Several countries have expressed concern over the continued custody of their nationals, say diplomats
Five months after the government ordered a crackdown on all members of the Tablighi Jamaat present at their headquarters or ‘Markaz’ in New Delhi when a number of coronavirus cases were detected, the matter is becoming a diplomatic headache for the government. The action ordered by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in March included 2,550 foreigners from about 45 countries who belonged to the ultra orthodox Islamic sect; and several countries have expressed their concern to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) over the continued custody of their nationals in India, diplomats and officials told The Hindu.
The MEA has been left to coordinate the various cases with “real time coordination” with the MHA and the Bureau of Immigration, even as they deal with the diplomatic missives, say officials.
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Earlier this week, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said he had raised the issue of about 173 Bangladeshis still being held in India when he met Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla in Dhaka on Wednesday, asking him to expedite their return. According to diplomatic sources privy to the meeting, the Bangladesh government is particularly worried as many of them have run out of money, and may not be able to pay the fines of ₹5,000-10,000 in order for them to leave. .
“The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary during his meeting with the Forign Secretary acknowledged that most of their nationals have returned home, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to ensure that for others who remain, their return will be facilitated,” said MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava in response to a question from The Hindu, adding that about 550 foreigners charged in the Tablighi cases had been able to leave thus far, while 1,030 have been allowed to leave by courts.
Indonesian and Malaysian officials, whose nationals make up the majority of cases, have also raised the issue of their nationals not being able to return both through their embassies and even at a recent India-ASEAN meeting of senior officials, where such bilateral and consular matters are rarely raised. The U.S. Embassy said it had been in contact with the Government of India on the arrests of about six U.S. nationals. “The safety and security of American citizens is the Department of State’s highest priority. We are in contact with multiple U.S. citizens who were arrested by the Indian authorities in connection with the Tablighi Jamaat case,” a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said.
Several other missions, some of whom did not want to be identified, said that as the months drag on the matter is becoming a fraught one in their diplomatic communiques, citing terrible conditions for their nationals, many of whom had not even attended the Tablighi Jamaat ‘Ijtema’ or conference where the COVID-19 virus had allegedly spread from visiting delegates.
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According to the Brazilian Embassy, four of their nationals had been caught unawares when their flight from Delhi was cancelled due to the “Janata curfew” announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22, and they took refuge at the Tablighi Markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. The police not only stopped them from taking the next flight, they kept them forcibly in quarantine. They could only return home four months later, after accepting they had committed visa violations, paid fines, and now have been blacklisted from returning to India for 10 years.
Not everyone is accepting their guilt in order to leave the country, however.
Australian marketing professional Irfan, 39, and his wife Fatima, both members of the Tablighi Jamaat, who came to India to visit relatives in Tamil Nadu, said they had “stopped by to pay respects” at the Nizamuddin Markaz during a sightseeing trip to Delhi. Days later, the police tracked them to their lodgings and forced them into a local quarantine centre for a 60-day isolation period. “If the purpose was to quarantine us for coronavirus symptoms, when we had tested negative, then why were my wife and I separated, kept in squalid conditions and exposed to malaria and dengue as well?” he asks. Mr. Irfan and Ms. Fatima, who haven’t seen their son, who was left with grandparents in Australia for nearly six months now, say they will not go back on what they call “false testimonies”, and will fight the case in court along with 40 others who have also refused the plea bargain. Under the official visa manual, visiting Tablighis are allowed to attend religious discourses, but not to carry out “Tablighi work” or preaching, and all of them deny violating the rule.
Lawyers say even those who have signed the plea bargain documents weeks ago have not been able to leave as Lookout Circulars (LoCs) against them still exist from different police stations, and not all have been withdrawn. “Above all, the procedures followed against this group contravene the Right to Dignity and the Right to Return to their home countries, both guaranteed under Article 21 [of the Constitution],” says Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi, advocate who has filed four writ petitions representing 34 petitioners from 33 countries being heard by the Supreme Court, with the next hearing set for Tuesday. A judgment by the Bombay High Court on Friday, which quashed FIRs against 29 foreign Tablighi Jamaat members, and criticised the government for making them “scapegoats” during the pandemic has also given other petitioners hope.
Government officials who have followed the movement say the Jamaat with tens of millions of followers in 150 countries, is a revenue and ‘soft power’ earner for India, much like pilgrims from other religious groups are. They also pointed out that blacklisting members would only benefit neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have for years vied to take over the leadership of the movement that has been headquartered in India since it was founded in 1926 .
(With inputs from Kallol Bhattacherjee and Vijaita Singh)