Hearing the bail request of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad aka “Raavan”, arrested for his protest last month against the citizenship law at Jama Masjid, a Delhi court today asserted “it is one’s constitutional right to protest” and people were out on streets because “inside parliament, things which should have been said were not said”. The judge, questioning Delhi Police on the charges listed against Chandrashekhar Azad, said: “You are behaving as if Jama Masjid is Pakistan. Even if it was Pakistan, you can go there and protest. Pakistan was a part of undivided India.”
The Bhim Army chief was arrested on December 21 over a dramatic protest a day before at the iconic Jama Masjid in the old quarters of Delhi, where he surfaced suddenly despite heavy police presence and slipped away after being taken into custody. He was arrested a day later and charged with arson and rioting.
The public prosecutor, representing the police, got off to a rough start when he pleaded ignorance about the First Information Report listing charges that Azad faces in Uttar Pradesh. Additional sessions judge Kamini Lau, who had asked for details of these charges, expressed surprise when the prosecutor said he would “find out”.
The prosecutor also referred to Azad’s social media posts to argue that he had incited violence. When the prosecutor read out a post by the Bhim Army chief about going to a dharna in Jama Masjid, Judge Lau said: “What is wrong with a dharna? What is wrong with protesting? It is one’s constitutional right to protest.”
The judge continued: “Where is the violence? What is wrong with any of these posts? Who says you cannot protest…have you read the constitution?”
None of the posts were unconstitutional, said Judge Lau.
When the prosecutor argued that “permission needed to be taken” for such protests because Section 144 was in place, the court shot back: “What permission? Supreme Court has said repeated use of Section 144 is abuse”. Last week, the Supreme Court said in a significant order on restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir that Section 144, a British-era law banning large gatherings, “can’t be used as a tool to oppress difference of opinion”.
The judge said she had seen protests even outside parliament. “I want you to show me under which law is it prohibited for someone to prohibit outside religious places,” she said, asking for evidence of violence by Azad.
“We have drone footage and also evidences showing Azad giving an inflammatory speech,” said the prosecutor, requesting more time to produce the proof and other details. The case will resume tomorrow.
In his bail request, Azad had said the police had invoked “boilerplate” charges against him and arrested him “mechanically” without following the due process of law. He also alleged he had been falsely implicated.
The judge’s remarks are significant in the context of the protests across the nation by college students, activists and opposition parties against the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA. The government says the CAA will help non-Muslim minorities from three Muslim-dominated neighbours – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – to become Indian citizens easily if they fled to India before 2015 because of religious persecution. Critics fear the CAA discriminates against Muslims and violates the secular principles of the constitution.