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Delhi High Court’s comments on Umar Khalid’s political vocabulary strike a jarring, and disquieting, note

These are times, too, when the courts are not as vigilant against the misuse of law to cramp citizens' freedoms, and when they all too often give the executive the benefit of doubt.

The Delhi HC has also flagged “oont pahad ke neeche aa gaya (idiomatic Hindi for cutting the arrogant down to size)” and the use of expressions like “inquilabi” and “krantikari (revolutionary)” in the speech.

On Wednesday, hearing the bail application of student and activist Umar Khalid in the larger conspiracy case of the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots, the Delhi High Court asked if it is “proper” to use the term “jumla” for the Prime Minister of India. The day after, that is not the question. It is: What does it mean when a high court asks what it did? That the Division Bench of Justice Siddharth Mridul and Justice Rajnish Bhatnagar should be so easily offended on the PM’s behalf, that it should speak of a “laxman rekha” for criticism of government, points to more disturbing things. These are times when the ruling establishment has made a dismal habit of labelling dissenters and political opponents as “anti-national”, and harsh laws like the UAPA are being weaponised to target critics. These are times, too, when the courts are not as vigilant against the misuse of law to cramp citizens’ freedoms, and when they all too often give the executive the benefit of doubt. In times like these, especially, Delhi HC’s objections to words used by Umar Khalid in a speech in Amravati in February 2020 strike a jarring note.

The Delhi HC has also flagged “oont pahad ke neeche aa gaya (idiomatic Hindi for cutting the arrogant down to size)” and the use of expressions like “inquilabi” and “krantikari (revolutionary)” in the speech. The court’s picking on satirical or polemical words and innocuous phrases underlines a deepening worry about the Delhi riots cases — that dots are being joined loosely and indiscriminately, between legitimate protests against a law, CAA-NRC, in which Khalid also participated, and the communal violence that broke out in Northeast Delhi which left 53 dead. The central pillar that holds the prosecution’s edifice is the criminalisation of the protest by linking it to the violence and, by invoking the UAPA, even to terror. Another bench of the Delhi HC, last year, spoke wisely and sharply against this, while granting bail to Khalid’s co-accused, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha: “… 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”. The Supreme Court intervened within days of that HC order, though, and while it did not cancel the bail, it said that the reading down of the anti-terror law is “not to be treated as precedent by any court”.

But that reading down of the harsh law, the underlining of crucial distinctions between “protest”, “law and order”, “security of the state” and “terror”, and the court’s warning that “wanton use of serious penal provisions would only trivialise them” is a judicial moment to hold on to. It gives reason to hope that the excesses of the executive will be checked by the court. One hopes, with due respect, that the court, through its remarks on Khalid’s vocabulary, was merely being provocative in the back-and-forth that marks the adversarial process of justice. Because when citizens’ freedoms are threatened, the only bulwark is a judiciary that will speak up without ambivalence or delay, on substance rather than style. To flag what can, or cannot, offend the PM is not the responsibility of an independent judiciary.

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First published on: 29-04-2022 at 03:20 IST
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