OPINION

The story of India’s largest COVID-19 cluster

On March 30, the evacuation exercise at the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz started with the help of the local police. (Below): People leave for hospitals from the Markaz at Nizamuddin after showing symptoms of COVID-19.R.V. MOORTHY , PTIR_V_ Moorthy

On March 30, the evacuation exercise at the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz started with the help of the local police. (Below): People leave for hospitals from the Markaz at Nizamuddin after showing symptoms of COVID-19.R.V. MOORTHY , PTIR_V_ Moorthy  

Despite government orders prohibiting large gatherings, more than 4,500 people assembled at the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in mid-March. Saurabh Trivedi recounts the events of the week when costly mistakes were made

It was a letter that arrived sometime on March 25 evening that announced the beginning of a nightmare. The letter, which confirmed the Delhi authorities’ worst fears, landed at New Delhi’s South-East district administration from the district administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It stated that all the six patients who had tested positive for novel coronavirus in the islands had one thing in common: they had all returned from a gathering at the Markaz (Centre), the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Islamic organisation, in New Delhi. The six of them had attended a large convention with more than 4,500 people from the world over.

The nightmare for the authorities was that all the attendees and their contacts had to now be traced and quarantined to prevent further spread of the deadly virus. Until this information came, India’s efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic were confined to screening travellers who had come from abroad.

Chalking out a plan

The Delhi police, the district administration, and the Delhi government’s Health Department quickly huddled together for a meeting. Their agenda was to chalk out a plan to trace everyone who had attended the convention at the Markaz between March 12 and March 22. The attendees at the congregation had been divided into several groups. Each group had attended a two-three day workshop. Many of them had left, but many of them continued to stay at the Markaz. This was because a day-long Janata Curfew on March 22 and the 21-day national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi beginning March 24 had made it virtually impossible for the Jamaat members to leave the Markaz. So, quickly evacuating the premises, sanitising the building and placing the attendees in quarantine was also on the team’s agenda. The occupants at the Markaz, all in close proximity in the building in the crowded area of Nizamuddin in the capital, were perhaps unaware of the presence of the invisible, malevolent virus in their midst.

The immediate plan was this: for five days, from March 26 to March 30, a team supervised by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Defence Colony, Vinod Kumar Yadav, would inspect the building. The team, in its report to the Deputy Commissioner of South-East Delhi, Harleen Kaur, flagged several concerns. It reported that there was no social (physical) distancing being maintained between the members of the Jamaat. They were not wearing face masks. And there were no sanitisers on the premises. By the time the evacuation process started on March 29, some members of the Jamaat were already coughing and complaining of having a headache and a fever. The fear was becoming real: they were all showing signs of SARS-CoV-2. On March 29 night, at about 9 p.m., 34 people were immediately shifted to hospitals from the premises. A medical camp was established outside the building for screening purposes.

Process of evacuation

With many members still inside, on March 30 morning, a white canopy tent was erected outside the Markaz. The evacuation process started with the help of the local police. They barricaded the entire area to prevent others in the neighbourhood from coming into contact with those emerging from the Markaz. The Health Department set up a help desk at the tent. Each person coming out of the Markaz was thermally screened. Their names, addresses and their duration of stay at the Markaz were noted. After their thermal screening was completed, attendees were asked to walk with their luggage towards the main road, about 50 metres away, through a barricaded corridor erected by the police to prevent the spread of infection in the locality. About 70 buses were arranged to transport the attendees from the Markaz to various hospitals or quarantine centres in the city. Bus drivers of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) were provided hazmat suits and other protective gear that covered their faces. Each bus accommodated about 30 persons.

An officer with the Health Department said that the process of shifting the Jamaat members to hospitals and quarantine centres was an onerous task. “We had to save our own men from getting infected. We noted down the details of the attendees. We erected a tent outside the building and sanitised the entire area with the help of the Delhi Police. The DTC bus drivers also played an exemplary role in shifting people to the hospital. We did all this to the best of our ability,” he said.

Even as these efforts were being taken, news broke late on the night on March 30 that six people who had returned from the Markaz at Nizamuddin had died after testing positive for COVID-19 in Telangana. Hearing this, the team in Delhi charged with evacuation developed cold feet, but nevertheless continued with their duty. They evacuated 2,361 people from the Markaz. When the last batch shuffled out of the premises on April 1, the team heaved a big sigh of relief.

