On March 13, 2020, a Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation began in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz mosque with permission from the Delhi Police. This congregation received a lot of backlash due to the fact that it involved the gathering of 3,400 people during the coronavirus pandemic (as declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, two days before the Jamaat began). This led to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announcing that no religious, social or political gathering of more than 50 people would be allowed in Delhi until March 31. However, the participants of the Tablighi Jamaat stayed put.
On March 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Janta Curfew, after which 1,500 people vacated the Markaz. Two days later, PM Modi declared a nationwide 21-day lockdown, after which Delhi Police asked the remaining participants to vacate Nizamuddin. However, 1,000 people once again defied orders by staying put. This led to a medical team being sent to the mosque and testing and isolating those found positive.
The Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra, on the other hand, is an annual event where devotees of Lord Jagannath gather in Puri, Odisha, to help pull Lord Jagannath’s chariot to Gundicha Temple, for this is considered an auspicious act. This year, the Rath Yatra began on June 23 with permission from the Supreme Court of India. The rules laid down by the Supreme Court were that each chariot involved in the festival would be pulled by not more than 500 people, who would all be tested for Covid-19 prior and allowed only if they were found to be negative (Source: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/at-most-500-people-can-pull-chariot-and-all-to-be-tested-for-covid-19-sc-on-puri-rath-yatra-11592837480388.html). Additionally, each one engaged in pulling the chariots would practice social distancing before, during and after the Yatra.
Now here’s the thing. The Tablighi Jamaat congregation involved 3,400 people, and soon after, CM Kejriwal declared that not more than 50 people would be allowed per gathering. This was when the number of Covid cases in India had just crossed 80 (Source: https://www.thehindu.com/coronavirus/) and the lockdown hadn’t even begun.
The Rath Yatra, on the other hand, is taking place at a time when the number of cases in India has crossed the 4.5-lakh mark (Source: https://www.thehindu.com/coronavirus/) and the Supreme Court has allowed it to be conducted with ‘only’ 1,500 people, including priests and policemen.
Here are some things I’d like to point out:
1. If not more than 50 people were allowed to come together at a time when India’s Covid count was a mere 80-plus, how can you possibly allow 1,500 people to gather at a time when the count has risen to 4.5 lakh-plus?
2. The chariots involved in the Rath Yatra are usually 42-44 ft in height and approximately 33 ft in length and breadth. If you think that up to 500 people can realistically maintain social distancing while pulling these gigantic chariots, I’d say think twice. Also, if you think these people will even be mindful about social distancing and abide by the rules, once again, think twice.
3. Covid-19 testing has been low in India. Living in a containment zone myself, even the people in my area have not been tested. Who is to say that all these 1,500 people involved will for sure be tested? And if so, what does this say about India’s priorities? It shows that we are willing to sacrifice testing for citizens in need, that too for a religious festival which itself poses a Covid threat. Why is religion being held above healthcare and humanity?
4. Even if the participants test negative for the virus, there is no guarantee that they won’t contract it after being tested, which, once again, could further spread the virus.
5. This would pose a threat to not only those participating in the Rath Yatra, but also to the innumerable other people they will come in contact with later, including their own families. These people could include senior citizens and people with pre-existing conditions who are at high risk.
6. If it isn’t obvious already, putting countless people at risk of contracting a potentially fatal virus for the sake of your religious beliefs is extremely selfish.
Despite the WHO declaring Covid-19 a pandemic, the Delhi Police gave permission for the Tablighi Jamaat gathering to take place. Even the Supreme Court has clearly failed to understand the gravity of the situation and given permission for the Rath Yatra, even though India is currently the fourth-most Covid-affected country in the world (Source: https://www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/health/coronavirus-india-live-news-updates-covid-19-vaccine-treatment-corona-cases-delhi-mumbai-maharashtr-death-toll-a-fabiflu-tablet-glenmark/1998362/).
Both of these religious events should not have taken place, considering the pandemic. Even though the Jamaat occurred at a time when the coronavirus was not as big a problem as it is today, the backlash it got tremendously exceeded the backlash that the Rath Yatra is receiving now. Multiple media platforms were involved in spreading fake news regarding the Jamaat, like the time they claimed that the jamaatis were spitting and spreading the virus. Soon after, this was debunked and it was found that those falsely accusing the jamaatis of spitting had used a clip of an Islamic preacher from 2017, which had nothing to do with the jamaatis (Source: https://www.altnews.in/india-tv-uses-2017-video-to-falsely-claim-islamic-preacher-provoked-jamaatis-to-spit/). This was yet another attempt to vilifiy Indian Muslims barely a month after the Northeast Delhi pogrom.
However, when the new BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh took oath on March 23, the venue, Raj Bhavan was packed, and no social distancing measures were followed (Source: https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/bjp-madhya-pradesh-social-distancing-shivraj-singh-chouhan_in_5e79a7bbc5b62f90bc508234). The attendees and the CM himself were seen in close proximity and in direct contact, despite him claiming that fighting Covid-19 was his top priority. Why was there no backlash against this like there was against the Jamatis?
This only proves that even amidst a pandemic, we just cannot put our religious biases aside. We conveniently side with science when the fingers point to others, but uphold our religious faith above all when the time is ours, even if the situation is much worse than before.
The virus is dependant on humans. It does not care about your faith, finances or status. It does not care whether your actions have been approved by the Supreme Court or the police. It sees you, catches you and infects you. In fact, it might just be the only non-discriminatory entity ever to have such a mass impact on India.
Besides, the lockdown has been lifted for those who have no choice but to go out and earn a livelihood, not for religious activities or gatherings. If you have a roof over your head, food to eat and even basic finances to sustain yourself, recognise your privilege and stay home. You may be going through a tough time, but so is the entire world.
Don’t make it tougher for those less privileged than you for the sake of your faith. Have a heart.