Tablighi Jamaat: Much ado about one thing

While the last batch of non-Indian Tablighis held in Delhi exited the country earlier this month, the harrowing experiences that the brouhaha over the Nizamuddin centre event of March 2020 unleashed continue to dog the attendees and those who stood by their side

Updated - March 22, 2021 11:51 am IST

Published - March 22, 2021 12:13 am IST - New Delhi

People walking outside the Nizamuddin Markaz.

People walking outside the Nizamuddin Markaz.

Almost a year after a nationwide crackdown was launched on people who attended a religious congregation at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Nizamuddin during the early stage of COVID-19 proliferation, many who gave shelter to the attendees continue to face legal cases.

Four residents of the Old Delhi area who housed four female Tablighis from abroad in March last year have been slapped with Sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 269 (unlawfully or negligently doing an act likely to spread infection of any disease), 270 (malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.

On Rizwan, Abdul Wahid, Mohammad Nosad and Feroze Siddiqui’s plea seeking to quash the FIR registered at the Chandni Mahal police station, the Delhi High Court has on March 15 restrained the lower courts from passing any order in their case.

Advocate Ashima Mandla, who represented all four before the High Court, told The Hindu that around 60 persons continue to face different charges in connection with the Tablighi Jamaat incident.

The crackdown

The crackdown on the Tabligh members began after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a notification on March 28 last year “to identify, isolate and quarantine” workers of the missionary movement who might be COVID-19-positive.

The MHA had estimated that around 2,100 foreigners were in India for Tabligh activities at the time of announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020. Many of them were already dispersed in different parts of the country while others stayed put at the Nizamuddin centre.

A nationwide search operation was also carried out for Indians who had attended the religious congregation and left for different parts of the country. In Delhi, all the attendees including foreigners who were evacuated from the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters between March 26 and April 1 were sent to different quarantine centres.

On March 31, the first FIR was registered against the congregation organisers, including Maulana Saad, the head of Tablighi Jamaat. Later, 29 other FIRs were registered at different police stations in the Capital.

On completion of the investigation, 48 chargesheets and 11 supplementary chargesheets were filed arraying 953 foreign nationals of 36 different countries as accused. They were charged with violating visa rules, government guidelines issued in the wake of the pandemic, Epidemic Diseases Act and Disaster Management Act rules and prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. They were also booked for the offences under Sections 188, 269, 270 and 271 (disobedience to quarantine rule) of the IPC and relevant sections of the Foreigners Act.

All the foreigners were kept in institutional quarantine till the High Court on May 25 permitted their shifting to an alternative accommodation.

Of the 953 foreigners, 911 entered plea bargains by accepting mild charges. They were let off on payment of fines ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹10,000 and subsequently left the country. However, 42 of them decided not to plead guilty to the charge and claimed trial. All of them were subsequently discharged or acquitted in the case.

On December 15, a Delhi court while acquitting 36 foreign nationals noted, “It is beyond comprehension of the court as to how the IO [investigating officer] could have identified 952 foreign nationals [sic] out of 2,343 persons, who, as per the SHO, were found flouting the guidelines, without any TIP [Test Identification Parade], but on the basis of the list provided by MHA.”

Advocate Mandla, who represented all the 953 foreigners during the trials, said the last batch of eight foreigners left for their respective countries on March 8, 2021.

Memories that haunt

Apart from the foreign nationals, most of the Indians who attended the religious congregation had to face extended periods of institutional quarantine. The Hindu spoke to two who recalled their time in centres and how the period impacted their life, including one who lost his job.

Mohammed Hanif, a 64-year-old from West Bengal, is now at peace but he shudders at the thought of the time he spent at a quarantine centre in east Delhi’s Mandoli area. “I remember falling so sick that I couldn’t get up. I was bleeding from my nose twice every day but was locked up in a room without even a window and treated badly even after I had recovered,” he said.

