A Delhi court on Friday denied bail to activist Sharjeel Imam in a case related to his allegedly inflammatory speech at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in December 2019, reported Bar and Bench.

Imam had been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in April 2020 for his speeches at Jamia Millia Islamia as well as the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. Three months later, the police had charged him with sedition. He is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.

The Delhi Police had said that Imam was arrested in connection with violence at Jamia Millia Islamia on December 13 and 15, 2019. The police had accused him for “instigating and abetting the Jamia riots, due to his seditious speech on December 13”.

Violence had erupted in the area around Jamia Millia Islamia during a protest march against the Citizenship Amendment Act by the University’s students.

The Delhi police were accused of using excessive force to quell the demonstrations and of storming the campus. The police had claimed their action was justified as the protestors had allegedly injured their officers and set buses on fire.

At Friday’s hearing, Additional Sessions Judge Anuj Agarwal said that Imam’s speech at Jamia Jamia Millia Islamia needed “deeper analysis” to consider if it was seditious. However, the judge said that upon a plain reading, the court felt that the speech was “clearly on communal lines”.

“In my view, the tone and tenor of the incendiary speech tend to have a debilitating effect upon public tranquility, peace and harmony of the society,” the judge said.

The court went on to cite a quote on freedom of speech and expression by poet John Milton: Give me the liberty to know, to argue freely, and to utter according to conscience, above all liberties.”

However, the court also observed that the Constitution has placed reasonable restrictions on exercising the right to freedom of speech and expression on grounds of public order and incitement to an offence.

The court said that Article 51A(e) of the Constitution promotes harmony and brotherhood among all the citizens of Indian beyond religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities, reported Live Law.

“Therefore, it is no gainsaying that fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression cannot be exercised at the cost of communal peace and harmony of the society,” the judge said.

However, in the order, the court also noted that the evidence to support the allegations that rioters were instigated by Imam’s speech was “scanty and sketchy”.

“Neither any eye witness has been cited by prosecution nor there is any other evidence on record to suggest that co-accused got instigated and committed the alleged act of rioting etc upon hearing the speech of applicant/accused Sharjeel Imam,” the order stated.

The order also said that there was no evidence to support the prosecution’s version that the rioters were part of the audience that Imam addressed on the same day.

In an earlier hearing in September, the Delhi Police had alleged that Imam’s speech at Jamia was divisive.

Special Public Prosecutor Amit Prasad had said Iman opened his speech with the traditional Muslim salutation “Assalamu-alaikum”, which showed that “his address is to a particular community”.

“We must keep in mind that this accused is somebody who has done his thesis on rioting and, therefore, has knowledge as to how a critical mass can come together and how things can be done from them,” the lawyer had claimed.

At the Aligarh Muslim University, Iman had purportedly asked protestors to “cut off Assam from India” by occupying the “Muslim-dominated Chicken’s Neck”.

The comment was widely perceived as secessionist, but Imam later claimed that he had called for peaceful protests to “block roads going to Assam” – “basically a call for chakka jam”.

Apart from Delhi, the police in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh had filed cases against Iman for the purported comments.