The Nightmare

The Modi government’s persecution of the Tablighi Jamaat

Members of the Tablighi Jamaat being taken into quarantine after the Nizamuddin Markaz was closed down on 31 March 2020. Ishan Tankha
Members of the Tablighi Jamaat being taken into quarantine after the Nizamuddin Markaz was closed down on 31 March 2020. Ishan Tankha

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.)

“I like India, and we came here as we like it, but why were we treated so badly?” the US national asked. “My three children stay in the US, and my seven-year-old asked me, ‘Mom, are you not happy at home? Why have you left us? Are you enjoying yourself in India?’ It makes me so sad to be forced to stay away for so long in this uncertain time.”

THE TROUBLE BEGAN soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a “janata curfew” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tablighi Jamaat members from south India had gathered at the Markaz, from 14 to 16 March, as part of the Jamaat’s annual consultations with its members from different parts of the world. On 13 March, invoking powers granted by the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, the Delhi government banned “all sports gathering (including IPL)/conferences/seminars beyond 200 people.” Three days later, it clarified in another order that religious gatherings were included in the ban. By then, the consultation programme had ended, but many people stayed on at the Markaz dormitory, which has a capacity of over five thousand and houses members from outside Delhi throughout the year. As of 21 March, the union home ministry later estimated, there were 1,746 people staying at the Markaz, including 216 foreigners, with an additional 824 foreign members present in different states.

On 19 March, the day Modi announced the one-day people’s curfew, ten Indonesian members of the Jamaat tested positive for the coronavirus in Telangana. Other positive tests among members were reported across the country. On 22 March, the day of the curfew, a police delegation visited the Markaz and ordered that all the dormitory residents should be sent back. “When we explained that they were from faraway states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, they asked if they were well,” a Jamaat official told me. “We said they were, then they said, ‘Yaheen rakho, bahar na bhejna’”—Keep them here, don’t send them away. Nevertheless, two days later, the station house officer of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Police Station, which abuts the Markaz complex, wrote to Mohammad Saad, the head of the Tablighi Jamaat, asking him to shut down the Markaz, “otherwise legal action will be initiated against you.”

After a meeting at the police station, Yousuf Ceyloni, a Markaz official, wrote back the following day, saying that the Jamaat had begun clearing the premises, and that over fifteen hundred people had been sent home on 23 March. Promising to comply with the police’s directions, the letter stated that the Jamaat had contacted the sub-divisional magistrate of Defence Colony “for vehicle passes so that we can send the remaining to their places.” The application asking for exceptions to the ban on vehicular movement were attached. “The Markaz organised 17 drivers in March along with their RC books, which they took to the police station to apply for permission so they could be used to send some Jamaatis back,” Fuzail Ayyubi, who represented the 44 accused in the Supreme Court, told me.

The tehsildar and a medical team arrived at the Markaz later on 25 March, and made a list of the confined persons. The next day, the SDM also paid a visit and took Jamaat representatives to meet the district magistrate. On 27 March, the police took six people from the Markaz for a medical checkup, following which they were isolated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Jhajjar, a town in Haryana around fifty kilometres away from Delhi. A World Health Organisation team took 33 people for a medical checkup on 28 March. That day, the additional commissioner of police for Lajpat Nagar threatened the Jamaat with legal action under Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, as well as Sections 188 (disobeying an order issued by a public servant), 269 (negligence likely to spread an infectious disease), 270 (a malignant act likely to spread disease) and 271 (disobeying quarantine rules) of the Indian Penal Code, if the Markaz was not closed down.

Ceyloni wrote back, on 29 March, that the people at the centre had been there “when prohibitory lockdown orders were announced and no fresh person was allowed to enter and gather at Markaz as the gates and doors were closed immediately after the orders.” He added that, although the Jamaat had begun sending members home after the janata curfew, “further effort to decongest and vacate the Markaz premises had to be stopped midway due to extended lockdown.” Ceyloni cited Modi’s dictum, from his 23 March speech announcing that a three-week nationwide lockdown would begin in four hours, of “Jo jahan tha, vahin rahe”—Everyone should remain where they are.

Around this time, the Tablighi Jamaat said in a subsequent press release, “a rumour started gaining ground across social media that allegedly people affected by COVID were present in the Markaz. It is also being circulated that certain deaths have occurred due to the same.” On 30 March, the news agency ANI reported that Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, had directed the authorities to take legal action against the Markaz administration.

