The Patna High Court has quashed the first information report (FIR) filed against 18 Bangladeshi and Malaysian nationals arrested from Araria district of Bihar for violating visa rules during the nationwide lockdown triggered by the outbreak of COVID-19.
The court has found no basis to prosecute the foreign nationals under Section 14 and 14C of the Foreigners Act, 1946, and directed the government to take necessary steps to deport the foreign nationals to their respective countries if they are not wanted in any other case.
“In light of the discussions made herein above, this Court comes to a conclusion that so far as the foreign nationals are concerned, their prosecution for the offences alleged under Section 14 and 14C of the Act of 1946 has no basis to proceed. Accordingly, the order taking cognizance and issuance of summons as also the entire criminal prosecution against them are hereby quashed,” Justice Rajeev Ranjan Prasad wrote in his 68-page order on December 22.
Soon after the court order, the foreign nationals welcomed the verdict and said that their faith in the Indian judiciary had been strengthened.
“We are happy that the Indian judiciary has quashed all the allegations against us. We respect the court verdict,” Bangladesh national Mehboob-ur-Rahman said. Saiful Bin Baheri, a Malaysian national, termed the verdict as “bold judgment”
Two FIRs were lodged by the local police in Araria Sadar and Narparganj police stations in mid-April against them for staying in Araria in violation of visa rules. On the basis of FIRs, nine Malaysian nationals were arrested from local Jama Masjid, and another nine Bangladeshi nationals were arrested from Rewahi Markaz. Three local persons were also arrested for not informing the local administration about their stay.
The foreign nationals in question had come to Araria on March 11 and March 23 before the first lockdown was imposed. They had also visited Nizamuddin Markaz but before the Tablighi Jamaat gathering.
Meanwhile, the ministry of home affairs had asked states to “screen, quarantine and deport” the foreign nationals who had participated in the religious gathering organised by the Nizamuddin Markaz between March 12 and March 14, 2020. Despite the fact that there has been no link between the foreign nationals in question and the religious gatherings in Nizamuddin Markaz, police jumped into action and lodged FIRs against them. After the arrest, they were tested for COVID-19, and test results turned negative.
District’s session court on June 9 granted bail to them but restricted their movement till the disposal of the case. Since the grant of bail, they have been staying in a hotel in Araria.
“Because of the frequent lockdowns, the hearings in the court were going on at a slow pace. So, we felt that this would prolong the case and filed a criminal writ jurisdiction in the Patna high court,” Z.A. Mujahid, one of the lawyers who fought the case on behalf of foreign nationals, told The Wire.
The main charge against the foreign nationals had been that they had not disclosed information to authorities about the propagation of religion by them and staying in mosques and Markaz allegedly violating visa rules.
The application submitted to register an FIR in Narpatganj police station on April 12 said, “Not informing about the arrival of the above persons to the police station and involving in religious activities by a foreign citizen on a tourist visa is a cognisable offence under the Section 14 and 14C of the Foreigners Act.”
However, the police could not produce evidence to prove their allegations in court.
Therefore, the court in its said, “Foreign nationals were staying in the ‘Markaz’ and the ‘Mosque’ respectively with effect from a date before the imposition of the Lock-down 1.0. Before the imposition of the Lockdown at no point of time, the ‘BOI’ /local Police Station identified these foreign nationals as those involved in religious/Tabligh work.”
“They have not been seen addressing any congregation or preaching religious ideologies. In the course of investigation also police have not collected any material in any form to take a prima-facie view that these foreign nationals who are before this Court had indulged in religious/Tabligh work,” it further added.
Muslim community targeted
It may be noted that a section of media at that time had defamed the Muslim community pointing to Tablighi Jamaat’s alleged role in spreading COVID-19. These media houses had reported that foreigners who came to join Markaz were moving within the country and spreading Coronavirus.
Due to this hate propaganda, Muslims have been targeted at many places. In one instance, Bajrang Dal activists had flung saffron flags outside Hindu shops in Nalanda district’s Bihar Sharif to enable ‘Hindu buyers’ to shop only from Hindu shops, while propagating that Muslims were spreading Coronavirus.
In Begusarai, a Muslim quack, Afaq Alam was harrassed by local people alleging that he was treating COVID-19 patients and could spread Coronavirus. He was even forced by the police to get tested for COVID-19. Although his test result came out negative, he alleged that local vegetable vendors and water suppliers still hesitated to sell vegetables and water to him.
He had told this correspondent in April, “The Hindus were boycotting around 45-50 Muslim families in my locality along with me.”
In August, the Aurangabad bench of Bombay high court had acquitted 29 people of foreign origin and said that they were merely made scapegoats.
“A political government tries to find a scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is a probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats,” the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court had observed while quashing FIRs registered in Maharashtra against foreign nationals.
The Bombay high court had questioned the role of the media too.
“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 in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners,” The Hindu had reported quoting court order.
Meanwhile, Mujahid, one of the lawyers who represented 18 foreign nationals in Patna high court said, “We have met district officials and requested to arrange for their deportation. The administration has assured us that they will soon make necessary arrangements for their deportation.”