New Delhi: Statements by protected witnesses, including ‘Bond’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’, as well as WhatsApp group chats — these are some of the reasons a Delhi court Thursday rejected Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Umar Khalid’s bail application in the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots conspiracy case, one and a half years after his arrest.
In his order, Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat opined that “there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusations against the accused Umar Khalid are prima facie true”. To reach this conclusion, the Karkardooma court relied on statements of several protected witnesses, though also noting that there are “some inconsistencies” in them.
Both the charge sheet and court order rely on statements made witnesses protected under aliases — ‘Bond’, ‘Saturn’, ‘Smith’, ‘Echo’, ‘Sierra’, ‘Helium’, ‘Crypton’, ‘Johny’, ‘Pluto’, ‘Sodium’, ‘Radium’, ‘Gama’, ‘Delta’, ‘Beeta’, ‘Neon’, ‘Hotel’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ (sic). The charge sheet and court order also rely heavily on WhatsApp chats from various groups like ‘Delhi Protect Support Group’ (DPSG), ‘Jamia Co-ordination Committee’ (JCC), ‘Muslim Students of Jamia’ (MSJ), and ‘Pinjra Tod’, which are common between Khalid and his co-accused.
The court also rejected the contention that Khalid was not in Delhi during the riots, noting that “in a case of a conspiracy, it is not necessary that every accused should be present at the spot”.
Khalid was denied bail under FIR no. 59/2020. Filed on 6 March 2020, the FIR said that the Northeast Delhi riots were a pre-planned conspiracy “hatched by JNU student Umar Khalid and his associates”.
Khalid was first summoned by the Delhi Police Special Cell on 12 September 2020, in connection with the Northeast Delhi riots that took place in February that year, asking him to join the investigation the next day. Khalid went to the Special Cell’s office in Lodhi Colony at around 1 pm on 13 September, a Sunday. He was arrested at around 11 pm the same day.
What is a ‘terrorist act’?
In its order, the court looked into the definition of a ‘terrorist act’ under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Among other things, FIR no. 59/2020 also charges the accused under sections 13, 16, 17 and 18 of the stringent UAPA. These sections pertain to offences of unlawful activity, commission of a terrorist act, collecting funds for a terrorist act, and conspiracy for committing a terrorist act respectively.
Judge Rawat asserted that in the present case, according to the charge sheet taken at “face value”, “there was a premeditated conspiracy of the disruptive chakka jam and a pre-planned protest at 23 different planned sites in Delhi which was to escalate to confrontational chakka jam and incitement to violence and resulting in riots (sic)”.
“Acts which threaten the unity and integrity of India and cause friction in communal harmony and creates terror in any section of the people, by making them feel surrounded resulting in violence, is also a terrorist act (sic),” the court observed.
The Delhi High Court, while granting bail to Khalid’s co-accused — Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha — last June had asserted that making inflammatory speeches and protesting, even if they “crossed the line of peaceful protests”, would not qualify as a ‘terrorist act’ under UAPA.
“Even if we assume for the sake of argument, without expressing any view thereon, that in the present case inflammatory speeches, chakka jams, instigation of women protesters and other actions, to which the appellant is alleged to have been party, crossed the line of peaceful protests permissible under our constitutional guarantee, that however would yet not amount to commission of a ‘terrorist act’ or a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘act preparatory’ to the commission of a terrorist act as understood under the UAPA,” the HC had observed.
However, within days, the Supreme Court had intervened. While it did not interfere with the bail order, it said that the high court’s interpretation of UAPA “shall not be treated as a precedent” until it hears the case.
‘Bond’, ‘Romeo’, ‘Juliet’
In the order, taking note of the allegations made by protected witnesses, the court opined that Khalid’s role “in the context of conspiracy and riots is apparent”. It said that the statements of these witnesses mention “the role of accused persons and about open discussion on violence, riots, finance and weapons”.
For instance, one of the witnesses, ‘Bond’, claimed that Khalid had visited the Jamia Millia Islamia campus on 13 December 2019, and said the “government is a Hindu government and against Muslims and they have to overthrow the government and will do so at the right time”.
While Khalid’s lawyer argued that the statement of ‘Bond’ was not reliable and was also recorded after significant delay, the court refused to look into this, opining that “reliability…of the statement of a witness is to be tested at the stage of trial”, not while deciding the bail application.
The court also rejected Khalid’s claim that the statements of protected witnesses are either “false, contradictory, concocted or coerced”, observing, “At this stage of bail, statements of all the witnesses have to be taken at face value and their veracity will be tested at the time of cross examination.”
It further relied on chats on various WhatsApp groups, asserting that members of all these groups “were working in tandem” and that “members of one group were members in others and there was knowledge and coherence in strategy”.
‘Thesis by accused can’t be ground for assessing state of mind’
The court, however, refused to look into the prosecution’s argument on Khalid’s “bent of mind”, relying on his doctoral thesis on ‘Welfare aspects of Adivasis of Jharkhand’ and other writings.
Noting that this would not be necessary while considering the bail application, the court observed, “If the bent of mind is to be assessed in this manner, then the co-accused Sharjeel Imam has written thesis on riots but any thesis or research work, by itself, done by any accused, cannot be a ground for assessing mens rea or his bent of mind.”
In September 2020, when Khalid was arrested, an over 17,000-page charge sheet was filed in the case. Then, in October 2020, another 197-page long charge sheet called Khalid a “veteran of sedition”, and contained narratives that his lawyer argued “read like the script” of the Amazon Prime TV show The Family Man.
In his order, Judge Rawat noted that deciding the bail application took so long because this was “hotly contested”, and both the sides “delved deep into the charge sheet and the accompanying annexures”.
He also noted that during the hearing, the lawyers referred to material beyond the charge sheet as well as made “numerous references to various examples of web-series to drive home their points”. He asserted that all this was “unnecessary” because at the stage of deciding a bail application, the court is only required to look into what all is available on record — the charge sheet and its annexures.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)