Tablighi Jamaat members detained for “spreading COVID” stuck in India | India News

New Delhi, India – In March of last year, a 23-year-old Malaysian student, Muhammad Hafizuddin, landed in India for a two-month trip to “further explore his spirituality”.

He did not know he would remain stranded in the country for more than 12 months, including nearly six in prison.

Now living in a mosque in Kishanganj district, Bihar state, eastern India, Hafizuddin is still waiting to return home to Johor, Malaysia, where his parents and siblings await him. impatiently.

Hafizuddin is a member of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement with millions of followers who travel around the world.

The arrival of Hafizuddin in Bihar was for the same purpose. As he traveled with 10 of his companions by train, he heard the announcement of a nationwide lockdown in India to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We immediately went to the Kishanganj mosque and we went into isolation there,” he told Al Jazeera.

As Hafizuddin and others voluntarily quarantined themselves in the mosque, a number of coronavirus infections were reported. linked to a congregation in Markaz, international headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat movement in New Delhi.

Headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, known as Markaz, in the Nizamuddin district of New Delhi [Shaheen Abdulla/Al Jazeera]

About 3,000 foreign nationals had traveled to India to attend the congregation held March 13-15, more than a week before the government banned public meetings due to the virus.

Discovery of COVID-19 cases among Tablighi Jamaat members led to a vicious hate campaign not only against the organization but against Muslims in general, who have been accused by much of the mainstream media of being solely responsible for the COVID epidemic in India.

In television and newspaper reports, members of Tablighi Jamaat have been called “super spreaders” and accused of to perform a “corona jihad” to deliberately spread the virus. Several media reports have also falsely accused them of misbehaving with medical staff at various quarantine facilities.

As disinformation and conspiracy theories flooded mainstream and social media platforms, there were even calls for a social boycott of Muslims, followed by attacks on Tablighi Jamaat members across the country.

Some politicians belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party have openly supported calls to boycott Muslims and mentionned Members of Tablighi Jamaat “should be shot”.

More than 200 police complaints have been filed against members of the organization in nearly a dozen Indian states.

As the smear campaign against the Muslim movement Intensified, Hafizuddin and his counterparts were arrested at the Bihar mosque and jailed from April 14 to September 30.

“Before they took us to jail, they (the police) took our phones and passports,” Hafizuddin told Al Jazeera.

“It was a terrible feeling. I was worried about my family. I managed to call my family through someone’s phone inside the prison. I didn’t tell them about my condition at first, but later I had to.

After being released on bail, Hafizuddin was given the opportunity to sign a plea agreement, which would have expedited his return to Malaysia. But he refused.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, that’s why I’m asking them to legally quash the case. The matter is pending and there is a delay. It is wrong to plead guilty because I did nothing wrong. But this (judicial process) is taking too long, ”he said.

Back home in Kluang, in the Johor district of Malaysia, his family, though worried, is proud of his decision.

“He’s innocent and hasn’t done anything wrong. Why would he sign the compromise? Zainal Abidin, Hafizuddin’s father, told Al Jazeera.

“I hope that before Ramadan he will come home, Inshaa Allah (God willing).”

Ramadan, the holy month in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, begins next month.

A one-year trial

Hafizzudin is not an isolated case. Hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members from multiple countries have been held in detention centers and prisons across India for flouting government directives issued in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – charges later annulled by various regional courts Across the country.

“We were accommodated in a school devoid of any facilities and quarantined for three periods despite tests which came back negative,” said K Irfan Baig, 45, a foreign national from India, who was unable to attend. to see his family in Brisbane, Australia for a year.

Baig also refused to plead guilty and was among 36 foreigners acquitted by Delhi High Court in December.

Although a “watch circular” issued by Delhi police against Baig was withdrawn last month, he was unable to travel due to an overseas travel ban now extended until mid -June.

“(But) now I’m happy to be able to serve other foreigners who are stuck here,” says Baig, from the southern Indian city of Chennai.

“A lot of them have a language barrier that I don’t have. So I will not leave until after the departure of the last foreigner from Tablighi Jamaat for his house.

Even though the prosecution did not substantiate the allegations against the Tablighi Jamaat members, the one-year ordeal away from home left many traumatized.

“They made us sleep next to corpses in the hospital. It was terrible, ”said Ahmed bin Abdullah Ali, 44, an American national who came to India for a week to attend the organization’s congregation in New Delhi.

US national Ahmed said Indian police made them sleep next to corpses in hospital [Shaheen Abdulla/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed returned to the United States on March 15 after being separated from his children for a year.

However, nearly 140 foreign nationals remain in India, with at least 26 in different courts. More than 30 Indian nationals associated with the Jamaat are also awaiting trial.

Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi, Tablighi Jamaat’s attorney at the Supreme Court, told Al Jazeera he hoped that at the end of the month all foreigners would be acquitted by the courts and then leave for their home countries.

“We are on the verge of eliminating all cases. Our justice system is slow, but we have done our best. Yet it took a year and from their (Jamaat members’ point of view) it must have been a very difficult time, ”Ayyubi said.

“But it is clear that they are acquitted of all charges – whether it be negligence, any violation of visa standards or any allegation of the spread of the disease. Every allegation is rejected by the honorable courts, ”he added.

“ BJP Hate Policy By-Product ”

The Indian government has also blacklisted over 2,500 foreign nationals associated with the Tablighi Jamaat and barred them from entering the country for 10 years.

The Tablighi Jamaat has challenged the government’s instructions in the Supreme Court, which is expected to begin next week.

“The Tablighi Jamaat has become the scapegoat for the spread of the virus. The government even released a separate list for people in Tablighi Jamaat who tested positive for COVID. They were cheap gimmicks to vilify an entire organization associated with the Muslim community, ”Saif Ahmed, a New Delhi-based Tablighi Jamaat volunteer, told Al Jazeera.

“They (the authorities) said our members had been quarantined. But it was nothing less than detention. Indian nationals were quarantined for 40 days and foreigners were detained for more than two months, ”Ahmed added.

Some experts in India accuse Hindu nationalist BJP of using the coronavirus pandemic to further target the Muslim community.

“They (the government) are on the lookout for any opportunity to blame and defame Muslims. There were too many religious gatherings then and since, but no cry has ever been made because only Muslims should be targeted by the current regime, ”said Zafar ul Islam Khan, former chairman of the Commission of the Delhi minorities.

“The campaign against Tablighi Jamaat across India, and by extension against all Muslims in the country, was a byproduct of the ruling system’s hate politics aided by pocket media and an army of social media workers Khan added.

Harish Khurana, spokesman for the BJP in New Delhi, declined to comment on the matter. India’s Interior Ministry has also failed to respond despite repeated attempts by Al Jazeera to reach out.

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