Mr. Hanif had come to the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters on March 21, 2020 after completing his religious tour of four months and was to leave in a day or two but the lockdown forced him to stay inside the building for the next nine days. “We were taken to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital for 14 days and then to a centre in Mandoli for the next 35 days. I’ll never forget those 35 days,” he said. He remembered being thrown medicines at him. “We were treated worse than animals.”

Mr. Hanif and others from West Bengal left for their home in a bus thereafter. He got better in about a week and there was no looking back. “I just want to forget that time,” he said.

Back in Port Blair, Sharfuddin, 49, lost his job because he was forced to stay in Delhi till May-end last year. “I was supposed to come back in April but even after I recovered, I was forced to stay in the quarantine centre. When I came back, I had already lost the job,” he said.

Mr. Sharfuddin had come to the Nizamuddin centre on February 15, 2020 to offer his services for two months. He was sent to the Sultanpuri quarantine centre from hospital and stayed there till he took a flight back on May 28.

Now, he cooks occasionally to earn some money. His wife runs a small-time tailoring business from home and his children go to school.

“I had donated plasma and have a certificate for it. For no fault of ours, we were defamed and now I am jobless,” he said.

Different takes

While in the Capital, the Delhi police had categorically stated that they neither arrested nor detained any of the 953 foreign nationals in the case, other States took different routes.

A view of Nizamuddin Markaz (centre), which has been locked since March 31 last year.

A view of Nizamuddin Markaz (centre), which has been locked since March 31 last year.

 

In Mumbai, 10 Indonesian nationals were arrested on April 23 and charged with Sections 307 (attempt to murder), 304 (ii) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 269, 270 and 188 of the IPC.

The Indonesians were part of a group of 12 that had come to India on February 29, 2020 and after attending the congregation in Delhi, came to Mumbai on March 7. They were remanded in judicial custody on April 28 and granted bail on May 9.

In another case, a sessions court at Dindoshi on May 5, 2020 granted anticipatory bail to 20 foreign nationals who had visited the Nizamuddin centre but had not volunteered information to the Mumbai police.

On September 21, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court quashed an FIR filed against eight Myanmar nationals, members of the Tablighi Jamaat, who had attended the Nizamuddin event. The court said “compelling them to undergo trial would cause grave injustice” as there was “no evidence to show that they indulged in any act that was likely to spread the virus”.

Eleven Bangladeshi Tablighi Jamaat members, who were arrested from Bhadohi in U.P. for flouting visa norms and put on a government travel blacklist, left the country on March 20, 2021 after a Lucknow court allowed them go on completing their punishment. They were arrested on March 31 last year from a private guest house where they had been staying after coming from the Delhi congregation.

Centre still locked

The first FIR registered on March 31, 2020 named Tablighi Jamaat leader Maulana Saad and six others on a complaint of the SHO of Nizamuddin under sections of the Epidemic Diseases Act, Disaster Management Act, Foreigners Act and other relevant sections of the IPC.

The Tabligh chief is yet to join the investigation despite being served several notices, said a senior Delhi police officer.

The Nizamuddin centre, the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, has been shut since March last year; the market near the centre.

The Nizamuddin centre, the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, has been shut since March last year; the market near the centre.

 

“We have recorded statements of Maulana Saad’s sons and office-bearers of the centre in connection with the case. Most of the forensic reports of documents and electronic devices seized from the organisation’s offices have come and only a few are awaited. The chargesheet is in its last phase of finalisation and will be submitted in court at the earliest,” the officer said.

Almost a year since it was shut after several people contracted COVID-19 there, the Nizamuddin centre — comprising the Banglewali Masjid, Madrasa Kashif-ul-uloom and attached hostel – continues to be locked up.

The continued closure of the premises, according to the Delhi Waqf Board’s plea before the High Court, is leading to “growing discontent” among members of the Muslim community.

The Board has contended that even after Unlock-1 guidelines permitted religious places outside containment zones to be opened, the centre has remained locked. The High Court has sought response from the Delhi government and the police on the plea.

With inputs from Saurabh Trivedi, and Sonam Saigal in Mumbai

 

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