Ninety thousand NRIs entered Punjab in March; former SGPC president returned from Italy, roamed freely

The case of Bibi Jagir Kaur, a former president of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, is yet another instance of the state’s failures to take effective preventive measures, and an example of the irreverent attitude of Sikh religious leaders towards the COVID-19 pandemic. NARINDER NANU/AFP / Getty Images
24 March, 2020

Ninety thousand non-resident Indians entered Punjab in the month of March, Balbir Singh Sidhu, the Punjab health minister, wrote in a letter to his union ministry counterpart, Harsh Vardhan, on 23 March. In the letter, Sidhu requested Vardhan for “additional funds of minimum Rs. 150 Crores from Government of India” to battle the COVID pandemic. “Punjab has maximum number of NRIs in the country and this month only 90,000 of them have landed in the State,” Sidhu wrote. “Many of them have symptoms of COVID-19 and are further spreading the disease through their contact/transmission.”

The same day, Amarinder Singh, the state’s chief minister, announced a curfew in the state, preventing individuals from stepping out of their homes, as news emerged that the residents were violating a lockdown that had been announced the previous day. While announcing the curfew, the chief minister termed the prevailing situation in Punjab a “war-like” situation that required drastic measures. Yet, the state did not take any measures to mitigate the scale of the outbreak. Massive religious gatherings such as the Hola Mohalla continued unabated, gurudwaras have remained open, and airports did not enforce effective quarantine measures. Baldev Singh, a 70-year-old Granthi from the state who was India’s fourth COVID casualty, is confirmed to have infected at least fifteen others after he returned from Germany via Italy, according to the state and district health authorities. The case of Bibi Jagir Kaur is yet another instance of the state’s failures to take effective preventive measures, and an example of the irreverent attitude of Sikh religious leaders.

Kaur is a former president of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages gurdwaras spread across the country. She also heads the Begowal Dera in Punjab’s  Kapurthala city. Kaur is currently serving as the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s women’s wing. In February, Kaur travelled to several countries in Europe, including France and Italy, before returning to the state on 28 February. After she returned, Kaur did not place herself in quarantine and neither did the state authorities enforce one. Instead, she mingled with people and attended public functions, putting up photos of her foreign travels and subsequent social visits in Punjab on her Facebook profile. By 27 February, when Kaur left Italy, the country had reportedly recorded 17 deaths and 650 infections. While Kaur has not reported any symptoms of COVID-19, that does not rule out the possibility of her being a carrier who could have infected others with the virus.

Kaur claimed that the situation in Italy was “normal” when she left the country, with “hardly three or so cases.” She recounted her travel plan to me with surprising nonchalance, evidently failing to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. “From 9–12 February, I stayed in Paris, and then on 15 and 16, I was in Italy,” Kaur told me. “From there, we proceeded to Germany on 17 and 18, and then for two days, on 19 and 20 February, I was in Switzerland. Then again, two days in Germany and from 23–26 February, I was in Italy and set course for India on 27.” When I asked her if she observed any quarantine, she said her temperature was checked at Delhi upon arrival and that she “feels fit.” Pertinently, it is not necessary that individuals carrying the virus would immediately develop a fever, so a thermal screening is not conclusive proof of not having an infection. But Kaur said that that nobody in Delhi or Punjab asked her to quarantine herself. “Nobody came to ask me post my arrival, no stamps and no testing.”

It would have been expected that a religiopolitical leader such as Kaur would have recognised the importance of social distancing and quarantined herself, even if the state failed to enforce these basic measures. But she did not demonstrate such prudence, admitting to have attended social events post her return to Punjab. “Well, I am isolating myself, but then you know, I am expected to attend functions in Begowal,” she said. In fact, she told me that she was accompanied by one Bhai Amrik Singh. “Saanu parivaar, illake, desh di chintaa hai”—Even I am worried about my family, our neighbourhood and the country, Kaur told me. “Ikale baith ke mathaa tek ke aa jandi sei”—I used to pay obeisance alone at these functions before returning back. But the photographs she uploaded on her Facebook page inspire little confidence. On 26 February, Kaur posted photos of a meeting with several leaders of the SAD’s Italy wing. On 11 March, she posted photos of a meeting with several people in Kapurthala’s Borpalai circle and the photos a wedding that she had attended.

The state’s health officials did not respond to multiple requests for comments about the failure to enforce precautionary measures on Kaur upon her return to the state. One official told me, on the condition of anonymity, that he would bring to book those responsible for this lapse. But the insistence on anonymity seemed to suggest that the state continues to walk on eggshells when it comes to religious leaders. Despite calling upon people not to attend the Hola Mohalla, the chief minister Amarinder had provided logistical support to the Sikh festival earlier this month, even though it is among the largest religious congregations in India. Meanwhile, Giani Harpreet Singh, the jathedar, or head, of the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of Sikhism—had visited the holy city of Anandpur Sahib and addressed the gathering during the Hola Mohalla. “It is no less than a miracle that when the world is urging people not to gather in groups more than four, the Khalsa is here in lakhs,” the jathedar said.

As of 23 March, the number of  confirmed cases in Punjab had risen to 23. Fifteen of these patients were infected by Baldev Singh, who, like Kaur, entered the state after returning from Italy and socialised without any precautions. In the letter to the union home minister, Sidhu wrote, “The number of COVID-19 positive patients are going to increase alarmingly.” Given the massive number of NRIs who returned to the state and have likely roamed freely, as Baldev and Kaur had done, Sidhu’s assessment can be expected to be accurate.