A student has been in jail for over a month, after arrest by the Karnataka police on charges that her lawyers say are frivolous and a misuse of the sedition law. Her friend, a graduate, got bail after 33 days
Bangalore: Saqib Idrees, 24, who called himself her ‘best friend’, met Amulya Leona Noronha three months ago at a protest. The nineteen-year-old was leading the sloganeering, which called repeatedly and rhythmically for azaadi (freedom). “No one else knew the words,” he said. “But she did. And that’s how she became the voice of the Bangalore protests.”
The student-led resistance against the newly minted Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in December 2019 had brought Amulya in contact with many young people who were staging guerrilla protests and overnight sit-ins. “They were full of zeal and enthusiasm without any fear of consequences,” said Ahmed, adding that these students had their own ideas and couldn’t be “told anything”.
Amulya’s arrest on 20 February 2020, at an anti-CAA rally organised by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) was sudden, sensational. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi—who was present on the dais with Amulya that day—and others immediately disassociated themselves from the image of her shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long live, Pakistan).
Her father, under threat of violence from right wing groups, said she wasn’t welcome home and he wouldn’t post her bail. Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa called a press conference to talk about her ‘Naxal connections’.
But her friends and acquaintances paint a simpler picture of a 19-year-old idealist whose message of internationalism was hijacked and corrupted in order to dampen the dissent against the CAA.
The day after a sedition case was filed against Amulya, her close friend Ardra Narayana (who identifies as They/Them) was also arrested under the Indian Penal Code, Section 153A and Section 153B, which among other things, prosecutes people for provoking a group (religious, racial or any other) with “the intent to disturb public tranquility” and “assertions prejudicial to national integration”. Ardra was holding a placard which read, “Muslim, Dalit, Kashmiri, Bahujan, Adivasi, Trans liberation now,” at a Sri Ram Sene rally held at Town Hall to condemn Amulya.
Amulya has been in jail for over a month and is yet to get bail; Ardra’s petition for bail was allowed on 23 March and they were released after 33 days in judicial custody.
There is no shortage of advocates to represent them, said B.T. Venkatesh, one of the lead lawyers on this case and four other sedition cases filed during 2020 in Karnataka. Venkatesh and others stepped in to fight these cases after bar associations in Mysore and Hubli refused to defend sedition accused.
There have been sporadic boycotts (such as strikes by advocates) in Karnataka but never a case where a defendant was denied representation just for holding a poster or shouting slogans, Venkatesh said, adding that the constitution offers everyone a representation of their choice and this “must never be compromised”.
The prosecution has not yet presented arguments in Amulya’s case. With the closing of courts due to the Coronavirus lockdown, the first opportunity for this would be on 27 March when the prosecution will file objections to her bail petition in a special court.
As of now, they have only translated the 124A clause into Kannada in the complaint, Venkatesh said. “It’s clear that none of the ingredients for the offence exist in this case.”
In Bengaluru, Upparpet Police Station Inspector Suresh MR, the investigating officer in Amulya's case, told us that he is not allowed to reveal the details of the investigation and only the DCP (West) had the authority to do so. We tried to reach DCP Ramesh B and will update this story if and when he replies. Venkatesh said Amulya would likely be entitled to bail just based on the fact that she is a woman and a student.
A Star Is Born
In a meeting held to discuss protest strategies soon after the CAA became law in December 2019, Amulya was ‘talent spotted’ by Tanveer Ahmed, 45, a seasoned activist who said he saw her potential.
Avowedly anti-establishment and unhesitant in criticising powerful politicians, such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, she would soon become a hit during the series of protests that followed.
Student activist Teresa Braggs, 22, had chatted online with Amulya but they first met on 21 February, when they were charged together in an FIR, among others?, for an infamous “**** Hindutva” poster with Nazi imagery. Braggs said Amulya, with her connections in Kannada activist circles, helped pull in the crowds during those initial student-led protests.
