When an ambulance and a police jeep reached Abdul Rahman’s home in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, his worried wife was reciting the Quran. On 30 March 2020, the state’s health department had issued strict instructions to bring in Rahman, who was one among the 3,000 who had attended a religious event held at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz between March 14 and 17.
A member of Tablighi Jamaat, 31-year-old Rahman did not resist.
Fear and Loathing
“It was like an arrest. Our neighbours were all present and watching intently. My family, including my parents who live with us, were scared,” Rahman recollected the events that had transpired the previous year. Rahman was taken to a nearby health facility in the dead of night and his samples were collected for testing. Andhra Pradesh government had imposed a curfew on 22 March and the country wide lockdown had been in place since 24 March.
“I remember waiting for the results and praying. I tested negative but the stigma did not die with the negative result. That’s when the elders of Tablighi Jamaat told me to practice patience,” Rahman told The Quint. Rahman was admitted at the COVID-19 isolation facility in Visakhapatnam.
As a policy, the Tabligh had decided to observe “a year of patience” ever since the COVID-19 cluster was first detected. Several news outlets had labelled the Tablighi Jamaat meeting a “super spreader” event.
Facing Stigma, Teaching Patience
A senior member of the Tabligh who wants to remain unidentified confirmed to The Quint, “Several young members were angry and were holding a grudge against those who ostracised them. Our policy was to teach them patience as part of the Tabligh’s spiritual practice”. Rahman, who is now 32-years, however, had wanted to talk to higher officials, arrange meetings and clear his name.
"“I wanted to give befitting reply to those who denigrated us in the media. I wanted to hold a debate with them.”" - Abdul Rahman
His personal details including his cell number and home address, were made public in March 2020. Threats and social boycott followed him even after he tested negative for COVID-19.
There were others whose experiences mirrored Rahman’s plight. "Among them were six families who were quarantined and they were refused food and groceries," Rahman said. Members of the Tabligh alone had reached out to support them during India’s punitive lockdown. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments had, however, issued statements that requested public not to ostracise the Tablighis.
A 29-year-old who does not want to be identified told The Quint, “The spiritual leaders and the elders told us that we will have to be ready to face the times of trial. They told us that retaliating is not part of our teaching. Giving a befitting reply to those who demonised us is not approved by our preaching”.
Maintain peace, keep calm and follow the teachings of God, were the only advice offered even to a government servant of Telangana whose contact details were shared with the public.
“My phone was ringing continuously and most callers were abusive. My colleagues refused to talk to me when I tested positive. My family and I remained prayerful,” he said.
Collective Strength in Strife
Discussion is part of the spiritual practice of the Tablighis, members said. In fact, such discussions kept up the morale of the youth within the community during times of distress. “Whatever good or bad happens, we discuss. We ask for suggestions from the community. In our conversations over the phone, which kept us company during isolation and stigma, we took a decision to remain nonchalant. That helped us,” the government servant said.
Other than issuing a public statement that the meeting was held before the country imposed COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, the Tablighi Jamaat has not officially issued any other clarification thus far.
The Jamaat leaders had, however, readily shared with government authorities and police, the details of members who had attended the Markaz event. These details, in most states were leaked to the media and in some cases even reached the general public as whatsapp forwards.
In Visakhapatnam, a member of Tablighi Jamaat and employee of a massive industrial unit was forced to go on leave. Rahman said, “Two months salary of this worker was withheld. He was asked for two explanations and his job was hanging by a thread for five months”. The elders of the Tabligh came in to support those in trouble. “When the restrictions and lockdown were lifted we met one another and that gave us strength,” he said.
Mourning Friends and Family
Apart from the stigma which each of them were left to face to some extent, most Jammatis had to deal with deaths of their friends and family. In Hyderabad, the son of a 72-year-old who had died of COVID-19 after he attended the event recollected, “Not one physician we visited when my father fell ill had suspected COVID-19. On the night of his death, I had to run from pillar to post in search of an ambulance”. Cremation of COVID-19 patients were a tough affair at the time and the Tablighis were doubly stigmatised, he added.
The body of his father who had slipped away soon after he recited an aayat of the Quran was buried without Muslim religious rituals.
“Not a single person from the community was allowed to approach the body,” the son said. Like in the case of most COVID-19 deaths, no family members were present at the burial.
But what has hurt most Tablighi Jamaat members is the closure of the Nizamuddin Markaz. “Now the Markaz, where the memories of our parents and siblings still linger, is closed and considered a dubious location. That is hurtful,” the government employee who lives in Hyderabad said.
The Markaz has not been open for believers since 2020. This week, the Delhi High Court, however, had allowed 50 people to offer Namaz in the building.
Meanwhile, the country has been witnessing religious festivals with massive crowds.
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