Nuh (Haryana): Mufti Zahid Hussain Qasmi Sadar, the headmaster of the nearly 100-year-old Bada Madrassa in Nuh, Haryana, where the Tablighi Jamaat has a deep presence, is seated with a group of associates.
Dressed in a white kurta-pyjama and wearing a skullcap and red keffiyeh, the 45-year-old is animatedly discussing a media report about the Jamaat’s alleged violation of government norms that is being blamed for worsening the spread of Covid-19 in India.
Approached by ThePrint for comment, he said, “This is the first time a media organisation has approached us and sought information regarding the Tablighi Jamaat and the Nizamuddin Markaz.”
A relatively unknown organisation in the days preceding the coronavirus pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat has courted deep notoriety since a mid-March event organised at its headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin allegedly spawned a surge in domestic Covid-19 cases.
The event was attended by hundreds of people who lived together at the markaz despite the announcement of social-distancing norms by the government.
Although the organisation claims the travel restrictions that began to be imposed in the days leading up to the Janata curfew and the subsequent nationwide lockdown prevented it from arranging an immediate evacuation, the Jamaat has become the focus of much public anger for what is seen as a criminal transgression.
The behaviour of the markaz draws no sympathy in Nuh either, but residents claim the negligence is not the Jamaat’s alone.
“The administration should also take responsibility for the Nizamuddin Markaz incident,” said Hussain, who also serves as the chief preacher at the Badi Masjid here.
Siddiqui Ahmed Meo, a local scholar who has written multiple books about Mewati history, echoed the claim. “Gross negligence took part on both sides,” he said.
The wounds of Partition
The Nuh district, known as Mewat until 2016, lies to the south of Haryana, jutting into Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. It is part of the larger Mewat region, which spans the three states and is believed to be the birthplace of the Jamaat.
The Tablighi Jamaat was founded in the 1920s by a preacher named Mohd Ilias, who sought to promote a strict Islamic lifestyle among devotees.
“The dominance of Islam in Mewat can be traced to three periods, 712 AD, 1053 AD and 1192 AD, when large-scale religious conversions took place in the region,” Siddiqui Ahmad Meo, the scholar, said.
The name Tablighi Jamaat means a “group that propagates faith” and it originated in the early 20th century. Affiliated to the Sunni school, members of the group visit mosques, schools, colleges in different parts of India as well as the world to preach Islam and promote the lifestyle of Prophet Mohammad.
About 80 per cent of Nuh’s population comprises Muslim Meos. Local clergy claim around 99 per cent of the Meos associate with the Tablighi Jamaat in one way or the other.
Before the Tablighi Jamaat gained ground here, said Siddiqui, the Muslims of Mewat practised dual religious rituals. “Muslims here would perform nikah (Islamic wedding) as well the saptapadi — circling the fire (a ritual associated to Hindu marriages),” he added. “They would pray to lord Shiva.”
The Meo Muslims residing here had a very different identity than a typical Muslim, said Siddiqui. They used to wear dhoti-kurta and did not keep beards, he added.
They did not even know how to offer namaz, and local mosques were used as warehouses for cattle fodder. While digging wells in their fields, the Meos would first install a brick in the name of Bhairav baba and many were staunch devotees of Lord Shiva.
“Several Muslims had names like Balbir Singh or Rameshwar. In some ways, mixed culture has always prevailed in this region,” Siddiqui said.
Professor and sociologist Shail Mayaram, who has written a book titled Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and Shaping of a Muslim Identity, offered a similar assessment. “Meo Muslims had a kinship system like the Hindu castes of Haryana… The Muslims here used to worship the cow. The Govardhan festival was also celebrated,” she said.
Siddiqui said the conduct of local Muslims “astonished” Maulana Ilias when the former visited Delhi for jobs and came in contact with the preacher during the early 1900s. “He was quite astonished by the fact that these Meo Muslims did not know how to recite the kalma,” he added.
Maulana Illias is believed to have then accompanied some Meos to Firozpur village in Mewat and prepared several ground reports. These studies, Siddiqui said, revealed that most of the mosques were closed, and local residents freely consumed liquor.
