Coronavirus Outbreak: Scrap dealers, zealots, arts students; Assam's hunt for Tablighi Jamaat participants spares few

Simantik Dowerah

Itna bada hangaama hoga maloom nahin tha. (Didn't know this would turn out to be such a huge ruckus.) These words are from 25-year-old Anuarul Haque Laskar from Hailakandi in Assam who is now in quarantine along with 15 others at a railway facility in Delhi. Laskar and his group are among those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat held at the Markaz building in Nizamuddin which has turned into a hotspot for the highly contagious COVID-19.

So intense was the shock of the discovery of a congregation at these times that it sent an entire nation into a tizzy forcing states to race against time to locate those who attended the religious event in an attempt to prevent a community spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Despite massive government awareness programmes on the need for social distancing to break the chain of the epidemic, the Tablighi Jamaat not only flouted norms by organising such a gathering during this critical period but its participants who returned home also behaved irresponsibly by wilfully disobeying the guidelines of home quarantine of 14 days or even informing the authorities for that matter.

On the morning of 31 March as a horrified nation glued to television sets watched hordes of people being escorted out of the Markaz building and taken in buses after buses to different quarantine facilities across Delhi and other neighbouring places, the Central government got busy tracing those who attended the event. After an extensive mapping exercise of mobile numbers active in and around the hot zone in the last few days, a list of 456 mobile numbers having links to Assam was passed on to the Assam government to be immediately tracked so that their holders can be assessed for their health status. Similar lists were sent to other states as well.

Alarm bells ring in Assam

The list was never out officially but a list containing 299 mobile numbers with the names and addresses of the holders was already doing the round on social media. This list was not wrong and it only got expanded later. For a state which had not a single case of COVID-19 till then, panic gripped its citizens and the administration alike. After initial disbelief, the state launched itself in a big way to track these individuals using all resources at its disposal including public support.

To gauge the magnitude of the work on 1 April, I started calling these numbers one after another and managed to dial 30 of them in a day in between other works. Eight of these numbers were switched off, four of them did not receive the call, one picked up but insisted that it was a wrong number and two were outside the network coverage area.

The time I took to call these 30 numbers and the brief interaction I had with 15 of them gave me a clear impression of the enormity of the job. It goes without saying the people who called them on an official capacity had to carry out much longer conversations than I probably did. These people truly deserve praise. What worried me more were those numbers which were either switched off or ignored the call. That category must have been a herculean task for the government to trace.

The response to these calls I made was interesting. The first obvious reaction was of suspicion and fear and a sense of tiredness and submission as they must have already received a huge number of calls by then. Not all of them I called had attended the Tablighi Jamaat and those who did, made sure to inform that they are doing fine healthwise. Probably a sense of guilt have already started penetrating their souls.

Fait accompli for the faithful

"We are a group of 16 who came by train from Hailakandi in Assam to attend the Jamaat and reached Delhi on 25 February. We lodged at the Markaz building itself since our arrival until we were brought to this railway colony (he probably meant a guesthouse) by the police for quarantine. Our return tickets are already booked for 23 April. None of us is ill and we are doing fine," said the BA 5th semester student from AL Choudhury College in Hailakandi who was clearly taken aback by the swiftness of the event and the sudden media attention.

He also claimed that there are 70 people from Assam who are now kept in different locations by the Delhi government.

For Abul Hussain, who is using his son Abdul Hannan's phone, it was well-planned religious activity disrupted. Not that he was complaining.

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"I reached Nizamuddin on 1 March and have been participating in the Tablighi Jamaat since then. I came here from Morigain district in Assam. We are a group of 53 who are present in Delhi now. Actually originally it was a group of around 60 but the rest quietly escaped to Assam. I have heard that they are now quarantined in Gauhati Medical College," said Hussain.

An employee of the Nagaon Paper Mill in Jagiroad in Assam, Hussain is now in quarantine along with his group in the National Capital.

Stressing that everyone is in fine health, he said, "I am sharing my room with two others. Our beds are placed 2-2.5 metres away from each other. Lodging and food are good. We had our return ticket is on 1 May. We came by train and our return ticket is also by train. I came to attend the Jamaat alone and my family is in Assam. Perhaps the government will take the call now."

Maybe to convey that he didn't flout any guidelines, Hussain said, "No restrictions were there when we came here."

Md Jafar Sharif was particularly tensed when he received the call at a Meerut hospital.

"I am not from Assam. I am from Thoubal in Manipur. There are nine others with me. We have been now brought to a Meerut city hospital for testing. We had reached Nizamuddin on 12 March. We attended the Tablighi Jamaat till 15 March and left for Meerut. We were in Meerut since then," Sharif said almost wanting to believe what was happening wasn't for real.

Devastated accurately describes the mood of Wahida Rahman when she received the call at a quarantine facility in Assam. The 42-year-old was in a shock as to how a religious trip can go so wrong.

"I attended the Tablighi Jamaat along with my mother, sister, brother-in-law and their two boys. We left Jorhat on 10 March by train and reached Delhi on 13 March. Again we took the train on 19 March and were home by 21 March. Now my family has been quarantined at the Dhekorgorha Mini Public Health Centre in Jorhat," said Wahida.

