The Bombay High Court (HC) has quashed first information reports (FIRs) against 29 foreign nationals who were booked for allegedly violating their tourist visa norms by attending the Tablighi Jamaat held between 13-15 March at the Nizamuddin Markaz – the global headquarters in New Delhi. The foreigners were booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code, Diseases Management Act and the Foreigners Act.
Six Indians—including trustees at Masjids—were booked as well for allegedly sheltering the foreign nationals. The August 21 HC judgment quashed the FIRs against them as well.
Justice Nalawade in the judgment pulled up the media for their "unwarranted" propaganda against the "so-called religious activities" observing that print and electronic media ran propaganda against the foreigners who attended the Markaz. He noted, "an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading COVID-19 virus in India,"
The court observed, "The allegations against the Tablighi members suggest that instead of helping them we lodged them in jails by making allegations that they are responsible for violation of travel documents, they are responsible for spreading of virus etc." Speaking about the media coverage of the Jamaat members and the Markaz, the HC said, it was "high time the concerned,repent about this action taken against the foreigners and take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action."
The Tablighi Jamaat faced heavy backlash and was accused of being a carrier of the virus and spreading the infection to many states after several members of the Jamaat attended a religious congregation in Nizamuddin, Delhi in March, tested positive for novel Coronavirus. The religious congregation - markaz was held despite the government announcing a nationwide lockdown and restrictions of large gatherings to control the spread of the Coronavirus. The Tablighi Jamaat members were also discriminated against by various pieces of misinformation with news agencies also spreading fake news against the Jamaat members.
Quashing the cases against the foreigners who attended the Jamaat, the division bench noted, "Maharashtra police acted mechanically, under political compulsion and on such instructions probably of the executive." In June and August, the high courts of Madras and Karnataka respectively quashed similar proceedings against those who had participated in the March jamaat. The Madras HC had noted that the foreigners had "suffered enough for their transgression of law" and have a "right to return to their native countries at the earliest opportunity".
BOOM debunked videos, images and audio messages targetting Jamaat members and the Muslim community and in a study published in May found that a bulk of the 178 fact checks published around the pandemic, were communal rumours, with many false allegations against Muslims, of purposefully spreading the virus. You can read some of our fact checks here and here
Tablighi members made scapegoats
In a strongly-worded judgement, the Aurangabad bench of the HC noted that the foreign nationals were made scapegoats by the government in a pandemic. "These foreigners were virtually persecuted and chosen as scapegoats by a "political government". The court said that during a pandemic when we should have shown more tolerance and been sensitive towards our guest, the "foreigners" were blamed for various things including, spreading of the virus.
The court observed that "considering the dates on which these persons were taken in custody," the possibility that they were infected in India is higher as opposed to being already infected before they came. The court further noted that these visitors were screened at the airport before they were allowed to leave. "The entire aforesaid exercise was done by the Central Government against the persons like petitioners with the presumption that they were already infected when that contention cannot be substantiated," the court said.
Maha police acting on political compulsion, action against foreigners malice
The division bench noting that the Maharashtra police acted mechanically and under political compulsion added, the "police also did not dare to exercise powers given to them under provisions of procedural law…".
The court observed that initially, the police did not intend to go "against the foreigners," but "subsequently after getting directions from Central Government, which are mentioned already, Maharashtra police gave F.I.Rs. and filed cases in those crimes." Condemning the State, the HC said, "the government cannot give different treatment to citizens of different religions of different countries" and added, "The record shows that there was non-application of mind by police" and charge sheets were filed "even when no record was available to make out prima facie case.
On the issue of Masjid trustees sheltering the foreigners, the court observed that there are arrangements for visitors to stay at big religious places including Masjids. "If they (the Masjid trustees) allow some persons like foreigners to stay with them, it cannot be said that they have committed the offence of breach of the aforesaid orders," the judgment reads.
The 58-page judgment also highlighted religious tolerance and its important role in the Constitution."Social and religious tolerance is a practical necessity for unity and integrity in India and that is also made compulsory by our Constitution...We have been respecting both religious and secular sensibilities since independence and by this approach, we have kept India as united," it said.