(IL)Logic in the service of prejudice: Why the blame on Tablighi Jamaat with the use of wrong math?

In the great ancient tradition of our country (bharat ki mahan aur pracheen sanskriti), we have yet again decided to start a witch-hunt against the members of a minority community. While this kind of witch hunting had become confined to villages due to the evil machinations of secular-rationalists, it is now being restarted as a national level sport by some vested interest groups. Hashtags such as ‘coronaJihad’, ‘CoronaTerrorism’ and ‘CoronaBombsTablighi’ have been trending on Twitter in India. Mainstream Indian media has been repeatedly asserting that Tablighi Jamaat members were coronavirus ‘superspreaders’. Senior politicians, including sitting BJP MLAs, even suggested that Tablighi Jamaat members should be shot.

In an article titled—Covid an excuse to push Indian Muslims out of informal sector jobs. Apartheid the next step—the author states that: What Muslims are effectively facing now is a new form of concerted, deliberate economic marginalisation through blatant lies linking the community to the virus. In Haldwani, Muslim fruit sellers, unlike their Hindu counterparts, were forced to shut their shops by a group of people. A social media video appeared to show a Resident Welfare Association agreeing to ban Muslim vendors and workers from their gated society. In a village in Mangalore, posters came up stating that ‘no Muslim trader is allowed into the village till the coronavirus has completely gone away. Signed: All Hindus, Kolya’. Several Muslim truck drivers were beaten up by a mob in Arunachal Pradesh. Among the many rumours about Muslims floating around, one was not to accept any cash from Muslims.

We are seeing in front of our own eyes how the members of a once dominant community are being punished and reduced to the status of the Shudras and Untouchables by the resurgent Brahminical powers. What happened to Buddhists after the defeat of the Mauryas is happening to Muslims in India today. This tweet by Hilal Ahmad, associate professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies, sums up the atmosphere that has been created: If the communal propaganda on corona virus continues like this we might see HINDU WATER and MUSLIM WATER shops at every railway station VERY SOON!

The Swarajya Magazine, with its subtle exhortation to think right (wing), is at the forefront of this noble initiative to blame the few for the problems of the many. Its senior editor Arihant Pawariya has written many articles on this topic in the last month. His vision of India is stated very succinctly in the Tweet pinned to his account—India is a Hindu rashtra. We intend to keep it that way. If we have to establish a H(indu) state for this, so be it. Non-H(indu)s can call it home, have all the secular rights the State has to offer but H(indu)s are first among equals. Their culture is the national culture. It is not negotiable.

I suppose the Preamble to the Constitution of India in his head reads—

WE, THE HINDUS OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN CASTEIST BRAHMANICAL MAJORITARIAN DICTATORSHIP and to secure to all its citizens

INJUSTICE, social, economic and political;

SUBJUGATION of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

GRADED INEQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

BAD BLOOD assuring the slavery of the individual and the disunity and dissipation of the Nation

One of his articles is titled Every 6th Covid-19 Patient In India Is From The Tablighi Jamaat. You might think he is saying that every 6th Covid-19 patient in India is from the Tablighi Jamaat. No, no, that’s not what he is saying. He is saying that every 6th Covid-19 patient in India is directly or indirectly related to the Tablighi Jamaat. He mentions that later in the article. The title we assume is just used as click bait for his ‘right’ thinking Hindu brethren. But, even the more ‘moderate’ claim is false. Only among the patients tested is every 6th Covid-19 patient related to the Tablighi Jamaat; not among all actual patients. These two claims might sound the same but they aren’t. Scientists maintain that tests have been conducted on far fewer people than may actually be infected. ‘India is a country of a billion. We can’t establish a true picture of positive cases if we don’t test extensively in different parts of India. The number of cases might be more,’ Bharat Pankhania from the UK’s University of Exeter Medical School, told Down To Earth (DTE).

The Tablighis and people related to them are being tested more comprehensively so more cases are cropping up among them. Since no other group is being tested like they are, it seems like Tablighis are the only group which have the disease but that is not the case. Many other events of the same size and risk took place at the same time but they have not been focussed on and thus they have not returned the same number of cases as the Tablighi Jamaat. Instead of focussing on one group, had they done more distributed testing they would have found that Covid is much more dispersed than they are claiming it to be. While it is necessary to apply contact tracing, it is also necessary to test a wide swath of the population to get a realistic idea of the spread of Covid.

