The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a plea by journalist Shyam Meera Singh and two others that seeks to quash a Tripura Police FIR under controversial anti-terror law UAPA for social media posts - including Mr Singh's "Tripura is burning" tweet - made during violence in the state last month.
In addition to Shyam Meera Singh, the plea was also filed by Supreme Court lawyers Ansar Indori (from the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation) and Mukesh (from the Peoples' Union of Civil Liberties). Both lawyers visited Tripura as part of an independent fact-finding team.
The plea also seeks a court-monitored probe, a declaration that some parts of the UAPA are unconstitutional, and argues that states being allowed to use UAPA to criminalise fact-finding will lead to a "chilling effect" on freedom of speech, and "only facts convenient to the government will come out".
The fact-finding team, the plea further states, "did not question the sovereignty or territorial integrity of India" and that Mr Singh's 'Tripura is burning' tweet was "factual reporting".
A date for the hearing will be fixed shortly, Chief Justice NV Ramana said, in response to the plea by advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of Mr Singh and those seeking to quash the police complaint.
"Petition is filed regarding incidents in Tripura and FIRs and notices issued to lawyers who went on a fact-finding mission, and said 'Tripura is burning'... we've challenged several issues, including wide definition of 'unlawful activities'," Mr Bhushan told the top court.
"Why didn't you file before (the Tripura) High Court?" Chief Justice Ramana asked.
To this Mr Bhushan replied: "Because we are questioning UAPA as well, and the case needs to be heard urgently as these people face imminent arrest."
"Ok. We will give a date," the Chief Justice said.
The FIR accuses Mr Singh and the others of spreading "fake news" and "distorted or objectionable" content about what the state government has dismissed as allegations of mosques being vandalised and local Muslim communities being attacked after communal violence in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The journalist and those named in the complaint, who include lawyers and activists, face charges ranging from criminal conspiracy and forgery to spreading "fake news", and have been booked under controversial anti-terror law UAPA, or the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The vaguely worded law - the constitutional validity of which has been challenged in the top court - allows authorities to detain people, without charge, for six months.
Last month retired Supreme Court Justice RF Nariman called UAPA a "draconian act".
Mr Singh spoke to NDTV yesterday and underlined his determination to hold the state government to account, and pointed out that he was only repeating what the High Court had observed.
"Whatever I tweeted - 'Tripura is burning' - was the same thing the Tripura High Court said. It took suo moto cognisance of the violence and asked the state government for update on action taken. But if a journalist says the same thing... then UAPA is filed," Mr Singh told NDTV.
"If there is democracy in this country, then I am not worried. The one who should be worried is the IPS officer who filed UAPA case against journalists and activists, and even children," he added.
For writing only these 3 words “Tripura is burning”, BJP Government of Tripura has imposed UAPA on me. I want to reiterate once again, I will never hesitate to stand up for justice. PM of my country might be a coward, We journalists are not.— Shyam Meera Singh (@ShyamMeeraSingh) November 6, 2021
मैं आपकी जेलों से नहीं डरता. pic.twitter.com/pw5OrZlDRp
Tripura Police last week also approached Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for details of more than 100 social media accounts they claim were used to make "fake" and "provocative" posts. This was after they filed over a dozen criminal cases against more than 70 people, including Mr Singh.
Senior police officials were quoted by PTI as warning people "not to like or retweet provocative posts since it amounts to rumour-mongering". They pointed to claims a mosque in Gomati district had been set ablaze - "a complete misrepresentation of facts" - to underline their point.
According to news agency AFP, accounts red-flagged by the authorities include those belonging to journalists from India and Australia, and a law professor based in the United States. The majority of those under investigation, AFP reported, were Muslims.
The Australian journalist, identified by AFP as CJ Werleman, had pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not condemned the unrest and that Muslim protesters had been detained.
UAPA charges have been slammed by the opposition and civil society voices, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, who this week attacked the BJP (which is in power in Tripura) for "shooting the messenger"; "Pointing out 'Tripura Is Burning' is a call for corrective action. But BJP's favourite cover-up tactic is shooting the messenger. Truth can't be silenced by UAPA," he tweeted.
The charges have also been condemned by the Editors Guild of India, which has demanded an investigation into the riots "instead of penalising journalists and civil society activists".
With input from AFP, PTI