On the morning of June 27, around 15-20 supporters of the Hindu Jagran Manch, an activist group associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, gathered inside a courtroom at the district court of Bikaner, Rajasthan.

The magistrate was hearing the bail appeal of five Muslims aged between 18 years and 20 years who were arrested on June 19 for allegedly celebrating the victory of Pakistan over India in the Champions Trophy final the previous day. A sixth person has also been apprehended in connection with the matter, but his case is being dealt with separately because he is a juvenile.

The complaint was filed by a property dealer who lives in the neighbourhood where the celebrations were held. A local BJP leader has been named as a witness in the case.

The young men were initially arrested under a provision of the Code of Criminal Procedure that allows a police officer to make a preventive arrest before the commission of a criminal offence. They were later charged with sedition and promoting enmity between religious groups.

“It is a serious matter,” said Sailesh Gupta, a lawyer and member of the Hindu Jagran Manch, who argued in court on behalf of the complainant. “The accused should get the strictest punishment.”

There was no lawyer to defend the young men in court.

This is possibly because the bar association at the Bikaner district court has unofficially instructed lawyers to stay away from the case. The families of the arrested men had engaged a lawyer, Raju Kohri. However, he was compelled to step back because of immense pressure from his colleagues at the bar.

Asked how the bar association could impose such a boycott, Ravikant Verma, president of the Bikaner Bar Association, said: “I consider this a case of breach of national integrity and this is more serious than heinous offences, which include [Indian Penal Code sections] 302 [for murder] and 376 [for rape].”

Verma added: “The Advocates Act [enacted in 1961] prohibits such boycotts. But in this case, we have not passed any resolution, so we are not violating any law. We have asked lawyers to stay away from the case in a personal capacity. This much can be done to teach traitors a lesson.”

Kohri, who is Muslim and is distantly related to some of the accused, was in court to offer legal advice to the families, but he did not make any arguments formally.

The judge did not pass any orders in the case. A subsequent hearing on Wednesday also remained inconclusive.

‘Boys were celebrating a bet’

Of the six persons apprehended in the case, five are daily wage labourers and one works at a footwear stitching unit. The adult accused persons have been identified as Imran Ali, Tanveer Ali, Sanjay Khan, Wasim Mohammed and Rafeeq.

In Bhutto ka mohalla, the neighbourhood where the families of four of the six accused youngsters live, people say a small celebration took place after the match, but that it was not an expression of anti-India sentiment.

“It all happened because of a bet on the cricket match,” said the grandfather of the juvenile who has been apprehended in the case. “A local youth won Rs 15,000 on Pakistan’s win in the match and he distributed a fraction of the amount to the boys to celebrate his personal victory in betting. Can it still be called an anti-national act?”

The boys’ families said their children were bystanders and not participants in the celebration.

“My sons had just returned from work when they noticed the crowd and they stopped there out of curiosity,” said Sikander Ali, father of accused brothers Imran and Tanveer Ali. “They had worked in the vegetable market all day and had nothing to do with the cricket match.” Sikander Ali is a truck driver and his sons are daily wage labourers.

Rafeeq’s father died four years ago, and he is the sole bread earner for his family.

“We are a family of four and his [Rafeeq’s] younger brother is mentally challenged,” said Gulshan Bano, Rafeeq’s mother. “He has to be there for us to survive.”

Locals say Bhutto ka mohalla gets its name from a Muslim gatekeeper who is said to have impressed the Maharaja of Bikaner by upholding the rules at the time, and refusing to let him enter the area after sunset. Even elderly residents here do not remember when this was, but they know for certain that the locality has existed for over a century now. A large number of the 1,000-odd families who live here are Muslims belonging to the Sipahi community of erstwhile soldiers. They now work as daily wage labourers, factory workers, auto-rickshaw drivers and truck drivers.

Bhutto ka mohalla intersects with the colonies of Subhashpura and Indira Nagar, which are dominated by the Rajput community. Two of those nabbed in connection with the case are residents of Subhashpura.

Rafeeq's mother Gulshan Bano with her daughter and a relative. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.

Three witnesses

According to the First Information Report registered on the basis of a complaint by Gajraj Singh, on the night of June 18, around 11 pm, a procession taken out by Muslim boys in one of the lanes connecting Bhutto ka mohalla with Subhashpura led to heated arguments.

In his complaint, Singh told the police that a group of around 20 youngsters had rallied in the neighbourhood, and they burst firecrackers, beat drums and shouted slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Hindustan Murdabad” to celebrate India’s defeat in the Champions Trophy final. Singh also said that there were two other witnesses to the incident – Shyam Singh Hadlan, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader, and Basheer Ahmed Khan, a sexagenarian who lives in Bhutto ka mohalla.

