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How the Delhi police got Tablighi Jamaat to vacate their headquarters

Last updated on: April 02, 2020 17:12 IST
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Sheela Bhatt narrates the behind-the-scenes action in the Delhi headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat that finally forced the religious sect's compliance with the coronavirus shutdown.

IMAGE: The Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, being evacuated on April 1, 2020. Photograph: Ravi Choudhary/PTI Photo

Maulana Saad, leader of the orthodox Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat who has been booked by the Delhi police for a congregation linked to a coronavirus super-speed cluster's case, says he is in isolation following medical advice.

He has not yet subjected himself to the law even as the Delhi police crime branch is looking for him.

When the nation is shocked by the events unfolding in the institution led by him, that he could escape the police's clutches is only because he is truly well-connected with senior political leaders cutting across party lines courting him.

Maulana Saad controls one of the richest religious groupings in India; he gets funds from the Gulf and also from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

This correspondent obtained off-the-record interviews with two police officers who were part of the team who tried to convince Maulana Saad and hundreds of his followers to "understand the seriousness" of coronavirus even as it drove the rest of India into a never-seen-before lockdown for three weeks.

No one from the Tablighi Jamaat was available at the time of filing this report so this information represents only one side and reflects the Delhi police's efforts in defusing a potentially explosive situation.

Here is the police's account of what happened.

When Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal started closing down Delhi we got in touch with the headquarters of the Banglewali masjid that is located alongside the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters.

Actually, the Nizamuddin police station is a stone's throw away so we are in daily touch with the maulana's men around the year.

Much before Kejriwal announced the imposition of Section 144, we were talking to them on a daily basis.

The media is wrongly reporting that this blunder of Jamaat's congregation in such numbers was allowed by the administration. This is not true, many of them had left the area by March 18/19.

People have a scant idea of how the Jamaat headquarters works. It is one of the highly visited places in the city.

Ma'am, at any given time more than 500 people live there and another 500 to 800 people visit it daily. This place has a constant entry-exit of people around the year.

You can continuously see poor Muslims walking down to the headquarters from Nizamuddin railway station and hundreds more come in buses as well.

Since the Deobandis of Uttar Pradesh aren't on good terms with the Tablighis, there is competition among them to attract Sunni Muslims to their fold.

As with Hindu or Sikh religious places, we support the smooth functioning of the Markaz -- the Delhi headquarters of the Jamaat -- within their space.

We have noticed that the poorest of poor Muslim families are their followers so we have to ensure civic support too.

Maulana Saad is almost like a living god for the poor. He considers himself nothing less than that.

The poor followers feel blessed if they are able to see him or get permission to bow before him. The maulana's empire is not just pan-Indian, but global.

Imagine our plight in explaining to the maulana the necessity to close down the Markaz fully as was the case with all other religious places in Delhi.

It was not an easy thing to do as hundreds were inside the building much after the congregation ended. More than 200 women were there too.

Everything inside the headquarters works on people's faith in Allah. We respect it, but here was a health emergency not seen before.

Those who argue that 'police ne sakti nahi kiya (the police should have been strict)', forget that when we started negotiating with them to disperse, it wasn't an 'illegal gathering'. The congregation was over by then.

Also, the maulana and his deputies were telling us only one thing: 'Yeh Mussalmano ko todne ki muhim hai (it is a conspiracy to break Muslims).'

They were not out on the roads. They were inside their building. Most of them don't use mobile phones, do not watch TV or films. They are simple devotees but very different.

We could not handle them harshly because any kind of force or showdown could flare up in unexpected ways too.

When our negotiations were on there were 2,130 people inside. They were having all the facilities of boarding and lodging within the building.

Also, they were really stubborn. They were repeating again and again, "Allah will take care". You must understand that they seriously thought so.

Our time got wasted because, as they were not scared of the coronavirus, it was difficult to instil fear of the infection or death in them.

They simply refused to wear gloves or masks. They were bindaas!

They had no interest in obeying the government's orders. Their leaders are so powerful and rich that they are fearless, almost.

In fact, Muslims living in the area (Nizamuddin west colony) were calling the local police and administration and whoever they could to have the building vacated.

Muslim residents around were scared, but inside the building almost nobody was.

The press release issued by the Markaz claims how difficult it was for them to arrange for buses, etc. It is a smart narration, but one that hides the actual sequence of events.

Please understand, in fact there are two turning points to the entire Jamaat mess.

One, they just ignored the police and the Kejriwal administration, and even politicians's requests to close down the Markaz before March 23.

Only after the first death of one of the Jamaat's followers come to light did Maulana Saad get shaken.

Only then did the maulana send his people to the police and administration for help in transporting out the people crowding the Markaz. But by then we had to stop them from leaving!

The coronavirus pandemic is such that our priorities change every hour. It was a strange situation. For a week or so we wanted them to leave, but when an infected person died we got instructions to ensure that those who were inside the headquarters should not be allowed to move out at all without the knowledge of the government. That was the second turning point.

Just imagine, had these 2,130 people spread all over India, then even God could not have saved us.

We assured them that they would get tested and remain in quarantine.

When they were to be sent to secluded places for quarantine, again they would not co-operate.

Finally, NSA Ajit Doval visited the Markaz on Tuesday at midnight to help things cool down. It worked because the powerful and rich Maulana Saad hardly listens to anybody.

In the end, he was left with no option and we got control of the Markaz building to quarantine it.

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SHEELA BHATT / in New Delhi
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