Hours after his dramatic removal from a flight and arrest at the Delhi airport today, Congress leader Pawan Khera was released on bail in a case involving his alleged insult to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"I was asked to deplane as if I was a terrorist. It can happen to anyone tomorrow," Pawan Khera said after being freed from police lock-up.
Nearly 50 Congress leaders launched a rare protest on the Delhi airport tarmac this morning after Mr Khera was asked to get off a flight to Raipur. Mr Khera was heading to the Chhattisgarh capital for a two-day Congress meeting.
A police team came all the way from BJP-ruled Assam to arrest Mr Khera, armed with an FIR that accused him of remarks "made intentionally" to provoke BJP workers, "causing breach of public peace, with intent to incite violence and disturb peace and tranquility in the society."
Granting Mr Khera reprieve, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said: "There has to be some level of discourse, we are protecting you." The Supreme Court agreed to the Congress's request to club cases registered against Mr Khera in Uttar Pradesh and Assam.
At a recent press conference, Mr Khera flubbed PM Modi's name while demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the Adani-Hindenburg row. "If Narasimha Rao could form a JPC (Joint Parliamentary Committee), if Atal Bihari Vajpayee could form a JPC, then what problem does Narendra Gautam Das...sorry Damodardas...Modi have?" the Congress spokesperson had said.
The FIR said the remarks were "not just insulting, defamatory and derogatory to PM Modi and his deceased father".
The Congress, which approached the Supreme Court, argued that it was a "slip of tongue" and that Mr Khera had apologised.
"I for one don't believe in crossing boundaries. But if you have crossed boundaries, this can't be the reaction. It was unfortunate. He did a play on words which he shouldn't have as per me. He said it was a mistake - 'I genuinely got confused whether it is Damodardas or Gautamdas'," said lawyer and Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
The judges were repeatedly shown Mr Khera's video. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud asked at one point how it was a case of "religious disharmony".
The BJP, which rules Assam, says Mr Khera's fumble was deliberate. "Our lordships may see the facial expressions and the laughs all around. This is the PM of the country," said Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati.
Assam has emerged as the favoured destination for FIRs linked to anti-BJP criticism. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had posted a strong tweet after Mr Khera first made the comments.
Make no mistake- pathetic remarks by courtier Pawan Khera on PM's father have blessings of the top levels of Congress, which is full of entitlement and disdain against a person of humble origins being PM. India will not forget or forgive these horrible remarks of Congressmen.— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) February 20, 2023
The Congress said the BJP is acting out of fear and wants to block the party's plenary session because of the "successful Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi". Last week, the Enforcement Directorate carried out searches on Congress MLAs in Chhattisgarh over allegations of money-laundering.
"Today the situation in the country is worse than the Emergency. There is an emergency-like situation in the country without declaring it. His arrest has defamed our country all over the world. Nothing can be more unfortunate than this, that is why we say democracy is in danger and the Constitution is being torn to shreds. The public will destroy their pride," said Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.