The curious case of the 'corona jihad'

Judges called the cases ‘malicious’, ‘a virtual persecution’, ‘abuse of power’, said Tablighi Jamaat members were ‘scapegoats of a political government’ that acted without ‘an iota of evidence’

During the first Covid-19 wave, Muslim citizens found themselves pilloried, blacklisted, detained for 'corona jihad'.  Representative image shows a group of Muslim youth in surgical masks (photo: National Herald archives)
During the first Covid-19 wave, Muslim citizens found themselves pilloried, blacklisted, detained for 'corona jihad'. Representative image shows a group of Muslim youth in surgical masks (photo: National Herald archives)

Aakar Patel

Sometimes, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the past to understand the present.

Four years ago, in March 2020, the evangelical Muslim organisation Tablighi Jamaat held a meeting in Delhi from 10 to 13 March.

This was scheduled before the onset of Covid-19 and they were congregating at a time when the Modi government was itself dismissive of the threat of the pandemic. A PTI report on 13 March 2020 read that ‘Covid-19 is not health emergency, no need to panic: Health Ministry’.

The Tablighi meeting was held before India issued guidelines on public gatherings. But as the cases in India began to rise towards the end of March, the government determined that it would scapegoat the Muslims and enlisted the media to do this, spreading the conspiracy of ‘Corona jihad’.

The Union made much of evacuating the area where the congregation was being held.

Modi sent NSA (national security adviser) Doval to ‘reason’ with the organisers, who had been asking for safe evacuation for days. The novelty of the virus and the first deaths reported from it coincided with the Tablighi Jamaat gathering and open season was declared on it.

"The main reason for increased number of cases is that members of the Tablighi Jamaat have travelled across the country," said Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the health ministry at a press conference.

Also, on 1 April, the BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya tweeted that the Tablighi gathering was akin to an ‘Islamic insurrection’.

Kapil Mishra accused the group of ‘terrorism’.

On 4 April, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray suggested that the group’s members be shot: "The meeting of Tablighis had taken place at Markaz in Delhi. Such people be killed by firing bullets at them. Why give them treatment? A separate section be created and their treatment be stopped."

In Uttar Pradesh, the group’s members were jailed and booked under the anti-terror National Security Act.

On 5 April, Lav Agarwal said: "The doubling rate in India is 4.1 days, had the congregation at Nizamuddin not happened and additional cases not come, this would have been about 7.14 days."

As later events proved, this was nonsense, but it was par for the course for this government.

On 18 April, Agarwal made another claim, stating that the group was the dominant single cause of the pandemic.

Thus the poisonous lie was spread and its effect began to take place in the citizenry as fast as Covid itself.

Hindi daily Amar Ujala reported that members of the Tablighi Jamaat quarantined in a facility in the western Uttar Pradesh town of Saharanpur had ‘demanded’ non-vegetarian food and were defecating in the open inside the hospital. The Saharanpur police tweeted that no such thing had happened and the story was taken down.

During the months of active persecution, the group’s members, including foreigners, were jailed and charged with attempted murder and the provisions of Section 269 (‘whoever wilfully or negligently does any act which is likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life’).

The theories being promoted were that they were deliberately spreading the virus around India by getting themselves infected, spitting on fruit, refusing to wear masks, running around naked in their wards, harassing nurses and so on.

None of this was true.

The world noticed India’s malice against Muslims and it was reported: ‘It
was already dangerous to be Muslim in India. Then came the Coronavirus’ (Time magazine); ‘Coronavirus: Islamophobia concerns after India mosque outbreak’ (BBC); ‘In India, Coronavirus fans religious hatred’ (New York Times).

Without being convicted and even without any evidence, Jamaat members were ‘blacklisted’ from receiving visas in the future.

In June, the Modi government amended the policy for visa applications to India to introduce a Tabligh-specific clause:

‘Restriction on engaging in Tabligh activities: Foreign nationals granted any type of visa and OCI cardholders shall not be permitted to engage themselves in Tabligh work.

'There will be no restriction in visiting religious places and attending normal religious activities like attending religious discourses. However, preaching religious ideologies, making speeches in religious places, distribution of audio or visual display/ pamphlets pertaining
to religious ideologies, spreading conversion etc. will not be allowed.’

This was the first time in India that a particular religious group had been mentioned in the list of visa guidelines.

This was purely to fuel the fire that was already raging in the media, blaming the group for the deliberate spread of Covid in India and absolving the government from its responsibility, especially for the fallout of the disastrous and unplanned 2020 lockdown.

It was only after it became generally accepted that the virus was an unstoppable global phenomenon which had spread through multiple ways that the ‘Tablighi conspiracy’ story faded.

On 19 May, the foreign members of the Jamaat moved court to be released from institutional quarantine, where they had been held for over a
month and a half, despite repeatedly testing negative for Covid.

The government told the court that none of the visitors had been ‘detained’, they were merely ‘asked to join the investigation’.

But the passports of over 700 Jamaat members had been seized—they were not, in fact, free.

On 6 July, before the chief metropolitan magistrate at Delhi’s Saket court, 44 Tablighi Jamaat members refused to pay a fine of between Rs 4,000 and Rs 10,000 in exchange for closing of cases and bravely chose trial.

By December, eight months after 11 states had filed 20 FIRs against more than 2,500 Tablighi Jamaat members, nobody was convicted.

And courts fiercely criticised the actions of the government.

Judges called the cases ‘malicious’, ‘a virtual persecution’, ‘abuse of process’, ‘abuse of power’, and said the Tablighi Jamaat members were ‘scapegoats of a political government’ who had acted against the group though having ‘not an iota of evidence’.

That such a vicious falsehood was allowed to be spread deliberately should tell us much of what we need to understand about where we are today.

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