The Tablighi Jamaat congregation of Delhi became the talk of the town when Covid-19 cases had just started to rise in India. There were hundreds of foreigners who had come to India to be a part of this congregation. It has been happening since many years now and yet we hear about it only now for it to become a scapegoat to blame the spread of Coronavirus. Media and government propaganda began. The narratives that followed were on the lines of ‘they came on tourist visa and not allowed to indulge in religious preaching’, ‘we are going to blacklist them’, ‘this is a conspiracy against India to spread Covid-19 in India’, ‘they were hiding in mosques and madrasas’ and ‘they defied government’s prohibitory orders’.
This narrative was vehemently pushed through the news media and people increasingly blamed Tablighi Jamaat members and anybody who was even remotely close to them or helped them for the spread of Covid-19. The blame eventually shifted to the entire Muslim community in India, most of whom never followed or were a part of the Jamaat. Every other day one saw news of Hindutva hardliners refusing to let Muslims sell vegetables or maintain any contact with them, thus snatching their livelihood from them. People started looking at Muslims with contempt as if the entire community was solely responsible for the spread of Covid-19 across India. The media was pulled up for communalising a disease.
But all this propaganda which was being called out by social activists again and again finally found some authority after the Aurangabad Bench of Bombay High Court blatantly called it out. This judgment can be seen as the first real relief for the Tablighi Jamaat members. They were released on bail and FIRs were quashed by high courts before as well but the manner in which the Bombay high Court bench dissected the incident part by part to allay all the allegations made against the Jamaatis was never done until now and was much needed to send the Jamaat members back to their home countries with clean hands.
Bombay High Court
The judgment of the Bombay High Court, largely dispelled all the allegations and name calling by giving valid and reasonable inferences while juxtaposing them with the facts of the case. The court observed that the Jamaat members were merely visiting the mosques and attending religious discourse which is completely permissible as per government guidelines on tourist visa. The government had failed to prove that were involved in any kind of preaching or propagating their religion. The police had just in a mechanical manner, booked and arrested all the members without delving into facts. The facts were that these members had entered India much before the government was even taking the Coronavirus seriously. Even if they entered, they were tested for Covid-19 at the airports. Hence, there was no way to prove that they brought the virus into the country. They were also stuck at one place after the government announced the lockdown and hence, they were found taking shelter in mosques as all hotels and lodges had shut.
The court called out malice of the government, “This action indirectly gave warning to Indian Muslims that action in any form and for anything can be taken against Muslims. It was indicated that even for keeping contact with Muslims of other countries, action will be taken against them. Thus, there is smell of malice to the action taken against these foreigners and Muslim for their alleged activities.”
A broader and more detailed analysis of this judgment may be read here.
Karnataka High Court
On August 5, Karnataka High Court has quashed criminal proceedings against foreign nationals. However, in this case, the court rejected the petitioners’ contention that the criminal proceedings were initiated by the police in response to the prejudice generated by the media propaganda. The court said that it was quashing criminal proceedings against foreigners, to meet the ends of justice, on the condition that they leave the country immediately and give an undertaking that they will not visit India for another decade. It further directed the police to continue investigations against the Indian nationals who were accused in the case.
Delhi high court
The New Indian Express reported that on August 11, Delhi Police said that it had no objection to quashing of the separate FIRs against various foreigners, who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event. The high court was reluctant to intervene since the matters were pending before Magistrate courts but the applicants contended that they had already pleaded guilty and their deportation orders were also issued and were only unable to go back because of the various FIRs filed against them
In July, 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.
Allahabad High Court
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.
Madras High Court
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.
Some important observations made by the court:
“When the petitioners have already paid the price for their misadventure, to insist that they should continue to remain in India in prison-like conditions till the proceedings are concluded grossly offends the principle of proportionality and fairness.”
“Failure to respond to the petitioners’ existential horror would amount to judicial abdication. If I come to the conclusion that the petitioners have already suffered enough and that they are being put to “surplus or unnecessary suffering”, I am obliged to intervene.”
“Since the petitioners have already suffered enough for their transgression of law and there is prevalence of medical emergency, the petitioners are having the right to return to their native countries at the earliest opportunity.”
The apex court, on May 27, threw some caution to the wind against communalising the pandemic. While hearing petitions seeking strict action against the media for communalisation of the Tablighi Jamaat, CJI SA Bobde stated, “Don’t let people instigate law and order issues, there are the things that later become law and order issues”. These were merely passing remarks.
The media propaganda
While the country was battling a serious and unprecedented health crisis, the media was busy building communal narratives to find a minority community to blame the entire pandemic on. It is in such times of extreme crisis that TV news media has indulged in creating anti-Muslim narratives that viewers develop animosity towards their fellow members of society and even people who have lived in harmony, start discriminating against families belonging to Muslim communities. For instance, India TV in one if its shows claimed, “Doctors and experts are of the opinion that had Jamaatis not hidden themselves at Markaz (Nizamuddin) then the lockdown could have ended on April 15”, without any expert quotes or data to back the same. Further, India Today aired a show called “Madrasa Hotspots” whereby a sting operation was conducted on Madrasas, which serve as hostels for poor, destitute and orphaned children and they were compared with the Tablighi Jamaat incident saying that despite warnings, children are kept crammed up in Madrasas.
This media propaganda was rightly called out by the Aurangabad Bench of Bombay High Court in its scathing judgment, which was the need of the hour. After having suffered humiliation for months, these individuals needed this to clear their negative portrayal and go back to their homes with dignity.