28 quarantined by Jharkhand police for Tablighi Jamaat connection deny attending the event

On 30 March, the special branch of the Jharkhand Police released a list of 37 people it claimed had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi. Of these, 28 told The Caravan that they had not been to the event, or even been in the national capital when it took place. Manish Swaroop/ AP Photo
07 April, 2020

At least 28 of the 37 people identified by the Jharkhand Police as attendees at a Tablighi Jamaat conference in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area denied having attended the event or even being present in the national capital when it took place. These included the son of a Jharkhand minister. On 30 March, the special branch of the Jharkhand Police released a list of 37 persons, and claimed that all of them attended the conference by the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organisation, held on 13 March. The police released the list via a notice, which claimed that the 37 people mentioned had returned to Jharkhand over the previous week. The notice read, “According to the information received, the persons mentioned in the attached list attended a religious event/Tablighi Jamaat gathering at Hazrat Nizamuddin, New Delhi and have returned within the last 07 days. Necessary inquiry is required after the necessary medical examination of the said persons, after verification.” It bore the signature of the special branch’s superintendent of police for intelligence.  

The notice included the names of these 37 people along with their mobile numbers. The Caravan managed to establish contact with 28 of the people on the list. Every single one of them denied having attended the event—27 said they had not been to Delhi in a long time. Some said they had visited Delhi at least a year earlier, while others said it had been between two and five years since they travelled to the capital. All 28 confirmed that they were either presently associated with the Tablighi Jamaat or had been in the past, but denied the travel history that the notice claimed.

The Tablighi Jamaat conference was held over ten days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19. In late March, news broke that six of the conference’s attendees—many of whom had travelled from abroad—had tested positive for COVID-19. The emergence of these cases led to a public frenzy. Both the government and the media highlighted them almost non-stop. The ministry of home affairs repeatedly claimed that a majority of India’s COVID-19 cases were linked to the Jamaat event, while news reports christened the conference India’s “biggest COVID-19 hotspot.” At a press briefing held on 4 April, the MHA’s Punya Salila Srivastava, a joint secretary, said that the law-enforcement agencies had, “through a massive effort, located and placed around 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat workers and their contacts in quarantine.”

The special branch of the Jharkhand Police sent the list of these people to various senior officers in the Jharkhand administration. These included the deputy commissioners of police; the superintendent of police; the senior superintendents of police in Ranchi, Dhanbad and Jamshedpur; the director general of police; the additional director general of police; among others.

Among those named in the list is Tanveerul Hasan, the 42-year-old son of the state’s minister for minority-welfare, Haji Hussain Ansari. Ansari is a leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party. Hasan’s family members, including the minister, claim that he has not been to Delhi since 1992. Hasan’s brother, who asked not to be named, said, “My brother has not gone to Delhi, but his name has been given. Who gave it is not known. This is a conspiracy against us.”

Hasan told me he is currently in quarantine. “I last went to Delhi in 1992–93, in connection with my studies. I was about fourteen years old then. People are saying that I went to Tablighi Jamaat. But the truth is that I have never been a jamaat till date”—which is, he clarified, that he had never travelled as part of the religious gathering.

Even Ansari said he did not know how his son’s name appeared on the list. He was angered by the inclusion. “This is highly negligent. Nobody should be purposely disturbed,” he told me. “I have asked the chief minister to investigate all the people named. The location and details of their mobile number should be used. This will clearly reveal who went where and when.” 

Hasan’s name is one among two from the Deoghar district. The Deoghar deputy commissioner, Nancy Sahay, said that call details and locations of both are being investigated.

Another among the names on the list is one from the Garhwa district. The man named is 63-years-old and has been quarantined at a local hospital since 1 April. “The lockdown was already a problem. Then they separated me from my family and doubled the trouble,” he said. “I went to Delhi 20 years ago. It has been many years since I’ve even gone to Ranchi. I told the police officer who had come on 30 March. I told him to ask the village head and the residents, whether I have left the village. But still those people did not agree.” The elderly man said that his family ran a grocery store, which is closed now. He added that he used to do a little farming, but that, too, is stalled. 

A 60-year-old resident of Gumla district, who is physically disabled, is also named in the list. He told me that he needs the help of his family members to even use the bathroom. He was having a difficult time in quarantine, he said. He began crying while speaking to me over the phone. “I left the Tablighi Jamaat five years ago. I now live at home only. I am not a criminal, so why am I being punished?” He said, “I am not able to sleep at night because of panic. If you get me to my house, I will stay locked in a room there.” 

