Hyderabad, TELANGANA — The Telangana state government has pushed back against the Modi government’s assertion that the Ministry of Home Affairs, under Amit Shah, first alerted state governments that a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi was the suspected source of dozens of cases of COVID-19 from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu.
Today, April 1, Telangana’s Health Minister Etela Rajender said it was actually his state government that first informed the Union government about the possibility that a coronavirus outbreak at the congregation at the Jamaat’s Markaz Masjid could be the source behind a slew of seemingly unrelated virus infections.
Senior Telangana police officers gave HuffPost India a detailed account of how they first made the connection between the Jamaat event and the novel coronavirus. A Muslim police officer related to a person who died of COVID-19, the officers said, played a crucial role in joining the dots.
On March 31, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release stating that, “MHA shared details of foreign and Indian Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) workers in India with all States on March 21, 2020, after COVID-19 positive cases among these workers surfaced in Telangana.” COVID-19 is the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Read HuffPost India’s report on how a single neighbourhood in Delhi became the source of a slew of coronavirus cases across the country.
“It is Telangana state which informed the Centre about Markaz,” Rajender said in a Telugu-language press release. “Over a 1,000 people of Telangana went to Markaz. However, other than 160, all others have been identified within two days. They are all being tested.”
The first version of the press release went on to quote Rajender as saying “The Centre should work more actively” — but a second version shared with the media omitted this sentence.
These conflicting accounts indicate India’s state and union government are still figuring out a coordinated response to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. Rajender’s press release also suggests state governments are growing weary of the Modi government’s characteristic attempts to claim credit for all successes while deflecting any shortcomings on state governments.
The Ministry of Home Affairs press releases states that on March 21, the MHA first alerted all states to the possibility that those who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregations in the second week of March may have unwittingly carried the coronavirus back to their states.
“Instructions were also issued by MHA to Chief Secretaries and DGsP of all States as well as CP, Delhi. The advisories were reiterated by the DIB to all State DGsP on March 28 and 29,” the press release stated.
If senior officers in the Telangana police and the state health department are to be believed, here is how the search began: On March 17 an Indonesian preacher who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin was identified and quarantined. Over the next two days, the state health officials succeeded in finding other members of the cluster in Karimnagar—eight more Indonesians and their primary contacts. Karimnagar district was placed on a containment lockdown on March 23.
On March 26, a 74-year-old businessman died in Hyderabad from an acute shortness of breath. Health officials took samples from his corpse to realise he was the state’s first COVID-19 casualty.
When the businessman’s corpse tested positive for the novel coronavirus infection, a relative of the deceased — who happened to be a Hyderabad based police officer — was asked to perform the last rites as the rest of the family had been placed in quarantine.
The police officer made the connection between the deceased’s visit to the Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters in New Delhi and the foreign preachers who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“My uncle helped identify other residents of Telangana who attended the meeting,” said the deceased person’s son. “At that time even we were not aware that foreign nationals were present at the Markaz when Tablighi Jamaat meeting of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh chapters were on.”
A state intelligence officer who has been coordinating the tracing efforts confirmed that an active search for attendees of the Jamaat started on March 27.
First, attendees of the meeting in Hyderabad were identified from lists obtained from the Jamaat’s state head office. Then a statewide list was prepared by tracing district offices of the Islamic preachers. By March 28, the state had identified 260 people who attended the event from Hyderabad alone. A search for over a 1,000 from across the state started on the same day and they were identified on March 29.
Meanwhile, intelligence agencies passed on information to their offices in New Delhi. Based on this information on March 30, the building where the Jamaat or congregation had taken place was locked down.
On March 30 and 31, health and police officers managed to trace 870 people from Telangana, over 400 from Andhra Pradesh, at least a 1,000 from Tamil Nadu, 200 from Karnataka and 60 from Kerala. Of this till 8 pm on April 1, 20 from Telangana, 63 from Andhra Pradesh, 50 from Tamil Nadu and one from Karnataka have tested positive. Test results of over a 1,000 are still awaited.
Telangana state has currently placed nine foreign members of Jamaat under home quarantine and is providing extended medical consultation for them even after their discharge. The nine had tested negative after prolonged treatment on March 31.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on April 1 asked those who attended the congregation to be treated fairly. “Coronavirus is not religion specific and anyone can get it. The need of the hour is we should all stand united,” Vijayan said at the state government’s daily press conference.