Social Issues

Tablighi Jamaatis' acquittal shows evidence of innocence

Print edition : January 15, 2021

Foreign nationals belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat released from the Birsa Munda jail after getting bail from the Jharkhand High Court, in Ranchi on July 21. Photo: PTI

The acquittal of Tablighi Jamaat members from abroad nails the widespread lie that they were wilfully spreading COVID-19 and raises questions about the motives behind the demonisation of Muslims.

Barely a week after a Delhi sessions court acquitted 36 foreigners facing trial for allegedly flouting COVID-19 guidelines while participating in a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in March, Markaz, the headquarters of the Muslim organisation in New Delhi, lies forlorn—no celebrations, no chest thumping, not even a special prayer. Normally a beehive of activity with thousands of worshippers on any given day, the Markaz has remained closed since the media outrage over a congregation in March that was accused of spreading COVID cases across the country. 

Even the acquittal of the men said to have attended the congregation has failed to lift the spirits of the organisation. The Jamaat is now seeking dismissal of the Arvind Kejriwal government for filing a first information report (FIR) in the case and creating “disturbance in the name of religion”.

The reaction is explained by the Jamaat’s spokeman, Shahid Ali, who considers the court verdict only an incomplete victory. “We consider it a partial victory. Our happiness would be complete the day the wrongdoers are punished. Just acquittal is not enough; stringent punishment for the guilty is necessary.”

He added: “The inspector of the police station is being made a scapegoat. Who registered the FIR? We have to ask at whose behest it was it filed. I am talking of Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, at whose behest the complaint was filed. Please do not look for small entities. Like the Tablighi Jamaatis, the local policemen are being made a scapegoat. We request the President to dismiss the Kejriwal government for creating disturbance in the name of religion. Remember, the Delhi government in its daily bulletin on COVID victims used to make a special mention of the Markaz.”

Also read: Tablighi Jamaat finally vindicated

The practice of mentioning the Markaz in connection with the coronavirus infection continued until April 11, when Delhi Minorities Commission intervened, objecting to the classification of victims based on religion or a religious body. However, much damage had already been done, with newspapers reporting separately about the number of COVID positive cases emerging from the Markaz. Earlier, the sessions court came down heavily on the Delhi Police—which reports to the Home Ministry—including Mukesh Walia, the Station House Officer (SHO) of Nizamuddin police station, and also talked of the motives behind the arrest of the Jamaatis.

The accused, who hailed from the United States, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, France, Tanzania, Sudan, Thailand and Sri Lanka, had pleaded that none of them was present at the Markaz “during the relevant period” and that they had been picked up from different places so as to “maliciously prosecute them upon directions from Ministry of Home Affairs”. The court acknowledged the probability of this plea. While passing the order, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Arun Kumar Garg slammed the Nizamuddin SHO, the complainant in the case, and the investigating officer for lapses in identification of the accused. 

It said: “It is beyond comprehension of the court, as to how IO (Inspector Satish Kumar) could have identified 952 foreign nationals out of 2,343 persons who, as per SHO, were found flouting the guidelines, without any Test Identification Parade (TIP), but on the basis of list provided by MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs).” The court effectively questioned the quality of the investigation into the case.

The court laid bare the police’s claim of a thorough investigation into the congregation held between March 13 and 15 and afterwards when the COVID restrictions came into force from midnight of March 24-25. It also called into question the “creditworthiness” of the personnel concerned.

The court said: “The SHO was aware of the actual number of persons gathered at Markaz since the beginning and still failed to take any timely measures to ensure dispersal of the said gatherings despite being aware of government guidelines…. Else, if he was not so aware of the actual or even approximate numbers staying inside Markaz till the last day of evacuation exercise, he in all probability is deposing falsely about his daily visits to Markaz…. In any case, his testimony has failed to pass the test of creditworthiness and hence identification by him of the accused persons in the court is not sufficient to discharge the onus of prosecution to prove the presence of accused at Markaz during the relevant period.”

