New Delhi: As civil society in India hails the ‘big win’ for activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who was asked to pay a token Re 1 as fine for contempt of court, a young dalit activist in Mumbai was recently asked to cough up Rs 50 lakh as surety for participating in a peaceful protest earlier this year – both cases relate to the constitutional right to free speech and protest, respectively.
Suvarna Salve has been charged with Section 110 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973, that deals with security for good behaviour from ‘habitual offenders’. Salve was one among 31 people, which mainly include students, whose names were registered in an FIR by the Mumbai Police for participating in protests against the violence inflicted on Jawaharal Nehru University (JNU) students in January this year.
On Tuesday, activists in Maharashtra launched an online campaign to demand the quashing of FIRs and to free the activists without any “surety” amount. They have termed the amount as “absurd, excessive and totally arbitrary”.
Speaking to NewsClick, activist Geeta Seshu, one of the organisers of the online campaign, said: “Section 110 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which has been applied in this case, classifies the student and cultural activist as a ‘habitual offender’ and police have even said they will initiate proceedings to extern her from Mumbai. This Section is used for offenders like house-breakers, forgers, robbers, thieves, those who commit kidnappings, abductions, extortion, cheating or mischief, drug offenders food adulteration and the like. It includes a crime which involves a breach of the peace”
“Scaring us into silence, hoping for a chilling effect”
January 6 onward, the #OccupyGateway protests took to the streets of Mumbai with student groups and celebrities alike, denouncing the attack by ABVP affiliated students in the JNU campus. Three FIRs were also lodged against several of them.
Of the FIRs registered, two are at the Colaba Police Station and two at the MRA Marg police station. The FIRs at the Colaba Police Station are registered against activists Suvarna Salve, Firoz Mithiborwala, Umar Khalid and others for unlawful assembly at Gateway of India.
“While the initial decision was to not take criminal action against the protestors, the police eventually changed their stance. In all 31 persons have been named in the FIR and have been booked under section 141, 143 and 149 (unlawful assembly) and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the Indian Penal Code, along with Section 37 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951,” according to a report in The Wire.
All these Sections are bailable and punishable for less than six months, said the report. Incidentally, only student activists and some lawyers were named in this report, some of whom claimed that they were not present at the protest site but were still named in the FIR.
The activists said the protest or morcha, which prompted the registering of this FIR against Suvarna Salve and others, was peaceful. It was a spontaneous march and the police was present at the spot. They said there was no untoward incident, no violence and no breach of peace in the wake of the morcha. They claimed that some people named in the FIR were not even present in the morcha and despite evidence of their lack of involvement, the Mumbai Police has named them, “exhibiting undue and disproportionate zeal in booking activists who have raised a voice of dissent and exercised their right to peaceful protest.”
Speaking to NewsClick, Chayanika Shah, an activist who was a part of the protests, said: “The fundamental question is about the right of all of us to protest. When there is so much arm-twisting even with a person like Prashant Bhushan, we can only imagine what it can be like for normal people.”
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