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‘There Has To Be Lakshman Rekha For Criticism’: Delhi HC on Umar Khalid's Speech

Jailed activist Umar Khalid’s lawyer argued that criticism of the government cannot become a crime.
umar khalid

The Delhi High Court on Wednesday continued to hear the appeal filed by jailed student activist Umar Khalid against the trial court order that denied him bail in the Delhi riots conspiracy case.

During the hearing, Justice Rajnish Bhatnagar, who shared the bench headed by Justice Siddharth Mridul, asked Khalid’s counsel, Senior Advocate Trideep Pais, whether it was “proper” to use the word “jumla” against the Prime Minister, as was done by the activist in a speech made in Amravati in February 2021.

According to a report by the LiveLaw, Justice Bhatnagar orally asked Pais, “This word jumla is used against the Prime Minister of India. Is it proper?” Pais replied saying it was not illegal to criticise the government or its policies.

"Criticism of the government cannot become a crime. 583 days in prison with UAPA charges was no envisaged for a person who speaks against the government. We cannot become so intolerant. At this rate, people will not be able to speak,” Pais submitted, according to the LiveLaw report.

Justice Bhatnagar also orally remarked, “There has to be a line for criticism also. There has to be a lakshman rekha.”

As the recording of Khalid’s speech was played in the courtroom, Justice Bhatnagar questioned Khalid’s use of the word “changa” with regards to the PM, to which Pais reportedly said it was satire. “Sab changa si was probably used (as a phrase) by the PM in a speech given,” Pais said.

When Justice Mridul asked about the expression “krantikari” in the speech, Pais said it meant revolutionary.

Pais also argued that Khalid’s speech was against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the government and its policies, but there was no call for violence or incitement. “He (Khalid) says we are willing to go arrested, won’t resort to violence. The camera pans to crowd, the crows is seated, it’s not incited,” he submitted.

The two-judge bench said it did not dispute Pais’ arguments on free speech, but was concerned with whether the speech incited people to indulge in riots in Delhi, the report said.

Your argument regarding free speech, nobody can have a question. Question is did his speech and subsequent actions lead to the riots that happened? The live link with speech and other material gathered whether it led to incitement of violence? Nobody has qualms about free speech but what is the consequence of your employing these expressions, offensive as they already are,” Justice Mridul was quoted by LiveLaw as observing during the hearing.

Paid submitted that Khalid’s speech itself did not call for violence. He added that no witnesses of the Delhi violence had said they were incited by the said speech. The only two witnesses who had said to have heard the speech, also said they were not incited by it, he said.

In the last hearing, the bench had read the transcript of Khalid’s speech and observed that it was prima facie “obnoxious” and “offensive”.

Delhi’s Karkardooma Court on March 24 refused granting of bail to Khalid. The student activist was arrested on September 13, 2020 and has remained in custody since then. The former JNU student leader is facing charges under the stringent and controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

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