New Delhi, India – 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.
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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 organisation 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 organisation 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.
Hafizzudin’s is not an isolated case. Hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members from several nations were put in detention centres and jails across India on accusations of flouting government guidelines issued in the wake of coronavirus pandemic – charges later quashed by various regional courts across the country.
“We were lodged in a school devoid of any facilities and quarantined for three spells despite tests coming out negative,” says Irfan, 45, an overseas citizen of India, who has not been able to see his family in Australia, for a year.
Irfan, who did not want to reveal his last name, also refused to plead guilty and was among 36 foreigners acquitted by the Delhi High Court in December.
Though a “look-out circular” issued by the Delhi Police against Irfan was withdrawn last month, he has not been able to travel because of an international travel ban now extended till the middle of June.
“(But) now I am happy that I am able to serve other foreigners who are stuck,” he says.
“Many of them have a language barrier which I don’t have. So I will leave only after the last Tablighi Jamaat foreigner leaves for his home.”
Even though the prosecution failed to substantiate the allegations against the Tablighi Jamaat members, the year-long ordeal far away from their homes has left many traumatised.
“They made us sleep next to dead bodies in the hospital. It was terrible,” said Ahmed bin Abdullah Ali, 44, a US national who had come to India for a week to attend the organisation’s congregation in New Delhi.
Ahmed returned to the US on March 15 after being separated from his children for a year.
However, nearly 140 foreign nationals remain in India, with at least 26 facing trials in different courts. More than 30 Indian nationals associated with the Jamaat are also awaiting trials.
Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi, counsel for Tablighi Jamaat in the Supreme Court, told Al Jazeera he is hopeful that by the end of this month, all the foreigners would be acquitted by courts and would subsequently leave for their home countries.
“We are about to clear all cases. Our judiciary is slow but we tried our best. Still, it did take a year and from their (Jamaat members’) perspective, it must have been a very hard time, ” said Ayyubi.
“But it is clear that they stand acquitted of all charges – be it of negligence, of any violation of visa norms or of any allegation of spreading the disease. Each and every allegation is being discarded by the honourable courts,” he added.
‘Byproduct of BJP’s hate politics’
The Indian government has also blacklisted more than 2,500 foreign nationals associated with the Tablighi Jamaat and barred their entry into the country for 10 years.
The Tablighi Jamaat has challenged the directions of the government before the Supreme Court, proceedings that are slated to begin next week.
“The Tablighi Jamaat was made the scapegoat for spreading virus. The government even released a separate list for Tablighi Jamaat people who were COVID positive. These were cheap gimmicks to vilify an entire organisation associated with the Muslim community,” Saif Ahmed, a Tablighi Jamaat volunteer based in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
“They (authorities) said our members were taken to quarantine. But it was nothing short of detention. Indian nationals were quarantined for 40 days and foreigners were kept for more than two months,” Ahmed added.
Some experts in India accuse the Hindu nationalist BJP of using the coronavirus pandemic to further target the Muslim community.
“They (government) are on the lookout for any opportunity to blame and defame Muslims. There were too many religious gatherings at the time and ever since, but no hue and cry was ever made because only Muslims are to be targeted by the current dispensation,” said Zafar ul Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission.
“The campaign against Tablighi Jamaat all over India, and by extension against all Muslims in the country, was a byproduct of the hate politics of the ruling dispensation helped by the lapdog media and an army of social media workers,” Khan added.
Harish Khurana, BJP spokesman in New Delhi, refused to comment on the issue. India’s home ministry also has not responded despite Al Jazeera’s repeated attempts to reach out.