Image for representation purpose only / Courtesy: Times of India
While the rule of law has certainly triumphed, and Tablighi Jamaat members head home after being subjected to daily media trial for days at end, the courts are finding out that these Jamaat members were incarcerated without enough evidence in most cases.
The narrative around the Tablighi Jamaat is turning turtle as Indian courts exonerate this conservative Muslim sect of conspiracy spread around the Coronavirus. Eight months after 11 state governments also filed 205 FIRs against 2,765 foreign nationals for allegedly violating visa terms and intentionally disregarding Covid-19 guidelines, not one member of the Tablighi Jamaat, a back-to-roots Islamic movement, has been convicted by any court.
The Tablighi Jamaat is a missionary movement that encourages Muslims to adhere to the faith as originally conceived and its global headquarters, or markaz, in Delhi draws pilgrims from many nations. This year, weeks before the lockdown was arbitrarily announced, in March 2020, followers of this movement from about 70 countries attended a Jamaat congregation at its markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighbourhood.
The Indian government accused foreign Tablighi visitors of spreading the virus in the country, even when a Namaste Trump attempt and many other similar large gatherings had been permitted long after the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared the disease a pandemic. Seriously upsetting the official Islamophobic narrative, Indian Courts, slowly but surely have beenexonerating individuals of this sect and the Jamaat as a whole. About 1,086 members of the Jamaat have been exonerated, over the past four months, through eight local and high court judgements Judges have used terms to indict the campaign that was orchestrated to vilify this sect. These include: a “virtual persecution”; “made scapegoats by a political government”; “not an iota of evidence”; “abuse of process”; “abuse of power”; “maliciously prosecuted”.
After the blame game was played out through a supine media, Indian Courts read into the law and so far in all cases have deemed the Jamaat members to be anything but guilty. The courts have quashed cases, granted bails and even the apex court waived off the 10-year embargo ordered by a high court on entry to India to a foreign national.
So, while the Tablighi Jamaat has emerged as Victim not Perpetrator, it is unlikely that this point of closure will get the media attention like its vilification did. Multiple news channels responsible for carrying a cynical government narrative to their hundreds of thousands of viewers —irresponsibly declaring an entire community (read Muslims as ‘superspreaders’ of the Corona Virus) will neither apologise not pay up.
Sabrangindia’s analysis of these multiple orders, reveals that the Courts have not just bailed out Tablighi members, but have seriously questioned the charges invoked against them, quashing the cases filed against them are slowly emerging. Will those guilty of malicious prosecutions be hauled over the coals, let alone punished?
Delhi became the initial fulcrum around the criminal cases related to the Tablighi event, with FIRs lodged against 955 foreign nationals and seven Indians, including a sect head called Maulana Muhammad Saad. A spin let loose by government’s spin doctors was readily swallowed by significant sections of the news media and the story rode the waves for over a fortnight.Over 900 of them had pleaded guilty as a part of a plea bargain because they did not want to stay back in India till the completion of the trial that could take months.
Here’s a look at all those court orders and judgments which brought justice to the Jamaat members.This article examines the court orders. Another piece turns the public gaze back on to media channels who further spun the government’s sordid tale.
What the Courts have said about the Tablighi Jamaat Vilification
36 people acquitted
On December 15, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) of Saket Court, Arun Kumar Garg acquitted all 36 foreigners accused in the Tablighi Jamaat case, noting that the prosecution failed to prove the presence of the accused inside the Markaz premises and contradictions in the witness statements. The 36 foreigners hail from 14 different countries including US, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Thailand, etc.
“It is beyond comprehension of the court, as to how IO (Inspector Satish Kumar) could have identified 952 foreign nationals out of 2,343 persons who, as per SHO, were found flouting the guidelines, without any Test Identification Parade (TIP), but on the basis of list provided by MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs),” CMM Garg reportedly said.
Of the 44 foreigners, eight were discharged by a magistrate court on August 24, 2020 of all charges under which they were chargesheeted in the absence of any record or credible material against them. The remaining eight were acquitted yesterday on similar grounds citing lack of evidence.
Charge of attempt to murder questioned
On December 2, Allahabad High Court directed the police officer who invoked charges of attempt to murder against a Tablighi Jamaat attendee to justify the same. The court held that invoking charges under section 307 prima facie reflects abuse of the power of law. Thus, the court directed the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) to file an affidavit in the matter and also directed the CO to file personal affidavit indicating as to how the ingredients of Section 307 IPC are made out from the facts in the record from the material collected during the investigation and justify the amendment directed by him to the chargesheet.
Discharge of 44 foreigners upheld
On November 19, a Delhi Court refused to entertain the plea of Delhi government against discharge of 44 foreign nationals who were held for being part of Tablighi Jamaat. The Magistrate’s decision was based on the fact that the chargesheet and other documents did not show the presence of the respondent, IunusGurba, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan or his participation in the Markaz during the relevant period. The court also observed no document suggested that respondent was one of the participants who was involved in Tablighi work. The Sessions court upheld this order of the Magistrate court.
10-year embargo on entry waived
On November 16, the Supreme Court clarified that the condition imposed on foreign nationals by the Karnataka High Court to not enter the country for the next 10 years will not be considered while deciding any future applications for visa for travel to India. The petitioner and other similarly placed appellants had moved the Karnataka High Court for quashing of the FIR against them. A single judge bench of the high court vide an order dated October 13, 2020, quashed criminal proceedings against them and directed the state to make necessary arrangement or issuance of exit permits to them. While the court quashed proceedings against them, the court did so, with a condition that they would not return to India for another 10 years.
