Eight British Muslims detained in India for more than two months face criminal charges after getting caught up in a court case in which thousands of foreign Muslims are accused of violating the coronavirus lockdown.
The men allege they are victims of religious persecution by the Indian government, which is led by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), known for its anti-Muslim agenda. According to a petition filed to Delhi high court on 20 May, their treatment is “tantamount to illegal detention”.
More than 2,500 foreign Muslims, from 35 different countries, are being charged in the case. Last week, the Indian government agreed to release and deport detained foreign Muslims but only if they accepted guilt for visa violations and “wilfully” disobeying lockdown orders.
“We haven’t done anything wrong. We don’t deserve to be treated like this,” said Shamsul, 39, an optometrist from Lancashire who had travelled to Delhi in March to attend an Islamic gathering.
Speaking by phone from the Delhi centre where he is being held, Shamsul added: “When you are locked away like an animal inside a room and you get treated like a piece of dirt, it mentally just breaks you completely.”
The UK Foreign Office has been accused by the men and their families of abandoning its own citizens to prejudice at the hands of the Indian government and of “caring more about diplomatic relations than the appalling human rights violations”.
In a statement, the FCO said: “We are supporting a group of British people detained in India. We are in close contact with prison officials and the Indian authorities to secure consular access for those who remain in detention.”
Most of the detained British citizens had travelled to India to visit the headquarters of a Muslim organisation, Tablighi Jamaat, located in the Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin. They attended a gathering between 10 and 15 March, alongside thousands of Indians and other foreigners.
The day after the gathering ended a notice was issued limiting events in Delhi to 50 people to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Just over a week later, all international flights were grounded and a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed with four hours’ notice. More than a thousand visitors, both Indian and foreign, found themselves stranded in Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters.
Documents show that Tablighi Jamaat had been given permission to hold the event. Other religious gatherings were still taking place around the country at the same time, including a Hindu religious ceremony in Madhya Pradesh on 20 March attended by 800 people, from where multiple coronavirus cases later emerged.
However, Tablighi Jamaat became embroiled in controversy after it emerged that dozens of attendees at the gathering had contracted coronavirus and then travelled back to towns and villages across India, or stayed in the Nizamuddin headquarters without following physical distancing.
Across India, a public campaign of hate began to build. Driven in part by anti-Muslim sentiment, Tablighi Jamaat was singled out and accused by Delhi police, BJP politicians and the media of not only conspiring to violate lockdown but also encouraging its Muslim congregation to fight “corona jihad” and purposefully spread the virus, something Tablighi Jamaat vigorously denies. Tablighi Jamaat’s leaders were arrested and face charges of culpable homicide and manslaughter for their alleged role in spreading coronavirus.
On 31 March, about 950 foreigners – including at least four British citizens – who were stuck in the Nizamuddin building were rounded up by police. They were told they were being taken into standard coronavirus quarantine.
Shamsul was among those detained. A lifelong follower of Tablighi Jamaat, he was making his first trip to India.
“After lockdown was announced in India I tried to get home but there weren’t any flights and the embassy was no help,” said Shamsul. “So I just stayed in Nizamuddin and when the police took us into quarantine I wasn’t worried. We all presumed it was normal procedure. We didn’t know we would never be allowed to leave.”
According to Shamsul, for the first 50 days the men were locked in their small rooms, shared between three people, for 24 hours a day. He said water regularly cut out for two days at a time, they were given no soap or toilet paper and were fed the same meal of rice and lentils every day, twice a day. He said their passports were taken from them, and then their mobile phones, under the guise of sanitation. When the phones were returned a week later, photos and messages had reportedly been deleted and sim cards were missing.
According to Shamsul’s accounts, and the court petition, the detainees were tested twice for coronavirus, and after the second test were all proved to be negative, but still were not released.
The detainees have since been shifted to more relaxed quarantine centres but remain locked up, and say they still do not have their passports.
At the same time in late March, at least four other British citizens who had been sheltering in mosques and buildings due to lockdown restrictions in other areas of India were arrested. Some had attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering but had travelled out of Delhi before lockdown. Others were tourists.
Four remain detained, including Mohsin, a British citizen who is being held in a jail in Ranchi, Jharkhand, and another man, Thalha Siddique, from Bradford, who had not attended the Delhi Tabhlighi Jamaat gathering and is being incarcerated in Bhopal jail.
In a recent update given to his family by an FCO caseworker, who was denied permission to see Siddique in person, it was confirmed Siddique had twice tested negative for coronavirus. Siddique asked for the message to be passed to his family in the UK that “he loves them and misses them a lot”.
The men were held for over 50 days with no charges. It was only after a court petition was filed on 20 May, challenging the government for keeping 1,000 foreigners in “illegal detention”, that charge sheets were filed. In court, Delhi police denied the foreigners were even in custody. The case has since been expanded to blanket-charge more than 2,500 foreign Muslims.
“It’s targeting one religious group,” said Ashima Mandla, a lawyer representing the accused foreigners collectively. “Why were they held for two months with no charge, even after they tested negative for coronavirus? It is quite clear that was illegal detention and a clear violation of the constitution and the fabric of liberty.”
The next court date is 25 June. The accused have been charged with disobeying lockdown orders and violating their tourist visas by carrying out religious missionary work, even though no missionary preaching occurred at the Tablighi Jamaat gathering. However, a few days ago, the government added “indulging in Tablighi activities” as a specific tourist visa violation.
The Foreign Office has been accused of negligence by those detained and their families, who say they have had barely any contact from the British embassy except assertions that it cannot interfere in Indian legal matters. They say that letters sent to the office of the foreign secretary and minister for Asia have been ignored.
The wife of another British citizen from London who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event and is being detained in Delhi spoke of her anger and frustration.
“How is it that British citizens have been locked up for two months and the government say there is nothing they can do?” she said. “I find it so upsetting that the Indian government is using this pandemic to target and exploit Muslim people.”
“I can hardly bear it,” she added. “My daughter keeps asking ‘when will dad be coming home’?”