SC says ‘very unlikely’ it will cancel bail of student activists held in riots
- The court also recorded in its order that the Delhi Police wanted the bail orders to be quashed apart from other comments made by the high court on the interpretations of the UAPA Act.
Frowning upon “hypersensitivity in political matters”, the Supreme Court on Thursday said it is “very unlikely” to send back to jail three student activists, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, who were arrested in May last year for allegedly instigating the February 2020 Delhi riots.
The bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta made the observation while hearing appeals filed by the Delhi Police against the grant of bail to the three by the Delhi high court in June when it asked whether the police will confine the case to interpretations of certain provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) by the Delhi high court, or would also appeal the bail.
“We are here on both aspects. We want the bail orders to be set aside,” solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Delhi Police in the matter, told the court.
To this, the bench retorted: “Very unlikely...but you can try.”
The court also recorded in its order that the Delhi Police wanted the bail orders to be quashed apart from other comments made by the high court on the interpretations of the UAPA Act. Delhi HC had interpreted the UAPA Act to hold that the law can be invoked only for offences limited to defence of India and for activities carried out during war. The HC defined what constituted a “terrorist activity”, noting UAPA could apply only when activities led to widespread violence threatening the defence of the country.
During the proceeding, justice Kaul, speaking for the bench, further expressed his displeasure at repeated interruptions from Mehta and additional solicitor general Aman Lekhi, who also appeared for the police, when the judge sought to get clarifications on the issues being pressed by the Delhi Police.
As Mehta said that even a single observation from the bench can have a huge impact because of wide reportage, justice Kaul said a judge cannot be stopped from asking questions.
“We don’t understand hypersensitivity in political matters. Can I be precluded from asking questions? Whenever I want to ask something, either you (Mehta) say something or Lekhi interrupts. What is this? We want to segregate the issues and that is why it is important for us to know what you want. Do you want to argue on the interpretations of the law or do you also want to take them back in custody?” justice Kaul asked Mehta.
Mehta replied that the Delhi Police would press for both. Lekhi, on his part, claimed the high court had undone UAPA by interpreting the Act in a particular manner and argued that its order must go in entirety.
Senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Siddharth Aggarwal, who were representing the student activists, asked for four weeks to put in their replies to the appeals filed by the police, along with the copy of the charge sheet in the case. The court gave them time and adjourned.
The court, which on June 18 directed that the bail orders in this case would not be treated as a precedent in any other case or relied upon in any court proceeding, also observed that bail proceedings could not become final adjudicatory proceedings and that provisions of an Act were not to be debated extensively in a bail matter.
At this, Sibal pointed out that there are some cases in which both sides argue on facts as well as on statutory provisions and therefore, bail orders end up interpreting the law too.
The bench, however, clarified that it was not inclined to hear a bail matter for hours together and hence, the lawyers should endeavour to limit their arguments mostly to the facts of the case when they argue it later.
Over 750 FIRs were filed and several people arrested for the communal riots that broke out in north-east Delhi in February 2020, leaving 53 people dead and several hundreds injured.
Kalita, Narwal and Tanha are named in one of these FIRs, accused of orchestrating the blocking of roads in an area where riots broke out. Narwal and Kalita have been granted bail in two other cases, in which they were accused of unlawful assembly and inciting riots. Tanha received bail in another case that alleges he was part of a “premeditated conspiracy” to orchestrate the riots.
On June 18, the apex court said it was staying “the effect of the high court order” but clarified that the three activists, who had been released from prison, would remain out on bail . The court accepted Mehta’s submissions that the high court orders could impact several other cases under UAPA pending before different courts.
A high court bench of justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup J Bhambhani on June 15 ordered the release of the three student activists on bail, describing the charges against them as “hyperbole” and ruling that it would be “a stretch” to “say that the protest affected the community at large for it to qualify as an act of terror