By early March, Covid-19 cases were surging across the world and in India. A lockdown in the country was several days away. Ignoring the pandemic, an estimated 2500 Sunni Muslim men belonging to several nationalities, each identically dressed in white gowns and skullcaps, checked into a five-storey house called Markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, part of a year-round routine.

Markaz is a clearing house for these committed teams of Islamic missionaries known as Tablighi Jamaat. Individual missions are small, consisting of four or five men, each booked on flights and trains to various states and countries. The building isn’t a mosque. It’s a facility with bare dormitories. “It’s actually a transit point, where logistics are planned,” said Navaid Hamid, the president of All-India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushwarat.

Authorities now fear the markaz waypoint has become a coronavirus transmission hub, with 24 preachers testing positive, according to Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain’s comment to NDTV.

The markaz facility is also known as the global headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, a preaching movement founded in 1927 by Maulana Mohd Ilyas in Uttar Pradesh’s Mewat. Tablighi Jamaat (Arabic for ‘group that propagates faith’) is one of the most widespread missionary movements in Islam globally but seeks to be low-profile. It is not a sect in itself.

Members often describe Tablighi Jamaat to be non-political, committed to nothing more than goading Muslims into following Islam. Participation is purely voluntary and most members belong to professional occupations.

“Our groups aren’t large. We can’t afford it. It’s at best three or four,” said Syed Iran Malik, a resident of the old Delhi, who travelled to Malaysia and Indonesia in 2017 as a preacher.

Preachers usually put up in mosques and lecture people. Preachers usually carry nothing more than food stuff, sleeping bags and cooking stoves.

One key task is to make non-conformist Muslims to ‘return’ to the faith. They frequently quote from the Quran, highlighting passages that speak of certainty of hellish punishment for sinners and rewards for the virtuous.

Positive coronavirus cases among these preachers have set off alarm bells now, but the organisation says its members were trapped because of the lockdown. Authorities made no arrangement to evacuate them in time, it said in an official statement.

According to the markaz’s statement, on 24th March 2020, a notice was issued by police, seeking closure of the premises. “The same was responded to on 24th March 2020, stating the compliance of the directions regarding closure of markaz is already underway,” it said.

Alarmingly, a day before the notice, i.e. on March 23, around 1500 preachers had already managed to leave for various destinations, thus leaving around 1000 visitors “belonging to different states and nationalities inside the markaz”, the organisation said.

A few of them started developing symptoms, such as a temperature and cough, but nobody thought of the possibility of getting the coronavirus, a member of the markaz said. Members continued to be cramped because of the lockdown.

Tablighi Jamaat has no central administrative structure and its activities are coordinated by volunteers. Without an authority, there was no general guidelines to prevent Covid-19.

An administrator of the markaz house however said: “During this entire episode, markaz Nizamuddin never violated any provision of law. It did not let them (preachers) violate medical guidelines,” the statement said.

“Why did the authorities fail to move out the preachers to government quarantine facilities? Why were foreigners not separated from Indian nationals? The local magistrate should be sacked,” said Hamid of the Majlis-e-Mushwarat.

 When Hon’ble Prime Minister announced the “Janta Curfew”, for 22nd March 2020, the ongoing program in Markaz Nizamuddin was discontinued immediately, however due to sudden cancelation of rail services across the country on 21st March 2020, a large group of visitors who had to depart by way of railways got stuck in the Markaz premises. 

According to the markaz’s statement On 22nd March 2020, “Janta Curfew” was observed and accordingly visitors were advised not to venture out until 9 PM as desired by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, therefore the plans to move back to their native places by way of means other than railways also did not materialize. Before the Janta Curfew could be lifted at 9PM, the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Delhi announced lockdown of Delhi beginning at 6AM on 23rd March 2020 till 31st March 2020, thereby further diminishing any chances of these visitors availing road transport for their journey back home.

Despite this challenging situation, with the help of Markaz administration, around fifteen hundred visitors left Markaz Nizamuddin by availing whatever meager transport was available. Suddenly on the evening of 23rd March, a further nationwide lockdown was announced by the Hon’ble Prime Minister with clear message for people to stay-put wherever they are.

Under such compelling circumstances there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions till such time that situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities. 

On 24th March 2020, suddenly a notice was issued by SHO, P.S. Hazrat Nizamuddin, seeking closure of Markaz premises. The same was responded on 24th March 2020, stating that the compliance of the directions regarding closure of Markaz is already underway and around 1500 people had departed the previous day, thus leaving around 1000 visitors belonging to different states and nationalities in Markaz. It was also informed that the Ld. SDM concerned had been requested to issue vehicle passes so that the remaining people could be sent back to their native places outside of Delhi.

It is relevant to indicate here that lists of 17 vehicles with registration numbers along with the names of the drivers plus their license details were submitted to the Ld. SDM so that the stranded visitors/guests could be ferried towards their destination. The requisite permission is still awaited.

 On 25th March 2020, the Tehsildaar along with medical team visited the Markaz, full cooperation was provided for their inspection as well as in preparation of list of visitors, many of whom were examined by them. On 26th March 2020, the Ld. SDM visited Markaz Nizamuddin and called us for a further meeting with the Ld. DM. We met the Ld. DM, apprised him of the stranded visitors and once again sought permission for the vehicles arranged by us. 

The next day, i.e. 27th March 2020, six persons were taken for medical check-up. On 28th March 2020, the Ld. SDM and WHO team visited the Markaz and 33 persons were taken for medical checkup to Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital. Surprisingly on the same day another notice was issued, this time by the Office of ACP, Lajpat Nagar, reiterating the prohibitory orders and warning of legal action, this being totally oblivious of the above deliberations and steps that had already been taken by Markaz Nizamuddin in consultation with the authorities. However, the same was replied in detail vide letter dated 29th March 2020. 

Yesterday, 30th March 2020, a rumour started gaining ground across social media that allegedly people affected with COVID-19 are present in Markaz.

It is also being circulated that certain deaths have occurred due to the same.

Unexpectedly, as reported by ANI, the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Delhi went on to say that he has directed authorities to take legal action against the administration of Markaz.

It is humbly stated that if the above fact-check could have been done by the Office of Hon’ble Chief Minister, the authorities would have apprised him about their visits, deliberations and cooperation extended by the Markaz in order to disperse the remaining visitors.

During this entire episode, Markaz Nizamuddin never violated any provision of law, and always tried to act with compassion and reason towards the visitors who came to Delhi from different states. It did not let them violate the medical guidelines by thronging ISBTs or roaming on streets. 

Markaz Nizamuddin would like to humbly offer the entire premises as a quarantine facility to help the authorities tide-over the challenge of current pandemic.

Throughout its 100-year existence, Markaz Nizamuddin has an unblemished history of cooperating with administration/ authorities and always upholding the rule of law in letter and spirit. In the present challenge of COVID-19, Markaz stands with the law enforcement authorities and shall remain forthcoming in complying with all the guidelines issued by them.