictions on the entry of foreigners from China and a handful of other countries and then announced a blanket suspension of all visas for entry into the country with effect from March 15, the Union health ministry – as late as March 13,  when total COVID-19 infections in India were 81 – still stuck to the line that COVID-19 is ‘not a health emergency.’ 

Tablighi Jamaat representatives told The Wire that movement in and out of the Markaz continued as per schedule throughout March, even though a conscious effort was made to reduce the number of ‘jamaats’ passing through the headquarters. “The government had not said anything but we were conscious of the need to keep the flow of jamaat saathis down’, Rahman said.

On March 16, the Delhi government ordered a ban on all public events, including religious ones, with more than 50 people attending. However, Tablighi representatives deny those present at the Markaz were attending any specific event and thus took the view that these guidelines did not apply to the people using the headquarters as a hostel. “People continued to come and go as per their pre-arranged ticket bookings”, they said. It was only when Prime Minister Modi issued his call on March 19 for a janata curfew to be held on Sunday, March 22 that the TJ authorities decided to proactively move their workers off the premises ahead of schedule.

They, and the government, had reason to be alarmed. On March 16, the same day the ban on religious gatherings in the capital was announced, a group of 10 Indonesians were rushed into isolation in far away Hyderabad after one of them showed symptoms of the coronavirus. They had attended a Tablighi gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area on March 8-10 before they travelled south.  

By March 18, eight of those 10 Indonesians had tested positive for the coronavirus, though curiously, a subsequent test on March 21 turned up negative, according to TJ officials, who have shared copies of the March 21 medical reports with The Wire.

On March 21, two Thai nationals in Tamil Nadu were also tested positive. Their travel history also established their presence at the Markaz in Nizamuddin.

Also read: Government Identifies 10 Coronavirus Hotspots, Testing to Be Boosted

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Centre informed all state governments about the Telangana cases on March 21.  But curiously, neither the Central or Delhi governments moved to either test or quarantine the workers still at the Markaz until March 28, Rahman said. The TJ authorities were berated by the local police station for the large number of workers still present at the Markaz but drew a blank when they sough help for moving everyone out given the suspension of rail services across India on March 21 and the sealing of Delhi’s borders from the morning of March 23.

Rahman said they went to meet the SHO, Nizamuddin police station on March 23 but were told to return the next day. When they went back on March 24, the SHO said only the SDM could help them with transportation.

On March 31, the police filed a case against the TJ leadership under the 1897 Epidemic Disease Act for violating government directions, presumably the ones issued on March 16. 

On its part, the TJ has released copies of their letters to the Delhi Police in which they claimed they had been in compliance with all government directives and that the lockdown announced on March 24 meant they had no way of getting those workers still on the premises to return to their homes. 

The Tablighi Jamaat authorities also released a statement saying that on March 24, 2020, a notice was issued by the SHO seeking closure of Markaz premises. “The same was responded on March 24, 2020, stating that the compliance of the directions regarding closure of Markaz is already underway and around 1,500 people had departed the previous day, thus leaving around 1000 visitors belonging to different states and nationalities in Markaz.” 

On Tuesday, the Delhi Police leaked a video recording of a meeting on March 24 between the SHO Nizamuddin PS and Markaz officials in which he can be seen berating them for not having vacated their premises. When the Markaz officials said they had come to the police station the day earlier for help to move their visitors out because the inter-state borders have officially been sealed and that they still needed assistance, the SHO said they should contact the SDM, who would help them.

Ashfaq Khan of the Tablighi Jamaat told The Wire that when they contacted the SDM, they were asked to furnish a list of the people who needed to move out along with the details of what vehicles they would be using to head out of Delhi during the lockdown. “But when we gave the list, he told us that he could not give permission for the people leave and that everyone should stay put”.

Asked why the TJ had flouted the Delhi government’s order banning gatherings of 50 or more people, Mujibur Rahman, another official associated with the Markaz said:

“These are people who had planned their travels to the Markaz, two-three months ago and [some foreigners had] even got visas for it. They got stranded in the premises. These people didn’t gather on purpose, they got stranded. Even after the Delhi government’s order, what could we have done about all those people who got stuck at the premises? In the case of foreigners, many flights had been cancelled, We couldn’t have thrown them out of our doors.

We asked for the government’s help to ferry them out of the premises but got no response.”

Srinagar, TN, Telangana deaths linked to Delhi’s religious conference 

Tamil Nadu has over 67 people affected with the virus so far. Most of them, a total of 19, are in the Erode district. These 19 people had come directly or indirectly in contact with the two Thai nationals who tested positive for the virus. 

According to what a Tamil Nadu government official has told Scroll.in, a total of  1,500 state residents attended the conference in Delhi. Of these 819 people have been traced and the search for others is on.

According to media reports, other states have been trying to trace more people too. 

