Tablighi Jamaat: the rebuke to the media from Bombay High Court could have come from SC
Herald View: The rap on the knuckles of the media and the Government for communalising the Tablighi Jamaat and demonising the Muslims could, and indeed should, have come from the Supreme Court
The rap on the knuckles of the media and the Government for communalising the Tablighi Jamaat and demonising the Muslims could, and indeed should, have come from the Supreme Court. But in a belated but welcome order, Justice TV Nalwade and Justice MG Sewlikar of the Aurabgabad Bench of the Bombay High Court quashed FIRs filed against 35 foreigners who had attended the Jamaat’s congregation at the Nizamuddin Markaj in March. The propaganda against the Tablighi Jamaat, the judges observed, were unwarranted and there was a smell of malice in action taken against them. Severely criticising the media, the judges said that Muslims were sought to be demonised and those who attended the congregation were made scapegoats.
The Bench noted that the annual congregation had been held for the past 50 years and the central government could not have been ignorant of it while issuing visa. It also accepted the petitioners’ plea that the tourist visa issued to them did not stop them from visiting religious places or participating in religious activities. The judges also noted that congregations of people belonging to other religions were not subjected to similar persecution. In April this year the Supreme Court had refused to issue any direction for restraint. “We cannot curb the freedom of the press. We cannot pass any interim directions…,” the court had then told the counsel for the petitioners, Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind. The organisation had sought the protection of the court from a section of the media which was linking a congregation at its headquarters to the spread of Coronavirus in the country. The Union Health Ministry had erroneously claimed then that one-third of the COVID cases in the country were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in the middle of March. The visa issued to over two thousand foreigners who had attended the congregation were cancelled, their passports impounded and FIRs lodged against them under various sections of the IPC, Foreigners Act and the Epidemic Management Act.
It is worth remembering that neither the media nor the Government displayed similar zeal and frenzy when congregations of non-Muslims were held and flouted the rules laid down to deal with the pandemic. On the contrary, media reports spurred both hate speech and hate crime against Muslims on the ground. Some were refused admission in hospitals and denied treatment, others were assaulted and abused. A minister in Assam flouted norms and released the names of all COVID-19 patients who attended the congregation. A section of the media went to town and called it ‘Corona Jihad’ or even more offensively ‘Virus Ki Jamaat’. A leading Hindi newspaper published 171 reports against the Jamaat in just 15 days and published eight editorials, five editorial page cartoons and two opinion pieces attacking the organisation during the same period.
The Press Council of India has belatedly taken note of the irresponsible campaign and the Supreme Court of India, which is still hearing petitions, has belatedly asked for the views of the News Broadcasters’ Association. While the Bombay High Court’s order sends out a strong message, much of the media chose to bury the reprimand or ignored it. Neither the media nor the Government are likely to even express their regret however unless they are given a firm and much needed rap on the knuckle from the Supreme Court itself.