30/04/2020 3:13 PM IST | Updated 30/04/2020 5:58 PM IST

Battling COVID And Islamophobia When You're A Tablighi Married To A Hindu

A Tablighi Jamaat member on surviving coronavirus, donating his plasma, and living with Islamophobia.

Courtesy Tabrez Khan
Tabrez Khan, a socks manufacturer, donated his plasma at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) on 20 April.

NEW DELHI ― On 20 April, Tabrez Khan, a sock manufacturer and a member of the ultra-orthodox Tablighi Jamaat sect, who had recently recovered from the novel coronavirus, donated his plasma in the hope that it would save the life of someone else infected with the deadly virus. 

The 36-year-old resident of Jahangirpuri says that he called the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) in Vasant Kunj  soon after hearing Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal speak of “plasma therapy” as a possible way of treating critically ill patients and appeal to those who have recovered to donate. Khan says a doctor at the ILBS told him that he was the first person to have donated his plasma in Delhi. 

While a private Delhi hospital claims to have successfully treated a coronavirus patient with plasma therapy, the India Council of Medical Research has said its use was still in its experimental stage and it was illegal to deploy this treatment without prior approval. 

After giving a blow-by-blow account of how he had donated his plasma, from the ambulance picking him up to the medical staff cheering at the end 35-minute long procedure, Khan said that he wanted to “unburden his heart” that was heavy from the grief of the Islamophobia that is running parallel to the coronavirus pandemic in India. 

“So many reporters have called and asked me about the plasma therapy that I have my answers memorised, but no one is asking about the pain I’m feeling as an Indian, a Muslim, and member of the Jamaat. I don’t want to hide who I am or be shamed any longer,” Khan said in an interview with HuffPost India.

“I don’t think about whether my plasma will go to a Hindu or Muslim. I plan to donate plasma for the second time. I hope that it will save someone’s life and fight this hate that is sowed deeper and deeper, every day,” he said. 

I don’t want to hide who I am or be shamed any longer.

Tablighi Jamaat officials told HuffPost India that 72 members had given plasma at the quarantine centre at Narela and 14 in Sultanpuri, all of them breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramzan for the procedure. 

In his appeal for plasma donations, Kejriwal, who has been criticised for not truly stepping up as a secular leader, also made a pitch for communal harmony. “Corona can infect people of all faiths and religions, and plasma donated by a person, whether Hindu or Muslim or any other faith, can save the lives of everybody,” he said

Another appeal for plasma donations has come from Maulana Saad Kandhlavi, who leads the Tablighi Jamaat and organised the now infamous March gathering where foreign and Indian members of the sect mingled even as the authorities were calling for social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. 

The gathering was linked to thousands of cases across the country, Kandhlawi was booked for culpable homicide, sections of the Indian media fanned the flames of Islamophobia by using phrases like corona jihad. The discourse on social media turned so toxic that it became an international incident, with members of the royal families of the United Arab Emirates speaking up on Twitter. An impending diplomatic row was defused when Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally tweeted about communal harmony well after his party members from the Bharatiya Janata Party had repeatedly made communally charged statements.

Khan and his mother had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event on 13 and 14 March and tested positive. His sister, who had returned from Saudi Arabia, also tested positive. They have all recovered. 

Khan, who joined the Tablighi Jamaat in 2015, has been scarred by the media’s depiction of the Tablighi Jamaat as a primitive cult of intolerant bearded men. Khan says his motivation for joining the Jamaat was to instil discipline in his life. He is married to a Hindu woman named Kusum, is a cashier for the local Hindu temple, helps organise the Ram Leela in his community, and practices yoga.  When he returned home, Khan said that his previously warm Hindu neighbours would no longer respond to his ‘Ram Ram’ greeting. The local chemist and grocery store owner told him to get his basic provisions elsewhere. They said please go to some other store. We cannot give you anything here,” he said. 

“For someone like me, who loves his country, his fellow citizens and his community, this hate is as crushing as the coronavirus,” he said. 

For someone like me, who loves his country, his fellow citizens and his community, this hate is as crushing as the coronavirus.

Edited excerpts 

You have seen how sections of the Indian media covered the Tablighi Jamaat episode, using phrases like Corona Jihad. You have recently donated plasma to fight COVID-19. How do you reconcile all this in your mind?

India is a very beautiful and unique country. Hindus and Muslims are like two brothers who love each but there is also fighting. This is natural for any family. But what is happening today is unnatural. They are being made to fight each other and I blame politicians and the ‘godi media’ that wants to increase its TRP. They are hurting their fellow citizens. The damage being done to the nation will be irreversible.  Why is it that only the Tablighi Jamaat has been so demonised for the spread of coronavirus? Why did we not close the airports? Why did we allow foreigners to come in? Blaming the people of one community is not the right thing to do. 