Violating orders

As members of the Jamaat were being evacuated, questions piled up. How had so many people gathered at the Markaz when warnings had been issued about the serious threat posed by the deadly virus across the world? The recklessness of the Tablighi Jamaat aside, how had the Ministry of External Affairs granted visas to foreigners to attend the meeting? The gathering had included people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Afghanistan, France, Italy, Myanmar, Algeria, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the U.K., Singapore, Belgium, Tunisia, the U.S. and Kuwait. At the time, some of these countries were already witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases. And how did the Delhi Police, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, fail to detect the presence of such a large gathering? Did this not amount to a huge intelligence failure?

The Delhi government had passed two orders restricting the size of gatherings. The first order, passed on March 13, prohibited more than 200 people from assembling at one place. Another on March 16 prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people. Both orders were violated by the Jamaat members. The police too failed to enforce the orders.

When the Delhi Police were asked about their correspondence with the Jamaat, a senior official told The Hindu that the Delhi Police verbally informed the members about the Delhi government’s order. “The Markaz is a huge building. It has five floors and two basements. The police never go inside it,” he said. The police officer said the police had sent out letters to the office-bearers of the Markaz on March 19 and 24 asking them to come to the Nizamuddin Police Station on March 24 to meet with the SHO, Mukesh Walia. At the meeting, Walia asked them to clear the building at the earliest, he said. A video of the meeting was released by the Delhi Police after questions were raised over the role of the local police in allowing the gathering.

Maulana Yousuf from the Markaz wrote to the police on March 25 stating that they had vacated 1,500 people. However, 1,000 people remained in the premises, he said. “We still have more than 1,000 people from different States in the building. As per your direction, we contacted [the respective] SDMs [Sub-Divisional Magistrates] for vehicle passes so that we can send the remaining people to their respective places,” the letter said. “You [the police] are therefore requested to kindly approach the SDM for early action. We are ready to comply [with] all your directions.” In the March 25 letter, Yousuf also informed the area SHO that they were trying to shut down the Markaz as directed by him the previous day.

On March 28, the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Lajpat Nagar), Atul Kumar, wrote to the Tablighi Jamaat that despite the lockdown, “many persons have gathered at the centre in Nizamuddin”. He warned of legal action.

In another letter to the police on March 29, Yousuf said that further efforts to vacate the premises had been stopped due to the lockdown announced by the Prime Minister.

On March 30, the Delhi government asked the Delhi Police to register an FIR against Maulana Mohammed Saad, the Delhi head of the Markaz. A Delhi Police officer said that the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz had applied for passes for only 12 vehicles, and all public transport to the Markaz had been banned. How could they evacuate 1,500 people using only 12 vehicles, he asked.

On March 31, the Delhi Police registered an FIR against Maulana Mohammed Saad and six other office-bearers charging them with “deliberately and wilfully” allowing a huge gathering on the premises, an act that posed a threat to many lives.

In his complaint, the SHO of Nizamuddin Police Station said that on March 21, the Delhi Police contacted the authorities of the Markaz and reminded them about the Delhi government’s March 16 order. The Jamaat was directed to send the foreign delegates back to their respective countries, and the Indians to their respective cities and towns. On March 24, a meeting was held at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Police Station between the SHO and the officer-bearers of Tablighi Jamaat, the FIR stated.

The FIR also referred to an alleged audio recording, purportedly of Maulana Saad, in circulation on WhatsApp on March 21, in which the speaker is heard asking his followers to defy “the lockdown” and social distancing and instead attend religious gatherings of the organisation.

A Delhi government official, who was part of the evacuation team, said, “If you put 2,000 people in a closed building, everyone is bound to test positive. It was bad timing for faith and a pandemic to clash.”

In order to decongest the Markaz, many of the occupants were shifted to various mosques in the National Capital Region. In a joint operation, the Delhi Police, Special Branch, and the Delhi government quarantined 275 foreign nationals in various mosques. All of them had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event. How were they given visas? A senior officer with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office said that most of the foreign nationals visiting India as a part of Tablighi Jamaat team had come on the strength of the tourist visa. Any person entering the country on a tourist visa cannot indulge in any missionary activity and the Ministry of Home Affairs had already issued guidelines on this, he said. “There is a separate visa category for missionary activities which allows overseas missionaries to work long-term in the country if they are associated with a registered organisation,” said the officer.

