Chandigarh: The head of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, has warned against attempts to malign the Gurdwara Hazur Sahib in Nanded, Maharashtra, or blame pilgrims who have returned from there for deliberately spreading coronavirus in Punjab.
Issuing a video statement Thursday evening, Giani Harpreet Singh noted that parallels were being drawn between members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic organisation that has reportedly been linked to a nationwide spurt in Covid-19 cases after a congregation at its Delhi headquarters, and the Sikh pilgrims returning from the gurdwara.
Punjab saw its Covid-19 cases rise Friday as several pilgrims returning from Nanded tested positive. So far, 170 have tested positive, almost 30 per cent of the total 585 cases recorded in the state.
“This is unacceptable as Sikh pilgrims have conducted themselves most responsibly and were absolutely fine while they were staying in the gurdwara. It is surprising that many of them have tested positive on their return to Punjab. This, in fact, leads us to even question the veracity of the coronavirus tests,” Singh said.
Punjab witnessed its highest daily spike in cases Thursday with 105 people testing positive. By Friday, the number increased by another 95. Among the Nanded returnees, the highest number of patients were from Amritsar (76), followed by Ludhiana (33), Ferozepur (16) and Mohali (15).
Around 3,732 pilgrims have returned from Nanded to the state since the weekend, of which 2,476 have been tested. The majority of these pilgrims were at the Hazur Sahib gurdwara to pay obeisance when the lockdown, announced on 25 March, left them stranded.
The Hazur Sahib gurdwara is one of the most revered Sikh shrines. It was built where the last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, died and was cremated.
The source of the infection among the returning Nanded pilgrims remains a mystery for both the Punjab government and the authorities in Maharashtra, where teams of specialists are at pains to track down the first person who could have spread the disease.
Speaking to ThePrint, Dr Sunil Lahane, municipal commissioner, Nanded, said, “Almost 4,000 pilgrims were here in the Nanded gurdwara complex for over one month where they were thermal-screened thrice for any symptoms. Not a single one showed any symptoms.”
“Nanded has had only two cases of coronavirus ever since the epidemic spread in Maharashtra. Ours was a green zone. Our first patient, an old man with several comorbidities, died this morning,” Dr Lahane said Friday.
The second case was a driver who had dropped Punjab pilgrims in his private taxi some days ago. He was feeling unwell on his return and was immediately taken into an isolation facility where he was tested, he added. “Although he lives quite near the gurdwara complex, we are trying to find out if he visited the gurdwara or met any of the pilgrims on his return,” The doctor added.
Tracing the source
Dr Lahane said three more drivers who had returned from Punjab after dropping the pilgrims had tested positive Friday. The staff of the gurdwara and another “100 pilgrims from Haryana, Delhi and UP who are stuck inside are being tested now”, he added.
Gurmeet Singh, the municipal councillor of the gurdwara area, told ThePrint that none of the pilgrims was allowed to go out of the complex during the month-long wait to return to Punjab.
“They were living in the sarais (pilgrim lodgings) of the Langar Sahib gurdwara or the main gurdwara complex. They were all healthy and doing seva and their daily players. It is highly unlikely that they carried the infection from the gurdwara complex into Punjab. The administration remained on their toes to ensure their well-being,” said Singh.
A senior functionary of the Nanded municipal council added that the police department was looking at the call records and movements of the various pilgrims after they left the gurdwara.
“It has been noticed that many of them stopped at Indore and Bhilwara on their return journey, both of which are hotspots of the infection. The possibility of these pilgrims having contracted the disease on their journey is for more likely,” he said.
Dr Rajesh Bhaskar, nodal incharge of controlling the epidemic in Punjab, added that the possibility of tracking the source of infection seemed unlikely. “The first set of people who tested positive were pilgrims returning to Tarn Taran. But since everybody came in separate buses and there are a handful of coronavirus cases in these separate batches, tracking the source of infection to a single group or set of people is not possible,” he explained.