Bombay HC quashes FIRs, criticises media propaganda against Tablighi Jamaat foreigners .

Mumbai: Petitioners were booked after police claimed to have received secret information about them residing at the masjids in different areas and offering prayers in violation of lockdown orders.

In a strongly-worded 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 Act for violating their Tourist Visa conditions by attending the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin in Delhi.

Apart from the foreign nationals, 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, legal news website has reported.

All the petitioners were booked after police claimed to have received secret information about them residing at the respective 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, they 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.

Moreover, they had informed the District Superintendent of Police about their arrival in Ahmednagar district. Due to the lockdown imposed since March 23, vehicular movement was stopped, hotels and lodges were closed and consequently, the masjid had given shelter to them. They were not involved in illegal activity including the breach of the order of the District Collector, petitioners argued.

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 the 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 the visa, the petitioners indulged in Tabligh 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.

Petitioners were booked for offenses 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 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."

APP MM Nerlikar contended that a writ petition is pending before the Supreme Court and in that matter relief is claimed by some similar foreigners to declare that blacklisting of 950 foreigners by the Central Government via decision dated April 2 as unconstitutional and void as due process of law was not followed before making such declaration by the Central Government. Thus, it is not desirable to decide the present

proceeding as the Supreme Court is yet to decide the issue. However, the court refused to accept the said contention.

Justice Nalawade observed, "The material on the record shows that Tabligh Jamaat is not a separate sect of Muslims, but it