Communal politics around the Tablighi Jamaat has been intensifying ever since this little known organisation was in the spotlight after dozens of people who attended a religious congregation the group held at its headquarters in Delhi in March tested positive for COVID-19. For a nuanced perspective on this polarising issue it is imperative to make a conscious attempt to read the history of this particular trend within Islam.
The attacks on the group by the right wing have gone as far as equating it to a case of ‘health terror’, and even urging the government to proscribe it. This impassioned suggestion is quite misplaced while at the same time dangerous as it is likely to instil fear among a section of those who follow Tablighi Islam.
This peripatetic group of preachers look at faith renewal and bringing back non-practising Muslims to the fold of ‘true’ Islam. Looking at their conduct suggests that while the rest of the world was getting to know about the novel coronavirus outbreak in December 2019, the ‘apolitical’ Tablighis, who consciously distance themselves from ‘worldly affairs’, had already acquired and spread the virus among fellow travellers who were returning home after days and months of global spiritual patrolling.
While the Tabligh is responsible for not taking timely action in dispersing the gathering at the Nizamuddin Markaz, which is the global headquarters of the movement, the lack of care by the state in underplaying the threat of the novel coronavirus and the delay in initiating testing cannot be ignored. By this time, the Tablighis had travelled across the world becoming one of the major carriers of the virus in India.
The reaction of hate is both reductive and demagogic. The polemical narrative that is infused with Islamophobia is based on unfounded fears and deep-seated prejudices.
History as subtext
The political lexicon that has evolved around the Muslim minority within a right-wing stream operates on the presumption of their otherness, which includes stereotypical attitudes towards their eating habits. As the spread of the virus turns communal it is important to take a cursory glance at history.
History has lessons for all. The Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement, was founded in early 1926 British India by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi and spread by Ashraf Ali Thanawi, the two patriarchs of the movement. The political vicissitudes of 19th and 20th century India had a tremendous social, political and psychological impact on Muslims of the country, which led to vigorous religious expressions facilitated by the British. The 19th century was the period when a variety of new influential as well as controversial religious reform movements, both Hindu and Muslim, were emerging within India with a desire to rediscover their ‘lost glory’.
In the search for this ‘lost glory’ and a sense of belonging and identity, the Tabligh emerged as a response to the Christian missionary and the Shuddhi Sangathan. There exist interconnected social and political patterns that led to the formation of the Tabligh with its original focus on ‘detracted Muslims’, and, later, evolving into a proselytising group. Though it emerged in an intensively political context, the Tabligh maintained an ‘apolitical’ demeanour, specifically in India.
The message for all players
There are lessons for the paranoid mind. Tabligh lays emphasis on individual social ‘reform’ and revocation of the political. This clearly means that the Tabligh does not directly hanker after state power; it has adopted a “bottom-up approach” to Islamise society and claimed a complete disengagement on issues that involve politics. Since the Tabligh is about a withdrawal from the political it does not emerge as a ‘security threat’.
Despite its claimed distancing from politics, the movement exists, operates and travels through political boundaries and among political communities. The persistence of being apolitical has serious political implications; the price of political ignorance or apathy is quite high, as seen today in the Tabligh being implicated in the spread of the pandemic and a demonisation of the larger community.
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While there are lessons for the different sets of people embroiled in the current controversy, it is important to identify the problem at the moment — the ‘common enemy’, which is the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the hierarchy of priorities, any action other than this would amount to inaction against the overarching threat that looms over us. Life in the steps being taken to flatten the curve as far as the virus is concerned is difficult. The politics of hate around the Tabligh only heightens this condition of national and global anxiety with isolation taking its toll on mental health.
Is it a coincidence that the novel coronavirus, much like the cow issue, has intensified communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims? Clearly, it is not a coincidence. It is a pattern; a political design to caricature, frame and endanger one part of the nation.
Ambreen Agha is Associate Professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. She did her Ph.D on Women in Tabligihi Jama’at from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Her research area is Islam, Gender and Conflict.