Toolkit Case | Freedom of speech includes ‘Right to seek a Global Audience’, Court draws distinction between dissenting opinion & seditious activities: Bail Granted to Disha Ravi || Detailed report

Sessions Court: Dharmendra Rana, ASJ-02 disposed of Disha A. Ravi’s application for grant of bail.

Applicant’s counsel submitted that the applicant/accused had been falsely arrested and was brought to New Delhi without obtaining any transit remand and remanded to police custody. FIR had been registered for the offences punishable under Sections 153, 153-A, 124-A Penal Code, 1860.

The investigating agency maliciously added allegations under Section 124A IPC in order to portray a minor offence which is punishable upto life imprisonment. Further it was added that the investigating agency maliciously sought to sensationalize the allegations by way of invoking phrases such as “global conspiracy” only with a view o cause tremendous prejudice to the applicant/accused.

As per the prosecutions’ case, the toolkit documents circulating on social media and accessed by the police were inter alia seditious, showing disaffection against the government; the said document was allegedly created by an organisation called “Poetic Justice Foundation”. It was also added that the statements made in the document were not merely statements, but allegedly incited violations of public order and certain alleged acts of public disorder in both India and abroad on 26-01-2021.

The applicant allegedly created and was part of a WhatsApp group that included persons who allegedly edited the toolkit and also communicated with other persons about the document.

It has also been alleged that the applicant was also a part of another WhatsApp group which she deleted and also shared the document with other persons including Greta Thunberg.

Issue:

Whether the applicant/accused Disha was merely involved in peaceful protest and dissent against the farm acts or she was actually involved in seditious activities under the guise of protesting against the said legislation?

 Bench while interpreting the word ‘Sedition’ under Section 124A of IPC, referred to the Supreme Court decision in Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955, wherein the Court dealt with the acts which are proscribed and have a tendency to cause ‘disaffection against India’.

Law proscribes only such activities would be intended, or have intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence. ‘Violence’ seems to be the gravamen of the charge.

In the decision of Bombay High Court, Arun G. Gowli v. State of Maharashtra, 1998 Cr. LJ 4481 (Bombay) it was observed that conspiracy cannot be proved merely on the basis of inferences. Inferences have to be backed by evidence.

Bench analysed the material collected by the investigating agency to substantiate the allegations of the ‘Larger Conspiracy’.

  • Engagement with secessionist forces

ASG pointed out that a pro-Khalistani secessionist group namely the ‘Poetic Justice Foundation’ and people associated with it are directly linked with creation of the “Toolkit” document.

Adding to the above, it was also submitted that the applicant/accused alongwith founders of PJF used social media to peddle support for secessionist Khalistan narrative in the guise of Farmers Protest.

Opinion of the Bench

It is not mere engagement with persons of dubious credentials which is indictable rather it is the purpose of engagement which is relevant for the purpose of deciding culpability.

Any person with dubious credentials may interact with a number of persons during the course of his social intercourse. As long as the engagement/interaction remains within the four corners of law, people interacting with such persons, ignorantly, innocently or for that matter even fully conscious of their dubious credentials, cannot be painted with the same hue.

 Hence, Court decided that in the absence of any evidence to the effect that the applicant/accused agreed or shared a common purpose to cause violence on 26-01-2021 along with founders of PJF, it cannot be presumed by resorting to surmises or conjectures that she also supported the secessionist tendencies or the violence caused, simply because she shared a platform with people, who have gathered to oppose the legislation.

 No evidence was brought to Court’s notice connecting the perpetrators of the violence on 26th January, 2021 with the said PJF or the applicant/accused.

  • Use of ‘Toolkit’

 It was added that in the main body of the ‘Toolkit’ there was a segment titled “Prior Action” which included Digital Strike through hashtags on 26th January, 2021 and Joining the Farmer’s march into Delhi and then back to the border.

Further, another part of the same document mentioned tasks such as disruption of India’s cultural heritage such as ‘Yoga’ and ‘Tea’ and targeting Indian embassies abroad.

Opinion of the Bench

Court opined on perusal of the ‘Toolkit’ that any call for any kind of violence was conspicuously absent in the same.

Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies.

Bench also added that difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies.

While elaborating more with regard to a healthy democracy, Court added that an aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of healthy and vibrant democracy.

Freedom of Speech and Expression includes the right to seek a global audience.

A Citizen has the fundamental rights to use the best means of imparting and receiving communication, as long as the same is permissible under the four corners of law and as such have access to an audience abroad.

Further, there was a mention with regard to hyperlinks in the toolkit by the ASG, the said links were with an intent to malign India abroad. Two such hyperlinks were analysed by the Court and nothing objectionable as found.

The imputations may be false, exaggerated or even with a mischievous intent but the same cannot be stigmatized being seditious unless they have tendency to foment violence.

  • Conduct of the applicant/accused

It was claimed that the applicant/accused created a WhatsApp group by the name of “Intl farmers strike” and added certain persons to the group.

Adding to the above, it was stated that she deleted the group chat from her phone in an attempt to destroy the crucial evidence linking her with the toolkit and PJF.

Also, it was submitted that, she tried her best to conceal her identity so that legal action could not be taken against her. It is further alleged that she gave a global audience to the secessionist elements by manipulating the support of international youth icon Ms Greta Thunberg.

Opinion of the Bench

Bench expressed that the creation of a WhatsApp group or being editor of an innocuous Toolkit is not an offence.

 Since, no link was found to be objectionable, mere deletion of the WhatsApp chat to destroy the evidence linking her with the toolkit and PJF became meaningless.

Nothing on record was found to suggest that the applicant accused subscribed to any secessionist idea.

Prosecution failed to point out how the applicant/accused gave a global audience to the ‘secessionist elements’.

Further, no evidence was brought to Court’s notice to support the allegation that violence took placed at the Indian Embassies pursuant to the sinister designs of the applicant/accused and her co-conspirators.

“…it is very difficult to collect evidence for the offence of conspiracy but I’m equally conscious of the fact that what is difficult to prove for the prosecution in the affirmative is virtually impossible for the defence to prove in the negative.” 

Bench stated that it is not aware of rule of law or prudence, that a person is mandatorily required to be detained in custody to be confronted with other co-accused persons.

Court added that the applicant accused is already reported to have been interrogated in police custody for almost about 5 days and placing further restraint upon her liberty on the basis of general and omnibus accusation would be neither logical or legal.

Hence, considering the scanty and sketchy evidence on record, Court opined that the applicant accused deserved to be released on bail subject to filing of personal bond of Rs 1 lakh with two sureties, subject to the following conditions:

  1. She shall continue to cooperate with the ongoing investigations and shall join the investigation as and when summoned by the IO;
  2. She shall not leave the country without the permission of the court;
  3. She shall scrupulously appear at each and every stage of the pro­ceedings before the Court concerned so as not to cause any obstruc­tion or delay to its progress.

[State v. Disha A. Ravi, Bail Application No. 420/2021, decided on 23-02-2021]


Advocates who appeared for the matter:

Sh. Irfan Ahmed, Ld. Addl. PP for State.
Sh. Abhinav Sekhri, Ld. counsel for applicant/accused.


Image Credits of Disha A. Ravi: ANI

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