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Bid ‘to divide & misguide’ — why court framed sedition, UAPA charges against Sharjeel Imam

New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Sharjeel Imam’s speeches against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019-January 2020 appear to “challenge the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India”, “to divide and misguide a particular community”, and “create hatred or contempt for the lawful institutions through unlawful means”.

With these observations, a Delhi court on 24 January framed charges against Imam for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, besides at Bihar’s Chakband and West Bengal’s Asansol. 

According to the Delhi Police and the prosecution, his speeches led to violent incidents at Jamia and were also a precursor to the February 2020 communal riots in Northeast Delhi.

Additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat rejected Imam’s plea to discharge him in the case. His bail plea in the matter was dismissed as well.

“The speeches appear to be completely pessimistic. In his admitted speech, he focuses that Muslims are concentrated in urban areas and there are 24 cities in the country where the Muslim population can stop the functioning and put to the city at halt and bring the government to its knees,” the judge noted in his 92-page order on the charges.

Imam, he said, made the utterances not just once but many times over. And “it is not as if the words are spelt out in a moment of haste or anger or antagonism without intending it”, the judge added.

Imam will now have to face trial for charges under IPC sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), along with Section 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) of the UAPA.

The FIR related to the case was registered in January 2020 after Imam’s speech during an anti-CAA protest at the AMU went viral. In the video, he was heard talking about blocking the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, a 22-km-wide strip near Siliguri in northern Bengal connecting the rest of India with the Northeast.

According to the allegations made in the charge sheet, Imam, through his speeches, intended to pitch a particular community against the ideals of the State and its national character as if to say “that co-existence of the two is anathema”.

The police have also accused Imam of planning “disruptive chakka-jams” to block highways, cause damage to public and private property, harm the common man, disrupt and stop the supply of water, food and essential services, and feeling happy about it.

Imam’s counsel countered the allegations, saying the intent of the speech was not as projected by the police.

There was absolutely nothing in the speeches, Imam’s lawyer added, from where it could be even remotely suggested that the accused, at any point of time, intended to cause violence or create disaffection between any groups.  

Muslim unity has only been invoked as a reaction to non-consideration of Muslims in CAA, the lawyer said, referring to the law’s stated objective of making citizenship easier for six minority communities from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. 

Not even a single public witness has come out to support the prosecution case and only police personnel are cited as witnesses, the counsel highlighted, claiming the case was an attempt to muzzle free speech.

However, after going through the relevant material on record, the court opined that a trial is required against Imam on account of the “positive assertions” of the accused in the speeches and existence of sufficient material against him. 

Also Read: Sharjeel ‘radicalised’ by books he read for thesis on Partition, Delhi Police charge sheet says

‘Whether Laxman Rekha is crossed or not’

On a prima-facie level, the court found, the words spoken by Imam had the tendency to create public disorder and incitement to violence.

A reading of his speeches, the court said, brings to the fore Imam’s fundamental thinking, ideas and intent, which is to show the “worthlessness of the community and existential crises”.  Therefore, the court added, Imam’s speeches were aimed at the Muslim audience present in the crowd.

According to the court, the apparent reason for making speeches was the CAA/NRC, but references to other incidents or flashpoints in history require an explanation that can be done only during the trial.

“The references to cow­-killing or reservations not being given to Muslims who had converted from Hinduism as such have no relevance for the protest, which is ostensibly shown in the arguments as against the CAA law,” the judge said.

Similarly, the issue of demographic profile in certain cities is misleading and needs to be explained during the trial, the court noted. This observation was made in the context of one of Imam’s speeches where he urged Muslims residing in cities where the community’s population is more than 30 per cent to protest.

His reference to the blockage of the ‘Chicken’s ­Neck’ “seems to remind everyone that the said land belongs to Muslims and the call to do it, by certain means, is indicative of his intention (to cause disruption)”, the court observed.

The judge further noted that Imam had made “vituperative utterances” against Mahatma Gandhi and was sceptical about the ideas of secularism and democracy.

Since Imam is named as an accused in two more cases — one related to riots outside Jamia in December 2019 and the other related to the Northeast Delhi riots – the judge concluded these violent incidents were consequent to his speeches.

To an argument by Imam’s counsel that his client is well-read, highly intelligent and says what he believes is a result of his study of history, the court remarked: “The present applicant/accused Sharjeel Imam is undoubtedly an intelligent and educated person but what this case tests is not the intelligence or the qualifications of the accused but the legality or otherwise committed by him by way of utterances and actions in respect of the charges brought against him.”

The judge went on to observe that Imam had done his thesis on the Bihar riots of 1946. His speeches, he added, were a reflection of his thought. To interpret someone’s speech, one must consider who is the speaker, to whom it is addressed, to whom it will be disseminated, and in what context it is made.

There was nothing wrong in having a viewpoint, which may not necessarily coincide with the view of an individual or organisation, the judge said, emphasising that the Constitution guaranteed the right to free speech, subject to reasonable restrictions.

But to expound the argument that a speech, howsoever incorrect or incendiary or provocative and threatening, must be accepted in complete deference to the right of free speech, is beyond the pale, the judge said.

Judge Rawat conceded to Imam’s submissions that the view of a man of common understanding and not of a hyper-sensitive emotional being should be the benchmark while construing the intention of the speech. But then, the judge added, the speaker “will be taken to have intent of the consequences that followed” his/her speech.

“What we have to see is whether the ‘Laxman Rekha’ is crossed or not i.e. the point where standpoint crosses the boundaries laid down by the statutes and judicial pronouncements,” the judge said.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Source: The Print

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