Police move SC against bail to students, ask trial court for time to process release
Delhi Police moved the Supreme Court on Wednesday for an immediate stay of Delhi high court orders on bail to three student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, arrested for allegedly instigating the February 2020 Delhi riots, claiming that the orders were not only “perverse” but also based on a “social media narrative”.
It also simultaneously filed an application in a Delhi court seeking time to verify the addresses of the three, and their Aadhaar numbers before it can go ahead with the formalities of their release. The court will rule on this on Thursday after the judge said an “order could not be passed” on Wednesday on account of the number of “bail applications before the undersigned”. The police have sought time till June 21 for the verification of the “outstation addresses” of Kalita and Tanha and June 19, for that of Narwal.
If the apex court hears the appeal on Thursday and stays the high court’s order, the three activists will remain in jail -- where they have been since last May.
Challenging the high court’s orders in the apex court in less than 24 hours, Delhi Police contended that bail for Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha was premised “on a preconceived and a completely erroneous illusion”, resulting in “perverse findings”.
The appeal disputed the finding of the high court that the case under the anti-terrorism law seemed to have been made out by the government in its anxiety to suppress dissent, calling it “an insinuation” and a finding beyond the purview of the bail pleas.
Communal riots broke out in north-east Delhi in February 2020, leaving 53 people dead and more than 400 injured. Over 750 FIRs were filed and several people arrested. The three were named in one of these FIRs, accused of orchestrating the blocking of roads in an area where riots broke out. Narwal and Kalita have already been granted bail in two other cases, in which they are accused of unlawful assembly and inciting riots. Tanha has already got bail in another case that alleges he was part of a “premeditated conspiracy” to orchestrate the riots.
The judicial scrutiny, the appeal said, seems to have been not to ascertain whether the evidence on record showed a prima facie case (under the anti-terror UAPA law) but to establish that it was a case of a protest by students and suppression of dissent by the government of the day. This, the plea said, was “without any foundation and appears to be based more on the social media narrative than the evidence gathered and elaborated in the charge sheet”.
Pressing for an urgent hearing and a stay on the three separate but similarly worded bail orders, the police said the high court “erroneously” interpreted certain provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and watered down its provisions that will have far-reaching consequences for cases before investigating agencies.
While the petition was filed on Wednesday with a plea for urgent listing as soon as possible, a time is yet to be fixed for the hearing.
Delhi Police rushed to the apex court after a harsh indictment by the high court in its orders on Tuesday. The high court termed the charges against the student activists “stretched”, “verbiage”, and “hyperbole” while adding that the state may have, by going after the protesters, blurred the line between the “right to protest” and “terrorist activity”.
Clearing the decks for the release of the three after more than a year’s incarceration, the high court held that the foundations of the nation stood on surer footing than those likely to be shaken by a protest, however vicious, organised by college students who operated from the confines of a university.
In all three orders, the high court criticised the invocation of the anti-terrorism law against the students by Delhi Police and said there was “absolutely nothing” showing the possible commission of a terrorist act; or an act of raising funds to commit a terrorist act; or an act of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
In its appeal before the Supreme Court, Delhi Police complained that the high court considered the matter as a case of protest by students while simply discarding the evidence and the corroborations that revealed a sinister plot of mass-scale riots being hatched by the accused.
The petition said the high court read down Section 15 of UAPA that defined a terrorist activity by holding that the provisions of the Act could only be applied to deal with matters of profound impact on the “defence of India”, nothing more and nothing less. Apart from the interpretation of the law being an irrelevant consideration to grant bail, the police contended, it will impact several other pending cases under the anti-terrorism law.
The appeal said the high court order was in breach of the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment in Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali’s case which ruled against conducting a mini-trial and determining admissibility of certain evidence at the time of deciding a bail plea.
Delhi Police said the high court order was “unsustainable in law” and had to be stayed immediately since it directed release of persons accused of serious offences under UAPA.