Terming the definition of terrorists under section 15 of UAPA as ” somewhat wide and vague”, the Delhi high court granted bail to Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha in the Northeast Delhi Riots Conspiracy case on June 15, 2021.
In May 2020, the trio was arrested for their alleged role in the Northeast Delhi riots Conspiracy case and was booked under UAPA anti-terror law. The Delhi high court while ending the year-long detention said, “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.”
The high court further said that if a mindset like this continues to grow, it would be a “sad day for democracy.”
The bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup Jairam Bhambani ruled that the definition of terrorism under section 15 must partake the essential character of terrorism. The phrase ‘terrorist act’ cannot be synonymously used in a cavalier manner to criminal acts when the latter category falls under the ambit of conventional IPC.
The bench further said that the allegations prima-facie does not make out any offence under sections 15, 17 and 18 of the UAPA. Section 15,17, and 18 deal with terrorist acts, punishment for raising funds for terrorist acts and punishment for conspiracy respectively.
Since there is no commission of acts under section 15,17,18, therefore, the stringent conditionalities contained in section 43D(5) of the UAPA would not apply. Henceforth, the general principles of bail remain intact.
Under section 43D (5), the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilty, said the high court. The Delhi court judges also took the issues with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (prevention act) (TADA) in which the judges had to assess that the accused was not guilty, before granting bail unlike in UAPA.
During the hearing, the Delhi High court said that the allegations against the accused like inflammatory speeches, organising of chakka jaam, instigating other women to participate in protests and to collect various articles, etc., are evidence towards participation in protests.
However, none of these allegations acts as a conspiracy or a terrorist act under UAPA.
In the case of Asif Iqbal Tanha, the court informed that around 740 prosecution witnesses are yet to commence. The court further added that given the current situation amidst the global pandemic, it would be hard to proceed with the trial.
The court said that they were required to test when the notion of ” assemble peacefully without the arms” under article 19 (1) (b) turns into an offence that is cognizable in nature under the ordinary penal law.
The Delhi High Court cited a slew of supreme court judgements and underlined the right to protest and its legitimacy.
The observations of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Mazdoor Kisan
Shakti Sangathan vs Union of India, the court observed that the legitimate dissent is a distinguishable feature of any democracy and the question is not whether the issue raised by the protestors is right or wrong or whether it is justified or unjustified.”
A spokesperson of the Delhi police said: “We are not satisfied with the Interpretation of UAPA by the hon’ble high court in a matter concerned with grant of bail”.
The Delhi police have challenged the verdict by moving to the supreme court through the special leave petition(SLP).
The supreme court,while hearing the Delhi police appeal against the bail have maintained the status quo order of the Delhi high court.