Updated: February 24, 2021 8:11:21 am
Observing that “citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation” and “cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies”, and that the “offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments”, a Delhi court granted bail Tuesday to Bengaluru activist Disha Ravi.
Arrested February 13 by Delhi Police in connection with a Toolkit on the farmer protests that was tweeted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Ravi was released from custody late Tuesday.
Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana, noting that the Delhi Police “resistance to the bail plea seems to be more of ornamental in nature,” said: “Considering the scanty and sketchy evidence available on record, I do not find any palpable reasons to breach the general rule of ‘Bail’ against a 22-year-old young lady, with absolutely blemish-free criminal antecedents and having firm roots in the society, and send her to jail.”
He ordered that Ravi be released on bail after filing personal bond/surety bond of Rs 1 lakh with two sureties each. She was told to continue to cooperate with the probe, join the investigation as and when summoned by the investigation officer; not leave the country without the permission of the court; and “scrupulously appear at each and every stage of the proceedings” before the court concerned “so as not to cause any obstruction or delay to its progress”.
On the police charge against Ravi over the use of the Toolkit, ASJ Rana said: “The perusal of the said ‘Toolkit’ reveals that any call for any kind of violence is conspicuously absent.”
Stating that the “nub of the issue is whether applicant/accused Disha was merely involved in peaceful protest and dissent against the farm acts or she was actually involved in seditious activities under the guise of protesting against the said legislation,” he referred to the interpretation of the word ‘sedition’, as prescribed under IPC section 124A, and the Supreme Court rulings in this regard.
“Evidently, law proscribes only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence. ‘Violence’ seems to be the gravamen of the charge,” he said.
He said the Additional Solicitor General, who appeared for Delhi Police, “during the course of arguments, fairly conceded that there is no direct evidence establishing the link between the applicant/accused and the violence that took place on 26.01.2021 in Delhi. However, he argued that the conduct of the applicant/accused viewed against the attendant circumstances would unambiguously establish that there was a ‘larger conspiracy’ to perpetuate violence by secessionist forces and the protest against the farm laws was merely a facade to conceal the real sinister designs.”
Citing the Bombay High Court ruling in Arun G Gowli vs State of Maharashtra, ASJ Rana said it was “observed that conspiracy cannot be proved merely on the basis of inferences” and has to be backed by evidence.
He categorised the material collected against Ravi under different subheads. On ‘Engagement with secessionist forces’, he said the ASG had pointed out that a pro-Khalistani secessionist group, Poetic Justice Foundation, and people associated with it were directly linked to the creation of the Toolkit document, that Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal, known pro-Khalistan activists, were the persons behind PJF.
The court was also told that Ravi’s associates Nikita and Shantanu attended a Zoom meeting in which 60-70 people, including Dhaliwal and Lal, participated.
The ASG, the judge noted, “fairly admitted that PJF is not a banned organization and even no criminal action is pending against… Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal”.
“There is nothing on record to establish any direct link between the applicant/accused and Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal… there is nothing on record to suggest that there was any call, incitement, instigation or exhortation on the part of the applicant/accused and the abovesaid organizations and its associates to foment violence on 26.01.2021,” he said.
“In my considered opinion, it is not mere engagement with persons of dubious credentials which is indictable rather it is the purpose of engagement which is relevant for the purpose of deciding culpability. Any person with dubious credentials may interact with a number of persons during the course of his social intercourse. As long as the engagement/interaction remains within the four corners of law, people interacting with such persons, ignorantly, innocently or for that matter even fully conscious of their dubious credentials, cannot be painted with the same hue,” he said.
“In the absence of any evidence to the effect that the applicant/accused agreed or shared a common purpose to cause violence on 26.01.2021 with the founders of PJF, it cannot be presumed by resorting to surmises or conjectures that she also supported the secessionist tendencies or the violence caused on 26.01.2021, simply because she shared a platform with people, who have gathered to oppose the legislation. There is not even an iota of evidence brought to my notice connecting the perpetrators of the violence on 26.01.2021 with the said PJF or the applicant/accused,” he said.
On the use of Toolkit, the judge said: “The perusal of the said ‘Toolkit’ reveals that any call for any kind of violence is conspicuously absent. In my considered opinion, Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments. (Niharendu Dutt Mazumdar v. Emperor AIR 1942 FC22). Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.”
Stating that “this 5000 years old civilization of ours has never been averse to ideas from varied quarters”, he quoted a couplet from the Rig Veda which “embodies our cultural ethos expressing our respect for divergent opinions” – it broadly translates to ‘Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions’. “Even our founding fathers accorded due respect to the divergence of opinion by recognising the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right. The right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of The Constitution of India. In my considered opinion, the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience. There are no geographical barriers on communication. A Citizen has the fundamental rights to use the best means of imparting and receiving communication, as long as the same is permissible under the four corners of law and as such have access to audience abroad,” he said.
On the police argument that Ravi “gave a global audience to the seditious elements by manipulating support of international youth icon Ms. Greta Thunberg”, ASJ Rana said “there is nothing on record to suggest that the applicant/accused subscribed to any secessionist idea. Further, the prosecution has, except for pointing out that applicant/accused forwarded the toolkit to Ms. Greta Thunberg, failed to point out as to how the applicant/accused gave global audience to the ‘secessionist elements’.”
He said that “except for a bare assertion, no evidence has been brought to my notice to support the contention that any violence took place at any of the Indian Embassies pursuant to the sinister designs of the applicant/accused and her co-conspirators”.
On the hyperlinks embedded in the Toolkit which the police said defamed the Indian Army citing the example of material available on genocide.org which talks about human rights violations in 40 countries including India, the judge said “imputations are found to be objectionable in nature”. But he disagreed that the material was seditious in nature. “The imputations may be false, exaggerated or even with a mischievous intent but the same cannot be stigmatized being seditious unless they have tendency to foment violence.”
On police allegations of Ravi making a WhatsApp group, the court said “creation of a WhatsApp group or being editor of an innocuous Toolkit is not an offence”. Furthermore, since the link was not found objectionable, the “mere deletion of the WhatsApp chat to destroy the evidence linking her with the toolkit and PJF also becomes meaningless. Further, it is rightly pointed out by Ld Defence Counsel that the protest march was duly permitted by the Delhi police, therefore there is nothing wrong in co-accused Shantanu reaching Delhi to attend the protest march”.
The judge said Ravi’s attempt to conceal her identity “seems to be nothing more than an anxious effort to stay away from unnecessary controversies”.