Paramilitary personnel patrol the cordoned-off entry to the Markaz on 13 April 2020. Sanjeev Verma / Getty Images

The following day, the Delhi police filed an FIR against Saad and six other Jamaat officials for “deliberately, wilfully, negligently and malignantly” disobeying its directions and allowing “a huge gathering to assemble inside a close premise over a protracted period of time without any semblance of social distance or provision of mask or hand sanitiser.” The FIR cited an audio recording, which had been circulating on WhatsApp, in which Saad allegedly urged his followers to defy social-distancing orders. It acknowledged that the seven accused had met the police on 24 March, but did not mention the exchange of letters or the trouble the Jamaat had faced in vacating the Markaz premises amid the strict lockdown.

On 2 April, the union home ministry announced that it had “blacklisted 960 foreigners, present in India on tourist visas, for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat activities.” The ministry also asked the directors general of police in all concerned states and the commissioner of the Delhi police to “take necessary legal action against all such violators, on priority, under relevant sections of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Disaster Management Act, 2005.” In a confidential memo sent to the state police chiefs, on 3 April, Rajeev Ranjan Verma, the commissioner of the home ministry’s immigration bureau, circulated a list of 315 foreigners who had attended activities at the Markaz before moving to other states. Three days later, Verma sent another memo, noting that “some other foreigners may also be located in your respective jurisdiction, who participated or conducted Tabligh activities in different parts of the country in recent months. They may be residing in mosques or nearby locations, State Police may conduct survey of all such locations to identify such foreigners by checking their travel documents.”

Over the next few weeks, as the Delhi police shut down the Markaz, Jamaat members were picked up across the country and subjected to detentions, quarantines and long legal battles. The news media, as well as supporters of the Modi government on social media, began claiming that the Jamaat—and, by extension, Muslims—had been wilfully spreading the disease, describing the Markaz gathering as “corona jihad” and “Talibani terror.” The nightmare had begun.

THE TABLIGHI JAMAAT was founded, in 1926, in Mewat, a region that includes parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The Meo Muslims of the region, Mohammad Sajjad, a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, told me, had “liminal” identities, retaining local cultural influences in marriage and festive rituals. “The Tablighi Jamaat campaigned to make their life practices ‘truly Islamic,’” he said. He added that the Partition violence in Mewat, in which the perpetrators were militias organised by the princely states of Arwal and Bharatpur and the victims primarily Meo Muslims, swelled the Jamaat ranks. “Subsequently, the Tablighi Jamaat insisted mostly on making Muslims offer the five-times-daily prayers than on anything else.”

The Khilafat Movement and the colonial practice of allocating power based on the size of religious communities led to what Sajjad called “competitive communalisms.” Ambreen Agha, an associate professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs who has studied the Tablighi Jamaat, told me that the hate campaign against the Jamaat during the COVID-19 pandemic “is a continuity of a similar past that led to the emergence of tabligh in the 1920s—a period of religious assertions, revival and contestations.”

At a time when its attention should have been focused on India’s haphazard response to the pandemic and its impact on lives and livelihoods, the media, both print and television, gave disproportionate coverage to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, dog-whistling continuously about how Jamaat members might have been responsible for the nationwide spread of the coronavirus. Illustration by Sukruti Anah Staneley

During this period, Agha said, “communal identities were being homogenised—despite the inherent divisions and diversities—amid a wave of revivalist movements like the Shuddhi Sangathan movements of Hindu revivalism. The framework on antagonisms is the same, but the medium of dissemination has evolved—from local/vernacular popular magazines that carried propaganda campaigns against Muslims to social-media caricaturing of the Muslim.” Even as thousands of distressed migrant workers walked thousands of kilometres to get home, at a time when its attention should have been focused on India’s haphazard response to the pandemic and its impact on lives and livelihoods, the media, both print and television, gave disproportionate coverage to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, dog-whistling continuously about how Jamaat members might have been responsible for the nationwide spread of the coronavirus.

