IRFAN KHAN, a mechanical engineer from Brisbane, Australia, landed in Delhi on 22 March 2020. His status as an Overseas Citizen of India meant that he did not need a visa for what was meant to be a short visit to meet friends and family. From the airport, he and his wife went to a friend’s place in Batla House. Later that day, he visited the Nizamuddin headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation. At the Markaz, as the centre is called, he entered his name and current address in a register. He stayed there for an hour, then left.
At 1 am on 3 April, the police arrived at the Batla House address he had entered in the Markaz register. They told Khan that they were taking him into quarantine. He was packed into a mosquito-ridden ambulance with eight others and taken to a public school in New Friends Colony that, he told me, had “Pan Parag spit on its walls and broken windows.” Khan was told that he was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, even though he felt normal. Despite testing negative for the coronavirus, he would spend the next 62 days in the quarantine centre.
A 30-year-old Australian woman, who was quarantined in another floor of the public school, said she spent the two months in one room with three other women from another country. “There were language barriers, and all we had was broken Urdu and sign language to communicate in,” she told me. “We managed to wrap a cloth on the camera in the room, which was meant to record us 24/7. The only time we went outside the room was when we went to the washroom to relieve ourselves or to wash clothes, by hand, and dry them in the room itself.” Another woman, a US national, said the school was “really dirty, and there were so many mosquitos and insects. We slept on the floor.” Ramzan came and went. Nearby residents provided them some food, mosquito nets and kettles to make life a little easier.
The conditions at the quarantine centre were just part of the nightmare. As the Tablighi Jamaat became the focus of national attention as a “super spreader” of COVID-19, thousands of its members were charged with alleged noncompliance with lockdown orders and for violations of their visa conditions. Most of the accused entered plea bargains to expedite their return to their home countries. Khan was one of 44 members in Delhi who contested the charges. They were acquitted by a trial court on 15 December, after what one of their lawyers described as 150 hearings, 955 bail applications, five writ petitions, 44 discharge applications, 26 petitions to quash the first-information reports, 80 petitions to review court orders and 15 hearings before the Supreme Court.
Several foreigners told me that the police confiscated their phones, asked for the passwords and returned them only after two months. One member expressed the sense of violation they felt, “as the phone must have been cloned and copied and data downloaded.” He added that “absolutely nothing incriminating was found on them, as there is no mention of any phone conversation in the formal charges. What were they expecting to find?” (The Delhi police did not answer my questions about its investigation. The public-relations officer, Anil Mittal, asked me to speak to Joy Tirkey, the deputy commissioner for the crime branch, who did not respond to three phone calls and four text messages.)