The verdict of a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi acquitting 36 foreigners of the charge of violating health protocols by participating in a religious congregation held by the Tablighi Jamaat in March again exposes the most unsavoury side of the criminal investigation system in the country, especially when it is prompted by politics. They faced the specific charge of contravening Covid-19 protocols and aiding the spread of the disease by attending the congregation. But the court said that the CBI, which investigated the case, and the prosecution have failed to prove that they were present at the event. More disturbingly, the court also raised the possibility that they may have been picked up by the police with the intention of implicating them in the case. The court clearly said: “None of them were present at the markaz in the relevant period and they had been picked up from different places so as to maliciously prosecute them upon directions from the Ministry of Home Affairs”.
The court’s judgement and its observations are an indictment of not only the investigators and the prosecution but also the government. The facts and proceedings and the outcome of the case show how wrongly the State and its agencies can act, driven by prejudice, and frame people in cases. About 900 foreigners who had come to attend the congregation had pleaded guilty as part of a “plea bargain’’ as they did not want to stand trial in the country. Among 44 others who decided to face the cases against them, eight were acquitted by a Delhi court in August as there was no evidence against them. The other 36 have now been found not only to be innocent but also grievously wronged as they were implicated maliciously and deliberately in cooked up cases. In August, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court had also dismissed the charges against 29 Tablighis and observed that they had been unfairly targeted. It had also noted that the government and the investigators had acted with bias.
The treatment of the Tablighis by the government and sections of society, including the media, is a shameful chapter in our recent history. They were maligned and vilified as “super spreaders’’ of Covid-19 and accused of conspiring to spread the infection. The congregation took place on March 13-15, many days before the lockdown was announced in the country. The participants who came from countries which had a Covid-19 burden could have been screened. While the government failed in this, a campaign was later unleashed against them, and Indian Muslims smeared with the same brush. They were called terrorists and human bombs. Justice has finally prevailed but, unfortunately, the damage will linger.