Despite Its Guidelines Against 'Stigmatisation', Govt Hypes Jamaat Role in COVID-19 Spread

Official spokesperson returns once again to the theme of how many COVID-19 patients had attended the religious congregation in New Delhi, providing a detailed statewise break-up.

New Delhi: Even though the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) congregation took place in Delhi prior to India announcing a nationwide lockdown, the Central government has continued to accuse the Muslim religious body of breaking rules on social distancing – and thereby contributing to a spike in COVID-19 cases across different states.

In his daily media briefing on Saturday, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), once again chose to highlight the role of the TJ, saying that of the 14,378 positive COVID-19 cases countrywide, 4,291 of them were linked to its congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.

Agarwal’s repeated focus on the Tablighi Jamaat flies in the face of the ministry’s own guidelines – issued as recently as April 8 – which say, “Do not label any community or area for spread of COVID-19.”

The WHO has also been warning governments and the media across the world not to stigmatise any section of the population. “Stigma occurs when people negatively associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a specific population,” it said in an advisory, adding that stigmatisation, “means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated, and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease.”

The WHO warned that harmful stereotypes would “drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination,  prevent people from seeking health care immediately, and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours,” thus compounding the public health problem.

The consequences of this stereotyping are already evident in many parts of India, where Hindu vigilantes have begun boycotts of Muslim vendors and even resorted to violence. In some Muslim localities, the stereotyping has fuelled paranoia about the intention of government health workers and led to tension and violence.

Despite this, the ministry spokesperson said that “approximately 29.8%” of the total cases have come from the Nizamuddin Markaz cluster or from a single source, which meant in 23 states, cases have been found related to it.”

On cue, many media platforms made headlines out of this statistic. ‘Tablighi Jamaat Responsible For 30% Total Coronavirus Cases In India: Health Ministry,’ ABP News reported, for example.

Agarwal’s data, incidentally, was not offered in response to a question but as part of his structured briefing. Nor was this the first time the government has put a percentage figure out. On April 5, it said the Tablighi Jamaat had contributed 33% to India’s COVID-19 case load.

Agarwal then toted up the role of the Tablighi Jamaat in the statewise incidence of the disease.

He said “86% of cases in Tamil Nadu, 63% in Delhi, Telangana 79%, UP 59%, and 61% cases in Andhra Pradesh” have been linked to the TJ event.

“I would also like to bring to your (media) notice that this event had contributed to a rise in cases even in states which have reported not too many cases,” he stated.

“For instance, the only case in Arunachal Pradesh is related to this event. In Assam, 32 of the 35 cases are linked to it, which means 91% cases. Ten of the 12 cases in Andaman and Nicobar Islands are linked to it, which means 83% cases in that UT.”

Also Read: No New Cases in 45 Districts of 23 States: Health Ministry Points to ‘Positive Trend’

Without clarifying that the Tablighi event took actually place before Prime Minister Narendra Modi first flagged the need for social distancing in his televised address on March 19, Agarwal said he was bringing the data about the Tablighi Jamaat to the attention of the media “only because even if just one person doesn’t adhere to the government’s rules on social distancing and lockdown, there can be consequences for the country.”

The Tablighi Jamaat event began on March 13, three days before the Delhi government had prohibited more than 50 persons from attending any gathering. On March 19 night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ‘janata curfew’ to be observed on March 22. On March 20, ten Indonesians who attended the TJ congregation in Delhi tested positive in Telangana. Modi announced a 21-day lockdown on March 24.

Among the over 3,000 people who participated in the congregation were delegates from countries against which there were no travel restrictions issued by the Indian government. The Tablighi Jamaat leadership is known to have been quite dismissive of the threat posed by the virus but they were not the only religious body to hold a large gathering in this period.

Earlier this month, the Ahmedabad Mirror compiled data, based on actual information from temple authorities of attendance at prominent temples in Gujarat.

It found that on March 18 and 19, the Somnath temple had “5,000 to 6,000” people present, the Pavagadh temple saw 10,000 people visit, Khodaldham saw 14,000 devotees and the ISKCON temple in Ahmedabad, according to Haresh Govind Das, head of its communication department, saw footfalls of 16-18,000 over those two days.

Virtually all of these temples closed their doors on March 20, after Modi flagged the pandemic as a major public health concern and said social distancing was a must. This is also when the Tablighi authorities say they realised they needed to empty out their premises but were unable to do so because interstate movement had become difficult.

At the government’s Saturday press briefing, only three reporters were allowed to ask questions to Agarwal, a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official, and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) representative. Agarwal skipped a question directed at him on whether the ministry has permitted private hospitals to conduct “pull testing” of “normal” persons who are not COVID-19 patients.

Two other questions were related to the TJ event, including the government’s recent circular to the states to track Rohingyas who had attended the event and have since been said to have gone “missing”.

When asked how many such Rohingyas have been “missing” and in which states, and whether it has been a failure of the Delhi Police to track “those who have been hiding after attending the event” at Nizamuddin, including the TJ head Maulana Saad, the MHA representative said, “We have been sharing with you information from time to time in this regard. Other details would be shared with you tomorrow.”

On Friday, the Enforcement Directorate reportedly filed a case of money laundering against Saad. This is apart from a case filed by the crime branch of Delhi Police on March 31 against him and seven other persons, accusing them of holding the congregation at Nizamuddin in violation of orders against holding large gatherings to contain COVID-19.