There are 11 people in his family, including six daughters. The 60-year-old said he ran a small woodworking business to support his family. He told me that he last visited Delhi a year and a half earlier, for work. He, too, said the police should check his call-location data. He added that he had visited the bank and the petrol pump several times in the last few months, and that the CCTV footage from these locations would confirm his presence in the area.

The list contains nine names from the Dhanbad district—the highest for a single district in the state. Among these names are two retired railways’ employees, both of whom suffer from ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure and knee pain. I spoke to them over the phone. One of the retired employees said, “I went to Delhi four years ago, but even then I did not go to Nizamuddin. I keep getting calls from the police station of the hospital—this will worsen my blood pressure and sugar. When I have not gone, then why has my name been given and why have I been quarantined?” 

The other retired employee said, “I am tired of telling the police administration that I went to Delhi two years ago. I told them to check, but no one is listening. They keep saying, ‘What to do, we have orders from above.’”

The other seven people from Dhanbad had similar experiences. All of them also demanded that the police check the location data of their mobile numbers given in the list and stop bothering them.

The name of a 54-year-old man from the Jamtara district is also on the list. When I asked him about the Jamaat conference, he flared up. “I went to Delhi a year ago,” he said. “The policemen say that I came from Delhi only last week. I told them that if they can prove this, I will sacrifice my life by hanging myself in the station itself.”

After some moments, he added, “You only see. A man who has never participated in any jamaat or program in the Nizamuddin Markaz, is said to have returned after joining Nizamuddin Markaz’s Tablighi Jamaat.” He told me that he is being kept in quarantine, under the state’s watch. “I am ready to cooperate in any way in the fight against corona, but giving the wrong name will send a wrong message in the society,” he said. 

A 47-year-old man from the Seraikela Kharsanwa district, who was named in the list, said that the inclusion had defamed him. “As soon as it was found out in the village that my name was among the Nizamuddin Markaz people, everyone started keeping distance from us. My neighbour closed his shop on seeing me,” he told me. “It is as if I am a leper. No one has behaved this way with me before.” He says that he had gone to Delhi five years earlier, and that the police was mistaken in naming him. He is currently quarantined at home and is considering filing a defamation case, he said.

Two people from the Chatra district—both elderly—two from the East Singhbhum district; one from the Bokaro, Khunti, Lohardaga, Latihar, Pakur, Palamu, Ramgarh, Simdega and West Singhbhum districts, respectively, are also on the list. All of them said that they had not been to Delhi in many years. A 44-year-old man from Ranchi, however, said he visited Nizamuddin between 7 and 10 March and then returned home. He has also been quarantined.

Amit Kumar, the deputy commissioner of Dhanbad, told me, “Police is investigating in this matter. That is why no one can react to it.” He added, “The remaining people who were quarantined are being monitored only in view of their health. The travel history of all those who are on the list and in different cases is being seen.”

I also contacted AK Singh, the ADG of the special branch, for a comment. He first asked me to call later as he was in a meeting but did not answer my subsequent calls. The spokesperson of Jharkhand Police, Saket Kumar Singh, said, “Information comes for verification many times. Sometimes, the information is wrong, and sometimes it is also correct. Information may be correct, it may be wrong, or information may be out of date. The information that comes is verified in the field. We have got a lot of wrong information as well. But whatever information we get, we cannot let it be, it has to be verified. Where the special branch got this information, only they can tell.” 

So far, Jharkhand has reported four cases of COVID-19. The first case came to light in Ranchi, on 31 March, when a 22-year-old Malaysian woman who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The second case was found in Hazaribagh and the third in Bokaro. At the time of publishing, a fourth case had come up in Ranchi.

Though the Tablighi Jamaat is far from the only large religious gathering to have taken place in March, the discovery of cases and the subsequent media and political attention they received has already polarised Indians. People all over the country have begun connecting the disease to a particular community; following the media in naming the attendees “Corona Bombs” or terming their actions “Corona Jihad.” Some have begun to spread targeted, communalised misinformation against Muslims, painting a target on the backs of the community.

 In Jharkhand, too, media platforms continue to report COVID-19 cases as linked to the Islamic faith and to the Jamaat. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s former state spokesperson Ajay Rai, who joined the BJP from the Congress, too followed this trope. Calling the Tablighi Jamaat “jaahil”—a derogatory term that roughly translates to uncivilised—Rai asked “what action law enforcement agencies could take against these Corona bombs.” He deleted his post after facing condemnation on social media. He later posted a clarification, saying, “I apologise if my post has hurt anyone. The purpose of my post was not linked to any religion or community, but still people have twisted it in the wrong direction.” Meanwhile, a prominent Hindi publication published the special branch’s list, complete with the names, addresses and numbers of the 37 persons.