In a compelling judgment, the Bombay High Court on Friday quashed the FIRs filed against a total of 29 foreign nationals who were booked under various provisions of IPC, Epidemic Diseases Act, Maharashtra Police Act, Disaster Management Act and Foreigner’s Act for allegedly violating their Tourist Visa conditions by attending the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin in Delhi.
Apart from the foreign nationals in Tablighi jamaat, police also booked six Indian nationals and trustees of the Masjids for giving shelter to the petitioners.
A Division Bench of Justice TV Nalawade and Justice MG Sewlikar of the Aurangabad bench heard the three separate petitions filed by petitioners who belong to countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania, Djibouti, Benin and Indonesia. All the petitioners were booked after police claimed to have received secret information about them residing at the respective Tablighi Jamaat masjids in different areas and offering prayers in violation of lockdown orders.
According to the petitioners, they came to India on a valid visa issued by the Government of India and they have come to experience Indian culture, tradition, hospitality and Indian food. It is their contention that on their arrival at the airport, Tablighi Jamaat people were screened and tested for Covid-19 virus and only when they were found negative for the virus, they were allowed to leave the airport.
In fact, they contended that even at Markaz, they had observed norms of physical distancing. It is their contention that while being granted a visa, they were not asked to inform local authorities about their visit to those places, but they had informed local officers. Also, under the conditions of visa, there was no prohibition to visit religious places like Masjids, petitioners argued.
On the other hand, the District Superintendent of Police, Ahmednagar, filed a reply contending that the petitioners were found visiting places for preaching Islam religion and so, crimes are registered against them. He also contended that five foreign nationals from three different cases were found infected by the virus. It is contended that after the quarantine period was over all the petitioners were shown to be formally arrested.
The DSP submitted that the District Magistrate had issued prohibitory orders and directions were given to close all public places. However, in spite of prohibitory orders and conditions of visa, the petitioners indulged in Tablighi Jamaat activity.
Moreover, announcements were made at public places to ask the persons who had attended Markaz Masjid to come forward voluntarily for testing them in respect of the virus, but they did not come forward voluntarily and they had created a threat of spreading Covid-19 virus in Tablighi Jamaat case.
Petitioners of Tablighi Jamaat were booked for offences punishable under sections 188, 269, 270, 290 of Indian Penal Code, sections 37 (1)(3) r/w. 135 of Maharashtra Police Act, 1951 and section 11 of Maharashtra Covid-19 Measures and Rules, 2020, sections 2, 3 and 4 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, section 14 (b) of Foreigners Act, 1946 and section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
After going through the visa conditions that petitioners of Tablighi Jamaat are governed by, Justice Nalawade, who authored the judgment, noted-
“The aforesaid material produced on the record shows that even under recent updated Manual of Visa, there is no restriction on foreigners for visiting religious places and attending normal religious activities like attending religious discourses. Ordinarily, a tourist is not expected to follow the procedure laid down in para No. 19.8 if he does not want to preach the religious ideologies etc.”
Justice Nalawade observed-
“The material on the record shows that Tablighi Jamaat is not a separate sect of Muslim, but it is only movement for reformation of religion. Every religion has evolved over the years due to reformation as reformation is always necessary due to the changes in the society and the development achieved in the material world. In any case, even from the record, it cannot be inferred that the foreigners were spreading Islam religion by converting persons of other religion to Islam. The record shows that the foreigners were not talking Indian languages like Hindi or Urdu and they were talking languages like Arabian, French etc. In view of the aforesaid discussion, it can be said that the foreigners may have intention to know the ideas of Tabligh Jamamat about the reformation.
The allegations are very vague in nature and from these allegations inference is not possible at any stage that they were spreading Islam religion and there was intention of conversion. It is also not the case that there was an element of persuasion on any point from these foreigners.”
Criticising the media’s portrayal of foreign nationals who attended Tablighi Jamaat, Justice Nalawade specified-
“There was big propaganda in print media and electronic media against the foreigners who had come to Markaz Delhi and an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading COVID-19 virus in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners.
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.”
Finally, referring to the old Indian saying ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ meaning ‘Our Guest Is Our God’, Justice Nalawade said-
“The circumstances of the present matter create a question as to whether we are really acting as per our great tradition and culture. During the situation created by covid-19 pandemic, we need to show more tolerance and we need to be more sensitive towards our guests particularly like the present petitioners. The allegations made show 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.”