In 1922, Hussain said, Ilias set up the Badi Masjid and Bada Madrassa at Nuh. This madrassa, headmaster Hussain said, is one of over 50 Islamic schools in the Mewat region that Markaz had direct contact with.
The Tablighi Jamaat was formed four years later, in 1926.
Siddiqui added, “In 1932, Maulana Illias convened a large panchayat that was attended by 107 chaudharis (eminent persons) from the Mewat region. Fifteen resolutions were passed during this meet, dealing with subjects like teaching people how to offer namaz, foundation of new mosques alongside the older ones, not emphasising too much for change in local style of dressing, and further expansion of Islamic education,” Siddiqui said.
“Following this meet, the first-ever jamaat (congregation) was convened in 1939 at Kandhla (Shamli, UP),” Siddiqui added.
Mayaram said the Tablighi Jamaat didn’t have much influence in Mewat before the Partition. “But during the Partition, the Meo Muslims were slaughtered in Alwar and Bharatpur regions (Rajasthan) even though they followed a mixed culture,”she added.
“The wounds of the Meo Muslims gave space to the Tablighi Jamaat. The Jamaat told Meo Muslims that these wounds were a punishment from Allah,” she added. “So, after the Partition, the Meo Muslims felt that it is better if they stay on one side.”
In the years since, the Muslims of Mewat have embraced the Islamic identity Ilias sought to promote, such as keeping a beard and wearing a skull cap.
“Muslim women have also shed the traditional odhni and are now wearing salwar-kameez. Arabic names are more in vogue. Dietary habits have also changed a lot,” Siddiqui said. “People also have greater inclination towards religious aspects.”
Despite all this, he said, Muslims in several places across Mewat still engage in age-old rituals like kuan pujan (worshipping of village well), even following some Hindu wedding practices,” Siddiqui added.
Hussain said, among other things, the Tablighi Jamaat had helped the cause of education in Nuh, which, according to a 2018 Niti Aayog report, is among India’s most backward districts with a literacy rate of 54.08 per cent.
“We have drawn attention towards greater cleanliness. Local residents are now becoming doctors and advocates. In the past, most people were highly superstitious and now the situation is not like that.”
He said their work involved discouraging the evil tradition of dowry. Weddings of poor families, he added, were solemnised at the Badi Masjid as part of mass ceremonies.
The headmaster added that the Jamaat was not a “political institution”. “It is a purely religious institution that teaches people how to be an ideal Muslim,” he said.
Hussain told ThePrint that the Nuh mosque hosted two large-scale jalsas of the Jamaat every year, most of whose participants are men. These congregations are scheduled in accordance with the agriculture calendar.
Islam, Hussain added, did not forbid women from entering mosques but they participated from home while still staying behind the curtain.
Mayaram said women played a crucial role in the Jamaat, going from village to village to explain the importance of reading the namaz.
Siddiqui acknowledged that it would be wrong to describe the Tablighi Jamaat as a fundamentalist group, but added a word of advice. The Jamaat, he said, should no longer keep itself secluded from modern education.
‘Wrong to communalise markaz episode’
According to deputy commissioner Pankaj (who doesn’t use his last name), there were 50 Covid-19 cases in Nuh until Wednesday, of which 44 patients were associated with the Jamaat. Several other people associated with the organisation have also been quarantined.
These are people, Hussain said, who had come to stay in local mosques after spending some days at the markaz.
At the local level, Hussain claimed, the organisation had been doing its bit to enforce the government’s directions to control Covid-19. The 225 students of the madrassa, he said, were sent home before the lockdown kicked in.
The markets in Nuh remain closed and several villages are completely sealed, with a large padlock also hanging on the outermost gate of the Badi Masjid.
Hussain said he understood the seriousness of the pandemic and was still appealing to the people to support the administration’s efforts.
He and several other important religious figures have been constantly issuing videos in collaboration with the local administration, urging people to stay at home. “We tell them, perform the namaz at home too,” he said.
Nuh MLA Aftab Ahmed Chowdhury added that it was wrong to communalise the markaz episode. “It is not right to discover a religious angle amid the coronavirus crisis,” he said.