How the Tablighi Jamaat Issue Spilled Over Into India-Indonesia Relations

In the past eight months, diplomats from both countries had their jobs cut out to keep a lid on the possible consequences that the arrest of hundreds of Indonesian nationals in India could have on bilateral relations.

New Delhi: When the Indian government detained hundreds of foreign Tablighi Jamaat members for allegedly violating COVID-19 lockdown measures in March, the largest group was from Indonesia, key to New Delhi’s Act East policy.

In the past eight months, diplomats from both countries had their jobs cut out to keep a lid on the possible consequences that the arrests of hundreds of Indonesian nationals in India could have on the bilateral relationship.

For Indonesia, a quick, quiet resolution of the Tablighi issue was important so that it did not flare up into an issue of domestic political concern. But as the months wore on, Jakarta aired its worries at ASEAN meetings.

The Indian side had to deal with an internal security system that initially gave conflicting messages. When the government decided to take stringent action against the Tablighi Jamaat for allegedly breaking lockdown measures for their congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi and later, when the visitors travelled to different parts of the country – it was clear that possible diplomatic repercussions were not on top of the list.

The problem got even more complex with BJP leaders keen to use the Tablighi issue as a domestic political force multiplier.

The diplomatic challenge was urgent as Indonesia is not only India’s largest trading partner in ASEAN, but Jakarta has been essential to get wider ASEAN acceptability to the concept of Indo-Pacific, with talks of joint development of Sabang port. Indonesia had also been instrumental in the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar by the UNSC sanctions committee as a ‘global terrorist’ last year.

It was a tweet from home minister Amit Shah on April 2 that announced the Central government directive to directors general of police of all states and Union Territories to take legal action “on priority” against foreign Tablighi members under the Foreigners Act and Disaster Management Act, which included blacklisting for 10 years.

Indonesians were the largest group among the foreign nationals against whom charges were slapped by the Indian government. In total, over 3,500 foreign Tablighi members from 35 countries were booked, out of which 751 were Indonesian nationals.

Members of the Tablighi Jamaat leave from LNJP Hospital to a quarantine centre. Photo: PTI/Files

‘Chaotic’ first few weeks

An ASEAN diplomatic source narrated how the first few weeks – which stretched into months – were chaotic, as his government tried to get information from the Indian side on the status of their nationals. “We were constantly writing and asking the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for information as per protocol. But, it was clear that they themselves did not have anything to tell us,” the source said.

While the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations puts the responsibility on the local police to contact foreign missions if their nationals are charged or arrested, this did not happen in a number of cases. A foreign diplomat recounted that they learned that one citizen had been charged only when he was at the airport to catch a repatriation flight.

Meanwhile, different states slapped varying charges. While most foreigners were slapped with visa violation charges and the attempt to endanger life under the Epidemic Diseases Act, several were charged under provisions for entering India on forged passports. “Almost every day, we got new numbers and tried to trace other names in different states. We got a final tally of our nationals who have been charged by police across India only in June,” recalled a source.

Just like other countries affected by India’s crackdown on Tablighi Jamaat members, Indonesia had been no exception in working with Indian authorities on a bilateral basis to untangle the legal and logistical complexities to see that their citizens return.

The large numbers added another layer to the complicated political handling of this matter.

From April, the Indonesian government had started to bring back thousands of citizens stranded worldwide. The virtual media briefings by the Indonesian foreign minister and other officials in the foreign office to highlight the global repatriation efforts inevitably led to questions about the fate of those detained in India.

Unable to commit to bringing them back early, the Indonesian government repeatedly stressed that it would provide all consular support and legal help to their distressed citizens in India.

High-level talks

On April 28, Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The official Indian read-out mentions that Widodo thanked the Indian side for pharmaceutical supplies, but also adds that the leaders “discussed issues related to their citizens present in each other’s countries”.

While the Indian press release did not spell it out, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi told the media that President Widodo had raised the issue of the Tablighi Jamaat (known as Jamaah Tabligh in Indonesia) with his Indian interlocutor. In total, 1,129 Indonesian Tablighi members were abroad when borders started to shut down, over 60% in India.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

File photo of Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

The Indonesian parliament’s committee on foreign policy, intelligence and defence – Commission 1 – was asking questions of the Widodo government from early April on the repatriation process, with a special spotlight on the Tablighi members in India. Lawmakers who were part of the committee called on the government to trace the “62 groups” of Tabligh members “trapped in India” and noted that the issue was being used by ‘vested interests’ to taint the entire Muslim community in India.

Stranded Indonesians nationals started to return from May on Vande Bharat flights in a slow trickle. However, it took another two months – in early July – for the first Indonesian Tablighi members to board a flight.

The delay was largely because even those Indonesian nationals who were freed had to climb another bureaucratic hurdle to leave India. Over 1,900 lookout circulars had been generated in March after the Union home ministry circulated the names of the foreign nationals who attended the Nizamuddin event. Since they were not aware of these circulars, several Indonesians Tablighi members went to the airport, only to return after they were not allowed to board their flights, sources told The Wire.

Indonesia switches from a bilateral track

Meanwhile, Indonesia switched from an exclusive bilateral track on the diplomatic front.

In June, a group of ASEAN ambassadors wrote a joint letter to India’s Ministry of External Affairs seeking clarification and information about the status of their nationals who got caught up in the Tablighi Jamaat controversy. The signatories of the June 19 letter were five out of the ten ASEAN countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Thailand and the Philippines.

Five days after the letter was dispatched, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi thanked her counterparts at the virtual meeting of the ASEAN political and security community for joining the initiative.

Noting that some ASEAN members shared her concern, Marsudi said that there were “complexities of domestic politics in India coupled with public health and legal issues surrounding this matter”. “In this connection, we have to make sure that this issue is managed well…We need to continuously work together to ensure the speedy repatriation of our nationals,” said the Indonesian foreign minister on June 24.

A boy peeks outside from a window on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, April 15, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

Around that time, in India, the judiciary had begun to make observations that the issue of the foreign nationals had been mishandled by local authorities and started to drop charges. The first such order was from the Madurai bench of the Madras high court, which closed criminal proceedings against 31 foreign nationals, including 20 Indonesians, in June.

Two months later, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court quashed FIRs against 29 foreign nationals, including Indonesians, with the observation that they had been made a “scapegoat” for political reasons.

Also Read: ‘No Iota of Evidence’: Mumbai Court Acquits 20 Foreign Tablighi Jamaat Members

Even as more local courts have followed suit in the following months to acquit foreign Tablighi Jamaat attendees, India’s solicitor general Tushar Mehta had told the Supreme Court in August that foreign nationals can be allowed to leave the country even with a pending criminal case if they tendered an apology.

While Indonesia had raised the repatriation issue in an internal ASEAN conference in June, it upped the ante by bringing it up in the ASEAN-India senior officials meeting on July 15.

The official press release has no mention that this matter was raised. However, three diplomatic sources have confirmed that the matter was raised by both Indonesia and Malaysia at the meeting.

In fact, The Wire has learnt that Indonesia had informed India ahead of the meeting of senior officials that it would be bringing up the issue about the remaining Tablighi members in the meeting. This led to a series of to-and-fros as Indian officials were not keen that a multilateral forum be used for what they viewed as essentially a bilateral matter. India had pointed out that the matter was being quietly worked out through the embassies in their respective capital cities.

However, with Indonesia insisting that it wanted to express its concerns, a compromise was reached. “It was decided that it would be raised in the ‘any other business’ part of the agenda. Indonesia and Malaysia did raise their concerns, framing it politely. But, it wasn’t recorded in the minutes and was not part of the official press releases,” said a diplomatic source.

Two months later, this formula was again put in practice at the virtual ASEAN-India ministerial meeting on September 12. Indonesian foreign minister Marsudi had raised the case of the remaining foreign Tablighis, but it was not recorded in the Chairman’s statement.

But, the Indonesian media was informed that the minister had raised the issue. “I  bring up the issue of the members of the Tablighi Jamaat and ask for the Indian government’s cooperation to help repatriate them to Indonesia and other ASEAN countries,” the minister stated at the meeting, as quoted by Kompas. She also said the same at a media briefing on September 17.

In multilateral fora, it is de rigueur not to bring up bilateral issues as part of a universal but unwritten diplomatic protocol. Therefore, diplomatic sources felt that the insistence shown by Indonesia – and Malaysia – to take up the matter on an ASEAN platform was a reflection of the strength of their concerns.

However, Sarah Teo, a Singapore-based expert on ASEAN regional architecture, feels that it is not so cut and dry.

“I do not think it is surprising that Indonesia raised this issue during the ASEAN-India ministerial meeting. After all, it would be a matter that Indonesia is very concerned with and this meeting was a platform for its foreign minister to convey her concerns to her Indian counterpart,” said Teo, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Noting that ASEAN has an unwritten understanding not to let bilateral disagreements interfere with multilateral cooperation, Teo added that she couldn’t recall any specific bilateral disputes that Indonesia had raised via ASEAN.

