The Bombay High Court on August 22 quashed the FIRs filed against 29 foreign nationals who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi's Nizamuddin Markaz in March, saying that there was no evidence to show that they had violated visa conditions or were responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The Aurangabad Bench of the high court stated: "A political government tries to find a scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats."
A Division Bench of Justices MG Sewlikar and TV Nalawade was hearing a petition pertaining to the cases against foreign and Indian nationals booked under the Epidemics Act, the Disaster Management Act and the Foreigners Act for attending the religious event.
The court, during the hearing, referred to various guidelines issued by the Centre, including those that were put out after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, and observed that there is no restriction on foreigners visiting religious places and attending religious activities.
The petitioners said they had come to India on valid visas issued by the Indian government and "that they had come to experience Indian culture, tradition, hospitality and Indian food. They said they were screened at the airport in accordance with the procedure. They also said they had informed local authorities about their stay and were only here to observe religious practices of Islam and not to propagate the religion".
The police however, opposed their claims and said that they had come on tourist visas and were found violating norms.
The court said that Maharashtra Police had acted "mechanically" in the matter. "It appears that the state government acted under political compulsion and police also did not dare to exercise powers given to them under provisions of procedural law like the Criminal Procedure Code and substantive laws," it observed.
The court said that there was "non-application of mind" by the police and hence chargesheets were filed despite no prima facie evidence.
"Social and religious tolerance is a practical necessity for unity and integrity of India and is made compulsory by the Indian Constitution," the court said.
Allowing some foreigners to stay in the premises of the mosques when a lockdown is in place, cannot be said to be a violation of law. It said that due to hotels and restaurants being closed, arrangements were made by many religious places, including gurdwaras, for those stranded including migrant workers.
"Thus, giving shelter to such persons could not have been treated as offence, commission of the act of disobedience of orders," the court said. It also cited documents of the foreign nationals to show that they had come to India in February and some before March 10 when no lockdown was in place.
The Bombay High Court said, "The material discussed shows that no such nuisance was created by the foreigners or Indian Muslims and only an attempt was made by others to create such atmosphere against them."
The court, in a strong worded judgement, said there was a 'big", "unwarranted", propaganda in the media against the foreigners who came to the Nizamuddin Markaz and "an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading Covid-19 virus in India".
"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," the court said.
"At the time of an ongoing pandemic, instead of being more tolerant and sensitive towards guests with our culture propagating, 'Atithi Devo Bhavo', they were lodged in jails by making allegations that they were responsible for violation of travel documents and for spreading the virus when no such evidence was found," the court order read.