In July 2021, former JNU student Umar Khalid filed a bail plea at a Delhi court after spending 10 months in jail. Khalid had been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his alleged involvement in a “conspiracy” related to the 2020 Delhi riots.
After eight months, dozens of hearings, delays in court dates, and three order deferments, Khalid’s bail order was pronounced by additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat in the Karkardooma court on Thursday.
The pronouncement was just one word – “dismissed”.
In the detailed order made available later that day, the court said that for the purpose of bail, it was of the opinion that the allegations against Khalid are “prima facie true” and that, from a broad reading of all the statements, his role in the “context of conspiracy” was “apparent”.
The court also offered a “primary reason” for why it took so long to hear Khalid’s “very hotly contested” bail application – because the defence and prosecution had both “delved deep” into the chargesheet and accompanying annexures.
The defence’s arguments, which stretched across both virtual and physical hearings, and featured comparisons to the plot of Family Man and Harry Potter villain Voldemort. In its order, the court observed that everyone referring to material beyond the chargesheet – including numerous references to web series, for example – was “unnecessary”.
But the Delhi police’s chargesheet was also pulled up for unnecessarily using “various words” to describe an act or an accused; for instance, the chargesheet had called Khalid a “silent whisperer” and a “veteran of sedition”.
Khalid was granted bail in April 2021 in connection with the riots that broke out in the Khajuri Khas area of Northeast Delhi, but had continued to be in jail for the “conspiracy” behind the riots, for which he was booked under the stringent UAPA.
Why didn’t the defence’s arguments hold water?
Khalid has been held as the mastermind of a larger “conspiracy” that led to the violence in February 2020. In the order, the judge said that the contention that Khalid is a researcher and “his bent of mind” can be assessed from his thesis and writings is not a relevant consideration while deciding bail, as “a bail application must be decided on facts presented in chargesheet”.
Khalid’s lawyer consistently said that witness statements cited in the chargesheet were “inconsistent”, “cooked up”, “contradictory”, “delayed”, “fabricated” and “inadmissible”.
For example, in one of the , it was argued that “Bravo”, a protected witness who was part of a WhatsApp group, had left due to disagreements in February but his statement came to the police only in June. The lawyer also accused Bravo of “cooking up” things like the existence of a high level committee.
The court agreed that there were some inconsistencies with some witness statements. But, it said, at this stage of bail, the witness statements have to be taken at face value because their “veracity” would be tested at the time of cross-examination.
The chargesheet claimed Khalid had been behind the formation of a WhatsApp group for Muslim students and that he had posted “provocative” or “incriminatory” messages in this group and in another called Delhi Protest Support Group. Khalid’s lawyer said his client had not posted these messages, which the court agreed had been “correctly” argued.
However, the court said, “the fact that he was part of such groups created for specific objects and his acts or presence throughout the period beginning from the passing of the CAB Bill in December 2019 till the February 2020 riots, as mentioned above, has to be read in totality and not piecemeal.”
Khalid’s defence also said the prosecution had “failed miserably” in establishing incriminatory contact or links between him and other alleged conspirators. But in its order, the court held that Khalid had “connectivity” with “many accused persons”.
On Khalid’s lawyer saying he hadn’t been in Delhi at the time of the riots, the court said in the case of a conspiracy, “it is not necessary that every accused should be present at the spot.” The court also cited a witness statement that quoted someone as saying “the accused will move out” on February 23, 2020 before the riots took place; another witness claimed Khalid “had told him to book tickets for him, specifically, for 23.02.2020 for travelling to Patna”.
Khalid’s lawyer said the prosecution equating a chakka jam with a terror act was not accurate, since a chakka jam is not an offence and is a legitimate form of protest. The court observed that as per the chargesheet, there was a “premeditated conspiracy” to “escalate the protest to the next level of chakka jam and then riots,” which was “confirmed” by three protected witnesses.
The court also said Khalid’s name found a “recurring mention” from the beginning of the conspiracy till the end. “If read by itself, a particular act or an activity may appear innocuous,” the order stated, “but if it is a part of a chain of events constituting a conspiracy, then all the events must be read together.”
Khalid’s infamous speech
On February 17, 2020, Khalid had , which is now treated as evidence of a conspiracy. While last year, his lawyer Trideep Pais had said the Delhi police’s entire case was based on edited footage from Republic and News18.
Republic then replied saying the footage had not been recorded by its own cameraperson; it was actually material tweeted by the BJP’s Amit Malviya. News18, which Pais accused of omitting a crucial statement, said they did not have the raw footage either.
In one of the hearings, Pais said it was the prosecutor’s wish to paint every accused in the case with the same brush but that it “crumbles” when one looks at the chargesheet.
Pais also said the allegations against Khalid were rhetorical, such as calling him the “veteran of sedition” without facts to back it. The allegations, he claimed, had read like a 9 pm news script of a shouting news channel.
But the writing was already on the wall. When co-accused Ishrat Jahan was bail earlier this month, the court had held that she had not created the idea of “chakka jam” and was not part of incriminating WhatsApp groups – giving a clear indication what the order for Khalid would hold.
The bail order is likely to be challenged in the high court by Khalid’s lawyers. In a yesterday, Amnesty International called for Khalid’s release and said that the denial of bail was a huge blow to the right to peacefully protest in India.
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