North East Delhi riots conspiracy case: HC says legitimate dissent a key feature of democracy

In the bail orders of Narwal and Kalita, it also observed that “if such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril.”
Natasha Narwal lost her father to Covid during her incarceration (File Photo)
Natasha Narwal lost her father to Covid during her incarceration (File Photo)

NEW DELHI: The Delhi High Court, while granting bail to activists Natasha Narwal, Devanagana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha – accused in the North East Delhi riots conspiracy case – underscored the constitutional right of people to dissent and protest.

Dismissing the charges of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the three, the court noted – “in its anxiety to suppress dissent and in the morbid fear that matters may get out of hand, the state has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity” referring to the stringent provisions of UAPA slapped against the three.

In the bail orders of Narwal and Kalita, a division bench comprising Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup Jairam Bhambani also observed that “If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril”.

Mincing no words, the two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court, in the bail order of Kalita stated – “We are afraid, that in our opinion, shorn-off the superfluous verbiage, hyperbole and the stretched inferences drawn from them by the prosecuting agency, the factual allegations made against the appellant do not prima facie disclose the commission of any offence under sections 15 (Terrorist act), 17 (Punishment for raising funds for terrorist act) and 18 (Punishment for conspiracy) of the UAPA.”

In separate judgments, the court went on to state that even if it were to assume for the sake of argument, that in the present case inflammatory speeches, chakkajams, instigation of women protesters and other actions, which Narwal and Kalita are accused of, "crossed the line of peaceful protests permissible under our Constitutional guarantee, that however would yet not amount to commission of a ‘terrorist act’ or a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘act preparatory’ to the commission of a terrorist act as understood under the UAPA."

Whether the protests crossed the limit of what is permissible under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b) and became non-peaceful protests were subject matter of another FIR, in which both Kalita and Narwal were already on bail, the court noted.

The court said that making inflammatory speeches, organising chakka-jams etc were common in the face of widespread opposition to governmental or parliamentary actions. In Narwal’s bail order, the court remarked that the government may prohibit public meetings, demonstrations or protests on streets or highways to avoid nuisance or disturbance of traffic “but the Government cannot close all streets or open areas for public meetings thereby defeating the fundamental right that flows from Article 19(1) (a) and 19(1)(b) of the Constitution.”

Quoting a judgment of the Supreme Court, the two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court said, "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. The fundamental aspect is the right which is conferred upon the affected people in a democracy to voice their grievances. Dissenters may be in a minority. They have a right to express their views. A particular cause, which in the first instance, may appear to be insignificant or irrelevant may gain momentum and acceptability when it is duly voiced and debated.”

The court further said that in the chargesheet filed against the three, ‘there is a complete lack of any specific, particularized, factual allegations, that is to say other than those sought to be spun by mere grandiloquence.’

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The New Indian Express