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Mukesh Walia had deposed before the court regarding identification of the accused following his visits to the Jamaat premises between March 12 and April 1. The Tablighi register produced by the police as proof of the foreigners’ arrival and stay failed to convince the court. The court noted that the contents of the register produced by the prosecution did not prove that the accused arrived at the Markaz on the dates mentioned against their names, or that they stayed at the Markaz until the end of March.

According to the court, the prosecution failed to prove the documents, as per law, to establish the presence of the accused persons at the spot. Also, as the accused did not have any symptoms of COVID-19 during their alleged period of stay in Nizamuddin, “they cannot be said to have indulged in commission of any negligent act likely to spread infection”. The accused had been charged with offences under Sections 188 and 269 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, besides the relevant provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

The latest ruling comes on the heels of similar bail and/or acquittal of Tablighi Jamaat members by courts in Chennai, Bengaluru, and the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court. Read together, they nail the lie of Tablighi Jamaatis acting as spreaders of COVID-19 or that the body had wilfully flouted visa regulations or the aforementioned Acts.

Fake videos

The acquittals also bury the ghosts of fake videos circulated on social media allegedly showing Tablighi Jamaatis spitting at health officials and policemen, or disrobing before female nurses in quarantine facilities, or asking for special facilities in quarantine.

The AltNews fact-checking portal had then proved such videos to be either completely false or totally unrelated to the Tablighi Jamaat. However, the videos led to a spree of anti-Muslim actions, including a couple of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators in Uttar Pradesh trying to chase away Muslim vendors from their colonies, or asking people not to buy goods from Muslim shopkeepers. 

Also read: Calling out fake news at the time of Covid

The Jamaat had then maintained silence, preferring to pursue the case in different courts across the country. Incidentally, the Jamaat is the largest Muslim organisation in the world. It is an apolitical body that stays away from emerging day-to-day issues and prefers to concentrate on self-rejuvenation through prayer sessions and other rituals. It works exclusively among the Muslim community, staying away from any attempts at conversion. It has never taken a stand on even highly emotive issues such as instant triple talaq or Babri Masjid, preferring to confine itself to ritual retreats and mosques.

Shahid Ali said: “We have every hope that now the Markaz will also reopen and normal activities will resume. We have initiated legal proceedings for it. The three-day gatherings, the 40-day chilla, and the year-long gatherings will resume.” Importantly, the Jamaat will not seek compensation for those acquitted by the court. “The Jamaat believes in, and works for, afterlife. The resorting to legal proceedings is the privilege of the sufferer. The individuals concerned may do so, but not the Tablighi Jamaat as an entity. The Jamaat believes not in worldly affairs. I do not think they will ask for compensation.”

He also said that all those found innocent of wrongdoing will be eligible to come back for future congregations of the Jamaat. “No legal impediments will be there for those who wish to visit again. They have been acquitted by the court,” Ali said.

He added: “Even those who bought their piece of mind by pleading guilty can come. It [their action of pleading guilty to go home] will not come in the way of their visiting India again. We will pursue their cases too.”

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Incidentally, the 36 members were the last of the foreign accused to face trial in the case. According to court records, 952 foreigners were initially accused by the Delhi Police of breaking COVID violations. Over 900 of them had pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain as they did not want to stay back in India to face trial. However, 44 foreigners decided to face trial to clear their names of any wrongdoing as far as COVID regulations or visa rules were concerned.

The trials commenced on August 10 following directions from the Supreme Court. Eight of the accused were discharged by the sessions court in August as it found no “prima facie evidence” against them. The final arguments, in the case of the 36 remaining accused, began on December 3. The judgment came after three days of hearing.

The judgment will hopefully close the most controversial chapter in the life of the Muslim organisation that is nearly a century old, one that led to widespread suspicion of its policy of seclusion from worldly affairs and false accusations of being the principal COVID-19 spreader in the country.

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