An Islamic missionary group in India's capital New Delhi is facing a torrent of right-wing abuse after accusations that its recent congregation became the main carrier of the coronavirus.

Many far-right groups were trending #CoronaJihad on Tuesday and pro-government news channels demanded action against Nizamuddin Markaz, a key institution for Muslim missionaries in South Asia, where a religious congregation was held in mid March. 

"After #Nizamuddin, those Tiktok videos and Islamists' speeches worldwide, Indian agencies should seriously probe if #CoronaJihad is a ground reality," Indian journalist Abhijit Majumder tweeted. Majumder has earned the reputation of being one of those journalists who propagates the views of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through his journalistic work and Twitter posts. While slamming the Nizamuddin Muslim gathering, he hinted at a 'larger conspiracy' against India.

Bollywood actor and right-wing commentator Anupam Kher chipped in like he always does when it comes to bashing Indian Muslims, and sought action against Nizamuddin Markaz, telling a pro-state news channel that "what has happened today in Nizamuddin is criminal" and demanding stern action against the organisation.

Missionary group headquarter sealed

India sealed off the headquarters of a Muslim missionary group and ordered an investigation into accusations.

India has registered 1,251 cases of the coronavirus, 32 of whom have died. The numbers are small compared with the United States, Italy and China but health officials say India, the world's second most populous country, faces a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

One of the coronavirus hot spots that the government of the capital, New Delhi, has flagged is a Muslim quarter where the 100-year-old missionary group, called Tablighi Jamaat in Urdu, after dozens of people tested positive for the virus and at least seven died.

Authorities said people kept visiting the Tablighi centre, in a five-storey building in a neighbourhood of narrow, winding lanes, from other parts of the country and abroad to attend religious sermons, despite government orders on social distancing.

Hundreds of people were crammed into the group's building until the weekend when authorities began taking them out for testing. More buses arrived on Tuesday to take them away to quarantine centres in another part of the city.

"It looks like social distancing and quarantine protocols were not practised here," the city administration said in a statement.

Authorities are trying to trace the movements of the Tablighi members after the meetings in Delhi and the people who were exposed to them.

Media reports said there were also Tablighi members from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia.

The director general of Malaysia's health ministry told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that they were investigating the presence of Malaysians at the Delhi meeting.

"Obviously there is a high risk if they attended the [Delhi] gathering," Noor Hisham Abdullah said.

Tablighi centre denies charges

India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion and a poor health infrastructure, is under a 21-day lockdown that will end in mid-April, to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but tens of thousands of out-of-work migrants are fleeing to the countryside, undermining the restrictions.

The group's main annual meeting in New Delhi's Nizamuddin area took place on March 8, 9, and 10, while the lockdown was announced on March 24.

Musharraf Ali, one of the administrators of the Tablighi centre in Delhi, said the group had been seeking help from police and the city administration to deal with people streaming in. But the lockdown had made things more difficult.

"Under such compelling circumstances there was no option ... but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions until such time that the situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities," the Tablighi said in a statement.

The Tablighi said the programme in Nizamuddin Markaz was discontinued immediately after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'civil curfew' call for March 22.

"However due to sudden cancellation of rail services across the country, a large group of visitors who had to depart by way of railways got stuck in the Markaz premises," the statement said.

It said the guests were not allowed to violate medical guidelines by thronging bus terminals or roaming on streets, and offered the entire premises to be used as a quarantine facility "to help the authorities tide-over the challenge of current pandemic."

Modi's curfew and lockdown announcement sparked a wave of migrations of daily wage labourers who are abandoning cities for countryside homes. On Monday, the Indian federal government asked states to disallow such migrations and quarantine migrant workers in shelters and relief camps.

BJP deflecting failures?

The Jamia Coordination Committee, a group comprising students and alumni of the popular university, backed the Tablighi centre saying: "Their only fault is not abandoning their people unlike the government which abandoned the migrant labourers and left them to die."

"We will not let the failures of this bigoted government be washed over with Islamophobic fantasies and communal tantrums. We stand with the Nizamuddin Markaz," it said.

Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a religious and social organisation of Muslims with a strong network of members and scholars across India, slammed the "targeting" of Tablighi Jamaat, saying "bigger and more irresponsible gatherings" were being ignored.

"Playing dirty politics of communal polarisation on such a huge health crisis… reflects shamefully low level of our public discourse," he said.

India ranks 184th out of 191 in terms of percentage of GDP spent on healthcare, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It spends slightly over one percent of its total GDP on health care.

There's one state-run hospital for every 55,591 people on average and one hospital bed for every 1,844 people.

India needs about 10 times more doctors to meet the norms prescribed by the WHO, a shortfall of at least 500,000 doctors.

Many commentators say the Hindu right-wing's tirade against the Muslim seminary was aimed to deflect nationalist government of Bharatya Janata Party's failure to address the disease.

"Trending of #CoronaJihad by BJP/Sanghi IT cell is not just a disgusting communal act but also planned strategically to divert public and media attention from humungous disasters by the BJP & Modi government in handling of #coronavirusindia," writer and filmmaker Amit Mehra tweeted.

"Expect more such diversions on a daily basis."

Marginalising Muslims?

Islamic groups, the opposition and others at home and abroad fear India's BJP government under PM Narendra Modi aims to marginalise India's 200 million minority Muslims and remould the country as a Hindu nation, something BJP denies.

In recent days, these worries have morphed into angry protests sparked by the passage of a new law giving non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh an easier path to citizenship. Muslims fear the law will complicate their citizenship status, disempower them as second class citizens in their own country.

In August last year, New Delhi revoked the semi-autonomy of India-administered Kashmir and annexed the disputed region, where Muslims fear demographic changes by Hindu settlers.

In November, Indian Supreme Court allowed a Hindu temple to be built in the flashpoint town of Ayodhya where Hindu zealots demolished a 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies