Court upholds protesting students’ rights to dissent

Former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Sharjeel Imam and 10 others have been absolved of charges of inciting violence during a protest against India’s contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in and around Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a prestigious centrally funded university in New Delhi. The court upheld the right of students and others to dissent in the high-profile case.

Imam was accused by police of delivering inflammatory and provocative speeches during anti-CAA protests on 13 December 2019 and 16 January 2020. Delhi Police claimed his speeches promoted “enmity” among the people, leading to riots, and charged him with sedition which can lead to a sentence of up to life in prison.

Imam surrendered to Delhi Police on 28 January 2020 from his hometown in Bihar State.

The CAA, enacted in December 2019, aims to make it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become Indian nationals, while excluding Muslims originating from these countries. Seen as discriminatory against India’s Muslims, it sparked huge and prolonged protests and serious riots in the country in late 2019 and early 2020.

At the time, Imam’s arrest was denounced by teachers, students, activists, politicians and other organisations, including the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and JNU Teachers’ Association. Students and alumni of various Indian Institutes of Technology as well as students from Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University and other state universities condemned his arrest and demanded his release.

Fundamental right

On 4 February Delhi’s Saket Court acquitted Imam together with Asif Iqbal Tanha, Safoora Zargar and eight others, most of them students, in connection with the violence that occurred near JMI on 13 December 2019. While absolving them of the charges, the court stressed that dissent was an extension of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression.

Additional Sessions Judge Arul Varma of the Saket Court said the police “were unable to apprehend the actual perpetrators … but surely managed to rope the persons hereon as scapegoats”.

Varma added the proceedings were initiated by police “in a perfunctory and cavalier fashion” and that the police’s conduct “does not augur well for the criminal justice system” of the country.

“Furthermore, such police action is detrimental to the liberty of citizens who choose to exercise their fundamental right to peacefully assemble and protest. The liberty of the protesting citizens should not have been lightly interfered with,” he said.

The judge said of the police: “The charge sheet was ‘ill conceived’. Investigation agencies should have incorporated the use of technology and gathered credible evidence.

“Agencies should book [charge] actual perpetrators and not dissenters. Agencies cannot blur lines between dissenters and rioters.”

JMI protests

The defendants were charged after students held a protest march against the CAA. Students clashed with police who stopped their protest march a few hundred metres from the JMI campus. Students threw stones after which the police used tear gas shells to disperse them.

Two days later, the Delhi police and paramilitary forces stormed the campuses of JMI and Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, brutalised students, and damaged university property.

According to the prosecution, Imam had allegedly made speeches at JMI on 13 December 2019 and at the Aligarh Muslim University on 16 December 2019, where he threatened to cut off the northeastern state of Assam, which borders on Bangladesh, and the rest of the northeast region, which is often beset by tribal conflict and separatist movements, from India.

No immediate release

However, despite the court’s ruling, Imam will not be immediately released from judicial custody as he is facing trial in three separate cases of violence in Delhi. He has only been acquitted in the case involving violence on 13 December 2019.

Imam is also facing a probe under the stringent anti-terrorism law known as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in a conspiracy case related to the February 2020 Northeast Delhi riots. The Delhi High Court will hear Imam’s bail plea on 15 March in the UAPA case.

Meanwhile, Delhi Police having turned to the Delhi High Court, challenging the lower court’s order acquitting Imam and others.

Other student activists acquitted along with Imam include former JMI students Tanha and Zargar.

Zargar was also arrested and accused of being part of a “conspiracy” to cause riots and of delivering a provocative speech in February 2020. She and other student leaders from JNU were accused of being the “masterminds” behind the February 2020 Delhi riots which led to 50 deaths over 10 days.

Zargar declined to talk about the acquittal. She told University World News: “The discharge order by the trial court was challenged in the high court yesterday [7 February] by the state. It’s not feasible for me to talk about it yet.”


However, during an interview in a recent BBC documentary series that has been banned in India, Zargar said: “It started like a complete witch-hunt of all those people who were involved in the anti-CAA protests, to suppress dissent to make an example out of us and to put us behind bars. I'm very confident that they will not be able to prove even one charge against us.”

Describing the violence around JMI in December 2019, Zargar told the BBC: “We did not expect that a students’ protest would be met with such brutality by the police. It was an unbelievable situation to be in in Delhi, in the heart of capital, [it] suddenly seemed like a war zone.”

She said the police “beat up the students, they vandalised the university, created an environment of fear and terror to teach us a lesson to never protest again”.

Police maintained they were trying to restore law and order at the campus. However, JMI Vice-Chancellor Najma Akhtar at the time demanded an inquiry into the incident.

The JMI administration also refused to comment on this week’s court order acquitting the students, including Zargar, who was de-registered from the university in September 2022, sparking student anger.