Coronavirus Outbreak: FIR against Tablighi Jamaat organisers not enough; govt should use existing laws to recover damages
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation is an embodiment of gross negligence and utter disregard of government directives.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin has led to fears of a susbtantial COVID-19 outbreak and watering down of the positive effect of the lockdown. On Wednesday, several individuals linked to this congregation were found positive for the novel coronavirus . Reports stating that every sixth Indian Covid patient is from Tablighi Jamaat have surfaced.
Adding to the trouble, there are reports of members of the congregation not co-operating with the health officials and going to the extent of spitting on the authorities. The Delhi Police have also released a video wherein an officer is seen warning the organisers of the Jamaat and asking them to clear the congregation immediately.
The responsibility of the authorities, in these times of crisis, is to ensure that no such event is organised in the first place. There was a 13 March order by the Delhi government which prohibited congregations of more than 200 people and there was also a 12 March notification stating that anyone with travel history from COVID-19 -affected countries must self-isolate.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation was organised in blatant disregard of these orders. Undoubtedly, these individuals will be charged under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code. However, courtesy India’s emphasis on due process and the pace of the criminal justice system, they may soon be enlarged on bail.
There is a desperate attempt all across the country to minimise the implications of this congregation on public health and safety. The urgency in this regard has led to a serious strain on resources and also caused a great deal of panic across the country. Hence, merely initiating criminal action against these wrongdoers is not sufficient.
The well-established principle of strict liability in the law of torts can be invoked and a suit claiming exemplary damages can be filed against the organisers and participants of this congregation. It is a settled law that principles of strict liability do not require any malicious intention on part of the wrongdoer. Damage resulting from lack of foresight is covered by this principle.
Since it is possible that many innocent persons will be infected, there is a possibility that multiple proceedings will be initiated against the members of this congregation. To do away with this possibility, the Central government must take to itself the task of litigating on behalf of all the affected persons.
Moreover, since there has been much strain on the resources of the central government as also various state governments due to the congregation, there is good reason to file a suit for exemplary damages.
In India, there is a legal precedent which can be invoked by the central government in this regard. After the Bhopal gas tragedy, wherein thousands of people were affected, the central government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 and took to itself the authority to represent all the claimants and file a suit or proceeding before any court. The said legislation also gave the central government the power to frame a scheme for registration and processing of claims, maintenance of records and registers, etc. It can also affix responsibility on other governmental authorities who failed to prevent the gathering from happening.
An exercise on similar lines is expedient. The Tablighi congregation is an embodiment of gross negligence and utter disregard of government directives. Such negligence has now endangered the lives of thousands of citizens of this country, apart from putting an unnecessary burden on the resources of the State. This is especially so as there was evidence of COVID-19 cases within the Tablighi Jamaat in Malaysia, at the time that the assembly took place in India.
Thus, a class action suit is the need of the hour. If such a suit is backed by an appropriate legislation, it would also send a strong and clear message that such negligence which puts the lives of innocent persons in danger should not be tolerated.
Raghav Pandey is an Assistant Professor of Law at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. Sudhanva Bedekar is an LL.M. Candidate at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai
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