On 21 August, the Bombay High Court delivered a scathing judgement questioning the criminal proceedings against members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist group. The previous month, the ministry of home affairs had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the government had cancelled the visas of at least 2,765 foreign Tablighi members. The MHA added that Tablighi members had been blacklisted from re-entering India. It further noted that a total of 205 first information reports had been registered against foreign Tablighi members across the country. The Bombay High Court quashed the FIRs against 29 foreign nationals, criticising the government for using the Tablighi members as “scapegoats” amid an escalating pandemic. A scrutiny of the home ministry’s affidavit lends significant support to the court’s verdict and raises grave questions about the Indian government’s treatment of the Tablighi foreigners.
The home ministry filed the affidavit in response to a batch of petitions before the Supreme Court by members of the Tablighi Jamaat from 35 different countries. According to the affidavit, the FIRs were registered because the Tablighi members were “found to be involved in Tabligh activities which are not permitted on tourist visa.” Subsequently, the MHA refused to let them leave the country citing ongoing criminal proceedings. The ministry restricted them to India because of the cases pending against them, refusing to let them return home. The petitioners argued that they had entered India on valid tourist visas and that the Indian government had been unable to explain how they violated their visa during their stay.
While the MHA has claimed that it cancelled the visas on a case-by-case basis, the petitioners argued that the visas of foreign Tablighi members were cancelled en masse, without any individual consideration of their activities. The petitioners further pointed out that the police only registered the FIRs against them on the instructions of the home ministry, without specific allegations against any of the members. Unable to leave the country due to these cases, many Tablighi foreigners have been compelled to enter into plea bargaining and accepting petty criminal charges in exchange for an opportunity to return home.
The petitions challenge the validity of the cancellation of visas, the blacklisting of the members and the registration of the FIRs. They argued that by depriving the foreign members “of their right to personal liberty” and their right to travel back to their home countries, the home ministry had violated Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 confers the right to life and liberty upon all individuals in the country, and not just Indian citizens. In order to determine the legality of the home ministry’s actions and the legitimacy of the petitioners’ arguments, it is important to examine the three points of dispute—the visa cancellation, the blacklisting and the criminal cases—individually.