Kerala High Court: The Division Bench of A.M. Shaffique and Ashok Menon, JJ. hearing 6 criminal appeals clubbed together, acquitted five persons who were convicted by National Investigation Agency (NIA) Special Court in 2016 for organizing a meeting of the banned outfit Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in 2006.
Factual background of the case was that 17 people had assembled and organized a secret meeting in ‘Happy Auditorium’ at Panayikulam on Independence Day in 2006. Allegedly, they carried books and pamphlets of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) – a banned organization – containing seditious, anti-national and inflammatory writings, and advocated for cession of Kashmir through jihad and for bringing back Muslim rule in India. It was alleged that they entered into a criminal conspiracy and committed an act of sedition with the intention to bring hatred and contempt against the Government of India. They were charged for offences under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 124A (sedition) of the Penal Code, 1860 and Sections 10 and 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (membership of unlawful organization and taking part in unlawful activities).
The case was initially investigated by local police, but taken over by NIA in 2008. A charge sheet was filed in 2011 against 16 accused. NIA Special Court sentenced Abdul Rasik (2nd accused) and Ansar (3rd accused) to 14-years rigorous imprisonment, while other three accused – P.A. Shaduly (1st accused), Nizamudeen (4th accused) and Shammi (5th accused) – were sentenced to 12 years of jail. Chargesheet against one juvenile-accused was filed in the Juvenile Justice Board. Rest of the 11 accused were acquitted. The six criminal appeals herein are – appeal filed by NIA through State challenging acquittal of the 11 accused; 4 appeals filed by accused challenging their conviction and one appeal filed by the juvenile-accused.
Main contention advanced by the learned counsel on behalf of the accused was that there was no evidence to prove that any of the accused had committed any seditious act warranting a crime under Section 124A IPC. Further, they were not even members of SIMI. The alleged conspiracy had not been proved and there was no corroboration to the approver’s evidence. The only evidence was that of police officers who had allegedly heard their speech, and the documents alleged to have been seized were fabricated.
On the other hand, the learned Special Public Prosecutor Mr M. Ajay submitted that the arrest, body search, and recovery of publications had been made after registration of the crime. The case was largely built on the evidence of an Imam of Panayikulam Salafi Masjid (PW1) whose testimony was corroborated by the police officers. Therefore, it was submitted that there was no reason to doubt his testimony.
Delay in filing FIR and conducting body search
The Court stressed the importance of registering FIR at the earliest opportunity by relying on Thulia Kali v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1972) 3 SCC 393 and noted that while the accused were apprehended at around 1 p.m., the FIR was registered only at 8:15 p.m. and the said FIR reached the learned Magistrate only around 8:30 p.m. the next day. There was no explanation for the said delay. Though the accused were in the police station on 15-08-2006 since 2 p.m., their body search was conducted only at 9:30 p.m. that day. The publications of SIMI were seized from the accused but seizure mahazar was sent to court three days later.
The Bench refused to place reliance on the seized documents observing that “Defence has a case that most of documents had been produced subsequently and it was later planted on the accused and made it appear that it was the accused who brought it. In fact, there is no explanation for the prosecution regarding the delay in sending the seizure mahazar to Court which is also one of the reasons for not placing reliance on these documents.”
No evidence corroborating making of speech and of criminal conspiracy
The Court noted that when NIA took over the investigation from the local police, PW1 was the prosecution witness, then he was made an accused, and later he was made an approver. PW1 deposed that accused 2 and 3 had made the following statements:
- “Indian army are killing Muslims in Kashmir who are doing Jihad in Kashmir. Other Muslims in India are being tortured with oppressive law like TADA, NSA, etc against which all of us should fight under the leadership of SIMI”; and that
- “Present India was made by Britishers. Earlier we were ruled by Nizams and Mughals. We should go back to that old India for which we have to fight through SIMI and no one else can destroy SIMI”.
It was opined that at best, accused 2 and 3 only could be booked for offence of sedition for making the aforesaid speech. However, the NIA Court had punished them, along with accused 1, 4 and 5, for other offences under Sections 120B and 124A IPC.
Further, it was noted that PW1’s statement was recorded 4 years after the occurrence of the incident, and hence it could not be treated as substantive evidence without corroboration. Corroboration sought to be achieved through the evidence of another witness (a police officer) was not considered as had not heard the impugned speech directly.
The Court observed that in order to prove conspiracy, the prosecution must prove that there was an agreement to do an illegal act or to do an act which was not illegal, by illegal means. However, in the present case, there was no direct or circumstantial evidence to prove that there was a conspiracy to commit an illegal act.
Impugned speech might be malicious, but is not seditious
The Court relied on Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955 and opined that merely making a statement against Government of India or its military will not become sedition. In addition to making a statement, the person making such speech should have intention to create hatred or contempt or attempt to excite disaffection. It was observed that the impugned statements might amount to malicious speech, but even if read as a whole, there was nothing stated against the Government of India. Accused were, through their narrow-angle as saviours of Muslims community, were projecting the plight of Muslims. While they may be wrong in making such statements, they could not be charged with the offence of sedition.
Prior membership of SIMI is not an offence
SIMI was declared as a terrorist organization under UAPA with effect from 01-02-2013.
The Court observed that though the speech was a call to co-operate with SIMI and project their views despite all odds, the said act did not amount to ‘unlawful activity’ and hence offence under Section 13 UAPA was not made out.
Further, the mere fact of SIMI publications being available with the accused, which were printed before SIMI was banned, could not be construed to mean that the accused had continued to be members of SIMI. Reliance was also placed on Arup Bhuyan v. State of Assam, (2011) 3 SCC 377 where it was held that mere membership of a banned organization does not make a person criminal unless he resorts to violence or incitement of violence. The Court opined that other than the fact that the accused made a speech, even according to the prosecution, there was nothing to imply that they had continued as members of SIMI. The only evidence was that of PW1, which is not corroborated by any other materials or evidence. Thus, offence under Section 10 UAPA was also not made out.
In view of the aforesaid findings, the Court dismissed the appeal filed by State, allowed the appeal filed by 5 convicted accused acquitting them, and also allowed the appeal of juvenile-accused quashing the chargesheet filed against him in Juvenile Justice Board.[Union of India v. Shameer, 2019 SCC OnLine Ker 1352, Order dated 12-04-2019]