NEW DELHI

When Abdullah Harith, 63, arrived in India this March from Malaysia to attend a convention of a Muslim missionary group, he never thought his visit would turn into a months-long ordeal.

It would be his longest-ever visit to India.

Almost half a year later, Harith, who is facing a criminal case in the northern state of Bihar for violating his visa, is looking forward to the day he will be back home.

“Of the six months of my stay, I already spent 57 days in jail. I hope to go back home soon,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Harith went to India to be part of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group – a strictly apolitical organization that only focuses on teaching the basics of Islam to its followers.

But as COVID-19 cases started to mount, Muslims were accused of spreading the virus in various parts of India in April following reports of an outbreak at a Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering this March in New Delhi.

The government also filed a case against Tablighi chief Maulana Mohammad Saad Kandhalvi for arranging a gathering at its headquarters in Nizamuddin in the heart of the capital. Cases were brought against foreign and Indian nationals who were part of the group’s gatherings.

“We were in Bihar when the lockdown in India started. We couldn’t get back to Delhi. The local police then told us that a case has been registered against us because we violated the visa,” said Harith.

“We explained because of the lockdown we couldn’t get back to New Delhi. But we were sent to jail.”

He recalled his difficult time in jail. “I’m a heart patient. I never thought that we have to see all this. What was our crime?” said Harith, who was ordered released in June and has to submit a petition to the court to dismiss the case.

Continuing troubles

Nor is Harith the only one facing such troubles.

While courts have started to dismiss criminal proceedings against foreign and Indian nationals, bringing an end to their persecution, for many, their suffering continues.

Tablighi Jamaat member Hasan Basry, 27, from Vietnam, who also arrived in March, was supposed to return after just a month, but is living with other members in a mosque in Hyderabad.

“After we stayed two days in Nizammudin in New Delhi, we arrived in Hyderabad. When the lockdown started in the country, I was surprised when I found out a case was registered against us for violation of visa,” he said.

Last month, a local court quashed the arrest and along with other members, he was released with a fine. “Thankfully, I wasn’t sent to jail. We’ve been living in a mosque since April this year. I want to go home, but there are some problems with my visa. I hope to return home soon,” said Basry.

Police also brought cases against Indian nationals. Many are now out of jail after spending months in detention.

“I’m happy that I’ve been released. We were accused of spreading COVID-19, which was shocking,” said one Tablighi member who was jailed in Jharkhand along with 11 others.

He declined to be named, but said the group was picked up in April and finally released on Sept. 2 under a court order. “We were only inside a mosque. Then police said we were responsible for spreading COVID-19. We were jailed for that,” he said.

Supreme Court lawyer Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi told Anadolu Agency he was surprised to see “Tablighi members are prosecuted for provisions regarding the ‘spread’ of a life-threatening disease when most of them never tested positive for COVID-19.”

“Circumstances were so compelling that they had no choice but to enter into a plea bargain so that they could quickly reunite with their families. Effectively we failed to provide them a fair opportunity before the law.

“The allegations for all were blanket and not at all specific,” he said, adding that those jailed continue to be deprived of their liberty and dignity.

Ayyubi said all foreign Tablighi Jamaat members in India were blacklisted for 10 years and their visas revoked by the Indian Home Ministry.

“In the same breath, state police chiefs were directed to register cases against them. Due to this direction to the states, around 100 criminal cases were registered against 2,500 Tablighi members around the country,” he said.

More charges dropped

Ayyubi said when the matter reached the courts, the prosecution failed to substantiate their cases.

“Accordingly, for many cases the court didn’t take cognizance. In some places courts discharged them. The Bombay High Court bench at Aurangabad quashed the criminal case and passed severe strictures against the government and the media. However, most of the cases are still pending in court due to low functioning of the same,” he said.

“The Supreme Court of India has asked Delhi and Bihar to expedite the process of trial and conclude the same within the next eight weeks. A similar order is expected for the largest state of Uttar Pradesh this week.”

Not only did the Bombay High Court order the case quashed last month, but several other courts have started closing criminal prosecutions against Tablighi members. A Mumbai court Thursday discharged eight Philippines nationals who were booked on visa violations rules in March.

The Bombay court said there is a “probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats.” It said an attempt was made to create the impression that the foreign missionaries were responsible for spreading the virus in India.

“I am yet to understand why only one community was blamed for spreading the virus in India. The allegation was totally false,” said an Indian Tablighi member.

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