The Supreme Court Thursday agreed to hear a plea of two advocates and a journalist seeking quashing of a criminal case lodged under the harsh UAPA provisions against them for allegedly bringing facts through social media posts about the ‘targeted violence’ against the minority community in Tripura.
The members of the civil society, who were part of a fact finding committee, have also challenged the Constitutional validity of some provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 on the grounds that the definition of ‘unlawful activities’ is vague and wide; moreover, the statute makes grant of bail to accused very difficult.
Recently, the north-eastern state witnessed incidents of arson, looting and violence after reports emerged from Bangladesh that the Hindu minorities there had been attacked during ‘Durga Puja’ on allegations of blasphemy.
A bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices A S Bopanna and Hima Kohli was informed by advocate Prashant Bhushan that the two lawyers and the scribe who had gone there on a fact finding mission have been proceeded against by the Tripura police under the UAPA for their social media posts and an FIR has been lodged and a notice under the CrPC has been issued to them.
“Why did not go to the High Court? You go before the High Court,” the bench observed initially and later agreed to consider listing the plea after the lawyer said that besides seeking relief of quashing of the FIR, the plea also challenged the constitutional validity of some UAPA provisions.
“Please list it as these people are imminently under threat,” Bhushan said.
“Circulate the bundle. I will give a date (for hearing),” the CJI said.
The plea, filed through Bhushan, alleged targeted political violence against ‘Muslim minorities’ in Tripura in October as also the subsequent efforts by the state to monopolise the flow of information and facts emanating from the affected areas by invoking UAPA provisions against members of civil society including advocates and journalists who have made the effort to bring facts in relation to the targeted violence in the public domain.
Advocates, Mukesh and Ansarul Haq, and journalist Shyam Meera Singh have been accused in the FIR lodged at the West Agartala Police Station under the IPC and the UAPA provisions for allegedly disseminating information about communal violence in the state.
“If the state is allowed to criminalise the very act of fact finding and reporting — and that too under the stringent provisions of the UAPA in which anticipatory bail is barred and the idea of bail is a remote possibility — then the only facts that will come in the public domain are those that are convenient to the state due to the ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom of speech and expression of members of civil society. If the quest for truth and reporting thereof itself is criminalised then the victim in the process is the idea of justice,” the plea said.
It said that around October 14, reports emerged from Bangladesh about the violence against Hindu minorities during Durga Puja on allegations of blasphemy and “in a perverse counterblast, political right wing forces in the state of Tripura started fomenting religious passions against the Muslim minorities.”
Processions by right wing political forces were led ostensibly to protest against the violence in Bangladesh but that led to violence against Muslim minorities in the state, the plea said.
“In a targeted and orchestrated manner, there were incidents of arson, looting, and violence on the establishments of Muslim citizens and attacks and burning of mosques at various places in Tripura. There was major violence during a rally by right wing forces such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on October 26. News of the ensuing violence that followed have been widely reported in international media…,” it said.
Later, a four member fact finding team of advocates went to Tripura and on the basis of their interaction with the persons affected by the violence, they put in the public domain a fact finding report titled as “Humanity Under Attack in Tripura #Muslim Lives Matter”.
This has led to the registration of the FIR and the petitioners have been asked to delete their posts and take part in criminal investigation.
“This is ex facie an attempt to curb the free flow of information from the riot affected areas given that there is nothing in the report which even remotely supports any secessional activity, or questions the sovereignty or territorial integrity of India, or causes any disaffection against the State of India. The ingredients of the definition of ‘unlawful activities’ under section 2(1)(o) of UAPA are not even remotely made out,” it said.
The report does not exaggerate any of the facts and accurately documents what was learnt and seen by the fact finding team, it said, adding that there were no deaths; therefore no deaths were reported.
It only corroborates with further specifics and in greater detail what has also been broadly reported by national and international media. The report and contents thereof do not fall within any of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution and is covered by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the plea said.
“The absurdity is further compounded by the fact that though the FIR refers to 102 social media posts which are alleged to have intended to cause communal disharmony and intended to cause disaffection against the State; and the notice under Section 41(a) calls upon the Petitioners No. 1 & 2 to delete the offensive posts -no post actually referred to in the FIR have in fact been made by the Petitioners No. 1 & 2 (advocates),” it said.