New Delhi: The Delhi high court on Tuesday granted interim protection to Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan, the chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission, until June 22.
After hearing Khan’s counsel, advocate Vrinda Grover, a single bench of Justice Manoj Kumar Ohri said that no coercive action can be taken against Khan till the next hearing, on June 22.
On Friday, Khan had approached the Delhi high court seeking anticipatory bail in connection with an FIR lodged against him on several charges, including sedition. A complaint had been filed against Khan on April 30, alleging that he had shared a post on social media which was “provocative”, “seditious” and which purportedly attempted “to cause disharmony and create [a] rift in the society”.
According to Grover, the court also directed the Delhi Police to give advance notice to Khan if he is required to join the investigation, considering the conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown and his age.
As per media reports, on Saturday, Delhi Police served a notice on Khan to hand over the device used for making the “controversial” social media post. Khan submitted his laptop on Sunday morning.
“I have said in writing that I am doing it under duress, because there is no record of tweet or social media posts in the device itself and it is online only. Also, I don’t understand why they wanted my device because I have accepted that I wrote the tweet and still stand by it,” he told the news agency PTI after submitting his laptop. On Wednesday evening, a police team reached Khan’s house in South Delhi to take him with them for questioning. However, citing his age and health he wrote to the police official that the law mandates that citizens above 65 years cannot be compelled to travel to stations and are to be interrogated at their houses.
On the evening of 6th May police from Special Cell PS Lodi Colony and PS Cyber Cell Dwarka showed up at the residence of Dr Zafarul Islam Khan (@khan_zafarul), Chairperson, Delhi Minorities Commission. pic.twitter.com/wgU24ubvd7
— Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) (@CHRI_INT) May 6, 2020
Khan told The Wire that he was relieved with the high court’s order. “I have full faith and trust in our judiciary and I have always believed that justice and fair play will prevail. Earlier too, two reckless petitions against me by people who have no locus standi or even an understanding of law and politics, were dismissed by the honourable high court,” he said.
“There is nothing in my tweet of April 28 which amounts to a crime, let alone sedition. Some top legal luminaries of the country have informed me that no offence has been committed and that the petitions will fall flat in a court of law,” he added.
In a Facebook post on April 28, Khan had said, “The Hindutva bigots calculated that given the huge economic stakes involved the Muslim and Arab world will not care about the persecution of Muslims in India”. He also reportedly named some Indian Muslims who had contributed to the Islamic culture and civilisation and named Zakir Naik, declared a fugitive offender by India, as “a respected household” name in the Arab and Muslim world. Naik, against whom there is a red corner notice by Interpol on India’s request, is presently in Malaysia.
It can be noted that the Supreme Court of India on September 5, 2016 clarified that sedition charges cannot be brought against a person merely for raising his voice against the government or its policies. The apex court made the clarification while disposing of a petition filed by the NGO Common Cause alleging misuse of the sedition law. It said the authorities, while dealing with offences under Section 124A of the IPC, shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution bench in the 1962 verdict on Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar.
In the case, a five-judge bench of the apex court ruled:
“[A] citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.
“The Court, has, therefore, the duty cast upon it of drawing a clear line of demarcation between the ambit of a citizen’s fundamental right guaranteed under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and the power of the legislature to impose reasonable restrictions on that guaranteed right in the interest of, inter alia, security of the State and public order.”
In September 2019, then Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta while delivering a lecture also held that the sedition law should at least be toned down or made a non-cognizable offence, if not abolished, “so that the persons are not arrested at the drop of a hat.”
According to Justice Gupta, “In a country which is governed by the rule of law and which guarantees freedom of speech, expression and belief to its citizens, the misuse of the law of sedition and other similar laws is against the very spirit of freedom for which the freedom fighters fought and gave up their lives. The shoulders of those in power who govern should be broad enough to accept criticism. Their thinking should be wide enough to accept the fact that there can be another point of view.”
Khan’s lawyers have maintained that their client has committed no offence and that the FIR was registered against him with an intention to harass and intimidate. “There’s false, inflammatory, malicious and distorted media coverage of the petitioners’ social media posts have already had the effect of inciting hatred against the petitioner, and causing him to be held in contempt in the eyes of the public. This is evident from frivolous and malicious complaints that have been filed against the petitioner following such media coverage,” stated the petition filed by Grover, Ratna Appnender and Soutik Banerjee on Friday.
Meanwhile, speaking to The Wire, Khan further claimed that, “the real issue is not the tweet itself.”
“It provided the Hindutva lobby with a handle to beat me with because I have been active these past three years in taking action against them through the Delhi Minorities Commission and they did not want me to get a second term as chairman of the Commission, which was almost assured because of the exemplary work done by me and our team in the Commission. Now, by making me controversial, this lobby has achieved its primary aim as no government will nominate me again in the post I hold at present.”
Khan, a journalist and author of several books on Muslims and Islam, had assumed the post of chairman of the Commission in July 2017 and his three-year term is to end this July.