A total 2,137 people attended the Tablighi Jamaat global event at their headquarters in Banglewali Majid in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in the first and second week of March. This was preceded and succeeded by a number of smaller state and region specific meets which were attended by more than 6,000 people.
In February, 16,000 people congregated in a mosque complex on the outskirts of Kaula Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. That event emerged as the source of thousands of coronavirus infections across Southeast Asia. Many preachers from this Tablighi Jamaat congregation attended the one in Nizamuddin and today it has turned into the country’s biggest coronavirus hotspot with potential impact across at least 12 states. A total of 134 cases are directly linked to Tablighi Jamaat event according to health ministry joint secretary Luv Agarwal. In Telangana, nine people who attended the congregation have died of Covid-19.
The central government, working in tandem with the various state governments, has managed to get a list of all those who attended the events and claims to have tracked down most with what appears to be a boots on the ground, old-school policing using the local intelligence networks.
On March 21, Union home Secretary Ajay Bhalla sent an SOS to all DGPs and chief secretaries. The Centre had learnt that thousands had gathered at Nizamuddin West's Tablighi Jamaat Markaz and many were showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus. The scenario was grave as many from the Jamaat had travelled for Chilla (religious sermons) to other states. Input was available for Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir and Assam with the suspicion of them being in many more states.
The Centre wasn’t sure how many could carry the infection through the length and breadth of the country. On March 29, the director of Intelligence Bureau reminded the states once again about the looming danger. At the same time, efforts were heightened to evacuate the Jamaat headquarters at the Banglewali Masjid in Nizamuddin.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and he reportedly used his network to lean on the Muslim clerics to cooperate and evacuate as soon as possible. The district administration arranged buses and after 36 hours, the masjid was evacuated.
On April 1, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said, “As many as 2,361 people were evacuated out of which 617 were quarantined, and the rest were hospitalised after they showed symptoms for Covid-19."
Police say local residents started cooperating only after the coronavirus scare became imminent.
In the interim, Delhi Police prepared a list of the attendees and shared it with state governments. As per state government officials, the list was received on March 31, but by then each district in each of these states had already activated the local intelligence units to track down those who returned after attending the event. Mosques were visited by local police and clerics were spoken to.
"On March 28, state police were advised to collect the names of Indian Tablighi Jamaat workers from the local coordinators, locate them on the ground and get them medically screened and quarantined, " an MHA note said. The Union home secretary also sent advisories to all state DGPs and the Delhi Police commissioner to coordinate and track down potential Covid-19 carriers at the earliest.
The task also included looking out for foreigners who had attended the event in Nizamuddin. As per the list prepared by the home ministry, 125 foreigners had headed to Tamil Nadu, 132 to Uttar Pradesh, 115 each to Maharashtra and Haryana. Additionally, 1,500 people from Tamil Nadu, 1,260 from Telangana and 1,935 from Andhra Pradesh were tracked. Each of the state governments made public appeals asking all those who attended the congregation to call the government helplines or report at the nearest Covid-19 health centre.
According to the Karnataka government, 1,500 people had attended the congregation. Of them, 800 were traced on Wednesday, and the rest were being traced. Twelve of them have tested positive. Authorities have also traced 62 foreigners, of whom 12 had already flown back to their respective countries, and 50 others were placed under home quarantine. The minister feared there could be many more who attended the event but slipped under the radar.
The Uttar Pradesh police went on an overdrive to track down those who have been staying in mosques or madrasas without prior intimation to the local administration. They managed to track down more than 560 attendees. Apart from them, 218 foreign nationals have also been quarantined at different facilities across the state. As per sources, these foreigners are primarily from Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Sudan, Thailand, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The Goa government claims nine preachers who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event were “hiding” inside a madrasa for 11 days before they were traced. The attendees were picked up from the madrasa in south Goa’s Ponda and have now been taken to the quarantine facility.
In Delhi, the madrasa has been evacuated and preachers have been taken to various quarantine centres. As many as 167 of them have been taken to the Tughlakabad centre, 97 accommodated in Diesel Shed Training School Hostel, 70 in the RPF Barrack Quarantine Centre and some in the Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty hospital. As of April 1, 53 people who attended the congregation have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
At the quarantine centres, officials have complained of misbehaviour. Chief Public Relations Officer of Northern Railway Deepak Kumar claimed that the “occupants were unruly and made unreasonable demand for food items. They misbehaved and abused the staff at the railway quarantine centre.” He added that those admitted in the facility “started spitting all over and on persons attending to them, including the doctors. They also started roaming around the hostel building.”
All 16 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Assam have been traced back to the event. According to Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Centre gave the state government a list of 456 people. They found 91 more people who attended the Tablighi Jamaat. Of the 547, 136 asymptomatic persons came under the scanner for their presence in the area and were placed in isolation. Sixty-eight of them haven’t returned to Assam and are either in Delhi or Lucknow. The government fears that the 347 who returned could have potentially exposed many others to the virus.
In Telangana, 1,100 people have so far been identified and 940 have been traced. Around 160 potential carriers continue to remain at large.
The MHA control room set up to oversee the Covid-19 preparedness has been working overtime to locate the attendees. MoS Home G Kishan Reddy was tasked with monitoring the control room throughout the night of March 31. Three joint secretary-level officers were present at any given time and all senior officers were put on rotational duty at the control room where information poured in from states and agencies. In a generally squabbling world of intelligence agencies, this case turned out to be an oasis of cooperation.
While most of the attendees have been tracked, authorities are worried about thousands of people they came in contact with before the preachers could be quarantined. Nearly two-thirds of the initial 650 cases in Malaysia could be traced to the four-day global event held on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in February.
In India, the health department professionals are worried that the potentially massive spread of coronavirus from this Jamaat could lead the country towards the much feared stage 3 of community transmission.
With inputs from state bureaus