In an article titled No basis yet to blame Tablighi: Scientists, the author mentions how the group, Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 (ISRC), strictly says that the available data do not support speculation that the primary blame for the continued growth of Covid-19 in the country lies with the Tablighi Jamaat convention in Delhi last month—

The ISRC said the government had not released data on how many tests were conducted among the attendees of this event and their contacts. ‘Thus, we do not know how the fraction of tests that were found to be positive in this case compares to testing on the general population. We call on the government to release this data.’ it said. The actual number of people infected with the coronavirus across the country is believed to be far larger than the number confirmed so far, the ISRC said. The effects of the Delhi event on the growth rate of the all-India numbers ‘may thus be significantly less’ than the numbers put out by the health ministry, the ISRC said.

Further, the errors made in earlier stages of testing are being compounded exponentially every day and drawing any conclusions as to clusters which are responsible for spreading the disease are pretty meaningless mathematically. That is to say that blaming groups of people is impossible because of the incurably high uncertainty of the data; which means that people can only be blamed ideologically.

This is why Arihant, who clearly has a vested interest in hurting non-Hs, is able to speculate irresponsibly and write this: India is fast emerging as the biggest victim of Jamaat’s transgressions. By mid-March, it was acutely aware of the damage its congregations had caused but as late as 17 March, Maulana Saad, one of the senior-most clerics of the organization, was actively mocking calls for social distancing and bans on social gatherings. He was preaching that this was not the time to abandon the mosques.

While it can be argued that the Tablighi Jamaat had indeed erred by not cancelling the event, the central and state governments should also acknowledge their administrative lapses. The congregation was a ‘pre-approved event and arms of the government were aware that foreigners from infected countries would be participating’, the ISRC said. The Maharashtra government did in fact cancel the event in Mumbai for this very reason. Sharad Pawar even publicly asked the central government and the government of Delhi how approval for the event went through and who is responsible for this fiasco.

Tablighi Jamaat is being blamed like it was the only group that was holding a large meeting by 17th March. That is demonstrably false. It is not hard to understand why Arihant is only choosing to blame Tablighi Jamaat, though it is difficult to comprehend how a journalist can be so selective with his facts. You ask what other clusters were ignored to focus on Tablighi Jamaat. Apart from the 40,000 people gathered in Tirupati till the 18th of March, this article lists other gatherings of roughly equivalent size and risk that took place around the same time as the Tablighi Jamat event. I am listing here four of the choicest ones.

Aatukal Pongala, Thiruvananthapuram: On the day of the award ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a 10-day-long temple festival commenced in this southern Indian city, with hundreds of thousands in attendance. And this was done with the Kerala government’s permission. Defending the move, the government said the Aattukal Pongala festival could not be avoided as preparations were going on for months. On that very day, March 8, five new cases of coronavirus were reported in the state’s Pathanamthitta district. By March 9, the state total had hit 43.

Birthday party in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh: The Indian parliament was gripped in panic and anxiety following news reports that singer Kanika Kapoor, who attended this gig, did not disclose her travel history on returning from London. The birthday party also saw participation by former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and her son, Dushyant Singh, a sitting member of parliament. Singh later attended parliament, fueling fears that a number of Indian parliamentarians, too, may have been exposed to coronavirus. Other political attendees of the party included Uttar Pradesh health minister Jai Pratap Singh and Aam Aadmi Party’s Sanjay Singh.

Ram Navami, Ayodhya: On March 24, Modi announced the nationwide 21-day lockdown. However, defying the lockdown on the first day itself, Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, attended a Ram Navami event in Ayodhya. He even tweeted photographs of the event, saying the first stage of the “grand Ram Temple” had been accomplished.

Sikh fair in Punjab: A 70-year-old coronavirus-infected Sikh preacher attended a fair in Punjab on March 10-12, putting thousands at risk. The preacher himself died due to Covid-19 on March 26. Around 40,000 of his devotees are now under isolation.

