In the past week, the active cases of the novel coronavirus in Punjab have increased nearly six times—up from 219 on 28 April to 1,364 on 6 May, according to government figures—as close to seven thousand people returned to the state from places in Maharasthra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Primary among these were over four thousand pilgrims who were stuck for over a month at gurudwaras in Maharashtra’s Nanded district, many of whom are now lodged in state quarantine facilities and are being blamed for furthering the virus’s spread in Punjab. As of 6 May, 969 of these returnee pilgrims had tested positive. Some media houses and others on social-media have characterised the Nanded pilgrims as irresponsible and compared them to the members of the Tablighi Jamaat cluster of cases, from Delhi’s Nizammudin area, who were vilified as well.
But retracing the timeline of events that transpired since Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the janata curfew—or people’s curfew—on 22 March makes it clear that the Nanded pilgrims were victims of unresponsive central and state administrations that denied their repeated requests for evacuation, and did not ensure their health and safety. The Punjab government only arranged for buses to bring the devotees back in late April, over a month after the lockdown began, and then did not enforce proper screening before re-entry—in fact, many pilgrims appear to have been tested and quarantined only after positive cases began to emerge. Owing to the haphazard manner in which these pilgrims and other state residents were finally allowed re-entry, the source from which they contracted the virus remains unclear and hard to trace. Meanwhile, the politicians in Maharashtra and Punjab are only lobbying blame.
Nanded is home to several historical gurudwaras, including the Hazur Sahib gurudwara, which is among the Panj Takht, the five temporal seats of Sikhism. Many pilgrims were staying at the serais, or inns, of the Nanded gurudwaras. In addition to the pilgrims, about three thousand daily-wage labourers and 153 students from Kota, Rajasthan, were also brought back to Punjab in recent days, according to government figures.
It is common practice for pilgrims and devotees from Punjab to visit the historical gurudwaras between February and March, when the festival of Holi is celebrated—for many farming families in rural areas, this is the only time before the harvest that they can leave their villages. Harbinder Singh was among nearly fifty people who left the border village of Sur Singh on 5 March. “After visiting various Gurudwaras, we reached Nanded on 14 March and intended to come back by 25 March or so. We were staying at Gurudwara Langar Sahib”—another gurudwara in Nanded, located close to the Hazur Sahib.
But on 22 March, Modi imposed a janata curfew. Three days later, he announced a nationwide lockdown, until 14 April. The pilgrims were stuck, unable to go back home. “Meanwhile, the harvesting season started in Punjab,” Gurmeet Singh Mahajan, a member of the gurudwara board for the Hazur Sahib, said. It was already March end, and rumours were rife that the lockdown would last for several months. The devotees were scared, Mahajan said. Many were worried that they would be unable to harvest their crops in time.