Besides the 275 foreign nationals, 1,744 asymptomatic people were moved to quarantine centres in Narela, Wazirabad, Dwarka, Jharoda Kalan and other places, and were closely monitored. Delhi’s Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia requested all those who attended the Markaz in March to report to the authorities. “If you do not come forward or if you are ill and are hiding it, then action will be taken against you,” he said. In Tamil Nadu, the Health Secretary issued a humanitarian appeal as the number of those testing positive for COVID-19 and had attended the event in March began to spiral in the State. “You are patients and we will treat you like that. Please voluntarily report,” she said. Many came forward.

Preventing spread of the virus

On April 2, the Nizamuddin area was declared as a containment zone, after many positive cases of COVID-19 were found. In order to prevent further spread of the virus, movement restrictions were put in place. To prevent infection, 12 policemen of the Nizamuddin Police Station, who were part of the evacuation operation, said they shaved their heads. A policeman said that this was their attempt to keep themselves safe as they were closely involved in the evacuation operation. Every corner of the police station was sanitised by a team of the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) and the 50-metre passage used by the occupants of the Markaz was washed with disinfectant.

A day after a team of the DFS went inside the Markaz and disinfected the premises, a team of the Health Department inspected it. “The Markaz teaches to obey the rule and law made by the government of the state. It [the gathering] was never intentional but it is unfortunate that this happened,” said a Maulana who did not wish to be named.

A Delhi Police officer said extensive data mining has been carried out to identify each individual who attended the religious congregation or stayed in the building. “We are preparing lists of their contacts. We are preparing the profile of each individual and sharing it with the concerned State police. Most of the people who attended the congregation went back either by bus or train,” said the officer.

In a press release issued on March 31, the Tablighi Jamaat said that the programme at the Nizamuddin Markaz was discontinued immediately after the Prime Minister announced a Janata Curfew to be held on March 22. “However, due to the sudden cancellation of rail services across the country on March 21, 2020, a large group of visitors who had to depart by way of railways got stuck on the Markaz premises,” it said.

A communal colour

Away from the Delhi hotspot, and spread across half-a-dozen districts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the Mewat region, predominantly inhabited by Meo Muslims, is the birthplace of the Tablighi Jamaat. The region has been divided into 18 blocks for the purpose of the activities of the 94-year-old religious organisation. While Mewat has lost its pre-eminent stature to Delhi, Sadar Shura Majlis Ilaka Mewat, Mufti Mohammad Zahid Hussain, told The Hindu that the region was preferred to other regions for hosting the congregation of the Jamaat workers, known as “Jod”. The last Jod was held from December 21 to 23 at the Nuh Idgah. It saw the participation of several thousand workers. “Only dedicated Jamaatis with more than four months of association with the organisation are allowed to participate in the Jod,” said Hussain.

He said that the Jod held in Mewat and other regions was separate from the Jamaat programmes held at the Nizamuddin Markaz all through the year. About 1,000-1,500 Jamaatis from across the world are present at Markaz to participate in various programmes at any given point in time, he said. “Hundreds of delegates keep visiting the Markaz all through the year. The problem was that this time they were stuck there due to the cancellation of trains and flights because of the Janata Curfew and the sudden announcement of the lockdown. The embassies were duly informed about their visit, so it is wrong to say that the Markaz violated the lockdown,” said Hussain. There are reports from across the country on the number of Jamaatis infected, but why is all the emphasis on the Jamaatis and their contacts, he asked. “If samples of only Jamaatis are collected, of course only they will test positive,” he said.

Following the identification of the cluster, Tablighi Jamaat members have become an easy target on social media. They have been accused of “spreading the virus” and being “careless”. With social media and some TV channels fuelling hatred against Muslims, the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala and Maharashtra have warned people against communalising the issue and painting one community as the perpetrator.

Hussain agreed. “It is an injustice to give this event a communal colour. It is against democracy,” he said.

With inputs from Ashok Kumar

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