While quashing FIRs/Chargesheets registered by Maharashtra police against Tablighi Jamaat foreigners, the Bombay High Court (Aurangabad bench) came down strongly against the media propaganda against them.
"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", the Court said adding that there was "virtually persecution" against these foreigners.
After examining the material on record, a division bench comprising Justice TV Nalawade and Justice MG Sewlikar reached the conclusion that no prima facie case was made out against the 35 petitioners before the Court, including several foreigners. They 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.
Noting that no prima facies case under these statutes was made out against the petitioners, the bench said :
"The material of the present matter shows that the propaganda against the so called religious activity was unwarranted".
The Court observed that the Tablighi Jamaat activity had been going on for more than 50 years and that it has to be presumed that the Central Government was aware of it while granting visa to the foreigners to attend the conference at Nizamuddin Markaz at New Delhi.
The Court also added that they were made "scapegoats" and that the present numbers of COVID-19 cases in India show that the action against Tablighi Jamaat attendees was unwarranted.
"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 fgures 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".
After it was found out during the first week of April that several attendees of the event at the Nizamuddin Markaz at Delhi turned COVID-19 positive, a section of the media gave a communal angle in the coverage to vilify Tablighi Jamaat followers. There were social media campaigns with communal hashtags to target the religious community.
The Court also observed :
"Considering the dates on which these persons were taken in custody, it can be said that there is more possibility that they got infected in India and they were not already infected when they arrived in India. Further, admittedly screening at the airport was done of these petitioners before allowing them to leave the airport. The entire aforesaid exercise was done by the Central Government against the persons like petitioners with presumption that they were already infected when that contention cannot be substantiated. Even in the chargesheet there is no mention that there were cases of patients reported in all the countries of which the petitioners are nationals. The criminal case cannot be tried on the basis of such suspicion".
Proceedings in SC against communal media coverage
Jamait ulama-i-hind, an organization of Islamic scholars has moved the Supreme Court stating that certain sections of the media have been using "Communal headlines" and "bigoted statements" to demonise and blame the entire Muslim community of deliberately spreading the corona virus across the country, which had in turn threatened the lives of Muslims.
The Press Council of India told the SC on August 7 that it has taken cognizance of 50 cases of communal reporting and that they will be dealt with in accordance with law.
The top court sought the views of the News Broadcasters Association and the asked PCI to submit a report regarding the action taken by it.
In April, the SC had declined to entertain a plea seeking removal of communal hashtags in Twitter with respect to the Tablighi Jamaat even.
"How can we stop it?", a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde had observed then.
'Smell of Malice' in the action taken against them
The Bombay High Court, in its judgment delivered on August 21, added that there was a "smell of malice" in the action taken against Tablighi Jamaat attendees.
The Court said that the action of Central Government was taken mainly against Muslim persons who had come to Markaz Delhi for Tabligh Jamamat.
"Similar action was not taken against other foreigners belonging to other religions. Due to these circumstances, the background of the action and what is achieved needs to be considered by the Court", the Court observed.
Importantly, the Court referred to CAA and NRC protest all over the country and said-
"There were protests by taking processions, holding Dharna at many places in India from atleast from prior to January 2020. Most of the persons participating in the protest were Muslims. It is their contention that the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 is discriminatory against the Muslims. They believe that Indian citizenship will not be granted to Muslim refugees and migrants. They were protesting against National Registration of Citizenship (NRC).
It can be said that due to the present action taken fear was created in the minds of those Muslims. This action indirectly gave warning to Indian Muslims that action in any form and for any thing can be taken against Muslims. It was indicated that even for keeping contact with Muslims of other countries, action will be taken against them. Thus, there is smell of malice to the action taken against these foreigners and Muslim for their alleged activities. The circumstances like malice is important consideration when relief is claimed of quashing of F.I.R. and the case itself."
Thus, the Court concluded that the state government acted under political compulsion and action against the foreign nationals can be inferred as malice. Thus, all petitions were allowed and FIRs were quashed.
"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 Cr.P.C. and substantive laws. The record shows that there was non application of mind by police and that is why even when no record was available to make out prima facie case, chargsheets are fled by police", the bench said.
Notably, the same bench had in February 2020 quashed Sec 144 orders after observing that ant-CAA protesters cannot be called "anti-nationals or traitors".
Also Read : Bombay HC Says Tablighi Jamaat Foreigners Were Made 'Scapegoats'; Quashes FIRs Against Them; Criticizes Media Propaganda [Read Judgment]
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