On the surface, the Tablighi Jamaat members appear content — looking forward to going home and meeting their loved ones. But a gentle prodding brings forth the anguish, of spending nearly a year in a foreign land, while facing public vilification, accusations of spreading a pandemic, and a long court trial, before finally being exonerated.
“My mother suffered two brain strokes while I was stuck in India. My old father and wife had to take care of her,” says Jahedul Islam, 32, from Bangladesh. When he contacted the Bangladesh Embassy, he says, they told him their enquiries regarding his status were being stonewalled. “I get a sense that the Bangladesh government is miffed with the way we have been treated.”
However, Islam hastily adds, he is not complaining. “Eta kintu abhijog na, apnake khali situation ta bolchilam (I am not complaining, I am just narrating the situation to you)… But I am happy that truth has prevailed,” Islam, who runs a steel workshop in Munshiganj district, says.
On December 15, a Delhi court acquitted the last of the 36 foreign Tablighi Jamaat nationals, including Islam, charged with violating Covid guidelines when attending a gathering in the Capital in March. Of the 952 foreigners charged, 44 had chosen to stand trial rather than take a plea bargain, and eight had been acquitted earlier.
Acquitting the 36, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Arun Kumar Garg pulled up the police and said “the prosecution has even failed to prove the disobedience of any of the directions” issued by the authorities.
Islam, a father of three, arrived in India on January 20. He was at the Tablighi Markaz in Delhi for a congregation till March 5, before moving to Mewat, the founding place of the Islamic spiritual movement. He was detained and kept in two different quarantine centres run by the Delhi government for over two months.
“At the Narela temporary detention facility, they locked us from outside, while providing what we needed, like food, medicines. At another place, we were kept in rooms that turned into furnaces during the summer, but at least we could move around,” he recalls.
While on May 9 the Delhi government ordered the release of the Indian Tablighi members from quarantine centres, it directed that the foreigners be taken into police custody. On May 28, the Delhi High Court released them, allowing them to be shifted to alternative accommodations.
Irfan, 39, an Australian national, was picked up along with his wife from a friend’s place in the Batla House area, where they had been staying since March 22. They were at the Markaz for a couple of hours. The couple’s three-year-old son has been back home in Brisbane all this while.
A mechanical engineer who left India in 2004, Irfan says, “My wife and I had registered our names while entering the Markaz building, and I guess that is where the police got our names and contacts from. We had come to visit Delhi, and Markaz was part of our itinerary. But we did not spend even a night there.”
Irfan and his wife were in detention for 62 days before getting bail. “The government school where we were kept was filthy and we cleaned it ourselves. I could not even grasp what was happening with me,” he says. They told their son, who studies in Class 3, that they were stuck due to the lockdown. “How else do you convince a child?” Irfan says.
A business development manager with a firm in Brisbane, he is worried about retaining his job given his long absence.
Afuaan, 52, the owner of an advertising firm based in Indonesia’s Sumatra that designs outdoor campaigns, says while the court verdict has left him “largely happy”, a part of his heart would always be sad at leaving India, “a land where I learnt everything about life”. Afuaan fears he may not be able to return as the Centre has blacklisted his visa along with that of the 959 others.
“My wife and my staffers tried keeping the business afloat. But we have suffered huge losses… But you see, we are taught not to complain or be bitter,” he adds, smiling.
Abdullah Ramadhan, 23, is from a village near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where he teaches Islamic scriptures and assists the family in farming. Explaining why he chose to fight rather than take a plea bargain, Ramadhan says, “It is simple. We firmly believed that the charges against us were wrong and unfair.”
Senior advocate Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, who led the legal defence of the Tablighis, says the court verdict “reflects the capacity, independence and competence of the Indian lower judiciary”, and is not worried about the police appealing against the order. “I hope the verdict will have a good impact across the globe as the case involved citizens from so many countries.”
On Friday, the petitioners told the Supreme Court that since they had paid bail bonds of six months (Rs 10,000 each), they should be allowed to leave. The hearing was held on a petition filed by them in June claiming denial of rights and challenging their blacklisting.
“We told the Supreme Court that 36 Indian nationals would stand guarantee that the foreigners will return if the law requires them to. The Court asked us to approach a nodal officer (of the Delhi Police) and the Solicitor General to get their passports and facilitate their return. The lookout circulars against them also need to be revoked and they need exit visas as their normal visas have been cancelled,” a Tablighi Jamaat functionary said.
The complex web of legal intricacies means Islam still has no answer when his five-year-old son asks on the phone that single question: “Abbu tumi kobe ashba (Father, when will you return)?”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines