Madras High Court: G.R. Swaminathan, J., while addressing a petition with regard to release of Tablighis, stated that,

Covid-19 should teach us to care for each other rather than use the arsenal of law.

Petitioners who are foreign nationals were arrested by respondent police on the ground that they had engaged in religious activities in breach of visa conditions.

They defied COVID-19 lockdown norms as were imposed by the Government.

In the norms, religious places were ordered for closure, yet the petitioners stayed inside the mosques in groups by defying the norms laid down by the Government.

Thus, in view of the above stated reasons, FIRs were lodged against the petitioners for committing offences under Section 13 and 14 of the Foreigners Act, 2014, Sections 188, 269, 270, 271 and 278 of IPC, Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, Section 58(4), 134, 135 of the Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939 and Section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

There are accusations that its puritanical and revivalist project prepares the ground for islamic radicalization.

Court’s opinion on “Tablighis”

[Categorization can have serious pitfalls]

Bench recorded,

Prof. Upendra Baxi’s remark in his recent essay on “Exodus Constitutionalism” published by The India Forum that “there is, also, no such thing as ‘migrants’ but only persons and groups with distinctively (and often disturbingly) different needs and abilities…”

The above stated helped the Court to see the petitioners as “30 individuals” instead of collectively thingifying them as “Tablighis”.

Justicing has to be an individualized exercise.

Further the Court added that, there are scores of foreign Tablighis who are presently in detention. They hail from different countries. Some of them are women. Quite a few are senior citizens. They are normal human beings. They are now stuck in alien surroundings.

The petitioners came to India propelled by a sense of religious idealism. But their mission went awry.

The stated petitioners are eager to return back to their families and are also willing to admit through affidavits that they had violated the visa conditions and were willing to undertake that they will not enter India for the next ten years.

Entitled to bail?

Offences which the petitioners are alleged to have committed are not akin to those offences for which there are limitations for grant of bail.

The Bench states that there cannot be any objection for granting bail to the petitioners.

Continued incarceration of the petitioners will not serve any purpose. Since the petitioners are foreigners, it would obviously be difficult for them to arrange local sureties.

Thus, petitioners shall be released on their own bond.

Right to return to native country

Bench stated that the petitioners had come to India to serve the cause of their religion. Circumstances suddenly turned adverse and landed them in prison. They have spent more than 70 days in what are truly difficult conditions.

Merely because the petitioners have contravened the visa conditions, they cannot be seen as criminals.

Court feeling sensitive to the petitioners’ misery in the present COVID-19 times, posed a question, whether it is acting beyond jurisdiction?

To the above, bench stated,

The Hon’ble Chief Justice has allotted the subject of Criminal Original Petition-Bail, Anticipatory Bail Petitions, Criminal Appeal and Criminal Revision Petitions to be dealt with by me. But, in view of my being a Judge of the High Court, I certainly have the inherent power to make such orders as may be necessary to secure the ends of justice.

Failure to respond to the petitioners’ existential horror would amount to judicial abdication.

Of course, the petitioners having violated the visa conditions cannot demand that they must be allowed to return as a matter of right. But then, the authorities cannot arbitrarily deny the said request.

Unjust, Unreasonable and Unfair

Petitioners are willing to bear the cost of transportation. They will coordinate with their embassies and consulates and arrange their return. All that the respondents need to do is to play a facilitatory role. Instead of doing so, if the respondents insist on detaining the petitioners and prosecuting them, it can only be characterized as unreasonable, unjust and unfair.

Thus, in view of the above, Court issues following directions:

  • Petitioners are granted bail.
  • After the petitioners are released on bail, it is open to the authorities to require the petitioners to stay at the special camp earmarked under Section 3(2)(e) r/w 4(2) of the Foreigners Act, 1946.
  • If the petitioners execute appropriate affidavits expressing their regret for having violated the visa conditions, proceedings against them shall be concluded by filing final reports recording the same.
  • It is for the petitioners to coordinate with their respective embassies/consulates and arrange their return to their respective nations. Government of Tamil Nadu or the Government of India will only play a facilitatory role.

[Md Kameual Islam v. State, 2020 SCC OnLine Mad 1171 , decided on 12-06-2020]

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