Three of these gatherings were of Hindus and thus immune to the virus, so it is understandable why they were ignored by Arihant. Why did he ignore the Sikhs, who were also non-Hs the last time I checked, they even picked up swords to defend Ms from Hs in the Delhi ‘riots’.

Arihant’s aim in attacking the Muslims is to attack India’s ‘minorityism’. In his article titled Tablighi Mess And Hounding Of Hindus In West Asia Remind Us Why We Must Junk Minorityism, he argues—If there is one lesson that we learn from the Tablighi Jamaat fiasco and some obnoxious Indian co-religionists putting lives and livelihoods of Hindus in Islamic countries at risk, it is this: special minority rights for members of global majorities like Islam and Christianity should be junked.

His argument is based on two planks.

‘If an Indian Muslim can coordinate so effortlessly with Muslims in Islamic states to take down their non-Muslim opponents, the whole concept of minority-majority goes for a toss. In a globalised world connected by seamless technology, this is indeed the reality.’
‘In fact, Islam (like Christianity as a religion) is truly global in every meaningful aspect and way more unified in traditions and culture (despite internal schisms) than fragmented Hindu society (with its numerous sampradayas) which is wrongly treated as a monolithic majority by the Indian secular state. Given this reality, treating Islam as a minority religion, when its followers from Africa to the Americas have more uniformity in culture and traditions than two Hindus living in neighbouring states who are classified as a majority, is a travesty. And it applies to Christianity, another, bigger global majoritarian religion, as well.’

Let’s start with the second point first. He is right in saying that Muslims and Christians have much more unity than Hindus. In fact, that is just what Ambedkar had also argued. ‘A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. There is no doubt, in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilize the community either for defence or for offence. You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.’ The disunity of the Hindus is not because of numerous sampradayas, as Arihant disingenuously claims, but due to divisions of caste that are inherent in Hinduism and that disallow Hindus from ever uniting. He is pointing to the fatal flaw in Hinduism and using that to argue against non-Hindus. His argument essentially is—‘I am a bad person so good people should not get what they deserve’. Further, if he agrees that Hindus are not united, he should also agree to the fact that untouchables should not be counted as Hindus. He can’t both argue that Hindus are divided and untouchables are Hindus. If Muslims and Christians are to be disallowed minority status because of their global presence, then the untouchables absolutely have to be treated as a different group from the Hindus. And in that case India is not a Hindu country, as Arihant claims, because Caste Hindus are at best only 50–60% of the population, probably even lesser.

Now to take the first point, he is saying that in a globalized world a Muslim in India can seamlessly connect with a Muslim in Islamic states. A) that is not true, the ‘world is flat’ thesis on which this argument rests has been buried for quite some time. The world is decidedly not flat and to assert such a thing at a time when countries are closing up borders like never before can be nothing short of perverse. And b) that is not the point. The reason minorities are given rights in India is not because they belong to different religions but because they are discriminated against. As Ambedkar had said, ‘Muslims are given separate electorates not because they are different from Hindus in point of religion. They are given separate electorates because—and this is the fundamental fact—the social relations between the Hindus and the Musalmans are marked by social discrimination’. Minority rights help them hold civil and political offices which go a long way in uplifting their communities. Even if a Muslim in India can video-chat with a Muslim in Malaysia, that does not make it any easier for him to hold political office in Malaysia. For better or for worse, nation-states are still the primary political units in the world and holding political offices in these states cannot be substituted by anything else. Even if Muslims and Christians get money from their co-religionists elsewhere, a highly doubtful claim, that money does not do the same thing for the benefit of the community that holding offices in India does. Till the time we don’t live in a single global state, it is puerile to suggest such things.

Further, India’s constitution rests on providing minority rights against the communal majority of the Hindus. Arihant’s rejection of minorityism is thus seditious in as much as it is a virtual call for civil war and a break-up of the nation by challenging its foundational idea.