The researchers Soundarya Iyer and Shoibal Chakravarty used the open-source platform Media Cloud to analyse press coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat between 20 March and 27 April. They found 11,074 stories published in that period by 271 media sources. (Ninety-four percent of these were English-language articles, as the platform does not adequately capture coverage in vernacular and television media.) “At its peak, on April 2, Media Cloud tracked as many as 1,451 news articles covering the Tablighi Jamaat case,” they wrote in an op-ed. “The top media source was Times of India, with 1,863 stories in the five-week period, which were shared on Facebook 3,19,874 times.”

The media found quotes from mainstream politicians that it could use. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the minority-affairs minister, called the Jamaat’s actions a “Talibani Crime” in a 31 March tweet. “This is not a negligence, it’s a ‘serious criminal act,’” he wrote. “When the entire country is fighting united against Corona, such a ‘sin’ is unpardonable.” At an event organised by Aaj Tak in May, he claimed that the third phase of the nationwide lockdown would not have been necessary if the Jamaat had not acted as a “super spreader.” Shobha Karandlaje, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Udupi Chikmagalur, used the phrase “corona jihad” during a speech in her constituency, on 4 April, as did many others. According to a report by the human-rights group Equality Labs, #CoronaJihad was used in nearly three hundred thousand tweets, with a potential reach of 170 million users, between 31 March and 6 April.

“Like #CoronaJihad, the phrase ‘single source’ became a loaded code word, with ideologically inclined media using it to insinuate at will,” Krishna Prasad, a former Outlook editor who runs the Indian Journalism Review, told me. “Sudarshan TV ran a show titled ‘Corona jihad se desh bachao’”—Save the country from the corona jihad. “India Today TV ran a graphic of a man in an Islamic cap concluding that sixty percent of new coronavirus cases were linked to the Tablighi event. Over a 15-day period between March 28 and April 11, the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran kept up the Islamophobic dog-whistling with 156 stories, eight editorials and five cartoons.” A survey of the Kannada media found news segments titled “Markaz Disease” and “Tablighi Virus.” One panelist accused China of conspiring with Pakistan and Indian Muslims to halt India’s progress through COVID-19. When the panelist was asked for a source, it turned out to be a forwarded WhatsApp message.

Om Thanvi, a former editor of Jansatta and the founding vice chancellor of the HJ State University of Journalism and Mass Communications, told me that, although the television media is prone to distort news for higher ratings, “in the Tablighi Jamaat matter, bigotry against Muslims got fused with the TRP disease.” The gathering took place “after taking the nod from the government, and happened under the government’s nose,” he said. “But this assembly was used to tar Muslims with a ‘conspiracy’ of spreading COVID.” He added that fake news of Jamaat members allegedly spitting at the police were shown repeatedly, “but when other religions were seen in similar assemblies, unmindful of the virus, genuinely endangering society, then TV channels lost that edge. It is clear that, using corona and the Tablighi gathering as an excuse, the Muslim community was made into a target and the government’s role, despite its obvious negligence, was shielded.”

Yashovardhan Azad, a former special director of the Intelligence Bureau, blamed the government for not screening international passengers sooner. “A lackadaisical administration should have woken up earlier, as by March 26, a lot of damage had already been done,” he told me. “The first death in Delhi was reported on January 31. Why did the Delhi government not act?” He added that the media should also be held accountable for its disproportionate coverage, which “distracted the debate and made Indians lose vital time too. It’s an unfortunate thing that a label was tagged onto them.”

Prasad noted that little attention was paid to other COVID-19 hotspots. “In May, when Jubilant Generics—a pharmaceutical company owned by Shyam Bhartia, the husband of Hindustan Times chairperson Shobhana Bhartia—was shown to be the ‘single source’ of 82 percent [of the] cases in Mysore district, there was no interest in the national media,” he said. “Their son Priyavrat Bhartia sits on the boards of both HT Media and Jubilant. Jubilant had donated Rs 10 crore to the PMCARES fund in April.”

On 6 April, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organisation of Islamic scholars, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking directions compelling the government and media to stop demonising the Muslim community over the issue. The court refused to issue an interim order. In August, the government replied in an affidavit that the coverage “predominantly stuck to a balanced and neutral perspective,” citing pieces from websites such as The Wire and The Print, as well as three English-language dailies, but completely ignoring the role of the vernacular and television media. The petition is still being heard by a bench headed by the chief justice of India, SA Bobde. On 17 November, the bench castigated the government for filing an inadequate response and asked for a “mechanism to deal with these contents on television.” During a hearing of the case on 28 January, the bench added, “Prevention of instigation is an important part of maintaining law and order and the government has done nothing to address these issues.”

