Religions are the best friends of COVID-19

April 5, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

The central and UP governments still seem to be far away from tacking the problem of migrant workers. Obviously there have been a series of kneejerk responses to the problem right from the beginning. The different responses from providing buses, to freeze where the pedestrian travellers were, to providing shelters, everywhere there seem to be lacunas and loopholes. May be the governments are making their best efforts, but the magnitude of the problem is such that they are not able to cope. Or may be they are making half hearted efforts so are leaving loopholes.

Some unconfirmed and/or incomplete news regarding Gujarat government arranging buses for 2000 pilgrims stuck in Uttara Khand and foreign tourist being taken in buses during the lockdown have also been circulating. These news items, if true in the form they are circulated in social media, certainly show differential treatment mated out by the government to different sections of people. And that is not reassuring in the present times. All these problems and many more are there.

This article, however, is about contribution of religion to spread of coronavirus. If one discounts the people generally dubbed as “bhaktas”, “IT cell members” and “Right Wingers”, all other Indians seem to be denouncing attempts to “communalise” or making a “Hindu-Muslim” issue or “associating corona spread with any particular religion”. All seem to be unanimous in this. And it sounds the right way to look at the situation as well. COVID-19 is equally dangerous to all, what ever crime the Jamaat committed there are no grounds for assuming that all Islam supports it, nor for holding every individual Muslim as responsible. Actually, no sane person is thinking or saying that every individual Muslim is responsible for it. Many Muslims have actually condemned the acts in harshest terms in print and electronic media. So, certainly every Muslim can not be seen as responsible for this.

But, have religions played a significant role in spreading the virus in South-East Asia? An article in the Wall Street Journal says they have[1]. It gives facts and figures to support the claim that “from Malaysia to Iran, faith groups and pilgrims have emerged as risks, transmitting the disease in ways that are proving difficult to trace and contain.” Tablighi Jamaat figures in a big way in connection with Indonesia, Malesia and Pakistan. Churches in connection with Singapore and South Korea. It does not have anything on India, though by now Delhi Markaz even is known to have links with a similar event in Indonesia.

Therefore, asking “whether religions resist more to closing down congregations than other non-religious congregations?” seems to be a legitimate question in present times. If one goes by the example of stone pelting in Ratha Yatra at Akkalkot, two Telangana ministers offering pooja on Rama Navami, Yogi Adityanath participating in shifting of Rama statue, Karnataka state government permitting 4-5 priests to celebrate Kharaga festival in side the temple, etc. and perhaps numerous others, then one has to come to the conclusion that religious gatherings are relatively more difficult to control.

In have absolutely no hesitation in saying that in all the incidents mentioned in the last paragraph Hinduism is a significant, may be the most significant, factor. There is no way of escaping the conclusion that all these acts are motivated by the desire to fulfil some or other supposed to be religious obligation as per Hindu belief system(s) and practices. The motivation to undertake these acts, desire to ignore the social distance orders, anger for stone pelting in one case, and seeking and granting permission to celebrate festival; all are based on the Hindu belief system(s) and practices connected with these occasions. If one argues that these incidents are not connected with Hinduism, it does not make sense at all. Therefore, all these incidents have to be understood as motivated by Hinduism, and at the minimum, Hinduism is a very significant factor in all these.

Is this conclusion communalising the issue? First lets see what is communalism. Mild communalism, put simply, is “loyalty and commitment to the interests of your own group (Ex. ethnic or religious) rather than to society as a whole”. Rabid communalism would be “loyalty and commitment to your own group, even in situations it might harm the whole society or other particular groups”. Now suppose a citizen of India, X, who happens to be a Muslim, comes to the above-mentioned conclusion after looking at the facts of these incidents that beliefs and practices generally associated with Hinduism are a significant or the central motivating factor in all of them. Is X being communal? In what sense? He is stating a logical conclusion, we do not know his real motive, his facts cannot be denied. There is no obvious benefit to his community in this. Aren’t those, who blame him of communalism, being communal? A counter argument could be: that the Hindus who call X communal are actually trying to save the image of their own community, in the face of possible danger to the whole society, and therefore, showing commitment to their own group even in the face of harm to the whole society. Therefore, the Hindus who call X communal are themselves behaving in a communal manner.

Hinduism recently has received a very bad press nationally and internationally, and almost every so-called Indian liberal is attacking Hinduism for almost everything that goes wrong in our country. Does this situation, Hinduism receiving a bad press presently, makes pointing out something reasonably true anti-Hindu or communal? I don’t see any rational grounds to come to that conclusion. Therefore, to me stating that “all the above-mentioned incidents have to be understood as motivated by Hinduism, and at the minimum, Hinduism is a very significant factor in all these” is neither anti-Hindu nor communal. It is simply a statement of the case as it is. Period.

