For, while granting them bail in a case that accused them of terrorism and sedition, two of the most damning allegations that attract the most draconian sections in Indian law, Justices Sidharth Mridul and Anup Jairam Bhambhani blew the lid off the State’s attempt to suppress dissent.
The judges reminded Delhi police, and by extension all law enforcement forces in the country, that slapping terrorism charge on protesters have only helped trivialise the provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967; that even a criminal act, however grave, egregious or heinous, or a law and order problem (both of which fall under the sections of Indian Penal Code) cannot be termed terrorism unless it is intended to destabilise the nation; that UAPA could be invoked only to address issues relating to the ‘Defence of India’.
What was even more admirable was the way they went about doing this, not only dismantling the charges against the protesters and thereby calling out the misuse of these charges but also trying to give a concrete shape to the otherwise ambiguous definitions of these crimes. And while at it, the judges also cautioned the dangers that such perversions pose to our democracy.
As the judges said, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activities has blurred for the State which is anxious to suppress dissent. “If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy,” they added.
Having witnessed over the decades the way various State police and central agencies function, it surprises only the naïve that the law is misused to suppress critics against the government of the day. Considering the structure and hierarchy of power in India, it can even be said that it’s inevitable that agencies act in a manner that favours the Establishment. In cases like these where the charges would eventually be found unsustainable in law, the process is punishment itself. Ask Natasha Narwal who could not bid farewell to her father, late activist Mahavir Narwal, who, as a single parent, brought her up. This is where the judiciary has to play its role – and where the lower courts failed to live up to its responsibility of being dispassionate judges.
Democracy is messy and chaotic, like a kaleidoscope. But dissent, even while being difficult, does not make it anarchic; it only tries to rearrange the pattern. On the other extreme is a sterile political system that is democratic only during elections. In these times of pandemic, such a state of existence can be likened to that of an individual hooked to a ventilator. It is not where we want to find our democracy in.