What was concerning was that she had a seriously sore throat which immediately struck me as one of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus. She is under medical observation now and I did not think it proper to comment but her sore throat did worry me particularly when I heard the small boys of her sister playing nearby. There was a sense of guilt somewhere in her mind, still she attempted a feeble defence.

"When we left for Nizamuddin nothing of that sort (read lockdown perhaps forgetting about social distancing)had happened," she said.

Caught in a maze

When Md Akbar Shah picked up the phone, he was outright defensive. No sooner had I asked him if he was at Nizamuddin, a scared Shah immediately put up a defensive shield.

"I did stay at the Nizamuddin Dargah but I am not part of the Tablighi Jamaat. I have nothing to do with the Markaz building. I had not come to be a part of any Tablighi. I have no idea about Tablighi. I stayed in a different building and you can check the CCTV cameras for proof," he said.

Although he was not sure exactly where he was, Shah did inform that he was quarantined somewhere near the Nizamuddin police station.

"I came to Delhi for an ongoing litigation involving my firm. I came to Delhi on 11 March. I was supposed to return on 22 March. But then my office told me that the date of hearing was postponed until 25 March. But then again they told me the date was postponed until 27 March. That's how I got stuck," Shah said trying to figure out the head or tail of the turn of events.

Although he is from Thoubal district in Manipur, his number somehow appeared on the Assam list. Shah said he was not tested for COVID-19 so far and that the Thoubal district deputy commissioner, superintendent of police, chief medical officer and other officials had contacted him enduring about his physical wellbeing.

The 22-year-old Yousuf from Kokrajhar in Assam was equally flustered.

"I am about to complete a year of stay in Nizamuddin. I am a student and I am studying Arabic. I stay in a hostel. I have nothing to do with the Tablighi Jamaat. Now they (the authorities) brought me to Narela for quarantine. I have not been tested for COVID-19 yet (as on 7 pm on 1 April 2020)," he said.

As if to convince me that he was actually following the social distancing norms, Yousuf said, "I stay in a big room with two others."

Fluent Hindi, soldierly manner of speaking were the first things I noticed when Joynal Hussain Laskar picked up my call.

"Sir, I am with the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and now I am currently posted in Delhi. I have nothing to do with the Tablighi Jamaat. My SIM card is from Assam and that's why it got detected," said Joynal who is from Silchar in the Barak Valley in Assam.

A member of the housekeeping staff in a Delhi firm, Raju Ali must have never received so many calls in his lifetime on a single day.

The moment I mentioned Nizamuddin, he rattled off instantly as if he is reading from a script.

"I have not attended any function of the Tablighi Jamaat. I have no idea how my name appeared on the list. I have been staying in Delhi since 2006. I live here with my family. I have also not gone out due to the lockdown. Even our landlord doesn't allow us to step outside. I have never received so many calls in my fire," said Ali, who is originally from Mukalmuwa sub-division in Assam's Nalbari district.

It is important to note that he lives around a kilometre away from the Tablighi Jamaat but his number was still within the radar giving an idea of the geographical scope of the tracking effort.

For Md Sirajuddin Laskar, a petty trader who lives in Nizamuddin West and is from Jamunamukh in Assam's Nagaon district, his journey to Delhi from Assam on 13 March immediately raised suspicion.

"My rented accommodation is not far from the Dargah. I live in Nizamuddin West. I have no involvement with the Tablighi Jamaat," said Sirajuddin.

Abdur Rahman from Majgaon Bajali in Barpeta, who has been living in Delhi since 2009, was in for a rude shock when the police landed in his shanty half a kilometre away from the Nizamuddin Dargah on 31 March.

"I have been living in Delhi since 2009. They included name by mistake. I am engaged with housekeeping work in a company. I never went to the Jamaat. In fact, if you are not a member you are not even allowed to enter there. Moreover, I went to Assam two years back. At least, they should verify before including a name," said a shaken Abdur.

Another young fellow, Anowar Islam, found himself in a similar situation whose shanty is not too far from Abdur's.

"I am from South Salmara district in Assam. I work as a housekeeping staff in a company. I have nothing to do with the Tablighi Jamaat," said Anowar.

Sahed Ali from Barpeta, who now works as a scrap dealer, has been staying in Nizamuddin for more than a year now.

"My place is at least 2-kilometre away from the Dargah. I have no connection to the Tablighi Jamaat," said Ali.

Md Muchleuddin Thakuria Ali is a nervous man. The fear of contracting the virus has gripped him and the worry of unintentionally harming his family even more.

"My daughter was studying in Shaheen Bagh. I went to Delhi to bring her back. I left Morigaon on 14 March and returned home on 17 March. I didn't go to Nizamuddin. I went to Shaheen Bagh. Yesterday people from the health services did the screening. Since it is nearly 15 days I have returned home, I hope I won't be infected. Please pray for me to the Malik (God) and bless me so that I remain safe," said Muchleuddin.

Not just Muchleuddin, it is the whole world that needs blessings now to be safe and sound.

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