Natasha Narwal: In India, Delhi High Court defends right to protest in a democracy

The State has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity: Delhi High Court on June 15, 2021 Image Credit: Istock

Once again it was left to a high court in India to call things to order. But this time, there was no reading between the lines, and no deeper understanding of the order was required.

The Delhi High Court’s message was succinct as student activists — Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal were granted bail.

The three had been arrested in May 2020 under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the court on Tuesday did not mince words of what it thought of their custody.

“We are constrained to say, that it appears, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent and in the morbid fear that matters may get out of hand, the State has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity. If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril,” said the High Court.

Natasha Narwal
Last month there were images of Natasha out on bail at a crematorium as she lit her father’s pyre Image Credit: ANI

Fundamental part of a democracy

If ever there is a memo that dissent and the right to protest were never sedition but an un-extricable and fundamental part of a healthy democracy, this is it. The court though left us to weigh the democracy indices ourselves.

As I wrote in an earlier column for Gulf News, there is something about the youth and women that rankles. It also seems to have perplexed the court.

“Foundations of our nation are on a more, surer footing than to be shaken by protests organised by a tribe of students,” said the court in its order on Asif adding that the draconian UAPA was not for ‘usual offences.’

An an earlier report in the Hindu newspaper said that there has been a 72% increase in arrests under this act in 2019 compared to 2015. The pandemic hasn’t seen a lull either.

This is how the court assessed Natasha Narwal’s case, “but we can discern no specific or particularised allegation, much less any material to bear out the allegation, that the appellant incited violence, what to talk of committing a terrorist act or a conspiracy or act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act as understood in the UAPA.”

Natasha and Devangana who are students of Delhi’s Jawahar Lal University are also Pinjra Tod activists — a women’s movement that was launched to challenge regressive rules in hostels.

Asif is a student of Jamia Milia university whose campus was the scene of tear gas shelling by Delhi police one December evening in 2019. Their arrest claimed the Delhi Police was over a ‘larger conspiracy’ that led to the communal riots in North-East Delhi over the Citizenship Amendment Act.

A rich history of youth activism

India has always had a rich history of youth activism, but a hear no evil policy means that from climate campaigner Disha Ravi, comedian Munawar Faruqi, 23- year- old labour activist Nodeep Kaur to pregnant Safoora Zargar, there has been a crowd of young activists on the other side of the bars.

But where is the justice in putting three student activists behind bars for more than 300 days when aggressive voices calling for violence roamed free? Will the Delhi Police that is controlled by the Home Ministry admit and answer?

In recent times, when the state has seemed excessive or distracted, the high courts especially Delhi, Bombay, Gujarat, Madras to name a few have stood tall as watch dogs. The Supreme Court despite a tentative start to the unfathomable muddle that was the government’s COVID-19 response has also caught up, constantly keeping the centre on its toes.

From questioning of the vaccine policy, forcing a rethink to “if citizens communicate their grievances on social media and internet, it can’t be said it’s wrong information,” the changing stance of the apex court was more noticeable and reflected some growing winds of change. Will these winds be strong enough or find another path to blow, time- of which there is plenty, will tell.

The other resigned question remains, how does it continue to take a system so long when ‘bail, is the rule, jail exception?’ Any Indian who has been stuck in endless litigation, can tell you how the word ‘adjourned’ is like a death knell. Urgent judicial reforms are not an exaggeration.

But times are such that even justice delayed, is justice. That is not to say, that judicial overreach is unheard off or absolute. But as courts stand between the citizens on one side and the executive and the legislative on the other, where judicial boundaries end in a question that can perhaps be answered with another question: where do political boundaries over the judiciary begin?

But amid all this is the easily forgettable human cost. Last month there were images of Natasha out on bail at a crematorium as she lit her father’s pyre. She had not been able to see him even before he got COVID-19, he lost his life to the virus. Now when she goes home, there will be one empty seat at the dining table. How can that ever be compensated?

Jyotsna Mohan


Jyotsna Mohan is the author of the investigative book ‘Stoned, Shamed, Depressed’. She was also a journalist with NDTV for 15 years.