She postulated that the virtual nature of multilateral meetings may lead to more such bilateral issues being raised as conversations on the sidelines of physical summits were no longer possible.

“As an example, recall the meeting between Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and Cambodian PM Hun Sen in April 2009 – amid clashes over Preah Vihear during that time – on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting, where they agreed to mend relations. So perhaps we might be seeing a slightly new approach towards multilateral meetings if they continue to be held virtually,” she said.

While the Indonesian government’s diplomatic posture is supposed to be due to political pressure, it is also striking to observers that the level of domestic media coverage in Indonesia about hundreds of their compatriots being stuck in a foreign land for months has been relatively low.

The flags of ASEAN nations raised in MH Thamrin Avenue, Jakarta, during the ASEAN Summit in 2011. Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

‘Compensate for loss of political capital’

Ahmad Qisa’i, an expert on democracy and governance at a Jakarta-based non-governmental organisation that promotes good governance, told The Wire that while the Indonesian media had reported government figures and data on repatriation, there were several social media posts which were not so sympathetic towards the Tablighi members. He felt that this antipathy had “stemmed from the attitude of the JT members towards COVID-19 at home as can be seen from several COVID-19 JT clusters”.

He added that the government’s spotlight on bringing back Indonesians abroad was perhaps to compensate for the political capital lost for its “poor handling” of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The government’s effort to repatriate Indonesian JT members from India should be understood in the context that the government is doing its best to protect Indonesian citizens abroad, at all cost. This would send a positive signal domestically, especially when criticism had been voiced by politicians in the parliament who pressured the government to immediately act to bring the Indonesian JT members back from India,” said Qisa’i, who also teaches Indian politics at Paramadina Graduate School of Diplomacy, Paramadina University in Jakarta.

The use of the ASEAN platform, Qisa’i argued, should be seen as a “show of force” of Indonesian diplomacy at the regional level. “So, the current situation of JT members from Indonesia and other ASEAN countries in India has been cleverly played by the Indonesian government, both domestically and at the regional level. Domestically, it serves to silence the critics on the Indonesian government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis. At the regional level, it would serve the interest of the Indonesian government in ASEAN and a re-statement that ASEAN remains important for Indonesia,” he said.

India’s former ambassador to Indonesia, retired Indian Foreign Service officer Gurjit Singh added that the Indonesian leadership had been deeply worried that the Tablighi issue should not give more arguments for opposition Islamist fringe groups to take to the streets.

“Since these are Tablighis, the Indonesian government is apprehensive that the same elements that were behind the demonstrations in 2018 and again earlier this year in anti-India protests should not come out again. Therefore the government would like to see this settled as early as possible,” he said.

Out of the 751 Indonesian Tablighi Jamaat members, only five are contesting their claims. Over the last seven months, Indonesia has operated at least ten repatriation flights. There are still 126 Tablighi members left in India. Out of this, cases against 46 are over and they are awaiting repatriation. The remaining 80 are waiting for the legal wheels to turn in the states of Delhi, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Indonesians who were stranded in India, including members of the Tablighi Jamaat, boarding repatriation flights in New Delhi, July 29. Photo: Twitter/@KBRI_NewDelhi

The longer that foreign Tablighi members remain in India, it adds a problematic strand to Indian diplomacy.

Singh said that this case was another example of “externalisation” of domestic issues, with internal political factors likely to pop up more and more in polarised polities as a driver of foreign policy.

On the impact of this episode on relations, Singh believes that there won’t be a long-term impact. “The foreign ministries on both sides are working hard to not let the impact of this spillover as relations with Indonesia have actually grown and become robust in a wider sense…The intention on both sides is not the let it disrupt the positives,” he said.

He pointed out that when the Indian ambassador was called to the Indonesian foreign ministry, New Delhi did not make a fuss.

Qisa’i also agreed that the strengthened bilateral relations would ameliorate any long-term impact from the Tablighi issue. “This can be seen from the efforts by the governments to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia by agreeing to facilitate a Business to Business cooperation to procure medicine from India to be used in Indonesia,” he said.

He added that both countries should learn lessons from this chapter in their relationship – facilitate exchanges of learning on Islam between the two countries.

“The majority of Indian Muslims are moderate and so is the case in Indonesia. It would boost India’s soft power if Indonesian Muslims could travel easily to the seats of Islamic learning in India like in Aligarh, Deoband and Lucknow. If both the governments facilitate travel, it could be a strategic initiative to fight religion-based violent extremism that the two countries face domestically,” he suggested.