Justifying the restrictions imposed at Nizamuddin Markaz, where the Tablighi Jamaat congregation was held in March last year amid the pandemic, the Centre on Monday told the Delhi High Court that the case registered in relation to the alleged violation of COVID protocols is serious and has “cross-border implications”.
The Centre told the court that cases registered against foreigners found staying at the Markaz have diplomatic implications and that the curbs on the premises do not violate the right to practice religion. The court, in its response, marked that the premises cannot be kept locked forever.
“Since about 1,300 foreigners were found to be residing in the said premises and cases against them have cross-borders implications and involves nation’s diplomatic relationship with other countries, it is necessary and incumbent on the part of the Respondent to preserve the said premises for the purpose of Section 310 of CrPC,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a reply to the petition filed by Delhi Waqf Board for easing of restrictions at the Markaz.
Counsel for the Centre stated that a legal action to re-open the markaz can only be initiated by the lessee of the property and a resident of the premises has already filed a plea to handover the residential portion of the markaz, which is pending final adjudication before another judge of the high court.
“Only on legal view, the petition can be disposed of. The Waqf Board has no power to overstep the lessee,” said the counsel for the Centre Rajat Nair.
However, Justice Mukta said “some persons were in possession of the property. Due to the pandemic, an FIR was registered.. (and) you take possession as case property. It has to be handed over. It can”t be that the property is kept forever (subject to court orders). What is your stand on the facts of the case? You tell me from whom you took it. How long will you keep it locked as case property.”
The court issued notice on an application filed by a member of the Managing Committee of the markaz in question for his impleadment and allowed the Waqf Board to file its reply to the Centre”s affidavit and posted the matter for next hearing on November 16.
Senior counsel Ramesh Gupta, representing the Board, argued that the petition has remained pending for more than a year and a half and clarified that his petition pertained to the release of the entire markaz property comprising the masjid, the madarasa and the residential portion.
“Now they should release the property to us. UOI has no role to play,” he stated.
Senior counsel Salman Khurshid, representing the intervening member, added that he is “on the same page as the Waqf” and when allowed to be re-opened, the markaz would adhere to the relevant protocols.
In its affidavit affirmed by the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Crime, the Centre has maintained that it is “necessary and incumbent” to “preserve” the Markaz property as the investigation in the case registered for violation of the COVID-19 protocols has “cross borders implications and involves nation”s diplomatic relationship with other countries.”
On April 15, the court had allowed 50 people to offer namaz five times a day at Nizamuddin Markaz during Ramzan, saying there is no direction in the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) notification to close down places of worship.
The board, in its plea filed through advocate Wajeeh Shafiq, contended that even after unlock-1 guidelines permitted religious places outside containment zones to be opened, the markaz — comprising the Masjid Bangley Wali, Madarsa Kashif-ul-uloom and attached hostel — continues to be locked up.
It has further contended that even if the premises was part of any criminal investigation or trial, keeping it “under lock as an out of bound area” was a “primitive method” of enquiry process.
Several FIRs have been registered under the Epidemic Diseases Act, the Disaster Management Act, Foreigners Act and various provisions of the penal code in connection with the Tablighi Jamaat event held at the markaz and the subsequent stay of foreigners there during the COVID-19 lockdown last year.