New Delhi: The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court earlier this week quashed criminal proceedings against eight Myanmar nationals who attended Tablighi Jamaat Markaz at Delhi’s Nizamuddin in March, stating that they cannot be held responsible for the spread of Covid-19.
In its judgment, delivered on 21 September, the bench, comprising Justices V.M. Deshpande and A.B. Borkar, observed it would be grave injustice to subject the Myanmar nationals to a criminal trial.
“There is no material on record to prove that applicants had indulged in any act which was likely to spread infection of Covid-19,” the bench said.
The judges also said that to attract charges under Sections 269 and 270 (related to spread of infection of any dangerous disease) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the person must commit any action, which he knows is likely to spread the infectious, deadly disease.
They remarked that the applicants before the court had undergone Covid-19 tests during quarantine period, which started from 3 April, and reported negative.
The Markaz attendees were in Delhi from 2-6 March, and then travelled to Nagpur, where they were arrested by the police.
Authorities pulled up in the past too
This is not the first time that the Bombay HC has come down heavily on the authorities for lodging cases under the Epidemics Act, Disaster Management Act, Foreigners Act and various sections of the IPC against the Tablighi Jamaat members, accusing them of spreading the pandemic.
In August, the Aurangabad bench of the HC had, in a strongly-worded judgment, criticised the “media propaganda” for “virtually persecuting” the Tablighis for spreading Covid. It had then quashed the criminal prosecutions against 29 Jamaat members who had attended the event.
In June, the Madras High Court had cautioned against “collectively thingifying” foreigners arrested for their participation in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, granting bail to 31 such participants, who were arrested by the local police for defying the lockdown.
Sixteen Tablighi Jamaat members from Thailand and Indonesia were freed on bail by the Allahabad High Court in August.
Huge gathering of Tablighi members led to Covid spread: Centre
The Bombay HC’s latest verdict came on a day the Centre told Parliament that a huge gathering of Tablighi members in March in Delhi, despite orders issued by various authorities after the outbreak of coronavirus, “also” led to the spread of the virus.
“As reported by the Delhi Police, despite guidelines/orders issued by various authorities in pursuance of the outbreak of Covid-19 a huge gathering assembled inside a closed premise; over a protracted period of time, without any semblance of social distancing or provision of masks and sanitizers. This also caused spread of Corona Virus infection amongst many persons,” Minister of State (Home Affairs) G. Kishan Reddy had informed the Rajya Sabha.
He said as many as 2,361 Tablighi Jamaat members were evacuated by the Delhi Police on 29 March.
Both Centre and the Arvind Kejriwal government had blamed Tablighi members for the spike of coronavirus cases in the national capital and other parts of the country, alleging the Markaz had violated lockdown rules.
Centre had also claimed that 30 per cent of the Covid-positive caseload was linked to the Tablighi event.
Delhi Police launched multiple prosecutions against the members, including its chief Maulana Mohammad Saad. The prosecuting agency filed 59 charge sheets against 955 foreign nationals from 36 countries. Their visas were cancelled by the Centre and they were blacklisted.
As reported by ThePrint, in order to end the cases, 910 of the 955 booked had entered plea bargaining to escape the delay involved in judicial proceedings in India. They paid fine between Rs 2,000-Rs 10,000.
What the Bombay HC said
According to the HC ruling, the Myanmar nationals only read the Quran and offered namaz at a local mosque. The fact that they did not know Hindi was taken into account, leaving the court to conclude that they did not engage in any religious discourse or speech.
On violation of visa rules, the court said the participants did not preach or propagate their beliefs, as was alleged in the FIR. Rather, they were found to have only learnt about the Indian Islamic culture and studied the scriptures in their native languages during their stay in India. The court held there were no visa rule violations.
The allegations regarding violation of the Disaster Management Act also remained unsubstantiated. The court noted the state had not produced any material before it to establish this charge.
The court annulled the police charge sheet, holding the FIR filed as well as the cognisance taken were defective in law.