Arihant has also Hinduized mathematics and tried to put it in his service. Justifying the inability of the government to conduct tests, he claims against all evidence that the number of cases in India is not less because the government is testing less. Even though cases across states in India and across the world have consistently risen almost proportionally with the increased number of tests, Arihant writes in another article that ‘One can make the case that we need to test more random samples than just 20, but not that our case load is low because we are testing less’. In his opinion the cases in India are low because the government acted early even though ‘what is being done in India is selective sampling and it may not help knowing whether the virus is spreading and there are cases of community transmission’. In fact, an Indian Council of Medical Research study provides evidence for community transmission of the virus in 36 districts, suggesting that the infection is likely to be more widespread than has been assumed. This means that, contrary to Arihant’s claim, Covid-19 patients in India are not low, only our knowledge of them is since we are testing less.

We will first deal with the math and then with his exceedingly unfactual claim that the government acted early and thus was able to effectively contain the virus. This is what he says to ‘prove’ that we don’t need to conduct too many tests in India. ‘When we conduct a sample survey over a large population, the sample-size required to ensure that the accuracy of a result lies within a certain confidence interval does not vary much as the population increases beyond a certain point. For instance, in a town of 100,000 people, to attain a 95 per cent confidence interval, one just needs 383 respondents to a survey. If the town has 500,000 or 1,000,000 people, just 384 respondents are required’. While his math sounds right, it is entirely wrong for the present case.

South Korea, the country that has most effectively dealt with the virus thus far, took the exact opposite approach and ‘immediately began testing hundreds of thousands of asymptomatic people, including at drive-through centres. South Korea has tested more than 250,000 people since the outbreak began, and has the capacity to test 15,000 people a day. It has conducted 3,692 tests per million people’, compared with 149 tests per million in India as of April 13. (While India copied South Korea’s prejudice and attacked a group of Muslims like South Korea attacked a Church, India did not learn the scientific lesson from South Korea—testing, testing, and more testing.)

This is because in cases of epidemics like Covid-19, which have fat tails, the normal probability distribution does not work. It only works with thin tails. Under fat tails, it does not mean anything to say something with a 95 per cent confidence interval because one case outside the interval can cause extreme effects; which is not the case for thin tailed distributions. Covid-19 not only presents us with asymptotic cases which can spread the disease without showing any symptoms but also with extremely high levels of transmission such that one case can literally balloon up to thousands in no time. Let Taleb explain that to you in this article on the site aptly called ‘fooled by randomness’—

With fat tail distributions, extreme events away from the centre of the distribution play a very large role. Black swans are not more frequent, they are more consequential. The fattest tail distribution has just one very large extreme deviation, rather than many departures from the norm.

One case outside the sample, because of Covid-19’s high transmission rates (exponential rise and multiplicative effects) leads to an extreme deviation from what the sample tells us with a 95% confidence interval. Even if 95% of the population tests negative today, one case in the rest of the 5% can cause massive damage in the upcoming days. This is why it is important to test as much as possible and why other countries are doing so. ‘The more aggressive India is in early case detection, the better it would be because it will help containing the virus there before cases spike sharply,’ Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead at WHO, told DTE as early as March 6. Except for Vedic math, no other math has been able to support Arihant’s essentially partisan arguments which are evidently being made to justify the negligence of a government he supports.

By Arihant’s own admission, the government did not act early. In fact, it acted too late. If it had acted early, it should have stopped the Tablighi Jamaat event from happening, for which it did give permission. The first Covid-19 case in India was reported on 30th January. Yet the PM claims they had started taking precautionary measures even before Covid-19 reached India. That is clearly untrue because the PM himself admitted that quarantine at airports began on 15th March. In fact, the Trump PR event happened on February 24 and there was no talk of testing anybody coming into the country. Further, if India started screening all air travellers before the first reported case on 30th January, then how come Jamaatis flew down to India in March from infected countries? Either the screening hadn’t started as late as mid-March or the authorities did not do their jobs properly. In either case, it is the fault of the government and the administration, not the Jamaatis.

Through this article, we hope to have shown that the arguments of some section of the Hindus against Tablighi Jamaat in particular and Muslims in general are entirely wrong and motivated only be their hatred of Islam and their willingness to blatantly lie to protect their cherished government even when the government due to its gross negligence and incompetence puts the lives of millions of our countrymen at risk. Ambedkar rightly said that the Hindu will never be able to look beyond the confines of his caste and serve the nation and thus is the biggest enemy of the nation.