The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has said that the foreign nationals, who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event held in Delhi in March this year, were made "scapegoats" and allegations were levelled that they were responsible for spreading COVID-19 in the country.
A division bench of Justices T V Nalawade and M G Sewlikar made the observations on August 21 while quashing the FIRs filed against 29 foreigners, who had attended the event.
The bench also noted that while the Maharashtra police acted mechanically in the case, the state government acted under "political compulsion".
The 29 foreign nationals were booked under various provisions of the IPC, the Epidemic Diseases Act, Disaster Management Act and Foreigner's Act for allegedly violating their tourist visa conditions by attending the Tablighi Jamaat congregation held at Nizamuddin in the national capital.
The bench in its order noted that there was a big propaganda against the foreigners who had come to the Markaz in Delhi.
"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 a scapegoat," the court said in its order.
"The propaganda against the so-called religious activity (Tablighi Jamaat) was unwarranted. The activity was going on for more than 50 years and it is there throughout the year," it added.
It said that the circumstances and the latest figures of infection of COVID-19 in India show that such action against the 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.
In its order, the bench noted that many Muslims from across the world come to India and visit the Markaz Masjid in Delhi as they are attracted to the reform movement of Tablighi Jamat.
"It is a continuous process and it appears that there are arrangements of stay also made by the Muslims at Markaz Delhi," it said.
The bench added that the visits of these foreigners to Masjids in India were not prohibited and there is nothing on record to show that this activity is prohibited permanently by the government.
"The activity of Tablighi Jamat got stalled only after the declaration of lockdown in Delhi and till then it was going on," the court said.
The bench further questioned as to whether the people in India are really acting as per its great tradition and culture of welcoming guests.
"During the situation created by COVID-19 pandemic, we need to show more tolerance and need to be more sensitive towards our guests, particularly like the present petitioners.
"Instead of helping them, we lodged them in jails by making allegations that they were responsible for violation of travel documents and that they are responsible for spreading the coronavirus," the court said.
The bench noted that the Maharashtra police acted mechanically in the present matter and the state government acted under "political compulsion".
"The government cannot give different treatment to citizens of different religions of different countries," the court said.
Apart from the foreign nationals, police also booked six Indian nationals and trustees of the Masjids for giving shelter to the petitioners.
The bench was hearing three separate petitions filed by the accused foreign nationals, who belong to the countries like Ghana, Tanzania, Benin and Indonesia.
At the end of the judgement, Justice Sewlikar said that while he agrees with the quashing part of the order, he has differing views on a few observations made by Justice Nalawade. However, he did not specify which observations.
The petitioners claimed that they came to India on valid visa in February 2020 and before March 10, 2020 to experience Indian culture, tradition, hospitality and Indian food.
They claimed that when they arrived in India, they were screened and were let to leave the airport only after they did not show any symptoms of COVID-19.
The petitioners further claimed that they were visiting several places in India to observe the religious practices of Muslims.
They claimed that due to lockdown imposed across the country in March, the petitioners, who were in Ahmednagar district at the time, were accommodated in masjids as most lodges and hotels were closed.
They further claimed that while granting visa, there was no prohibition to visit religious places, like masjids.
The police, while opposing the pleas, said that post-lockdown, announcements were made at public places, asking persons who had attended the Tablighi event to come forward voluntarily for testing, but the petitioners did not do so and created a threat of spreading the coronavirus.
The prosecution further argued that the accused persons were propagating Islam religion among public.
The court, however, refused to accept this and said there is nothing on record to show that the foreigners (accused persons) were spreading Islam religion by converting persons of other religions to Islam.
The bench further held that no orders were issued by any authority preventing Indians from accommodating persons in masjids or supplying meals to persons, including foreigners.