As India grapples with over 31 lakh coronavirus cases, a daily increase of around 67,000 new cases, and a pandemic situation that is showing no signs abating, does anybody remember in early April the punching bag that had come in so handy to further vitiate our fragile communal situation?
It seems ludicrous now, but in late March and early April, a huge bunch of Tabligi Jamaat attendees, both from India and abroad, were castigated, hounded, ridiculed and even arrested on the charge of spreading the virus. They had attended an annual meet at the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi
Some rabid media channels, swiftly cashing in on the already vitiated communal atmosphere in the country following the threat of enforcing the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Registry of Citizens), had screeched about this “deliberate Muslim conspiracy to spread coronavirus in India”. Communally inflammatory hashtags were also promoted on social media then.
But last week’s judgment from the Bombay High Court’s Aurangabad Bench attributing “malice” and criticising police action in arresting 29 Tabligi Jamaat members, singling them out for being Muslim, should give some solace and partially assuage the hurt sentiments of Muslims for the manner in which their religion was pilloried for spreading coronavirus.
Of course, the event itself — a gathering of some 9,000 religious preachers, including 950 foreigners — was ill-timed, in defiance of the Delhi government’s ban on public gatherings in mid-March, and should have been cancelled or wrapped up quickly. The presence of so many people at one place, even as the coronavirus threat was beginning to ravage the world, was a disaster wating to happen. and the Markaz indeed became a Covid hotspot with at least 4,000 confirmed cases and 27 deaths.
Indian Muslim leaders had condemned the timing of the event, but this criticism was lost in the cacophony of noise that erupted tarring the entire community with the brush of “terrorists” and condemning it for spreading coronavirus in India. As outrage spread, fuelled by incendiary comments on the alleged complicity of Indian Muslims in launching “the coronavirus jihad on India”, and the crackdown that followed, the participating Tabligis ran hither and thither, hiding like criminals within the Markaz or getting refuge elsewhere, further endangering their own lives and that of the larger community as well. In several parts of India, Tabligis, including foreigners, were put behind bars, many of them being nabbed at airports as they tried to return home.
As the ill-conceived lockdown in late March followed, throwing millions of migrant workers stranded hundreds of kilometers from their homes, these Tabligis were forgotten. Till a couple of courts gave them relief recently, with two Tabligis, one from Kerala and another from UP, accused of hiding in a mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Pryagraj and spreading the virus, being given bail by a UP court.
Earlier in June, a court had granted bail to Mohammed Shahid, a suspended faculty member of the Allahabad University, and eight other Tablighi Jamaat members. Shahid, who had also attended the Delhi meet, was arrested in April for arranging shelter for foreign and Indian Tabligi Jamaat members and not informing the police about their presence.
Now, in a significant judgment delivered on Friday, the Bombay High Court has said that foreign nationals who attended the Delhi meet were made “scapegoats” and that while the police had acted “mechanically” in this case, the State government had acted due to “political compulsion”. It quashed the FIR filed against 29 foreign nationals.
Using strong words, the Bench ruled that there “was a smell of malice” in the action taken against Muslim foreign nationals, as “similar action was not taken against other foreign nationals belonging to other religions”, and even referred to the “sense of fear” being created among Indian Muslims in the wake of both the CAA and NRC.
The Bench said that detaining these foreign nationals from Ghana, Indonesia and Tanzania went against “our great tradition and culture of welcoming foreign guests” and the “government cannot give different treatment to citizens of different religions of different countries… Instead of helping them” at a sensitive time when Covid was spreading “we lodged them in jails”, it added.
Looking back at the malicious propaganda that was unleashed against Islam and Muslims after the Nizamabad event, and comparing the infections caused by that event vis-a-vis the massive numbers we are seeing now, the deliberate attempts to vitiate communal harmony in India is even more frightening.
What is comforting, however, is a clear-cut ruling from a top court at a time when faith in our judicial system is at an all-time low.