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‘It’s a Joke’: The Curious Case of Sedition Without Chargesheets in Karnataka

File photo of AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi rushing to take the mic from student activist Amulya Leona, who has been accused of sedition for chanting 'Pakistan Zindabad' on stage at an anti-CAA rally in Bengaluru.

File photo of AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi rushing to take the mic from student activist Amulya Leona, who has been accused of sedition for chanting 'Pakistan Zindabad' on stage at an anti-CAA rally in Bengaluru.

Three months after sedition cases were taken up against students, the police have been caught on the wrong foot, failing to follow-up with chargesheets within deadlines.

On Friday, the Karnataka police suspended an inspector in Hubli Rural for failing to submit any chargesheet in the 'sedition' case against three Kashmiri students in the district.

In another case where student-activist Amulya Leona was accused of sedition, Bengaluru police are now enquiring into whether action must be taken against any of its officials for having delayed filing of a chargesheet for 107 days.

Action against these officers seems to have come after they failed to pursue the arrests they made of 'anti-national' elements with chargesheets in the court that must, by law, be filed within 90 days.

And, while lockdown and logistical bottlenecks may have been among reasons for their failure to file chargesheets, another factor could well be that the police themselves find there wasn't much to go upon and hence dithered on following due process.

The last week of January and early February saw a slew of sedition cases being taken up in different parts of Karnataka. First came a case against a school, a 10-year-old girl, her teacher and her mother for a play against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The second case related to the arrest of three Kashmiri students who were taken into custody in Hubli for a song they were alleged to have circulated. Later came the sedition accusation against Leona for having shouted pro-Pakistan slogans in an anti-CAA rally in Bengaluru.

While the Bidar case accused got bail after a local court ruled that it did not prima facie find any offence of sedition in the school play, the other two cases have left four youth incarcerated for over 100 days behind bars, while the police tried to gather evidence on the allegedly seditious deeds.

Significantly, in both Hubli and Bengaluru, the police have filed an investigation officer report with the court a day after lawyers for the accused filed for default bail plea as the chargesheets had not been filed for all of 90 days.

This week, the three Kashmiri students -- all of them studying engineering on scholarships from the central government -- walked out of jail after 110 days when a Hubli court granted them bail after it noted that police had not filed chargesheets on time.

Leona, too, has got bail now, after nearly 107 days in prison, again because the police did not file a chargesheet on time.

"We have suspended the inspector in-charge, because to not file chargesheet within 90 days is dereliction of duty. Even assuming that background investigation of the accused could not be taken up because of the lockdown, at least a partial chargesheet must have been filed," said a senior police officer.

But what led to the delay? Sources say that many within the force realise the case rests on a weak footing -- that the case made out against the Kashmiri students was based on statements that were hearsay, and that the video was never circulated by these students themselves, it was forwarded by one of their friends who had accessed their phones.

"It is a joke of a case -- by no stretch of imagination can sedition be made out," says BT Venkatesh, a human rights activist and lawyer who has been working on this case.

Advocate Prasanna R, who has represented the students, says that the intent of filing the case seems to have been to harass, rather than anything else.

"We believe that the video was circulated by someone else, not by the three accused. His statement, too, is there in the remand application. So when they did not circulate it, where was the intent to create disharmony? Even the police informally tell us they all know the futility of this whole exercise," he says.

The legal team is now trying to get the trial transferred out of Hubli, as the students and their lawyers had faced a lot of hostility in the court premises with heckling and protests by advocates of the districts. The lawyers also want to ensure the students can continue with their education, so they are able to get their engineering degrees.

"These are highly meritorious students, toppers in their class. We are keen to ensure they can finish their degrees," Prasanna says, while noting that a case of this kind would obviously hamper their employment prospects and life in general.

The investigating officer (IO) report against Leona, too, came a day after the lawyers filed for mandatory bail. They had attempted to file it on May 26 in different courts, but it was finally done only on June 2. On June 3, the IO filed a report in the court citing that she is a repeat offender and a troublemaker who could create law and order problems again.

The delay in the IO's report was "purely procedural", says a senior officer in Bengaluru. "We had to wait for some forensic reports, so we are examining where it (the lapse/delay) happened and how it happened," he said.

Leona's lawyers believe that here again the police probably dithered as they weren't sure of how strong their case was.

"It is funny they think a 19-year-old girl could do so much against the Indian state. Even before her sloganeering of 'Pakistan zindabad’, she had made her stand clear -- she had said ‘India zindabad, Bhutan zindabad, Switzerland zindabad’, every country. And they failed to file a chargesheet despite having a Special Investigating Team to probe her actions," says Prasanna.

"Scapegoating has become a national sport... and these are all soft targets," he adds.