New Delhi: In ordering bail for Disha Ravi – the young environmental activist arrested for editing a solidarity toolkit supporting India’s protesting farmers – the court of the additional sessions judge has so comprehensively demolished the Delhi Police case against her that if investigators still commit the mistake of laying a charge sheet, the case is almost certain to end in acquittal.
In that eventuality, the investigating or prosecuting officials run the serious risk of being proceeded against departmentally, as ordered by the Supreme Court in the Kishan Bhai judgment (2014). The police may also be open to the charge of malicious prosecution. But there is a political dimension to the case that is far more damaging.
On February 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself launched a scathing attack on ‘international conspirators’ who were out to ‘discredit India’. He said this repeatedly at election rallies in Assam and West Bengal. Without directly taking the names of Disha Ravi, the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and other global celebrities backing the farmers’ protest, Modi warned that the country will ‘respond to these conspiracies with all its might’. At election rallies in Assam’s tea belt of Dhekiajuli and West Bengal’s Haldia, he referred to the ‘toolkit’ as well.
Six days later, on February 13, the Delhi Police arrested Disha. While the connection between Modi’s threats and the subsequent police action cannot be missed, the submissions of the police during her bail hearing – where they vehemently harped on the theme of international conspiracy – leave no doubt.
The question is, on what basis did the prime minister allege that there was an international conspiracy?
Did the Intelligence Bureau (IB) or the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) give him an intelligence report, which is not available in the public domain?
If this is the case, why did the Delhi Police not submit that intelligence report to the court in a sealed cover, as the police routinely do in so-called sensitive cases, in order to ensure bail was denied? And if there was no such intelligence report, the prime minister would be guilty of having made baseless allegations that prejudiced the Delhi Police and prevented it from investigating the case fairly.
Incidentally, this is not the first time Modi has used an election campaign to allege the existence of an international plot to destabilise his government. In December 2017, he told an election rally in Gujarat that former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former vice president Hamid Ansari and Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had held a ‘secret meeting’ with Pakistani officials.
It is well settled in law that unless an intelligence officer is examined and cross-examined in a court of law like any other witness, his intelligence report is of no evidentiary value. However, in September 2019, while the Supreme Court did not take into account the sealed cover documents to deny bail to former finance minister P. Chidambaram, it held that it can surely ‘peruse them to satisfy its conscience’.
In Disha Ravi’s case, no such ‘sealed cover documents’ were produced for the court to satisfy its conscience. Thus, it can be presumed that the police did not have any intelligence report which could support their case of an international conspiracy.
It would also mean that the whole edifice of the ‘international conspiracy’ spoken of by Modi, the Delhi Police and pro-government media rested upon presumptions and notions that were erected to help the government discredit the farmers’ movement and thus break it up eventually.
The prime minister of the country, even if he was speaking in an election rally, should have realised that his public stance on a matter in which criminal cases were registered on January 26 itself, would severely prejudice the police and effectively tie their hands by limiting their options. Yet he said what he did.
But then this is the harsh reality of India. In May 2013, the Supreme Court, while slamming the Central Bureau of Investigation for being ‘a caged parrot’ that spoke its master’s voice, had actually given an authoritative expression to what the people have known since very long.
In Jamuna Chaudhary (1973) and several other cases, the Supreme Court has held that the duty of an investigating officer is not merely to bolster a prosecution case with such evidence as may enable the court to record a conviction but to bring out the real, unvarnished truth.
These idealised sentiments, as every Indian citizen knows, are almost invariably observed in the breach. Once a case is registered, the police do everything to ensure that the accused spend a considerable part of their lives behind bars through the denial of bail or as under-trial prisoners.
An alarming 67.6% of India’s prisoners languishing in jails across the country are under-trials. In the case of Bhim Singh (2014), the Supreme Court had issued a series of directives to state authorities to facilitate the release of under-trial prisoners who had served half of their probable maximum prison terms. The apex court’s extraordinary directive meant that it acknowledged the severity of this crisis in our criminal justice system.
Viewed against this backdrop, it should be obvious that Modi’s statement about an international conspiracy was ‘amplified’ by an eager-to-please police force to such an extent that they went on to charge a young woman with sedition – a crime punishable with life imprisonment and which would have effectively destroyed her and her loved ones’ lives.
If the enormity of the consequences never struck the prime minister for even a moment, it suggests he acted irresponsibly in making his public utterances. And if he made the statement despite the absence of evidence about an ‘international conspiracy’ involving the toolkit, then he is a party to the injustice being visited on a young woman.