The fear of the dreaded coronavirus spreading across India is now real after thousands of Muslims met in New Delhi and moved out to all parts of the country. Some of them have since died of Covid-19.
Their gathering ignored all government restrictions, while authorities in Delhi failed to stop it. A baffling question remains: Why did the government fail to stop it?
Thousands of people — anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000 — gathered from March 13-15 in New Delhi’s predominantly Muslim Nizamuddin area for the annual conference of Tablighi Jamaat, a noted Muslim missionary group.
10 die of Covid-19 in India after Muslim conference
At least nine people who attended the conference have been reported dead after they tested positive for Covid-19 in different parts of India. One person died in the Philippines.
Some 440 people in the Nizamuddin area were hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 two weeks after the gathering. Since March 15, thousands of attendees have traveled back to their villages and towns.
The conference started and ended when government orders were in place against the gathering of people. It was not a secret meeting. It had all necessary police clearance, organizers claim.
People gathered in Nizamuddin from all over India and from at least 10 other nations. The federal government issued the foreign visitors with visas. Officials probably knew the purpose of their arrival and the place of their gathering.
Most foreigners who come for such programs reportedly apply only for tourist visas. Officials say there is an established guideline that foreigners on tourist visas should not indulge in any missionary work. But then this happens!
The gathering started after Tablighi Jamaat had a meeting canceled in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation. Some 8,000 people were supposed to attend the meeting in South Sulawesi on March 19 but it was canceled after authorities appealed to avoid an impending danger.
Authorities knew the gathering in Nizamuddin was a ticking Covid-19 time bomb. But why did they not act to stop it?
"It is sad that people are still complacent about coronavirus," says Virendra Sachdeva, a leader of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), widely seen as a pro-Hindu party. "The organizers of the Nizamuddin meet erred when anxiety was already there about the fatal malady."
He answers the question about federal failure to stop the event by saying that the government is acting now. "The government has started acting. All state police have been directed to track the movement of all those who attended the gathering and those who came in contact with them. We have also asked for medical screening of all such people," says Sachdeva, a member of the BJP's good governance unit.
But the scale of events shows a staggering issue. Take, for example, the case of Telangana, just one of India's 29 states. An estimated 1,000 people came from that state alone to the Delhi event. Most returned to their villages by taking trains and buses before March 24.
On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, shutting all modes of transport, shops and public activities. That means participants who are not now in Delhi have been back in their villages for at least a week.
But there were still some 1,200 people camped in a building called Hazrat Nizamuddin Markaz on March 26 when authorities suspected the spread of the disease. Organizers justified the cramped community living there by saying the lockdown forced them to do that as there was no transport available to move out.
Could the international prominence of Tablighi Jamaat be a reason for not taking stern action against its gathering? Hardly anyone would support that idea.
Indeed, it is an international group. Started in pre-independence India, this missionary group that stresses on pilgrimages and prayers has spread to other nations, particularly in Asia, in the past five decades.
The group claims 150 million adherents, mostly in South Asian nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It also has significant followers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore besides having smaller groups in Thailand, Brunei and Cambodia.
However, dispersing the crowd, after convincing the organizers of the necessity of avoiding a gathering just as Indonesia did, would not have created any diplomatic fallout, particularly in these pressing times.
Satyendar Jain, Delhi's health minister, said the organizers "had done a blunder" in organizing such a mega meet. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called it a crime.
But what stopped Delhi's state government from acting? They say Delhi's police and law enforcement are under federal government control. They cannot order the police. They have now taken legal steps to register a criminal case against the event's organizers.
Political sensitivity looks like the real reason for the inaction of both the state and federal governments. Both governments did not want to be seen as acting against a Muslim event. Delhi state did want to be seen as anti-Muslim, and the federal government did not want to add to its list of anti-Muslim acts at this time.
In all probability, officials never expected the virus to hit India, and that too by mid-March. They never thought of any reason to put a curb on the event and create a problem that could cost their political bosses dearly.
The virus began to take a vicious turn in northern India only in the first week of March. By then, thousands had already gathered inside the Delhi building for the meeting.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that millions are now at high risk of being afflicted by the virus as many people could still be on the move towards their homes. Thousands of daily wage workers who became jobless because of the lockdown are also walking to their villages from cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.
There is often a debate on the merits of Chinese communism and liberal democracy in India, however faulty the latter might be. It is generally accepted that communist China has provided its citizens with better health services and more food and clothes than democracy has done in India.
With its often callous approach to citizens' welfare and high political sensitivity, Indian democracy fails to inject elements of self-discipline and social regulation. Indian social behaviour always remains the totality of ignorance, insensitivity, poverty and arrogance.
As discussions rage, the unseen virus continues to spread. How many lives will be lost in India is anybody's guess.
Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.