Tablighi Jamaat men India held for ‘spreading COVID’ share ordeal

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New Delhi – March 25 (Online): In March last year, 23-year-old Malaysian student Muhammad Hafizuddin landed in India for a two-month journey to “explore more about his spirituality”.
Little did he know he would be stranded in the country for more than 12 months – nearly six of which he spent in jail – reported Al Jazeera, international news network.
Living in a mosque now in the Kishanganj district of eastern India’s Bihar state, Hafizuddin is still waiting to go back to his home in Johor, Malaysia, where his parents and siblings are eagerly waiting for him.
Hafizuddin is a member of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement with millions of followers who travel around the world.
Hafizuddin’s arrival in Bihar was for the same purpose. As he, along with 10 of his companions, was travelling there by train he heard the announcement of a countrywide lockdown in India to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We immediately went to the mosque in Kishanganj and put ourselves in isolation there,” he told Al Jazeera.
As Hafizuddin and others were voluntarily quarantining themselves in the mosque, a number of coronavirus infections were linked to a congregation at Markaz, the international headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat movement in New Delhi.
Approximately 3,000 foreign nationals had visited India to attend the congregation held from March 13 to 15, more than a week before the government banned public meetings due to the virus.
The discovery of COVID-19 cases among Tablighi Jamaat members led to a vicious hate campaign not only against the organization but Muslims in general, who were accused by a large section of mainstream media of being solely responsible for the COVID outbreak in India.
In TV and newspaper reports, Tablighi Jamaat members were dubbed as “super spreaders” and accused of carrying out a “corona jihad” to deliberately spread the virus. Several media reports also falsely accused them of misbehaving with medical staff at various quarantine facilities.
As misinformation and conspiracy theories flooded mainstream and social media platforms, there were even calls for a social boycott of Muslims, followed by attacks on Tablighi Jamaat members across the country.
Some politicians belonging to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly supported the calls for a boycott of Muslims and said Tablighi Jamaat members “should be shot”.
More than 200 police complaints were filed against members of the organization in nearly a dozen Indian states.
As the vilification campaign against the Muslim movement intensified, Hafizuddin and his counterparts were arrested from the mosque in Bihar and jailed from April 14 to September 30.
“Before taking us to jail, they (police) took our phones and passports,” Hafizuddin told Al Jazeera.
“It was a terrible feeling. I was worried about my family. I somehow managed to call my family via someone’s phone inside the jail premises. I didn’t tell them about my condition in the beginning but later I had to.”
After he was granted bail, Hafizuddin was given an opportunity to sign a plea bargain, which would have expedited his return to Malaysia. But he refused.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, that’s why I am asking them to legally quash the case. The case is pending and there is a delay. It is wrong to plead guilty because I didn’t do anything wrong. But this (judicial process) is taking too long,” he said.
Back home in Kluang in Malaysia’s Johor district, his family, though worried, is proud of his decision.
“He is innocent and did nothing wrong. Why would he sign the plea bargain?” Zainal Abidin, Hafizuddin’s father told Al Jazeera.
“Hopefully, before Ramadan, he will come home, Inshaa Allah (God willing).”
Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, starts next month.
Ends/Online