20 foreign nationals acquitted
On October 19, a Mumbai Court acquitted 20 people who had come to attend the Tablighi Jamaat Ijtema and had come to Mumbai after the event got over. The court ruled in favour of the accused foreign nationals hailing from Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan as the Prosecution failed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing against them. “there is no iota of evidence with prosecution to show any contravention of order by accused persons beyond all shadow of doubt,” concluded the court.
On September 29, Bandra Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Mumbai discharged 12 foreign nationals from Indonesia who had come to attend Tablighi Jamaat. Metropolitan Magistrate Jaydeo Y. Ghule noted that nothing reveals that the “accused had deliberately disobeyed the order duly promulgated by the Public Servant as well as negligently, they were acting in the manner as was likely to spread the infection of the disease dangerous to life.” The court also directed the accused to be discharged from all charges levelled against them, to return their seized passports with due identification and cancel their bail bond.
FIR quashed, chargesheet quashed against 8 people
On September 21, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court quashed FIR and chargesheet filed against 8 Myanmar nationals who were booked for being part of Tablighi Jamaat and its activities. The court held that the prosecution did not produce any material “to prove that the applicants were engaged in Tabligh work and they were involved in preaching religious ideology or making speeches in religious places.”
While considering the charges under section 269 and 270 of IPC which are concerned with spread of infectious disease, the court held, “There is no material on record to prove that applicants had indulged in any act which was likely to spread infection of Covid -19. Therefore, from the material produced in the charge-sheet, there is no evidence to substantiate the fulfillment of ingredients of Sections 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code.” While deciding that the FIR and the chargesheet against the 8 applicants be quashed, the court held that, “Compelling the applicants to undergo the trial would cause grave injustice.”
FIRs against 29 foreign nationals and 6 Indians quashed
This high court order is the only time until now that the government was called out for acting out of malice while taking action against Tablighi Jamaat members. In its 58-page judgment, dated August 21, Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court called out the blatant communalism and the way the entire incident was handled by the government, the police and the media.
The court further pointed out that though restrictions are put on the foreigners who come to India on tourist visas to prevent them from engaging in Tablighi activity, there is no restriction on them to visit religious places to attend the normal religious activities like attending religious discourse. About the allegations against the petitioners, the court observed that they are vague in nature and one cannot draw an inference that they were spreading Islam religion and there was intention of conversion. The court also observed that “there is nothing on the record to show that the Indians were prevented from accommodating persons in the Masjid or from supplying meals to the persons including the foreigners.”
About the media propaganda against Tablighi Jamaat, the court said,
“There was big propaganda in print media and electronic media against the foreigners who had come to Markaz Delhi and an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading covid-19 virus in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners. A political Government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats.”
The court held that the petitioners were not in breach of any orders issued by the government as they were stationed at one place before the orders were issued and there is no proof to show that they were infected before they came to India.
Over 100 foreigners let off
On July 11 it was reported that around 121 men from Malaysia and 11 more from Saudi Arabia had pleaded guilty before magistrate court, to violating Covid-19 lockdown rules and visa rules and hence they were set free after imposing a fine between Rs 7,000-Rs 10,000. Delhi Police which had swooped down on the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters at Nizamuddin, in one of the most publicized events in the city, had not raised any objections to the foreigners being let off with a mere fine.
11 foreign nationals granted bail
On June 12, the Madras High Court held that the activities of the applicants have not prejudiced public tranquility and that there is absolutely nothing on record to indicate that they had contributed to the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Further, the court refused to categorize them as “Tablighis” and instead wanted to see them just as humans. The court further noticed that despite 70 days had elapsed, there had been no progress in investigation of cases against the applicants.
Interim bail to 6 foreign nationals
On June 9, the Allahabad high court granted interim bail to six Bangladeshi nationals while granting permission to reside at the place mentioned in the tourist Visas and were given liberty to receive disclosed financial support from their relatives in Bangladesh or anyone in India and if necessary directed the government to provide them financial support. The court also suggested that the Centre enter into a dialogue with the government of Bangladesh and decide upon the criminal case without having to resort to a criminal trial, to avoid the same. The applicants were further granted regular bail on December 15.
The abovementioned court orders and judgments give a clear picture of how the law was able to finally clear the air that the haphazard manner in which action was taken against Jamaat members and their incarceration was unjustified and unwarranted to the least. The media trial that went on throughout this period is also being dealt with by the Supreme court in a plea seeking action against the media for spreading hate against the Tablighi Jamaat. On October 8, the apex court reprimanded the central government for defending the media in its affidavit by making “nonsensical averments”. The court called its affidavit “extremely offensive and brazen”. The CJI, SA Bobde is known to have said, “Your affidavit is evasive and says petitioner shows no instance of bad reporting. You may not agree but how you can say there is no instance of bad reporting shown?”
On November 20, the court expressed strong displeasure over the counter-affidavit filed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) which reasserted that the media has largely been neutral with respect to the reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat event. The CJI remarked, “We are not satisfied with your affidavit. We had asked you to tell us what you have done under the Cable TV Act? There is no whisper about that in the affidavit. We must tell you that we are disappointed with the Union’s affidavit in these matters.”
Justice delayed but yet justice done. The damage however can never really be undone.