The Bombay High Court on Friday dismissed the first information reports against 29 foreigners booked for allegedly violating the conditions of their tourist visa by attending the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi, reported Live Law. The court, while hearing a plea filed by the foreign nationals, pulled up the authorities for taking stringent action against them.

The police have also booked six Indian citizens and trustees of the mosques for sheltering the petitioners. A division bench of Justices TV Nalawade and MG Sewlikar of the Aurangabad bench heard three different pleas. The petitions were filed by citizens of various countries, including the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania, Djibouti, Benin and Indonesia.

“A political government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that their is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats,” the court said. “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 petitioners claimed that they visited India on a valid visa to experience the culture, hospitality and food. Upon arrival, they said they were screened and tested for the coronavirus and allowed to leave the airport only after the results came back negative.

Those accused of violating norms said they had informed the Ahmednagar district superintendent of police about their arrival. The petitioners added that nationwide lockdown halted vehicular movement and led to closure of hotels, forcing them to take refuge at the mosques. Their petition said that the foreigners not asked to inform local officials about their visit to certain places, adding that visa conditions also did not forbid them from visiting religious sites.

The petitioners argued that they were not involved in any illegal activity, including violation of the district collector’s order. They also claimed to have practiced physical distancing at the Nizamuddin Markaz.

The Ahmednagar district superintendent of police, meanwhile, filed a response asserting that the petitioners had visited places for preaching Islam, for which crimes were registered against them, Live Law reported. The police officer claimed that the petitioners had violated prohibitory orders to carry out Tabligh activities. They had also not voluntarily given in to testing despite announcements at public places, he added.

Nalawade, who wrote the 58-page judgement, said that the updated visa manual did not restrict foreigners from visiting religious places and attending usual religious activities. “...even from the record, it cannot be inferred that the foreigners were spreading Islam religion by converting persons of other religion to Islam,” he added.

The court described the allegations as “very vague in nature” and said that “inference is not possible at any stage that they were spreading Islam religion and there was intention of conversion”. “The government cannot give different treatment to citizens of different religions of different countries,” the court said, according to The Hindu.

The court pulled up reports in print and the digital media against the foreigners, and said that they attempted to pin the blame on these visitors for the spread of the coronavirus in the country. “There was virtually persecution against these foreigners,” it said.

CAA and NRC protests

The Bombay High Court bench pointed out that protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens had taken place all over India since last year. The court highlighted that a significant number of Muslims participated in the protests as they believed that the actions taken by the Centre were discriminatory towards their community.

The court said the action against the Tablighi members created fear in the minds of Muslims and was an indirect warning to residents of the community in India that “action in any form and for any thing can be taken against Muslims”.

“Thus, there is smell of malice to the action taken against these foreigners and Muslim for their alleged activities,” the court said, according to The Hindu. “The circumstances like malice is important consideration when relief is claimed of quashing of FIR and the case itself.”

Nalawade also highlighted the saying “Atithi Devo Bhava [Our guest is our god]”, and said this case questioned whether Indians are acting according to their tradition. “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,” the judge said.

In February, the bench of Nalawade and Sewlikar had dismissed prohibitory orders after observing that anti-CAA protestors cannot be described as “traitors or anti-nationals”.

The Citizenship Amendment Act provides citizenship to refugees from six minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The Act, passed on December 11, has been criticised for excluding Muslims. In December, at least 28 people died in protests against the Act, 19 of them in Uttar Pradesh itself. Most of those who died had suffered bullet-inflicted wounds.

Tablighi Jamaat congregation

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation was blamed for thousands of coronavirus infections around the country in the initial weeks of the nationwide lockdown which began on March 25. The congregation was attended by many foreigners. The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Muslim sect with followers in over 80 countries.

The Centre had in June blacklisted over 2,500 Tablighi members and prohibited their entry into the country for 10 years. The action was taken after several state governments submitted information on those who had been accused of illegally living in mosques and seminaries.

In July, a court in Delhi had granted bail to 82 Bangladeshis who attended the event. Sixty-two Malaysians and 11 Saudi Arabians were also released after payment of fines by another local court.

On August 6, the Centre told the Supreme Court that foreigners, who are facing charges for attending the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi in March, may leave India after submitting an apology.

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