The Delhi High Court has granted bail to student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the Delhi riots case of February 2020 in which they were charged under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The three have spent more than a year behind bars.
A Bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup J. Bhambani granted bail on the three furnishing personal bonds of Rs.50,000 and two local sureties. They must surrender their passports, provide a cell phone number to the Investigating Officer/Station House Officer on which they may be contacted, and not indulge in any activity or omission that might prejudice the case.
Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita were represented by Advocates Adit S. Pujari, Tusharika Mattoo and Kunal Negi, while Asif Iqbal Tanha was represented by Senior Advocate Siddharth Aggarwal, advocates Sowjhanya Shankaran, Siddharth Satija, Abhinav Sekhari and Nitika Khaitan.
Bail for the three has raised hopes of other activists of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests who were jailed after being accused in the ‘Delhi riots conspiracy case’. While Narwal and Kalita had secured bail in FIRs 48/2020 and 50/2020; Tanha had got bail in FIR 298/2019 earlier. The current bail pertains to the case registered in March last year under FIR 59/2020 wherein Umar Khalid and Danish, a resident of North-East Delhi are the prime accused. Danish secured bail shortly after his arrest in March last year, while Khalid has been in jail since September last. In April last year, the Delhi Police added the strict provisions of UAPA to the FIR, making bail difficult for the accused. The others arrested under the FIR include Sharjeel Imam, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jehan, Meeran Haider, Tahir Hussain, Gulfisha Fatima, Shifa ur Rehman, Shadab Ahmed, Athar Khan, Taslim Ahmed, Salim Malik and Mohd Salim Khan. Two of the accused, Safoora Zargar, who was pregnant at the time, and Faizan Khan were given bail earlier.
The prosecution’s case against Narwal and Kalita is that they were involved in instigating the local population, particularly women, in certain Muslim-dominated areas of Delhi, to protest against the CAA by allegedly seeking to incite feelings of persecution. Other than this, the allegation is that as part of a women’s rights group called Pinjra Tod and other activistic groups such as the Delhi Protests Support Group, the Jamia Coordination Committee, and Warriors and Auraton ka Inquilab, the activists were involved in a conspiracy that led to the North-East Delhi riots.
Without going into the merits of the case, the Bench provided a strong indictment of pre-trial detention. In the bail order for Tanha, they laid down a quick conspectus of the general principles of bail by referring to precedents in the matter. They underlined the basic but often forgotten principles of the criminal justice system, that an undertrial prisoner must be assumed innocent till the completion of the trial and till found to be guilty. They pointed to the grave consequences of pre-trial detention that results from psychological and physical deprivations in jail. They added that punishment begins only after conviction and that it was improper for a court to refuse bail as a mark of disapproval of past conduct or to give the person who is yet to be convicted a taste of imprisonment as a lesson.
While stating that the court was thus far not convinced prima facie of the allegations made against the three, which were not borne-out from the material provided by the State, the Bench remarked, “The State cannot thwart grant of bail merely by confusing issues. Allegations relating to inflammatory speeches, organising of chakka jaam, instigating women to protest and to stock-pile various articles and other similar allegations, in our view, at worst, are evidence that the appellant participated in organising protests, but we can discern no specific or particularised allegation, much less any material to bear-out the allegation, that the appellant incited violence, what to talk of committing a terrorist act or a conspiracy or act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act as understood in the UAPA. We are constrained to express, that it seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”