“The vilification of the Tabligh was a targeted one—with clear motivations and purpose to demonise, stigmatise and ostracise the entire Muslim community, of which Tabligh is a part,” Agha told me. She called the hate campaign “the most recent manifestation of this deep prejudice against Muslims that is grounded in fear of this ‘other,’ ‘outsider,’ ‘foreigner,’” adding that the dehumanisation of Muslims “certainly cuts across the class barrier, but is felt more strongly among the socially and economically backward sections of Muslim society. Much of the Tabligh’s neighbourhood work—preaching and regular taleem sessions—comes from this particular section that is the backbone of the movement, really.”

THE MEDIA FOCUS on the Tablighi Jamaat was aided by the Delhi government, as Aam Aadmi Party leaders defended the FIRs filed against the Jamaat. In the first week of April, the Delhi government listed “Markaz Masjid” as a separate category when counting COVID-19 cases in the capital. “By April 11, when Delhi had 1,069 cases, they renamed the category ‘Special Operations,’ and the chief minister actually spoke of [the Jamaat] being a cause of corona alongside those with travel history,” a health reporter at a leading news outlet told me. “It was only much later when all of the Markaz attendees had been tested and very few were positive and total cases all around were zooming up. The whole exercise was unscientific, to blame a gathering in a single building like this when cases were spiralling by the hundreds and then thousands.”

Devotees participate in the final prayers at a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 15 January 2017. Rehman Asad / Barcroft Images / Getty Images

“In the initial days, when a separate official category was created, the testing of Tablighi Jamaat members was disproportionate,” Fuzail Ayyubi said. “It is like if you hold an exam in just one school and do not test the remaining schools at all. Any figures of students failed or passed would naturally be disproportionate vis-à-vis other untested schools.”

State governments sprung into action after the home ministry’s directive. The police filed 205 FIRs against Tablighi Jamaat members in 11 states, and the visas of 2,679 foreign members were cancelled. (A further 86 members from Nepal, who did not need a visa, were also blacklisted, prohibiting them from re-entering India.)

The embassies of the 35 countries whose citizens had been detained also got involved. At least one foreign envoy travelled extensively inside Delhi and across the country to meet his incarcerated fellow nationals. Representatives of western countries, with whom India boasts of strategic ties, began asking questions that the police found difficult to answer. “It was only after April 15, when foreign embassies got into the act, that it became an embarrassment,” a senior government official told me, on condition of anonymity. “Cases in India started growing and widely so. It became difficult to establish the Tabligh as the ‘single source’ as the numbers in India grew, and it became difficult to suppress images of millions of harassed urban migrants leaving cities to return home to their villages.”

By then, fact-checkers were debunking the fake news that had been circulating about the Tablighi Jamaat. A WhatsApp video that purported to show Jamaat members licking plates and spoons in an attempt to spread the coronavirus turned out to be a two-year-old video of a Bohra Muslim tradition of not leaving any waste on one’s plate. Another video on YouTube, claiming to show a restaurant employee wearing a skullcap spitting in food, was found to have been uploaded in April 2019. The fact-checking website Alt News found that a report on a Kannada channel about four Muslims refusing medical screening in Bhatkal district on returning from Dubai was based solely on the testimony of “a random person,” rather than health officials or the district administration, and that even the single source had not mentioned that the four people were Muslim. The district magistrate and additional police commissioner denied that the incident took place.

On 10 May, the Indian Express reported that the recording of Saad’s alleged speech asking members to disregard lockdown orders, which had been cited in the FIR filed against him, had not been found in the almost four hundred audio clips recovered from a seized laptop. A source close to the investigation told the reporter Mahender Singh Manral that the viral audio was a mix of nearly twenty different clips. The Delhi police denied that it had found the recording to be doctored and summoned Manral to present “all relevant documents/material required for the purpose of investigation.” The Express also found that the Saad recording was mentioned in a guide for law-enforcement agencies on “how to spot and investigate” fake news, which was taken down within a day of publication.

