I have been guilty of being a fence-sitter for a long while now, like many of you who were too disturbed with the perils of the present pandemic to offer their objective commentary on socio-political issues plaguing our country.
But all this while when I was busy navigating my way as an educator adjusting to the new normal, I couldn’t help but marvel at the selective silence of our collective conscience. One that fervently supports #BlackLivesMatter across their social channels to call out the Trump administration, but resorts to a scrupulous memory of convenience when the times call for some internal reflection.
Today is no special day. With 1,10,960 active cases till date, we are still striving to flatten the curve as we enter Unlock 1. As per the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office, over 26 lakh migrant workers are still stranded across the country. And according to our court of laws, we are but relying on metaphors instead of clear evidence while granting justice.
“When you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind to have carried the spark a bit too far and spread the fire.” reads a line from an order passed today by Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana of the Patiala House Court as he denied bail to a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, in a case regarding her participation in anti-CAA protests in Delhi.
The woman, Safoora Zargar, was charged under India’s anti-terrorism law, the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and has been in jail now for over a month without the prospect of bail. This, despite her pregnant condition and the heightened risk of being exposed to the coronavirus in Delhi’s overcrowded prison system.
In what would be an extreme display of unequal treatment, Manish Sirohi was charged only under the Arms Act, even though he was arrested during the riots and found in possession of illegal arms. On May 6, the same Delhi court granted him bail, citing the risk to him of contracting COVID-19:
‘Therefore, keeping in view the above facts and circumstances and also the fact that spread of COVID-19 pandemic is on high rise and there is always a risk of the applicant being infected with the said virus in case he is left to be confined in jail, the applicant is admitted to bail on furnishing a personal bond of Rs 25,000/- with one surety of the like amount to satisfaction of the Court of Ld, CMM/Ld. ACCMM/Ld. MM on duty as per the roster prepared by the Ld. District & Sessions Judge, PHC, New Delhi.”
As Advocate-on-record in the Supreme Court and author of The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India, Chitranshul Sinha explains,
“Safoora Zargar has been accused under Chapter IV of terrorist activities but the bail court has not found any prima facie evidence against her for that. The only prima facie evidence that according to the court exists is for ‘chakka jam’ which at best would fall under Chapter III and therefore there’s no bar on the grant of bail under Section 43D(5) of UAPA. Therefore the denial of bail on this ground is untenable and unconscionable.”
The complication in Zargar’s case, and in an increasing number of high-profile cases involving protests and dissent, is the invocation of the UAPA. Never before were the fault lines of our social fabric so clearly visible as they are today. We are once again reminded of how this isn’t the first time that the law has been used as a tool to consolidate the power of the state and curb civic liberties. Even Uncle Sam has been guilty of invoking the draconian Espionage Act on numerous whistleblowers, time and again! (Yes, I’m referring to all that concerned Edward Snowden.)
What is alarming to note is that this might definitely not be the last one either. Where on one the hand, the helm of our political leadership reeks of individuals accused of inciting hate with their despicable tweets and hate speeches, scores of journalists, students, and minorities have been bearing the brunt of dissent all around the world. I am no one to take sides and pass judgment on whether what these individuals have done was right or wrong, but by no means should they be denied a chance to seek free and fair trial for their offenses.
The medieval thinker, Dante once quoted, “The greatest horrors of Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”
Hence, I am but attempting to advocate for my side of the story. One that lies at the core of guaranteed discourse through respectful dialogue. By no means do I intend to draw a binary between the outcomes of centuries of racial injustice in the west against the Blacks and the recent hijack of civil liberties of our minorities, as they protested against a discriminatory law.
What I am trying to convey here is a common narrative that is guilty of plaguing democratic freedoms and our constitutional guarantees of liberty. In Zargar’s case quoted above, if the court’s own findings on prima facie evidence show one thing, but then get magically stretched to somehow cover a more serious offense, then we as citizens of this country need to be very scared about what it means for our civil liberties, as any legitimate action can be construed as an offense against the nation on a whim.
There are many forms of government in which that may be possible, but constitutional democracies are not one of them.