A Delhi court on Friday denied bail to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)student Sharjeel Imam in a sedition case lodged against him for allegedly delivering an inflammatory speech and inciting violence during the CAA-NRC protests in 2019, saying free speech cannot be exercised at the cost of communal peace and harmony.
Imam on December 13, 2019, had allegedly delivered a provocative speech, which, according to the police, resulted in riots two days later when a mob consisting of over 3,000 people attacked police personnel and torched several vehicles in the Jamia Nagar area in south Delhi.
Rejecting his bail plea, additional sessions judge Anuj Agrawal, however, noted that the evidence in support of the allegations that the rioters got instigated by Imam’s speech and thereafter indulged in the acts of rioting, mischief, attacking the police party, was scanty and sketchy.
The judge in his order said that cursory and plain reading of the speech showed that it was clearly on communal lines.
“The tone and tenor of the incendiary speech tend to have a debilitating effect upon public tranquility, peace, and harmony of the society,” the judge said adding that “it is no gainsaying that fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ cannot be exercised at the cost of communal peace and harmony of the society.”
The Delhi police claimed that Imam instigated a ‘particular religious community’ against the Central government by creating unfounded fears in their minds regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act and national register of citizens.
The court highlighted a portion of Imam’s alleged inflammatory speech in the order copy while rejecting his bail.
While maintaining that the evidence in support of the allegations that the rioters got instigated by Imam’s speech was scanty and sketchy, the court said, “Neither any eye witness has been cited by prosecution nor there is any other evidence on record to suggest that co-accused got instigated and committed the alleged act of rioting upon hearing the speech of Sharjeel Imam.”
Further, the court said there is no evidence corroborating the version of prosecution that alleged rioters were a part of the audience addressed by Imam on December 13, 2019.
It said that the essential link between the speech dated and the subsequent acts is conspicuously missing.
The court said that the theory as propounded by investigating agency left gaping holes which leaves an incomplete picture unless the gaps are filled by resorting to surmises and conjectures or by essentially relying upon the disclosure statement of Iman and co-accused, he added.
“Once the legally impermissible foundation of imaginative thinking and disclosure statement of accused is removed, the prosecution version on this count appears to be crumbling like a house of cards,” the court observed.
While noting that the fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ cannot be exercised at the cost of communal peace and harmony, the judge quoted British poet and intellect, John Milton, as saying, “give me the liberty to know, to argue freely, and to utter according to conscience, above all liberties.”
The judge also quoted spiritual leader Swami Vivekanand in the bail order as saying, “We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think; Words are secondary; Thoughts live; they travel far.”
During the hearing on Imam’s bail, the special public prosecutor had told the court that Imam’s speech on December 13, 2019, was seditious, evidently on divisive lines, and tended to hamper social harmony.
Imam, through his counsel Ahmad Ibrahim, said he is a peace-loving citizen and never participated in violence during any protest.
He argued that no speech, much less the speech dated December 13, was aimed at spreading any disaffection against the government established by law or inciting violence or ill-will against any community.
Besides this case, Imam is also accused of being the ‘mastermind’ of the February 2020 riots, which had left 53 people dead and over 700 injured. He has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.