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New Delhi: The Delhi high court has asked Umar Khalid if it was “proper to use the word ‘jumla’ against the prime minister,” noting that there was to be a “lakshman rekha” or limit, to criticism.
The high court was referring to a speech delivered by the scholar-activist in Amravati in 2020, while hearing his appeal against refusal of bail, LiveLaw has reported.
Coincidentally, the high court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, used the same word – “lakshman rekha” – to express that there has to be a limit to an “individual’s freedom of expression”. This court was hearing a petition by a lawyer who had been booked under the UAPA for allegedly declaring himself a slave in India and alleging a military occupation of Kashmir, The Telegraph has reported.
The Delhi high court hearing Khalid’s appeal had earlier called portions of his Amravati speech against the Citizenship Amendment Act as “obnoxious” and “offensive”.
Khalid was arrested in September 2020 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and charged by the Delhi Police of being part of the “larger conspiracy” behind the Delhi riots of February 2020. The speech was made part of the FIR.
Khalid’s description of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha acting as “agents of the British” during the freedom struggle was interpreted by the high court as “giving the impression that only one community was fighting against the British”. This, the bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Rajnish Bhatnagar, said was “obnoxious, hateful, offensive and prima facie not acceptable.”
Senior advocate Trideep Pais had told the court that words used to criticise the government could not amount to an UAPA offence.
In the hearing on April 27, Justice Bhatnagar asked, “This word jumla is used against the Prime Minister of India. Is it proper?”
Pais, according to LiveLaw’s report, said it was not a crime to criticise the government.
The judge also asked ‘What he says about the Prime Minister in the speech? Some ‘changa‘ word was used and after that…’
At a speech in an event called ‘Howdy, Modi’ in the US in 2019, Modi had famously said, “Sab changa si“, which translates to “all is well.” Later, when protests against the CAA spread across India, the phrase was used to sarcastically point out that all was not, after all, well.
Pais too said in court that this use by Khalid was satire.
“583 days in prison with UAPA charges was not envisaged for a person who speaks against the government. We cannot become so intolerant. At this rate, people will not be able to speak,” Pais said.
Justice Bhatnagar then said that there has to be a “line for criticism.”
“There has to be a line for criticism also. There has to be a lakshman rekha,” he said.
The same judge also asked who the “camel” in Khalid’s line, “The camel has come to the foot of the mountains” was.
Pais said that the camel was the government which was unwilling to engage with people opposing the CAA.
Pais also stressed that the speech, while against the CAA, did not have any element that could incite a crowd, referring to video evidence which shows the audience seated.
Justice Siddharth Mridul also asked Pais, “There are two expressions he used. One is inquilab and other is krantikari. What is the takeaway from the use of expression krantikari?”
“It means revolutionary,” Pais responded, according to LiveLaw.
The judge said that Pais’s argument on free speech could not be questioned but once again called Khalid’s speech ‘obnoxious’.
“Nobody has qualms about free speech but what is the consequence of your employing these expressions, offensive as they evidently are. Did they incite the populous in Delhi to come out to streets? If they did even prima facie, are you guilty of UAPA section 13? That is the question before us,” he said.
Pais sought to impress that the speech was not cited by riot witnesses in Delhi, only two of whom had heard it at all.
Khalid’s bail order had been deferred thrice and ultimately delivered on March 23.