Malappuram, Kerala’s lone Muslim-majority district, made history recently.

The 5,000 mosques in the district would remain closed indefinitely.

Logic behind this decision is simple.

As the state is witnessing spike in Coronavirus infection recently, it was found  more prudent to keep the doors closed for devotees. (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/mosques-unite-to-stay-closed/cid/1779566?ref=search-page) Panakkad Sayyed Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, a leading Islamic Scholar and Malappuram district president of the Indian Union Muslim League, shared this news with a section of the media.

Thus while the rest of the country is witnessing opening of places of worship under Unlock 1, Malappuram has decided otherwise.

What is worth emphasising that there was unanimity in the decision of eight muslim denominations who had met to decide what is to be done in light of the reopening of places of worship from June 9. They readily agreed not to utilise the relaxation. The mosque committees and religious leaders were found to be on same page as far as remaining vigilant when cases are rising in the state.

Reports tell us that not only mosques there have been many temples and churches in the region which have also decided not to reopen immediately. For example, the Shree Kadampuzha Bhagavthy Temple in Malappuram and the Sree Thirunelly Temple in Wayanad will remain closed and temples associated with the Nair Service Society temples would not open gates till 30 th June. The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of Syro-Malabar Church on Sunday decided to keep its churches closed till June 30. (-do-)

No doubt their has been a growing realisation that whatever Special Operating Procedures ( SOPs) the state has mandated to be observed would not only be impossible to implement but there is strong possibility of community spread.

Before the whole world resorted to lockdown of one kind or other to control spread of Covid 19 infection studies had already shown how coronavirus can spread at religious gatherings and how ‘from Malaysia to Iran, faith groups and pilgrims have emerged as risks, transmitting the disease in ways that are proving difficult to trace and contain’ (https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-is-spreading-at-religious-gatherings-ricocheting-across-nations-11584548174)

As expected the mainstream media – which not long time ago was falling over each other – to paint a very negative picture of the district, which has 75 per cent minority population , over the death of pregnant elephant in neighbouring Palakkad district, which was mischievously attributed to this district itself, preferred to keep quiet.

How can one expect them to suddenly change tune who were in the forefront of peddling the government narrative about Corona which had attributed it to the gathering of Tablighi Jamaat at Markaz and helped stigmatise a complete community over it’s spread.

How can those very people who even invented mischievous terms like ‘Corona Jihad’ would gather the courage to say that contrary to overwhelming mood among religious establishments of various hues to open up places of worship under Unlock 1, mosques in a whole district from Mallapurm – which has always remained a target of vilification in rightwing circles – would remain closed indefinitely.

Definitely, they very well knew that this news which not only challenges and questions the dominant Hindutva narrative vis-a-vis this district and presents a very positive picture of it, would be least appreciated in the corridors of power and better it lies buried with similar important stories.

It is now history but one can recall how a ex-Cabinet Minister – inadvertently or deliberately- had gone ballistic over the death of the pregnant elephant when it consumed a pineapple laced with firecrackers in the neighbouring distict called Palakkad. She not only attributed this incident to Malappuram – a Muslim majority district – but also claimed that crime rate of Malappuram was above average. According to her,  Malappuram was the “worst and most violent” district in India and she even alleged that ‘women and animals are routinely killed in the district’ and that it is a ”hub of communal conflicts.’ (https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/factually-speaking-why-maneka-gandhi-s-claims-on-kerala-elephants-malappuram-crime-rate-are-baseless-1685879-2020-06-05).

What was rather interesting that it did not take much time to expose her claims about the district.

A report told us how a ‘[d]istrict-wise analysis of the latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) titled ‘Crime in India-2018′, prepared by the Union Home Ministry, militates against her claims.’ (https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/factually-speaking-why-maneka-gandhi-s-claims-on-kerala-elephants-malappuram-crime-rate-are-baseless-1685879-2020-06-05) And contrary to her claims that Malappuram is India’s “most disturbed district”, analysis of the NCRB data showed that the district does not feature even among the top 300 districts for crimes like murder, attempt to murder, dowry death, theft, attempt to rape, extortion, and abduction and kidnapping. (-do-)

As of now it is true that barring individual examples – like that of Meghalaya – there is broad consensus to open places of worship. It may be noted here that Meghalaya has withdrawn its permission to reopen places of worship after reviewing the situation. /https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/meghalaya/meghalaya-withdraws-order-to-reopen-places-of-worship-amid-rise-if-covid-19-cases-6450798/

Malappuram is unique because here people have themselves decided to close places of worship in the larger interest of humanity and inadvertently or so rekindled the debate around the growing evidence which suggests how public places of worship have the potential to fuel fresh outbreaks. We are told how transmission takes place ‘[t]hrough droplets that fly through the air when a person coughs, sneezes, sings or talks loudly. These droplets settle on surfaces, can be picked up on hands and travel to the mouth, nose and eyes of exposed people. Singing (choirs), speaking loudly (sermons) and face touching are activities practiced at places of worship.’

One does not know whether news of this path breaking decision by Malappuram has reached Atul  Gawande – based in US, who is an author and a surgeon.

Writing in The New Yorker magazine, he had recently provided valuable lessons for re-opening society from the practice followed by hospitals to avoid becoming infection transmission hubs. ‘This includes four elements – hand hygiene, screening, distancing, and masks, which he suggests is “a combination therapy – like a drug cocktail”. Remove one and you weaken the defence and allow the virus to spread. He also mentions a fifth element – culture, which is hard to predict and impossible to measure.’ ( The Telegraph, Opening public places of worship may accelerate an expanding outbreak in India, Shahid Jameel in New Delhi, published 1.06.20)

It is not difficult to comprehend ‘how issues of culture, faith and values, which drive human behaviour remain beyond the established epidemiological models of disease spread. Not only the human behaviour is complex but the way religion impacts it in very many ways adds further complexity.’ (-do-)

Malappuram, which has the highest number of schools in Kerala or which has contributed immensely to the cultural traditions of the state, which is the birthplace of many poets like Thunchath Ezhuthachan, Poonthanam Nambudiri, Uroob, Vallathol Narayana Menon, and Moyinkutty Vaidyar or even the first Communist Chief Minister of Kerala, E. M. S. Namboodiripad, today has added a new feather to its popularity.

It has decided to break new grounds to break the chain of Covid 19 infection.

Question remains whether rest of India would like to follow this ‘stigmatised’ district to ensure a safe and secure future of humanity.

Subhash Gatade is a senior journalist


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