The tide was turned, Ayyubi said, once the courts began weighing in. On 12 June, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court granted bail to 31 foreign nationals, from Bangladesh and Indonesia, who had been arrested in three districts of Tamil Nadu. The judgment noted that none of the petitioners had tested positive for COVID-19, and that “there is nothing on record to indicate that they had contributed to the spread of the novel corona virus.” It also said that the prosecutors had conceded that the arrested Jamaat members had not been engaged in any proselytisation activities, adding, “Their acts have not prejudiced public tranquility.” The bench also insisted that the petitioners be housed in conditions whose distinction from those of a detention camp are “clear and apparent and felt”—a private college had volunteered to provide them shelter, but the police wanted to oversee their quarantine—and that they be allowed to return to their home countries at the earliest opportunity.

On 21 August, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court quashed FIRs against 35 other members of the Tablighi Jamaat. The judgment dismissed the government’s contention that the foreigners attending Jamaat activities were violating the conditions of their tourist visas, specifically a prohibition on participating in “tabligh activities.” It included a 1996 circular issued by an undersecretary in the home ministry soon after the prohibition was first imposed, which “clarified that attending tabligh jamaat ijtemah (congregations) does not amount to tabligh work.” Even the home ministry’s recent circulars, the bench noted, impose “no restriction on foreigners for visiting religious places and attending normal religious activities like attending religious discourses.”

There was a “smell of malice” in the government’s actions taken against the Tablighi Jamaat and other Muslims, the bench added:

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] in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners. A political Government tries to find a 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 aforesaid circumstances and the latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken. It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action.

A month later, the high court’s Nagpur bench quashed FIRs against eight Myanmar nationals, noting that “there is no material produced by the prosecution to prove that the applicants were engaged in Tabligh work and they were involved in preaching religious ideology or making speeches in religious place. On the contrary, from the statements of the witnesses mentioned in the chargesheet, it is clear that the applicants are not conversant with local language and they studied the Quran and Hadis in their own language.” The bench ruled that “allowing the prosecution to continue would be nothing but an abuse of the process of the court.” Similarly, while acquitting 28 foreign nationals of all charges, on 19 October, a metropolitan magistrate in Mumbai noted that the prosecution had not provided “an iota of evidence to indicate the visitors had violated government orders.”

OTHER JAMAAT MEMBERS were not as fortunate. In the Bidar district of Karnataka, eight Kyrgyz nationals were arrested, as were two people from Odisha, who were accused of translating for the foreigners—even though, their lawyer told me, they do not speak either English or Urdu. Eight separate FIRs were lodged, accusing the Kyrgyz Jamaat members of violating the conditions of their tourist visas by preaching. The ten accused cooperated with the police and thrice tested negative for the coronavirus. They were awarded bail by a trial court, but under onerous conditions.

Members of the Tablighi Jamaat being quarantined at a government school in Delhi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, on 16 April 2020. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Even though the Kyrgyz nationals succeeded in having the conditions waived on appeal, after their release from the central jail, “it was decided they would have to perforce move to a detention centre, which was only in Bengaluru,” Talha Hashmi, their counsel, told me. “They were driven there by the police on a rainy evening on September 20, a distance of over seven hundred kilometres, in the middle of a pandemic—all eight in a single black police jeep, along with 12 police officers in the same vehicle.” On reaching Bengaluru, Hashmi added, the police decided that the detention centre was too big and understaffed, so the eight were sent back to Bidar. “They undertook a fourteen-hundred-kilometre journey stuffed in one vehicle, over three days, with a small break as the driver needed rest.” They were able to return home only on 21 November, after the high court quashed all proceedings. The two Jamaat members from Odisha, however, still face charges for abetting crimes punishable by the Foreigners Act.

In Uttar Pradesh, nearly eighty Jamaat members were arrested and spent around four months in jail. The cases in the state—which involve 58 foreigners, from the United Kingdom, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand and Indonesia—are yet to be resolved. Although the accused pleaded guilty, their plea bargains were rejected and their counsel awaits progress in a magistrate’s court in Lucknow, which has consolidated all the FIRs filed in the state at the direction of the Allahabad High Court.

It was to avoid spending months tied up in such proceedings, Ayyubi told me, that 908 of the 952 foreign members named in 48 chargesheets and 11 supplementary charges filed by the Delhi police agreed to plea bargains. “Two months of institutional quarantine, coupled with uncertainty of trial and the situation back home, were the real reason for plea-bargaining,” he said. Pleading guilty and accepting fines imposed by the courts, he added, “was the only way out for an expeditious exit back home for these stranded foreigners. Nothing more should be read into this.”

