British Muslims held in India accused of violating 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. 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 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”. 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. 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. 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. 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. When the phones were returned a week later, photos and messages had reportedly been deleted and sim cards were missing. 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. 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. “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.