Conspiracy, sedition: ruling in Disha Ravi case raises bar for State

This is significant given this charge is now recurrently levied in cases related to riots and protests.

By ruling that “mere engagement with persons of dubious credentials” is not a crime, the Delhi trial court, which granted bail to climate activist Disha Ravi Tuesday, has, effectively, raised the bar for the State to initiate prosecution for being part of a “larger conspiracy.” This is significant given this charge is now recurrently levied in cases related to riots and protests.

“Any person with dubious credentials may interact with a number of persons during the course of his social intercourse. As long as the engagement/interaction remains within the four corners of law, people interacting with such persons, ignorantly, innocently or for that matter even fully conscious of their dubious credentials, cannot be painted with the same hue,” Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana said in his order.

This critical observation was made in light of the Delhi Police’s argument that although “there is no direct evidence establishing the link between the applicant/accused and the violence” on January 26, Ravi’s conduct when “viewed against the attendant circumstances would unambiguously establish that there was a ‘larger conspiracy’ to perpetuate violence by secessionist forces and the protest against the farm laws was merely a facade to conceal the real sinister designs.”

Ravi was charged with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code that deals with criminal conspiracy along with Sections 124A (sedition) and Section 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony).

On both charges, conspiracy and sedition, judge Rana scrupulously applied precedents of the Supreme Court that take a restricted view on invoking the provisions and concluded that the Delhi police failed to show any evidence.

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On conspiracy, the court noted that it cannot be proved merely on the basis of inferences but those inferences have to be backed by evidence. And, on sedition, citing Kedar Nath case (1962), the judge underlined there must be either actual violence or the incitement to violence associated with the words.

The court went a step ahead to rebut the state’s claims of Ravi being part of a “global conspiracy” in recognising that the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression “includes the right to seek a global audience” and that “there are no geographical barriers on communication” as long as it’s “under the four corners of law.”

On sedition, the court analysed the contents of the toolkit and concluded that it was “innocuous” and did not call for violence. Even the toolkit’s link to genocide.org, a site that claims to relay early warning signs to indicate that a genocidal process is underway, was dismissed by the court.

“…imputations may be false, exaggerated or even with a mischievous intent but the same cannot be stigmatized being seditious unless they have tendency to foment violence,” the court said relying on a 1989 ruling of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in which a pamphlet titled ‘Atrocities of Army on students’ was not found to be seditious as it did not incite people to violence and there was no intention of causing public disorder.

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