I never weighed my donating plasma against all that has been said and done against Muslims. I only thought that I’m Indian and today my country needs me. I love my country. It is true love. I’m willing to give any part of my body. If you need to test a vaccine, test it on me. 

I only thought that I’m Indian and today my country needs me.

Is the Tablighi Jamaat to blame as well?

If Maulana Saad (Kandhlavi) hides then it hurts our credibility. I think Maulana Saad made two mistakes. First, he should have come on TV and made the situation very clear to people. The whole time the media was targeting the Jamaat, he did not come on the media and make things clear. Second, he should have told the members of the Jamaat that there is no reason to run and hide. He should have said that everyone needs to come out and give their samples to the authorities. If he had done these two things then perhaps the virus would not have spread so far and there would not have been so much shaming of the Jamaat. When he finally did speak, it was an audio message that had little impact. He is now speaking about donating plasma. But all this should have been done sooner. 

Do you think the Tablighi Jamaat should have cancelled the meeting?

When it was clear that the coronavirus was spreading, the meeting should have been cancelled.

But why did people run and hide?

There are still a lot of people in our country who are not educated and believe all the rumours. The first rumour was that Muslims are being administered an injection of poison that would kill them in a month. The second one was that people are being identified for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and kept in detention centres. The third was that Muslims are being shot.  People are saying authorities are taking Muslims just to shame the community. There was even a rumour that I was taken for no reason and I had to come forward and say that I had tested positive. 

Tell us about yourself? 

I’m a socks manufacturer. My father passed away last year from a heart attack. My mother is 65-years-old and also recovered from the coronavirus. My wife is Hindu. We live in a joint family. We got married with the consent of both sides. The wedding was in a temple and there was a nikah. We celebrate Diwali and Eid. We fast on Ramzan and also the Navratras. I’m the cashier for the temple near my house. I organise the Ram Leela. 

My wife is Hindu. We live in a joint family. I’m the cashier for the temple near my house.

You are the cashier for the local Hindu temple? What temple is it?

It’s a Shiv Mandir. 

You are married to a Hindu. You are the cashier of the Hindu temple near your house. But what about the Tablighi Jamaat being an ultra-orthodox sect that follows a literal interpretation of the Koran?

It’s not like that. I joined the Jamaat to instil discipline in my life. It has strict rules about how one should live life. They know my wife is Hindu and they have never once said that make your wife read the namaz or the Koran or make her fast. Nothing. They have only taught me to have a good character towards her, listen to her and make decisions with her. We are a happy family. We are a family that celebrates all festivals. 

You do not grow a beard. 

No. It does not suit my image as a businessman and my wife doesn’t like it.

Tablighi Jamaat Muslims are breaking Ramzan fasting to donate plasma.

Ramzan had not started when I gave plasma on 20 April, but I was already fasting to give thanks to Allah for my mom’s recovery and my own. The doctors said that we cannot do this while you are fasting or you will not feel well. I drank juice and broke the fast.

Tell us about your days in the hospital. 

I only had my phone. There was no TV. We could not meet anyone from outside. I had downloaded a few books on my phone. I listened to music. I used to do yoga for about two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. The doctors were supportive but I felt panic for the two weeks that I was in hospital. I was very worried about my mother since she is 65. But if you keep thinking of — oh, I have corona, will I recover or not — your mind will be sucked into a negative train of thought. One has to divert the mind.

The reporting targeting the Tablighi Jamaat was underway while you were in hospital. What was it like to hear that when you were hospitalised?

There were tears falling from my eyes. I couldn’t believe the negative things they were saying and making people believe. Let me tell you about the fallout of this negativity. 

There were a lot of problems with the administration at LNJP hospital. The breakfast and lunch were routinely served late. There was one day when I got neither breakfast or lunch, but I did not complain. Do you know why? I thought that if I complain that I have not got food, they might say that I’m asking for biryani and korma. The media will only speak with the canteen guy, not us, and then report that I was for biryani and korma. I just kept quiet out of fear and stayed hungry for the day.

Were Muslims not admitted to hospitals before the coronavirus? Did they ask for biryani and korma? Did they roam around naked? One of the first things we are told in the Jamaat is to cover our body or the namaaz that we are offering Allah will not be accepted. But they are reporting that members of the Jamaat are roaming naked, but with no video evidence. But people are believing them. I’m making a video of giving plasma, giving messages of love and peace, but no one is believing me. 

I thought that if I complain that I have not got food, they might say that I’m asking for biryani and korma.

What about your mother who is elderly not getting food in time?

I even told my mother not to complain. I said let’s keep quiet and bear it. In any case, we fast for 12 to 14 hours during Ramzan, so let’s just think of it as fasting. We kept quiet because we did not want to be accused of asking for biryani and korma. We have to keep quiet and tolerate so much because of this ditch the media has dug and filled with hate against Muslims. We keep quiet in the hope that the country remains peaceful.