Hadlan, who is a former office bearer in BJP’s Bikaner unit, had somewhat the same testimony as Singh’s regarding the celebrations and slogan-shouting. He recalled that he saw the youngsters arguing with Basheer Ahmed Khan when he arrived at the scene.

“I was returning from a marriage party when I confronted the youths,” said Hadlan. “By the time I was there, some of them had already entered into an argument with Basheer Ahmed Khan, who is believed to be the first person to have confronted them.”

Khan had a slightly different account.

“Yes, I also went out to see what was happening when I heard drum beats and firecrackers,” said Khan. “I stopped the youths and asked them what they were up to but there was no clear answer. Hadlan too arrived in a while and asked them the same questions, when an argument broke out between him and some of the youths. As far as sloganeering is concerned, I did not hear any. I also did not spot the boys who were later named in the police complaint.”

Khan has now written at least two letters to senior police officials – from the circle officer in Bikaner to the offices of the Superintendent of Police, Inspector General and the Rajasthan Police Commissioner – to say that he did not hear anyone shouting any slogans that night.

Khan said that a huge crowd had gathered when the argument between members of the celebrating group and locals who objected to the revelry got heated up. He added that by 11.30 pm, the group of celebrating youths had dispersed. However, the crowd from both localities that had gathered there by then started getting aggressive. “While I was pacifying the Muslims in the crowd, Hadlan was talking to the Hindus,” said Khan. “Our objective was the same – the incident should lead to no disharmony.”

Hadlan said that he called up the officer in charge of the Sadar Police Station, which has Subhashpura and Bhutto ka mohalla under its jurisdiction. The police reached the spot and the matter was sorted out for the time being.

The police did not question anyone that night.

Police calls begin

The next morning, the juvenile accused’s uncle was the first person to receive a call from the police. “The officer asked me to take him to the police station for some questioning,” the uncle said. “When we went there, he was detained.” The parents of the other accused boys said that they received similar calls later in the day, and their children were detained too.

There was no FIR so far. Within 24 hours, all six of them were produced before a court, which sent five of them to judicial custody and the minor to a juvenile observation home. There is a dispute over the minor’s age.

On June 20, the families of the accused youths came to know that a case of sedition had been registered against their children on the basis of Singh’s complaint. The First Information Report, filed at 9.30 pm that day, shows that the police have charged the youngsters with sedition, promoting enmity between different groups, and for being part of an unlawful assembly.

The boys were released on bail on June 24 with regard to the preventive arrest. However, they were soon arrested again in connection with the new criminal case registered against them.

So far there is no video recording of the incident available, and the case is entirely based on testimony of witnesses, said a police official who did not wish to be identified.

“It is certain that the act was not planned or conspired by the accused,” said Sawai Singh Godara, Superintendent of Police, Bikaner. “But the investigators have evidence, based on which the charges have been pressed.”

Godara ruled out the possibility of betting on cricket being the cause of the celebrations, but refused to comment on the nature of evidence that the police had gathered. Godara also denied being under pressure from leaders of any political party, including the BJP that rules Rajasthan. “The investigation is taking place as per provisions of the law,” he said.

Asked why the men were arrested twice in connection with the same incident, Godara said that the police had acted in accordance with the law. “While the first arrest was a preventive arrest, the second arrest was in connection with a criminal case,” he said.

Advocate Raju Kohri. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.

Sedition, according to the law

Kohri, the legal consultant of the defendants, said that the question of sedition did not arise in this case. “How can the boys be charged for sedition when there is no proof of any slogans being raised?” he asked. “The arrested boys were not even there raising slogans.”

MS Khan, a Delhi-based lawyer, said that shouting slogans alone did not constitute sedition. “Even if slogans were raised, it does not establish sedition,” said Khan. “Acts like raising slogans or waving the flag of another country does not necessarily bring, or attempt to bring, hatred or contempt towards a government established by the law, a requirement for IPC [Indian Penal Code] Section 124A [sedition] to stand in a court of law. The intent has to be established.”

Supreme Court lawyer and Swaraj Abhiyan leader Prashant Bhushan said that the apex court has elaborated on at least two separate occasions that certain conditions have to be fulfilled for sedition to apply. “For sedition, the act has to either lead to violence or incitement of public disorder for the purpose of overthrowing the government,” said Bhushan. “So, the present case clearly does not apply for sedition.”

Bhushan also emphasised on the intent factor. He said: “Even if some person or a group of persons react to a speech or an act and turn violent and cause public disorder, the speech or act will still fail to qualify as seditious unless it is proved that it was intended to do so and for the purpose of overthrowing the government [established by law].”

Khan said that other questions arise in this case.

“For instance, if one waves a flag of England or chants ‘Long Live England’ after the England team defeats India in a cricket match, will that person be dragged to court too and charged with sedition?” he asked.