When their trial began at the Saket sessions court, the 44 members who refused to plead guilty filed discharge petitions. They were partially successful, as the court struck down the charges under the Foreigners Act. The Delhi police filed a revision petition in response, citing the 908 plea bargains to bolster its position, but the petition was dismissed.

On 25 August, the court discharged eight of the 44 accused on the grounds that their names were not present in either the Markaz register or the list of people from the Markaz who were tested for COVID-19. The state filed two revision petitions against this order, but both failed. Then, on 15 December, the court acquitted the others, ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove that the 36 of them had been present at the Markaz between 12 and 31 March, or that they had been made aware of the government orders they were allegedly contravening. Since none of them had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, the judge, Arun Kumar Garg, ruled, “there is no question of any negligent act on the part of any of the accused which to their knowledge or belief was likely to spread infection.” It was “reasonably probable,” Garg added, “that none of them was present at Markaz during the relevant period and they had been picked up from different places so as to maliciously prosecute them upon directions from” the home ministry.

Irfan Khan had been staying at a college in Jamia Nagar ever since the Delhi High Court ordered an end to the institutionalised quarantine, on 28 May. The Tablighi Jamaat divided the 955 foreign members among eight locations in the city—according to the court’s orders, they were not to leave these locations without the permission of the Delhi police. “We continued to be engaged in spiritual activities, discussions and prayers,” Khan said. After being acquitted, he told me, “For truth go to the masjid; for justice go to the court. Truth wins. Justice prevails.” He noted his appreciation for everyone who had taken care of them, “as they were going through so many hardships themselves but they also looked after us.”

The court has appointed a nodal officer to coordinate their departure, and they have been made to sign personal bonds since the state is expected to appeal. Ahmed Ali, a pharmacist based in the United States, told me he was pleased with the acquittal and was awaiting the return of his passport so that he could go home. On 5 January 2021, Bechir Yanes, a 66-year-old Tunisian national who had been among those acquitted by the Saket court, died while awaiting repatriation.

“We believe it is our destiny that we had to undergo this phase,” Mohammad Saad told me in an email. “These events notwithstanding, Tabligh volunteers the world over hold India in very high esteem and this is unlikely to change for the simple reason that they learn so much from here. For more than nine decades India has been the home of the Tabligh movement and the source of this spiritual succour for the outside world. I firmly believe that the same will not change.” He added that he had asked members who left the country after their ordeal “that they should not carry any bad feelings or complaints in their hearts. I believe they have gone with a clear heart.”

But the vilification of the Tablighi Jamaat, and the way the episode was handled by governments and the media, points to the deeper dangers that lie ahead for minorities and vulnerable sections of the Indian population. “I am reminded of that horrific moment in 1984, when, after the massacre of the Sikhs, there was a huge amount of rumour-mongering about how the ‘Sikhs were coming to poison the water,’ et cetera,” Rajeev Bhargava, a political theorist and former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told me. “After a cataclysmic event perpetrated by an organised mob, a larger number spread fear of a reprisal.”

The rumours about the Sikhs had mercifully stopped after a while, Bhargava said, adding that he fears that, in the case of Indian Muslims, such fear-mongering “shows no sign of stopping, becoming more or less a permanent condition.” He added that a section of Indians had launched a permanent ideological war, “a relentless tirade of hatred against the ‘enemy’ that readies them for a real war. It is as if people are itching to scratch the scab. It is a dangerous time.”


सीमा चिश्ती दिल्ली में रहने वाली एक लेखिका और पत्रकार हैं. उन्होंने 1990 से प्रिंट, रेडियो और टेलीविजन, अंग्रेजी और हिंदी में काम किया है. वह बीबीसी इंडिया की दिल्ली संपादक और इंडियन एक्सप्रेस में उप संपादक रहीं. वह नोट बाय नोट: द इंडिया स्टोरी (1947-2017), की सह-लेखिका हैं जिसमें स्वतंत्र भारत का एक इतिहास, जिसे साल दर साल हिंदी फिल्मी संगीत के साथ दर्ज किया गया है. उसकी यह कोशिश एक बड़े और विविध देश में परिवर्तन के कई पहलुओं को छेड़ने, खोलने और फिर व्याख्या करने में मदद करने की रहती है.