Protest is not terrorism

High Court picks holes in Delhi Police chargesheet

Protest is not terrorism

Granting bail to student activists Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha and Devangana Kalita, the Delhi High Court has made it clear that the right to protest is guaranteed by the Constitution, and it must not be conflated with terrorism. Booked under the stern Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for alleged involvement in riots in East Delhi last year, the three were incarcerated for over a year. A three-member Bench of the High Court ruled that Delhi Police’s chargesheet against them had allegations that ‘stretched inferences’ and had ‘alarming and hyperbolic verbiage’. Narwal and Kalita are accused of conspiracy to plan riots and destabilise the government on the pretext of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), while Tanha was accused of planning and organising protests across Delhi.

There was one underlying theme in three separate judgments on the accused — that Delhi Police had failed to provide any evidence to support the grave charges of terrorism or inciting violence. In the case of Narwal and Kalita, the Bench observed that the allegations against them ‘are not even borne out’ by the material on which they are based; in the case of Tanha, the Bench ruled that ‘there is absolutely nothing’ in the chargesheet that might link him to terrorism. The court noted that ‘it seems that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred’. ‘If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy,’ it added.

Democracy is strengthened, not weakened, by plurality of opinion and the freedom to express it. Democracy is weakened when wild allegations of terrorism and sedition are foisted on people to muzzle them. As the High Court noted, ‘The foundations of our nation stand on surer footing than to be likely to be shaken by a protest, however vicious, organised by a tribe of college students or other persons’. People protesting peacefully for their ideals are an important element of a democracy — invoking the most severe penal provisions against them belittles democracy and trivialises terrorism.

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