The difference in their age is as vast as the distance between their countries. But what bound a 14-year-old from Nepal and 74-year-old Sheikh Al Amin from Sudan together was a religious gathering — and a shared four months in detention — in a foreign land.
Having spent over four months in quarantine centres ever since they were evacuated from the Nizamuddin Markaz in March, the duo have now shifted to two private schools in South-east Delhi, which are doubling up as lodging facilities for around 200 foreign nationals who were part of the gathering.
They have been sharing damp, airless rooms with citizens of countries that can be plotted all over a world map — from neighbouring Sri Lanka to faraway Brazil — for over a month now, after the Delhi High Court had on May 28 allowed around 955 foreign nationals, who were part of the gathering, to move from quarantine centres to alternate accommodations.
The rooms, emptied of benches and other classroom paraphernalia, house three to four persons each and feature not more than a few thin rugs, pillows and water bottles. The men, young and old, mostly keep to themselves, immersed in scriptures.
The gathering had found itself in the eye of a storm after the Markaz emerged as a Covid hotspot during the initial days of the pandemic, and its members found themselves being maligned by politicians, the general public and sections of the media. While police had booked foreign members of the gathering for alleged violations of visa rules, many have now started returning after entering into plea bargains in court.
Asked about their experiences over the last few months, most respond in monosyllables, while some turn philosophical. But the longing for home and the worry for dear ones, be it wife or children, is a cause of distress for many.
“In my case, since I have been at the Markaz over the last one year, my separation from them would not have been a cause of worry. But they are constantly worried about my health due
to the pandemic,” said the Nepalese teenager, who has now been allowed to return home with a batch of 34 others.
He has been stranded with three of his brothers, aged 13, 16 and 19. A volunteer assisting the children said that in case of residents of Nepal, charges were pressed for violation of government guidelines and the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act, while in cases of residents from other countries passports were also seized.
“I don’t have any grievances. Whatever I have learnt in life is an outcome of my long association with the Jamaat. I have been coming to India for over 40 years. Of course, things have changed over time and rules have become stricter. But given a choice, I would surely return,” said al Amin, who has also been allowed to return after pleading guilty and furnishing a fine of Rs 5,000.
On Friday, around 125 Malaysians, who were staying at a Mahipalpur hotel based on arrangements made by the Malaysian Embassy, flew back home, becoming the first batch of foreign nationals among the 955-odd Tablighis, staying across eight accommodations across Delhi, to return.
Ilmi Adam from Djibouti, having neurological complications, is among the ones still waiting for their cases to come up before the court. But the long wait has made him resentful and anxious about his family back home, who are dependent on his income from sale of vegetables and fruits.
“At the quarantine centre, I had a bitter experience. We could not even step out of our rooms. The behaviour of the police and staff was rude. My intake of medicines became irregular as a consequence of which I am suffering. I have four sons and a daughter. The impression of India I had before is not something I am carrying back,” Adam, aged 55, said.
But Abdullah Ahmed, whose left foot had to be amputated due to an infection in 2017, has made peace with the situation.
“The lack of medicines is causing trouble, yes. But none of us foresaw a situation like this. So I cannot really complain against anyone. I have diabetes. These days, I am mostly keeping roza and reading the scriptures all through the day,” Ahmed, a Sudanese national, said.
Back home, he earns through odd jobs as an electrician and by working at workshops of metal scraps. All the foreign tablighis The Indian Express spoke to said they had tested negative.
The 14-year-old from Nepal, “bored of browsing the mobile”, is sanguine about the prospect of returning home soon and getting to meet his friends. For his brother Abdur Rehman (19), who has spent more time in India, the recent deterioration in ties between India and Nepal is a matter of concern. “We will return home soon. But the future looks uncertain now,” he said.
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