We have to keep quiet and tolerate so much because of this ditch the media has dug and filled with hate against Muslims.

 What was the food like? 

One is not supposed to criticize food, but this was stale food. There would be a smell. There was either no salt or so much salt that the aftertaste would last till the night. It was like eating rotis with namak. Patients are supposed to get paushtik aahar (nutritious food). This was not even aahar. The biggest challenge was having to finish it. 

Were Muslims mistreated inside the hospital?

There was a Bangladeshi Muslim man (in his thirties) who was treated badly. People were always rude to him. The patient who was next to me — a Mr. Sanjeev (who was visiting from America) — would also direct foul language at him. Mr. Sanjeev did not have anyone in the city. I told him we are like brothers. For a few days, when food was coming from home, I told my wife to send food and fruits for us both. But he did know that I was Muslim. My wife had saved my name on the mobile phone as Raj.

Since he did not know I was Muslim, he would keep saying horrible things about the Bangladeshi Muslim patient. Then I told him, ’Sanjeev ji, I’m also Muslim.’ He said, ‘You are Muslim but your behaviour is like this, how is it possible.’ I said, ’Sanjeev ji, this is how Muslims behave, the rest is the creation of the media.′ I have even heard ‘Happy Muharram’ when Muharram is never happy. The image of a Muslim is wearing a vest and a topi, eating a paan, with a knife in his pocket and a swear word on his tongue. This is false. There are Muslim doctors, engineers and lawyers who are working to take India into the future. 

What kind of abuse did the Bangladeshi man suffer?

His name was Asif. People (other patients) used to say the Bangladeshi mullah has come. When he used to come out of his room, people would say, ‘oye mullah, stay inside, don’t come out.’ They would give him such a tongue lashing that he would just go and sit quietly in his room. 

Would the hospital staff also speak with him like this? 

I once heard a cleaner say, ‘oye, mullah, sunh (listen).’ I had asked him if this was the correct way of speaking? I asked him doesn’t he have a name. He replied and said that if he has a daadi (beard) then he is a mullah. I’m actually not sure if he was a cleaner or from the canteen or medical staff. He was in personal protective gear so it was hard to see who it was. 

What was it like when you came home?

There was the worst fallout of all the negative reporting when I came home. The Hindus who used to live near me, in whose houses I have celebrated Holi and Diwali, even they have started looking at me differently. They had come to believe that Muslims are deliberately spreading the coronavirus. I want to ask them, was my life and my mother’s life not in danger? I went to the local chemist, he did not give me medicines. I went to the local kirana store that sells aata, dal, chawla, but the shopkeeper told me to go away. 

What did they say? 

They said please go to some other store. We cannot give you anything here.

What did you say? 

I said, but why? Then, they said it because you are corona positive. Then, I said but I’m cured now. I have even gone through 14 days of quarantine. They told me to go away. I did not argue, I kept quiet and left. I know that if you argue in this atmosphere, that argument will turn into a fight. Like I told you before, we have learnt to tolerate many things. 

Why do you think they said this? 

This is because the media has drilled it into their heads that Muslims are spreading the coronavirus. They are probably afraid that I will put coronavirus in the notes (money) or that I will deliberately sneeze on them. 

If there are Muslims who have attacked the police or doctors, by all means, punish them. Doctors are like ishwar ka vardaan (blessing of god), right now. They are saving us. If anyone has attacked them, punish them, but why are you targeting their community? People are still avoiding us. The people of this country will never forgive the media for the way they are going about trying to destroy this country. 

I went to the local chemist, he did not give me medicines. I went to the local kirana store that sells aata, dal, chawla, but the shopkeeper told me to go away.

The PM’s tweet that says coronavirus knows no religion finally came on 19 April. Was it too late?

He should have said this earlier. He should have said this before the Tablighi Jamaat members were being targeted. He should have said this before saffron flag was being planted on the carts of the fruitsellers, before people were refusing to buy vegetables from Muslim vegetable sellers. He should have said we all have to stand together and fight for our country because the coronavirus has no religion. 

If he had not just tweeted, but said this in the media or in Mann Ki Baat, it would have reached more people. Who uses Twitter? A very small percentage. If I just think of Jahangirpuri, with a population of about 15 lakh, I would say 500 people would be on Twitter. I’m not. I don’t think his message has reached or is reaching people. First, the message was late. And second, it was tweeted. 

How did it make you feel to recover from illness and come home to hostile neighbours, discrimination and bigotry? 

For someone like me, who loves his country, his fellow citizens and his community, this hate is as crushing as the coronavirus.  The Hindus who I have lived with no longer speak to me. The people to whom I said ‘Ram Ram’ are no longer replying to my ‘Ram Ram.’ The local shopkeepers won’t serve me. What should I do and how should I feel?

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