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Vilification of Muslims in India during COVID-19: From Tablighi Jamaat to the Bombay High Court judgement

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Adnan Abbasi

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Vilification of Muslims in India during COVID-19: From Tablighi Jamaat to the Bombay High Court judgement


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 23, 2020


Indian Media’s reaction to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy

Indian Media’s reaction to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy

March 2020, when coronavirus was a new occurrence in India, an Islamic organization—Tablighi Jamaat—was accused of spreading it across the country. Criminal proceedings were registered against Tablighi Jamaat members—some of them belonging to foriegn countries as well—for acting against law during the pandemic. This accusation was then used to further spread hate against the whole Muslim community of India.

On August 22, 2020 however, the Bombay high court struck down all criminal charges against Tablighi Jamaat’s members stating that they were scapegoated by the government.

The Bombay high court mentioned in their judgement:

"A political Government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats. The aforesaid circumstances and the latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken. It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action."

Let us understand how the events unfolded in the Tablighi Jamaat saga and its impact on Muslims of India.

The Markaz Nizamuddin Event

Tablighi Jamaat is headquartered at Alami Markaz, Banglewali Masjid in Nizamuddin, New Delhi which is often referred to as Markaz Nizamuddin. Markaz Nizamuddin is where members of Tablighi Jamaat often congregate to discuss and deliberate about their outreach plans.

One such meeting was held in early-March 2020 which drew members not only from various parts of India but also from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries. The people from foriegn  countries entered India on a valid tourist visa to attend the congregation much before the time March 13, 2020, when Indian Health Ministry claimed “COVID-19 is not a health emergency, no need to panic.” In fact most of the  attendees left Delhi around March 11, 2020 itself.

However, on March 24, 2020 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown so some of those attendees who were still staying at Delhi Markaz got stranded as they could not leave in the wake of sudden nationwide lockdown of transportation services.Tablighi Jamaat officials asked for permission to send stranded members to their destination but the permission was denied.

This was then followed by a series of fake news stories of which major Indian media houses were a part of. Sudheer Chaudhary of Zee News claimed that Tablighi Jamaat members are somehow linked to Al Qaeda and are working similar to the “suicide bombers” by spreading COVID-19 deliberately. The stories about Tablighi Jamaat members misbehaving with Quarantine center staff and spitting in the open were broadcasted on Times Now and several other news channels. This story was proven to be incorrect by fact checking website AltNews.

Rohini Chatterjee (2020) describes India TV News coverage of Jamaat in these words “In a video, one of India TV’s anchors says, “God knows how many members of the jamaat are roaming around in the country like corona bombs”. The other anchor chimes in, ‘they can detonate the virus bomb at any moment, putting large numbers of people in danger.’ All of this was also announced in high-pitched, dramatic tones aimed at spreading fear and panic in the minds of viewers”.

Cartoon published in Indian leading news paper, Dainik Jagran portraying Tablighi Jamaat members as willful spreaders of COVID-19 pandemic | Source: Indian Journalism Review

Indian print media also ran hoax news reports. For instance Danik Jagran—India’s leading Hindi Daily—published 156 stories, eight editorials, and five cartoons over 15 days spreading misinformation and half truth about the Jamaat. Another widely read Hindi daily, leading, Amar Ujala, claimed Tablighi Jamaat members defecated in the open after being denied non-vegetarian food at quarantine centre. This story was again proven incorrect by the fact checking website AltNews.

Aftermath & Discrimination

Source: Adnan Abbasi via Archiving the Times

The fake news on the Jamaat further led to more structural forms of violence against Muslims in India. Islamophobic hashtags like #CoronaJihad were over twitter in hundreds of thousands. Time Magazine reported that over 165 million people saw the hashtag #CoronaJihad on Twitter—which as explained earlier was done at the behest of the Indian media.

These include countless incidents like that of Mehboob Ali—a 22 year old who attended the Jamaat’s function—and was brutally thrashed over rumours of deliberately spreading COVID-19.

30-year-old Rizwana Khatun lost her child to hate infodemic. She writes “I was abused on the lines of my religion and was asked to wipe the blood. I could not because I was shivering. I was beaten up with slippers. I was shocked and rushed to a nursing home.there it came out that my child had died.”

BJP Legislator Suresh Tiwari with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath | Source: Dainik Bhaskar

In Indian state of Karnataka, Muslims distributing food to migrant labourers were beaten over a rumour of them spreading COVID-19 through food distribution. In Uttar Pradesh—the most populated state of India, the ruling party—Bharatiya Janata Party’s elected legislator—named Suresh Tiwari—appealed to people not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors.

In Punjab, Muslim Gujjar dairy farmers were beaten and boycotted in their villages over similar rumours. There are many more such post-jamaat incidents of violence against the Muslims reported by the media.

Some Reflections

The way Tablighi Jamaat was vilified and blamed for spreading coronavirus in India may seem to be atrocious and plain hate speech as per any globally acceptable norm. However in Indian context, this is just one more example of the continued onslaught of misinformation; disinformation, half truth, plain lie, and slander, which in the last few years, has become acceptable to be peddled by the mainstream print and electronic media.

Let us hope that the Bombay High Court  judgement on Tablighi Jamaat will create enough pressure on the mainstream media which will make them scale back the blatant Islamophobic fake news pedling on their platform.

During the time contemporary to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, I was part of a research group that was working towards archiving COVID-19. We also did a case study on Tablighi Jamaat (this part was handled by me), so some parts of the article are referred to and reproduced from this archive, to learn more visit

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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