As Tablighi Jamaat movement comes under scrutiny, WHO discourages India from religious profiling

Countries should refrain from profiling novel coronavirus cases based on religious or other lines, recommended WHO in a press conference on 6th April. The counsel comes in the wake of growing backlash against the Muslim community – after the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi in March became the source of a massive outbreak.

The gathering was said to be attended by more than 8,000 people according to officials. Out of India’s approximate 4,400 cases (as of 7th April), almost a third have been traced back to the Tablighi Jamaat event.

Since last week, government and media officials have been giving a state-wise distribution of COVID-19 cases spread through attendees of the event held in Nizamuddin. The markaaz has been named in almost every report and press briefing.

According to the World Health Organisation, this grouping isn’t very helpful.

“Having COVID-19 is not anybody’s fault. Every case is a victim. It is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines.”

WHO Emergency Programme Director Mike Ryan to an India-specific question.

Indian authorities, however, feel the distribution is integral to its COVID-19 statistics and response. Lav Agarwal, the Union Health Minister Joint Secretary, has emphasised on India’s spike in cases due to the congregation’s events in a media briefing on April 5th.

“The doubling rate (of COVID-19 infection) in India is 4.1 days. Had the congregation at Nizamuddin (of an Islamic sect called the Tablighi Jamaat) not happened and additional cases not come, this would have been about 7.14 days.”

Lav Agarwal, Press Briefing 5th April

Ever since the outbreak, each media briefing has given a distribution of cases caused due to the religious gathering. On April 3rd, he said 17 states had cases because of the Nizamuddin outbreak. On April 4th, he attributed 30% cases in India to the markaaz.

What’s notable is that at each of these briefings, other questions by journalists have reportedly been ignored and responded to with some allusion to the Nizamuddin religious gathering.

Probings about personnel protective gear, ventilators, tracing and testing, masks and other essentials have all met one end – how India’s COVID-19 cases rose because of a religious gathering held before the WHO declared it to be a pandemic.

Agarwal’s previous handling of facts and figures can be brazenly contrasted with this approach of segregation of cases on religious lines. The government hasn’t been very forthcoming about the number of healthcare workers who have been infected. In a question about the rate of infection amongst soldiers and paramilitary personnel, he said everyone stood equal in the eyes of the government, distancing himself from a profiling perspective.

The official narrative of state-wise distribution has put the Muslim community under intense scrutiny.

A flurry of hashtags, #CoronaJihad and its renditions, began circulating social media soon after, targeting and vilifying them. According to data by Equality Labs shared with TIME, the hashtag has appeared 300,000 times.

Various media organisations, such as Zee News, Republic, and ABP News – known to carry a far-right agenda – also carried stories with #CoronaJihad and #TablaghiJamaatVirus as their central plank. Panel discussions and debates ran for hours with “Markaz Mayhem”, “Save the country from corona jihad”, and “Corona bomb” flashing bright on the screens.

False videos of the Muslim sect spitting on officials, coughing on people, and licking dishes spread like wildfire. Narratives of a Muslim man sneezing were debunked by fact-checking organisation AltNews, along with other rumours. They were further broadcasted and posited by organisations to illustrate it as a “deliberate” attempt to undermine the country, according to one Arnab Goswami.

India Today released a graphic outlining number of Indian cases with and without Tablighi Jamaat cases. The illustration portrays a Muslim man with a cap and a mask, and stats of cases linked to the event as circular graphs put in the place of eye sockets. The graphic was later taken down owing to “misspelling and a wrong data point.”

Attribution of the novel coronavirus to matters of “dharma dharma” (News X) have had implications across the country. In Himachal Pradesh’s Una district, a Muslim youth reportedly committed suicide despite testing negative after being chaffed for coming in contact with two markaaz attendees.

On Sunday, another individual was shot dead in Prayagraj district in UP after condemning the congregation.

Some media organisations, however,put the gathering in context to India’s strategy at that time. Reports on the Nizamuddin outbreak were supplemented with a timeline of events. India had woken up to the threat in late March, days after the event was organised.

During this time, many temples reportedly stayed open till and beyond 20th March – UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath attended a major Hindu celebration at a temple on 25th March.

India announced a nationwide lock down starting from 25th March even though the health crisis was categorised as a pandemic on March 11th – putting the Tablighi Jamaat event one of the many religious gatherings in the response chronology.

On March 22nd, the Markaz was closed to its regular visitors and inhabitants – as the Delhi government imposed restrictions on mobility.

According to Al Jazeera, the government started screening attendees of the event only after March 26th, on the second day of the nationwide lock down. As of 6th April, more than 25,000 Jamaat members and their contacts are under quarantine across 15 states.

The Nizamuddin outbreak has now become the most dangerous vector of COVID-19 in India. Think South Korea’s Patient 31, whose social movement as a member of a religious sect caused a major outbreak in an otherwise contained national response.

The pandemic’s timing overlaps with the aftermath of Delhi riots, where more than 50 people were killed and several were injured in February last week. The incident in North-east Delhi’s Muslim dominated districts was viewed to be a systemic attack on the community.

“Islamophobia has been transposed onto the coronavirus issue,” says Amir Ali, an assistant professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in an interview with TIME.

Back when the unnamed disease had not posed a significant threat to the world, the novel coronavirus was named COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) – instead of naming it the China or Wuhan virus, as some political leaders would have preferred.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in an interview.

Religious profiling leaves only India’s Muslim population of over 200 million severely marginalised and vilified – further isolating them amongst escalating public health fears.

In the wake of a pandemic, however, profiling of victims has brought forward a streak of hatred and vitriol. It has the potential to push communities even further to the margins and jeopardize the national response to the global pandemic.