A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, led by Justice D Y Chandrachud, ordered Wednesday that Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair be released immediately on interim bail in all FIRs registered against him by the UP police and that these FIRs be clubbed and transferred to the Delhi Police’s Special Cell. The apex court further said the interim bail will be applicable to all FIRs that may be registered in the future against Zubair’s tweets and that the power of arrest be used sparingly — Delhi police had arrested Zubair on June 27 for a 2018 tweet, in which a Delhi court has granted him regular bail, whereas the UP police has lodged seven FIRs, alleging that his tweets cause communal disharmony. The court also said Zubair can’t be stopped from tweeting, as the counsel for UP had demanded: “We cannot anticipatorily interdict him from exercising his right of free speech. He will be answerable as per the law,” the bench said.
The Supreme Court’s intervention is welcome and hopeful — at a time when FIRs are being filed at the drop of a “hurt” hat, when arrests become the norm rather than the exception, the court’s doors need to be open wider than ever for it to fulfil its role as the custodian of individual rights. The court has drawn some red lines that should henceforth force authorities to think before acting against individuals on the flimsiest of reasons for assumed hurt to sentiment, reputation and fame of individuals/organisations/faith or “national interest”. The bench had earlier observed that the practice of repeated charging and arresting was a “vicious cycle” and asked the UP police not to take precipitative action against Zubair. On Wednesday, it said the SIT set up by UP police to investigate Zubair’s tweets was “redundant” when it ordered the transfer of FIRs to Delhi. A year ago, in Vinod Dua vs Union of India, the Supreme Court had clarified that the spirit and intent of the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh verdict continued to prevail and held it as the guiding framework on matters concerning free speech while cautioning against state over-reach. The challenge before the judiciary is to ensure that its words are followed, in letter and spirit, by those who have the power to throw a citizen into jail.
That’s the unfortunate trend — weaponising the IPC to curb voices critical of persons in power. Journalists, filmmakers, writers, activists, social media influencers have all been subjected to intimidation and even imprisonment by governments cutting across parties and ideologies. State overreach has become epidemic with over-sensitive agencies penalising dissenters, presumably to please their political bosses — the detention of filmmaker Avinash Das, for sharing a 2017 photograph of Union Home Minister Amit Shah with a tainted IAS officer, the most recent such example. In many such cases, regrettably, even the courts have either kicked the can down the justice road or given the state the benefit of many a doubt. That’s why the Zubair order is special and significant. For, by ordering Zubair’s release, the highest court has fortified the practice of free speech and fair comment. Its message needs to go right down.