The cops went on an overdrive in the Kangana Ranaut and Arnab Goswami cases, while the same police force failed to record the statement of an ‘independent witness’ in the Tablighi Jamaat case. It’s time for the police to wake up and smell the coffee.

NEW DELHI: A Mumbai court recently acquitted 20 foreign nationals who attended Iztema of Tablighi Jamaat at Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi in March 2020. They had been booked by the city police for allegedly violating coronavirus-related protocols during the lockdown. In two separate judgements, the Indonesian and Kyrgyz Republic nationals were found not guilty as the prosecution failed to prove the charges against them. “There is no iota of evidence with the prosecution to show any contravention of the order by accused persons beyond all shadow of a doubt,” Metropolitan Magistrate (Andheri) R.R. Khan observed in the order.

“The prosecution has not even carried out the preparation of Panchanama and never recorded the statement of any other independent witness. Thus, there is no legal evidence furnished by the prosecution in support of the charge,” news agency ANI quoted the court. The delegates can now return to their home countries, said sources. The delegates had been booked across the country, including Mumbai, for visiting various mosques and meeting people despite lockdown restrictions and helping the deadly virus spread all over the country. They were also charged under provisions of the Foreigners Act, the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act, as reported by the news agency.

The investigating agency, Mumbai Police, which has been very quick to respond in the cases of Kangana Ranaut and Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, behaved differently in the Tablighi Jamaat case. The judgement has clearly stated the failure of the police to produce the pieces of evidence. It should be a big question why Mumbai Police failed to prove the charges. Were they influenced by the political leadership to do so?

The Tablighi Jamaat’s religious congregation, which took place in Delhi›s Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in March this year, was perceived in many states as a coronavirus super-spreader event—and found true to be so too. On 28 August, a week after the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court observed that Tablighi Jamaat had been made a “scapegoat”, the Saket district court in Delhi acquitted eight Tablighi foreigners charged of violating tourist visa rules and participating in the Markaz Nizamuddin congregation in violation of the government notification issued owing to Covid-19. Among the eight activists of the Tablighi Jamaat acquitted by Delhi, the court included two Indonesians, one Kyrgyzstani national, two from Thailand, and one from Kazakhstan. The court also rejected the charges of participating in Tablighi Jamaat congregation. In the month of March, Delhi Police had levelled charges of visa rules violation, participation in religious activities and violation of government guidelines for coronavirus against 955 Tablighi Jamaat members.

The court concurred, “A political government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is a probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats. The aforesaid circumstances and the latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken.” “During the situation created by Covid-19 pandemic, we need to show more tolerance and we need to be more sensitive towards our guests particularly like the present petitioners. The allegations made show that instead of helping them, we lodged them in jails by making allegations that they are responsible for violation of travel documents, they are responsible for spreading of virus etc,” Justice T.V. Nalawade said in his judgement. While Justice M.G. Sewlikar agreed with the operative portion of the ruling, he disagreed with Justice Nalawade’s reasoning and said he would write a separate judgement.

The question is how weak were the prosecution and the agency? An entire country saw the surge in cases as soon as the Jamaat people dispersed across the country. When the Tablighi Jamaat members were found infected, they denied their cooperation with the authorities, their head Mohammed Saad delivered provocative and highly objectionable sermons against the establishment and tried to prove the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory against the Muslim community. They spread all across the country and hid in madrasas and mosques. It is evident from records that the initial spreaders of the virus in India were those who had a history of foreign travel or the people who gathered at Markaz Nizamuddin. 

Let’s have a look at the chronology of the events before and after the Nizamuddin event.

•  The Prime Minister of Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin said on Friday, March 13, 2020, that the Tablighi group had held a mass gathering at Masjid Jamek Sri Petaling on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur involving thousands of people leading to the spread of the deadly virus, and that the country was facing a “second wave” of infections and warned of an impact on economic growth. The Health Ministry of Malaysia stated that new cases brought the total number of infections in the country to 428, out of which, 243 were linked to the gathering at the mosque. Malaysian health authorities said that around 16,000 people attended the religious gathering held at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur between February 27 and March 1. Around 14,500 of the participants were Malaysian.