Next, is X, in stating as said above, making it a Hindu-Muslim issue? Again, in this simple statement I see nothing of Hindu-Muslim issue. Suppose Mr. X is analysing overall impact of all such religion incidents on the coronavirus spread in India. And suppose further, that he comes to the conclusion that there are many more incidents of this nature related to Hinduism than they are related to Islam. And he says that openly. Is he making a Hindu-Muslim issue out of it? I find it hard to accept that. He is simply comparing the incidents, and this understanding might be useful in preparing the future course of action. Thus, as long as his facts are correct and his reasoning is valid, sharing publicly the results of his analysis is neither communal, nor anti-Hindu, nor is he making a Hindu-Muslim issue out of it.

Hindus may like or dislike it, but Asharam, Rampal, Nityanand, etc. all are products of Hinduism. They became influential and could dupe people because there are certain systems of beliefs, practices and rituals which they could use for their own purposes. It could be argued that they did not follow the philosophy and spiritual thought of Hinduism. Similarly, the stone pelting in Akkalkot Rath yatra and other incidents mentioned above are not supported by the philosophy of Hinduism. But a religion is not just its philosophy. It is, as said above, a complex system of beliefs, preachers, believers, social structures, rituals and practices. And all these people draw from the history, mythology, theology, philosophy (even if distorted) and practices of Hinduism. They also shape modern Hinduism. And it does not matter whether you like it or not as long as they have millions of followers who think of themselves as Hindus, they are products of Hinduism. Saying all this, even by a non-Hindu, is not communal and not anti-Hindu. It is just the statement of views that person has formed on the basis of some facts and reasoning.

Is Tablighi Jamaat issue being communalised if some one states that 33% cases till date are connected with its event in Delhi?

From this point of view; noting, stating and arguing that in aggression, in being adamant, in terms of scale and in terms of bold public theological support to continuing congregation come-what-may, Tabligi Jamaat takes the cake. The facts are available to all to check and see. Also, there are several Imams all over the world proclaiming that Allah’s azaab comes because of deviating from the true Islam and coronavirus can not harm believers. In face of all this it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Islamic thought and hadith is liberally used in support of continuing congregations, and instigating people to violate public safety measures. This is the most dangerous aspect of Jamaat incident: it gives elaborate religious justification for endangering oneself, one’s community and the whole society; and declares is pious. I have not seen any such religious justification from any religious leader, other than Islamic scholars. It has to be countered, and to counter it has to be admitted and understood.

In saying so no one is saying that every Islamic scholar supports this view. Actually not. Several Islamic scholars have denounced this view and have said that this is not the ‘true interpretation of Islam’. That however, is neither here not there. As the Maulanas who preach this view call it the real Islam and the counter view is seen as not true Islam; and they also have millions of followers. We do not know; we cannot know the true essence of any religion be that Hinduism or Islam; simply because there is no such thing as true essence of any religion. Religions, be that Hinduism or Islam, are very adept at wriggling out of responsibility of obnoxious acts committed in their name, simply by saying that this is not according to the true meaning of this religion. Personally, I don’t think religious thought can be absolved of the responsibility of such interpretations.

Therefore, the repeated charges of communalising, anti-Muslims and making Hindu-Muslim issue on everyone who states that Tablighi Jamaat has contributed heavily to the spread of coronavirus is hiding behind a smoke screen and avoiding the truth. A problem when ignored, does not go away, it becomes bigger and more harmful.

However, that does not mean that all Islamic thought supports it, nor does it mean that every Muslim supports it or is responsible for it. Those who claim that all Islamic thought supports it and all Muslims are responsible are making false charges against Islam and Muslims, and thus, communalising. But claiming that Jamaat is centrally responsible and the power of Jamaat is drawn from Islamic theology and practices is the truth and has to be stated as it is. Branding impartial truth as communal is a communal act.

The charge that the Tablighi Jamaat is being unfairly selected may be true for some TRP hunting TV channels, but is not generally true. The repeated occurrence of obduracy of Jamaat members, the magnitude of the act, the arrogant defence and defiance eclipse all other such acts, that’s why it figures more in the conversations and discussions. All other acts of this nature by all religions are equally criticised, the debate on them dies quickly because no one comes forward for an unjustified defence for them. When a determined argument savvy group tries to justify unjustifiable in their intellectual arrogance, debate prolongs and truth gets repeatedly underlined.

[Listens to part of the Maulana’s one long bayan here. It takes patience and keen listening abilities to get the force and purport of the lecture.]


5th April 2020