The remaining foreign members of a “scapegoat” Muslim religious group held after accusations of spreading Covid-19 in India will leave the country over the next few days after a court warned they had been subject to virtual persecution.
Approximately 9,000 Tablighi Jamaat devotees gathered in New Delhi in early March but were left stranded in the organisation’s premises after a sudden nationwide lockdown was implemented on March 24, restricting both internal and international travel.
Some of the devotees contracted Covid-19 and were accused of spreading the virus back to their hometowns and villages, amidst a wider surge in Islamophobia.
Politicians from India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party described the event as a “Talibani crime” and “CoronaTerrorism”, sparking conspiracies on social media that the Muslim organisation aimed to spread Covid-19 to destabilise India.
Despite similar Sikh and Hindu gatherings taking place at the same time, the leader of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting was arrested on charges of culpable homicide and many foreign attendees were jailed or detained for two months, including eight Britons.
After an outcry, many were released after being made to admit they had “willfully” disregarded lockdown rules.
On Friday, the Bombay High Court ruled there was “virtually persecution” of the “scapegoat” foreign devotees.
“There was big propaganda in print media and electronic media against the foreigners who had come to Markaz Delhi and an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading Covid-19 virus in India,” the court said.
India has recorded over three million Covid-19 cases and is struggling to contain its spread, with over 60,000 new daily infections reported in August, despite a lack of testing.
Mainstream media outlets were criticised for linking Covid-19 to the Tablighi Jamaat, with The Hindu publishing a cartoon depicting the virus dressed in Muslim attire and pointing an AK-47 at the earth.
The Bombay High Court ruled 29 remaining foreign nationals, currently being kept in private accommodation in the city of Ahmednagar, had not broken their tourist visa conditions by attending the meeting and should now have their passports returned.
The group mainly comes from Africa – including residents of Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Ghana. There were no Britons among those who remained in India.
The preceding months in India had been turbulent with Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, accused of enforcing Islamophobic policies. In December, Mr Modi announced a new bill which offered citizenship to non-Muslim religious minorities fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
This led to a wave of deadly clashes between Muslim protesters, the security forces and Hindu nationalists during the first three months of 2020.
In February, an inflammatory speech by Kapil Mishra, a politician from Mr Modi’s BJP, is believed to have sparked the worst inter-communal riots in New Delhi in decades, leaving at least 53 people, largely Muslims, dead.
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