This Article has been authored by Sneha Tripathi, a fourth-year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.
With the coronavirus marching across the world, any public gathering would prove to be the most efficient transmission passage and would infect numerous people. In India, one organisation called Tablighi Jamaat may have led to the opening of such passage. In March 2020, religious congregation took place in NizamuddinMarkaz mosque in Delhi, which it was a coronavirus super spreader event. The gathering witnessed devotees from all parts of India and foreign nationals crowded in Delhi. They unknowingly carried the coronavirus with them and complicated the control measures of rising infection in the nation. By April 2020, nearly 4,300 cases were linked to the Markaz event according to the Union Health ministry.
Tablighi Jamaat which translates into the society of preachers is a global Muslim organization and a missionary group that was founded by Muhammad Ilyas al- Kandhlawi, a Deobandi Scholar in 1926 in Mewat district in the Indian state of Haryana. After being found a century ago, the organization has more than 80 million followers around the world. They are said to be spreading the teachings of Prophet Mohammad to Muslims who have been infatuated by the materialistic world. The people working in these organizations are not full-time workers but are working professionals or large and small businessmen who identify themselves as preachers of Muslim revivalist society.
A Far-reaching Meet
A gathering was organized by the organization which was held last month at a large white building in Nizamuddin, a high Muslim population density area that is in the country’s capital, Delhi. Thousands of devotees from different parts of the world and the country were part of this gathering to be a part of the message delivered by the organization. After the completion of the gathering, the attendees left the event, unexpectedly carrying the Coronavirus with them in the first few weeks of March 2020 to different parts of the country, thus acting as the super spreader of the disease. Several missionaries from Southeast Asian nations were present in India and traveled around the city of Delhi and moved to different parts of the country from there. The meeting was held in a high population density area of the capital. After the lockdown in Delhi came into action, many people dispersed in different parts of the nation, but 1600 people were still stranded in the gathering place. The activities of the Tablighi Jamaat had played a very potent role in the transmission of the virus. The first victim of the outbreak of the virus at the gathering was a 65-year-old man who was a part of the gathering who was a resident of Kashmir.
This isn’t the only case virus transmission through the medium of people’s faith. Similar cases have erupted in other countries like the fueling of the pandemic through a cult in South Korea, whose leader had to give a nationwide apology for his actions as well as in France where a Megachurch meeting led to a rise in the number of victims. An early outbreak was also seen at synagogue in New York. A Tablighi Jamaat meeting was earlier conducted in Malaysia as well in the month of February 2020and more than 600 people related to it were tested positive of coronavirus. This, leads the country to seal its borders by March. Countries like Thailand and Brunei have also seen cases related to this. At that time the international borders of India were not sealed and thermal screening was only restricted to the passengers coming from China and Italy. Italy became the epicenter of the pandemic as it recorded 53,000 infections and more than 4,800 deaths by March, 2020.
Nationwide quest to track
The cases of the coronavirus linked to Tablighi jamaat erupted stretching from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and consisted of about one-third of all the confirmed cases in the country by the third week of April. This forced an effort by the authorities to track all the attendees of the event which could be attained using their mobile phone location. The events involving an assembly of people were banned all over the nation amidst the complete lockdown instituted by the government. Various states in the county identified the attendees of the event and were quarantined.
Multi-state judgments around the issue
FIRs were filed and cases presented before Bombay High Court against 35 people who attended the Tablighi jamaatwith charges under Sections 188, 269, 270, and 290 of the Indian Penal Code, 1870. Several charges were also laid under the Foreigners Act, 1946, Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and Disaster Management Act of 2005. These were basically for the alleged disobedience and negligence of the order of a public servant. The Bombay High Court quashed the FIRs against the 6 citizens and 29 foreigners concurring that there is a possibility that they were the chosen scapegoats to take the burden of the pandemic. The court emphasized the need of showing tolerance and sensitivity. The division bench has said that instead of helping them in the testing times, the police have lodged complaints under political influence and framed allegations regarding the violation of travel legalities making them responsible for the transmission of the virus.
The pilgrims were also produced before the Madras and Karnataka High Court in connection with the attendance at the congregation. Madras high court in its order said that the foreign nationals in question had not been tested positive for COVID-19 and therefore nothing proves their responsibility in the spread of the virus. These foreign nationals were imprisoned for more than 2 months and no concrete development has happened in the cases till now. The judge defined this detainment of the foreign nationals as unreasonable and unjust. The pilgrims were made to sign the affidavit showing their regret in violating the visa regulations of India and the criminal prosecution was closed.
The Karnataka high court also passed a similar order where the concerned persons needed to sign the affidavit and were disqualified from entering the country for 10 years with a monetary fine. But these FIRs were only quashed against the foreign nationals and not the Indian citizen, thus, specifying that this would not act as a precedent for future cases. The high court denied that the prosecution was an effect of the media-generated attention to the case and called for empathy and compassion.
Cases were filed by Delhi police under Section 3 of the Epidemic Act, 1897, which talks about penalty for disobeying regulations, against the management board of the Markaz and the leader of the organization for the violation of the social distancing regulations. The act provides for either 6-month imprisonment or Rs. 1000 fine, or both as a punishment for the crime. Investigations were launched against the head of the congregation leading to a launch of a non-bailable charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder on 16th April 2020. Also, hundreds of foreigners were charged with Visa violations. The matters have been directed to various district courts and are awaited to be resolved.
Various complaints against the media houses have also been registered for spreading communal hatred over the troublesome event before the Supreme Court of India. The Apex Court has said that these complaints should first be addressed to the National Broadcasting Association for the primary investigation. Earlier also the court has asked the bodies like the Press Council of India and the National Broadcasting Bureau to respond with reports towards a complaint filed by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and Peace Party who had accused the media of spreading hate towards a particular religious group. The court in its order has directed that it will only give decision after it receives a report from these bodies.
Blame and Criticism
The act of the Tablighi Jamaat had been criticized all over the country and people have held it responsible for painting the whole religion in a bad picture. The foolishness of one community may make whole religion take the brunt. The pandemic has invoked the convulsion of Islamophobia and the country had to go through a rough religious clash with media trials exaggerating the issue. The Jamaat was careless in conducting the event even after the preachers from Indonesia in Telangana were tested positive. The largest Muslim organization in the country, Jamiat ulema I Hind, has also said that such meetings should not have been held and punishment should be decided by the legal system and not the media. Vilification of one religion is not a beneficial for the health of a secular polity.
The Government in Delhi banned the gathering of more than 200 people before the nationwide lockdown was imposed by the Prime Minister. The Police authorities failed to take a prompt action even when the Markaz authorities provided the information of whereabouts of the people who attended the gathering. No timely response to the same led to the spreading of the coronavirus throughout the country. After the issue escalated, the authorities around the country started tracing the ones who attended the congregation. The deaths due to the event led to communalization of the pandemic even though this was not the first case of religious congregation spreading the virus. However, the Supreme Court had criticized the Affidavit filed by Centre which stated that there were no instances of bad reporting. It also asked the Centre to assist the foreign national stranded in going back to their countries. Though this case showed missed opportunities and critical missteps on part of both the Tablighi Jamaat members and the authorities, cornering one minority community still remained a primary concern for the mainstream media.