An Indian health worker wearing personal protective equipment waits for residents to arrive at a free Covid-19 testing van in Hyderabad on Aug. 25. (Photo: AFP)
A court in Mumbai has struck down criminal cases registered against Tablighi Jamaat members who were blamed for spreading Covid-19 in India, saying foreigners were being made scapegoats.
Bombay High Court on Aug. 21 observed that “circumstantial evidence shows that foreign nationals were made scapegoats and it is nothing new because whenever there is any pandemic or calamity the government finds someone to blame.”
While delivering the verdict, justices T.V. Nalawade and M.G. Sewlikar said circumstances showed that the propaganda against Tablighi Jamaat — an Islamic missionary movement — was unwarranted.
“At a time when the judiciary is facing a trust deficit, it is a welcome judgment. Hopefully, it will work towards the restoration of much-needed trust. Moreover, it confirms our fear of politicization of a routine religious activity for political gain by certain vested parties," A.C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told UCA News.
“This reminds me of the Delhi High Court judgment on the matter of Dr. Christo, whose overseas citizenship of India status was canceled by the Home Ministry on grounds of alleged missionary activity. Taking a strong position, the court declared ‘India is a secular country. All persons in this country have a right to practice their faith in the manner they consider fit so long as it does not offend any other person. There is no such law that stops him from doing so,’” said Michael.
Cases were registered against 34 people, including 28 foreign Tablighi Jamaat members, in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. The judges said foreigners with valid visas cannot be prevented from visiting mosques.
All the accused sought to quash the criminal cases registered against them, saying they came to India on valid visas.
They said that they were even screened for Covid-19 on their arrival at airports and added that they were stranded in Ahmednagar after the nationwide lockdown was imposed and no transport was available, so they stayed in mosques.
However, Ahmednagar police said Tablighi Jamaat members were found preaching in mosques and so cases were registered against them. Police claimed Tablighi Jamaat members were arrested after institutional quarantine and subsequently five of them were found to be infected.
According to visa rules, foreigners visiting India on tourist visas are prohibited from engaging in preaching activity but are free to visit places of worship and attend normal religious activities.
Tablighi Jamaat became headline news in March when authorities blamed a religious gathering at the movement’s headquarters in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area for a spike in Covid-19 infections.
According to media reports, more than 2,000 delegates, including some from Indonesia and Malaysia, attended the gathering from March 1-15.
About 250 foreign nationals arrived in the capital to attend the congregation before traveling to various states.
Tablighi Jamaat tries to replicate the way Muslims lived in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It was started in 1926 in Mewat province by Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. Followers are asked to visit areas in groups and enlighten the locals about their roles and responsibilities as Muslims.
However, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that Muslims who attended the gathering were responsible for 30 percent of total infections.
Some BJP leaders even suggested the gathering was part of "corona terrorism" to spread the virus among millions in India. Media portrayed those who attended the gathering as "super spreaders" and hashtags such as "coronaJihad" and "CoronaBombsTablighi" began to trend in social media.
“The BJP came to power only because of hate politics and their sole agenda is to divide people in the name of caste, creed and religion, and they have succeeded with their divide-and-rule system,” Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, told UCA News.
“Blaming minorities, especially Muslims, is nothing new for the BJP. When the government cannot hide its face from failure, the other option it has is to scapegoat the Muslim community, which is most unfortunate."
India has witnessed increased religious polarization since the BJP came to power in 2014. It projects itself as the champion of Hindus, bolstering nationalist groups to accelerate their plan to turn India into a Hindu-only nation.