•  The attendees of the Malaysian congregation flew in along with other nationals to attend the Nizamuddin Markaz. They stayed in spite of the government’s orders to cancel gatherings, whether personal, social, governmental or religious. The police and government officials served notices to evacuate the Markaz on 13.03.2020 and 16.03.2020 but they defied the guidelines and around 3,400 people congregated at Markaz during 13 to15 March. Moreover, Jamaat’s Saad did not even bother to inform the health department or any other government agency about the huge gathering to be conducted even after the declaration of the guidelines issued by the Delhi Government. In that way, the Markaz chief and other names in the FIR caused a situation where a highly infectious disease spread and threatened the life of inmates and the general public at large. Even after news regarding Tablighi members linked to the Indonesians exposed to Covid-19 in Telangana, there was no movement initiated by the Nizamuddin Markaz chief to vacate the Markaz. Instead, thousands of members were allowed to continue to remain present at Markaz. The attitude itself proves the intention of the Markaz chief. 

•  Advocate Darshan Vankawala says, “As per the facts mentioned in FIR, police visited Markaz on 21st of March, 2020 to apprise about the gravity of Covid-19 but was not taken seriously and people were continuously gathered. On the very same day, the 21st of March, when police visited Markaz, they came across the audio of Maulana Saad Kandhalvi in a sermon instigating Muslims to defy the lockdown”. Maulana Saad said, “This is the time to fill the mosques. I have been saying this since the beginning that this is the time to fill up the mosques. Do not come into the talks to empty the mosques. It is the time to increase the mosques.” He added, “Those who have no faith in Allah, through these schemes and excuses of trying to save Muslims from the disease, are trying to keep us away. They have found an excuse to keep Muslims away from coming here. They want to put this fear in the Muslims that those who gather in huge numbers can get infected. The disease will pass but the fear will not. This is a tactic to create fear amongst the Muslims and to end the love and brotherhood Muslims have amongst each other. This is a program created against Muslims to make them appear ‘untouchable’. They think this is a good excuse to do this. There is no problem in staying away from those who have caught the infection. But Muslims should not meet Muslims? This is ‘jahalat’.”

“This is not the time to leave mosques and disperse. Why did people believe that gathering in the group will spread the coronavirus? Why did people not believe that if welcomed together, Allah will send angels, and with the help of angels, peace will return to the world,” the Maulana said further. He also stated, “If you start listening to doctors and stop doing the namaaz and stop meeting people…yes, so you are sick, then pray to the 70,000 angels. Why are you not having faith in the angels? How will you be cured by taking medicines from the doctor if you cannot be saved by the 70,000 angels? This is not the time to stay away and be afraid.”

The audio addressing Muslims is major evidence for booking the Markaz chief and other related members under murder charges as it clearly proves an intention to congregate in mosques and not follow any direction of the government. The intention is to expose many people to a deadly virus and thereby can reach many more, with the result of challenging governmental policy for breaking the chain of Covid-19.The acts of recording that audio and spreading infection to many people were committed even though they were aware of the gravity of the infection and its consequences if it spread to many people, as many developed countries had already been shaken completely because of the same.

• The act of the Tablighis did not stop there, even though they were aware about many people being possibly infected (from the incident of the Indonesian people in Telangana and also the instructions of the Ministry of Home Affairs to the State, dated 21.03.2020) at Markaz. Jamaat allowed 1,500 more people to leave the Markaz the next day, during the Janata Curfew, without screening or testing any person. Their intentions seemed dubious. It is pertinent to note that the Delhi government had declared lockdown the day after Janata Curfew was declared. In that case, the excuse provided by Jamaatis that they were not able to evacuate Markaz for many days seems to be baseless and frivolous, as they allowed 1,500 Jamatis to leave Markaz during state lockdown.

The police being the prime investigating agency have been found to be very lackadaisical in both Delhi and Mumbai. This case should have been taken with the utmost importance. Ironically, the same police force goes on an overdrive when its political masters are involved, directly or indirectly, as in the case of Kangana Ranaut and Arnab Goswami.

 The writer is Research Scholar, Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology, Surat. The views expressed are personal.