‘Sedition can’t be invoked to minister to govt’s wounded vanity’: Court in Disha Ravi’s landmark bail order

The court also held that our founding fathers accorded due respect to the divergence of opinion by recognising the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right

Climate activist Disha Ravi (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Climate activist Disha Ravi (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Rahul Gul

The 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, arrested by the Delhi Police on February 13 from Bengaluru for her alleged role in the ‘toolkit’ case lodged against Sweden-based Greta Thunberg, was granted bail on Tuesday by a Delhi court after spending nine days in custody.

According to a press release issued by Delhi Police on February 15, a team from the Special Cell was sent to Bengaluru to question Disha, which was “able to extract highly incriminating information” from her phone. This information, it alleged, “made it clear that Disha, along with her colleagues, Shantanu and Nikita Jacob, created and sent the Toolkit Google document to others. Disha, who is associated with an environmental movement called ‘Fridays for Future’, sent the Toolkit document to Greta Thunberg on Telegram and also coaxed her to act on it.”

The police lodged an FIR under IPC Sections 124A (sedition), 153 (incitement to riots) and 153A (incitement of hatred between communities).

While granting her bail, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana at Patiala House courts made several landmark observations on not just the merits of Ravi’s bail application, but also on the law on sedition.

The primary reason behind the grant of bail appears to be the complete lack of evidence connecting Disha Ravi to some violent incidents that took place in the national capital on Republic Day during the tractor rally by farmers.

Incidentally, this was in keeping with several Supreme Court judgments regarding the applicability of the sedition law as defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Law.

Talking to National Herald, Sanjay Hegde, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, has said that, “The sedition charge in this case does not apply because the Supreme Court has laid very narrow grounds; it is applicable where violence ensues as a consequence of a speech, and the violence must be proximate. Here all the conversation was simply on supporting the farmers’ protest, and creating a Twitter storm on January 26. There is no incitement to violence at all. As such, the ingredients of Sections 124 (A) and 153 as laid down by the SC are not made out.”

Incidentally, even the Delhi Police press release makes no mention of such a link between the violence on 26 January and the contents of the toolkit.

Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves too has been quoted saying that the so-called ‘toolkit’ was only a manual for peaceful protest, and had no content inciting violence.

However, the prosecution while opposing Ravi’s bail insisted that her actions had led to the violence that rocked the national capital on January 26. The court took a dim view of this argument, stating that there was nothing on record to suggest that there was any call, incitement, instigation or exhortation on the part of the applicant/accused or organizations like Poetic Justice Foundation (PFJ) and its associates to foment violence on January 26.

The court reproduced the relevant portion of the much-hyped toolkit and said that perusal of the same revealed that any call for any kind of violence was conspicuously absent. “No call for violence of any kind in the Toolkit,” it said.

Citizens can’t be jailed merely because they disagree with govt

The court observed that citizens are conscience keepers of the government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies. “Offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments,” the court said.

“An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy,” the court emphasised, adding, “This 5000 years old civilization of ours has never been averse to ideas from varied quarters.”

These observations by the court are nothing short of a benchmark for similar cases at a time when the sedition law is being slapped by the government of the day on anybody daring to express dissent with its policies and decisions.

Right to dissent firmly enshrined Constitution

The court also said that our founding fathers accorded due respect to the divergence of opinion by recognising the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right. “The right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of The Constitution of India,” the court said.

The court also held that the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution covers within its ambit the right to seek a global audience.

No criminal antecedents

The court noted that Ravi was already interrogated in police custody for almost five days and that placing any further restraint upon her liberty on the basis of general and omnibus accusations would be neither logical nor legal. The resistance to the bail plea seems to be more ornamental in nature, the court added.

“Considering the scanty and sketchy evidence available on record, I do not find any palpable reasons to breach the general rule of ‘Bail’ against a 22-year-old young lady, with absolutely blemish free criminal antecedents and having firm roots in the society, and send her to jail,” the court concluded.

Incidentally, just days before granting bail to Disha Ravi, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana had released on bail two persons arrested by Delhi Police for allegedly committing sedition and spreading rumours by posting a fake video on Facebook during ongoing farmers' protest.

"The law of sedition is a powerful tool in the hands of the state to maintain peace and order in the society. However, it cannot be invoked to quieten the disquiet under the pretence of muzzling the miscreants," the order had stated.

“In the absence of any exhortation, call, incitement or instigation to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence or any allusion or oblique remark or even any hint towards this objective, attributable to the accused, I suspect that Section 124 A (sedition) IPC can be validly invoked against the applicant,” the judge said in the order issued on February 15.

Nirbhaya case

Almost a year ago, ASJ Rana had also issued death warrants against the four convicts in Nirbhaya gang-rape case. The quartet were subsequently executed on March 20 at 5:30 am.

Before the issuance of the final death warrant dated March 3, 2020, he had twice deferred the execution of the four convicts in view of the fact that the convicts were yet to exhaust all their legal remedies.

Before that, in February 2020, Judge Rana had refused to issue a date for execution of the four convicts in view of the Delhi High Court order granting time to them to exhaust their legal remedies.

"It is criminally sinful to execute the condemned convicts when the law permits them to live," he had said.

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Published: 24 Feb 2021, 1:37 PM