"In Its Anxiety To Suppress Dissent...": Court's Sharp Words For Centre

Delhi Riots: Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha were arrested in May last year on conspiracy charges linked to violence over the citizenship law

Delhi Riots: Over 50 people died in the February 2020 violence over the controversial citizenship law

Highlights

  • Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Asif Iqbal Tanha have been granted bail
  • They were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act
  • In February last year more than 50 people were killed in Delhi riots
New Delhi:

There is a difference between the "constitutionally guaranteed right to protest" and terrorist activity, the Delhi High Court said Tuesday, as it granted bail to three activists arrested more than a year ago in connection with riots that followed protests against the controversial citizenship law.

The High Court also said use of the anti-terror law UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) - which was invoked to file charges against the activists - must recognise the "essential character of terrorism" and a "terrorist act", and that the law could not be "casually applied to criminal acts".

Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, who are members of women's rights group Pinjra Tod, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha were arrested in May 2020. They were accused of being the "masterminds" of the February 2020 violence and denied regular bail by the trial court.

This morning, in two separate judgments, a High Court bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup Jairam Bhambhani set aside the lower court's orders and allowed bail on a personal bond and two sureties of Rs 50,000 each, the surrender of passports and other conditions.

"In its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred," the court noted as it allowed bail for Ms Narwal and Ms Kalita.

"If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy," the court added.

In the earlier judgment - pertaining to bail for Mr Tanha - the same bench said: "The phrase terrorist act' cannot be permitted to be casually applied to criminal acts that fall squarely within the definition of conventional offences under the IPC."

The court also said there was a "complete lack of any specific, factual allegations.... other than those spun by mere grandiloquence" and "(such serious sections) must be applied in a just and fair way, lest it unjustly ropes within its ambit persons whom the Legislature never intended to punish".

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Pinjra Tod activist Natasha Narwal had been given interim bail to perform the last rites of her father

"Pre-trial detention would lead to needless psychological and physical deprivations (and) above all, it would seriously hamper the appellant from participating in and contributing to the preparation of his defence at the trial," the Delhi High Court said.

Natasha Narwal, 32, and Devangana Kalita, 31 were arrested in May last year. Both are PhD students at the Department of Women's Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

They were arrested twice; in the first case Ms Narwal was granted bail after the court said videos submitted as proof of her conspiracy did not show actually show her encouraging or inciting violence.

Ms Narwal had been granted interim bail for three weeks last month to perform the last rites for her father Mahavir Narwal, a senior CPM member who died after contracting the coronavirus.

In January a Delhi sessions court had refused Ms Kalita bail.

The two are associated with Pinjra Tod - a collective of women students of and alumni from colleges and universities across Delhi, who fight for women's rights.

The High Court had, earlier this month, also granted Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha, 25, interim bail so he could study for and take exams due this month.

Mr Tanha was arrested for allegedly being part of a premeditated conspiracy that engineered the riots.

In March the High Court slammed Delhi Police over a vigilance inquiry report that said his confessional statement had been leaked to the media. Last year Mr Tanha had said his confession, which is not admissible in court and cannot be treated as an evidence, had been leaked to the media.

Violence broke out in the northeastern parts of Delhi in February last year after tension between supporters of the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act and those protesting against it.

Over 50 people died and around 200 were injured in the violence that followed.