Also read: Over 1,000 Taken Out of Nizamuddin Markaz, 24 Test Positive for COVID-19

A 65-year old religious preacher who had attended the conference in Delhi died of COVID-19 in Srinagar on March 26 after he tested positive for the coronavirus on March 24. He had travelled to UP’s Deoband before returning to Kashmir. 

Telangana’s first COVID-19 death was reported on March 27 – a 74-year old, who had attended the TJ event. On Monday night, six new deaths were recorded of people in Telangana in a single day; these were again people who had travel history linking them to a TJ event in Delhi. 

Adityanath flouts social distancing norm

While a section of the big media has used the Nizamuddin infections to suggest the Tablighi Jamaat defied the ‘social distancing’ norm as part of a “deliberate plot” to hurt India, many prominent religious spots were also late to take appropriate precautions. It was only on March 17, for example, that the Tirupati temple authorities said they would be introducing time-slot tokens so that pilgrims “need not wait in massive queue complexes … in the wake of the coronavirus threat.”

On March 18, the government of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large mela, or fair, planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual, while Acharya Paramhans said that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus”. The next day, however, when Modi gave a call for a janata curfew, the chief minister changed tack and urged people to celebrate Ram Navami at home.

But one day after Modi announced the “curfew like” national lockdown on March 24, Adityanath violated the official social distancing guidelines to take part in a religious ceremony in Ayodhya along with dozens of people.

MHA statement and the unanswered questions it raises

In the wake of diagnosis of a cluster of patients at Nizamuddin in Delhi, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press note:

Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) shared details of foreign and Indian Tabhlighi Jamaat (TJ) workers in India with all States on March 21, 2020, after COVID-19 positive cases among these workers surfaced in Telangana.

The swift action was taken with a view to identify, isolate and quarantine TJ workers who might be COVID-19 positive. Instructions were also issued by MHA to Chief Secretaries and DGsP of all States as well as CP, Delhi. The advisories were reiterated by the DIB to all State DGsP on March 28 and 29.

Meanwhile, TJ workers staying in the Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, were also persuaded for medical screening by State authorities and Police. By March 29, nearly 162 TJ workers were medically screened and shifted to quarantine facilities. So far, 1339 Tabligh Jamaat workers have been shifted to Narela, Sultanpuri and Bakkarwala quarantine facilities as well as to LNJP, RGSS, GTB, DDU Hospitals and AllMS, Jhajjar. Rest of them are being currently medically screened for COVID-19 infections.

The aim of  press note is to explain the MHA’s own role in the matter, but it does not clear the air on why the hotspot emerged and was tackled so slowly. Indeed, the timeline it provides raises fresh questions about the efficiency of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Why did the Delhi Police, which comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs, not act to enforce the March 16 government order prohibiting public gatherings of over 50 people in the national capital region even though the Markaz was known to be hosting hundreds of people and that other hostels in the capital had been shut down?

2. The first Tablighi Jamaat members  to be diagnosed with COVID-19 were Indonesians who tested positive in Hyderabad on March 17. But they had reportedly spent three days at the Markaz from March 8 to 11. Why there was four day lag between the Hyderabad diagnoses and the MHA’s advisory to all states?

3. What action did the Delhi Police and Delhi government take after the MHA advisory to inspect the Markaz premises and isolate and test those who might have been exposed to the coronavirus? Rahman of the TJ says the government began to look at the health status of those at the Markaz only on March 28. Why the long wait?

4. The MHA says the TJ workers “were also persuaded for medical screening” and by March 29, 162 of them had been screened and quarantined. Why did this screening process begin s late? And what is the total number of screenings conducted, given that the Markaz authorities say there were upwards of 1,200 people stranded on the premises as the result of the national lockdown which entered into force from the night of March 24.

5. Why was the information about so many TJ workers testing positive not shared with the media, or with the local community, particularly keeping in mind that the Nizamuddin basti area, where the Markaz is located, is a densely populated locality and many might have come in contact with those staying in the TJ headquarters?

6. According to the MHA press note on March 31, “On March 21, approximately 824 foreign Tabligh Jamaat workers were in different parts of the country for missionary work”. It also said, “…while around 2100 Indian TJ workers were touring different parts of the country for missionary work”, adding that the “Tabligh work came to a halt” only since the lockdown began on March 24. Once the MHA alerted the states about infections among TJ workers, what steps did the state governments take to trace such people? What follow-up action did the Centre undertake?

7. Due to the lockdown, many TJ workers attending the event remained cooped up in the Markaz. The TJ staff have released letters they wrote to the Delhi Police asking for vehicle passes so that the crowded premises could be “de-congested” but apparently received no support. Why did the police not take measures to either evacuate the premises or isolate/quarantine the people there given the MHA’s advisory of March 21?

Note: In an earlier version of the story, the quote about Ram saving devotees from the coronavirus was wrongly attributed to Yogi Adityanath. It was in fact said by Acharya Paramhans, head of the official Ram temple trust.