“She was operating in many groups so we didn’t always know what she was upto,” said Mariyam Saighal, 22 a student who knows both Amulya and Ardra. “She is reckless and carefree and doesn’t think much. She is yet to learn how to speak, how to be diplomatic. Do you know she is deaf in one ear? That’s why she speaks really loudly.”
Saighal said Amulya had a tendency to repeat herself when she was anxious. “She was angry at everything and everyone and had more hope from the world than she should,” Saighal said
On the day of Owaisi’s rally, Amulya was invited on stage to speak on the NRC and CAA. Braggs remembered being contacted by another student a week before the programme; he asked her if she could connect him with Amulya and Bangalore-based historian Ramchandra Guha, both of whom he wanted to invite to speak on the day. Braggs put him in touch with Amulya, whom she didn’t hear from again until the day of the programme.
“She asked me if I was coming but I couldn’t go,” said Braggs. “She said she would sloganeer on my behalf.” It was only the next morning that she saw the video.
Ahmed was present at Freedom Park that evening but says everything was a blur to him as it all happened so quickly. One minute Amulya was waving at him from the wings and the next, she was being dragged down from the stage by the police.
The video footage of those few seconds shows an unfazed Amulya, determined to make her point, even as the men around her try to dislodge the microphone from her hand and shove her around in the process. Owaisi is visibly panicked. The AIMIM had been dealing with the fallout from Waris Pathan’s ‘us vs them’ remarks earlier in the week, and now this. “Pakistan Zindabad! Pakistan Zindabad! Hindust…” she never gets to finish. Amulya disengages herself from the huddle around her and tries to have another go. “The difference between the two…”
By then, no one there is ready to give her any more stage time.
We can safely assume that what she wanted to do was articulate a point she made on a Facebook post four days ago where she wrote, “Zindabad to all countries...All people should get their basic facilities. All of them should be able to avail their fundamental rights….I don’t become a part of a different nation just because I say Zindabad to that nation. As per law, I am an Indian Citizen...”
After the Arrest
By the time Ahmed reached the Upparpet police station, where she had been taken, there was already a throng of mediapersons; they had been briefed by the DCP and another address was due soon. This was television gold, after all. The police were likely acting under political pressure, Ahmed said, recounting how intimidating the atmosphere had become.
As a witness, he was asked to sign a statement which mentioned ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ but conveniently left out ‘Hindustan Zindabad’. “When I pointed this out, they asked me angrily, ‘So it’s okay to say Pakistan Zindabad?’. There is no right answer to that, is there?” he added.
Amulya’s phone was seized and her call records examined. Among her frequently contacted list was Muhammed Yusuf Samuel Nandakumar, 36, a Dalit rights activist who, despite knowing her only for a few months, speaks stirring about her integrity, patriotism and genuine concern for the people and environment around her.
He says he was called in for questioning for two consecutive days where he was grilled about his connection to Amulya and her activities. Many of her friends and acquaintances also reported being investigated by the police; Idrees even said he was beaten up after he was picked up from a protest calling for her release.
These were the days when the media, specifically the nationalist Kannada media, ran strategically edited clips of the video on loop under the banner ‘Amulya Deshdrohi’ (Amulya, the nation’s betrayer). One senior journalist called for her to be chopped up and thrown away so that ‘the rest will fall in line’. Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik said she ought to be killed in an encounter and another leader in the organisation declared a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on her head.
Ironically, these extremist statements only brought together Amulya’s supporters and detractors, particularly among the student community. Even those who criticised her lack of tact or wisdom, decided they couldn’t abandon her to these elements. “I was the first one to condemn her statement,” said Idrees, “But I was also the one to tell the police ‘Amulya ke naam pe, inquilaab aayega’ (In Amulya’s name, the revolution will come)”. Ardra’s arrest just cemented this feeling.
The sedition case against Amulya is the fifth to be filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Karnataka government in 2020; none of these meet the standards laid down by the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court is clear on what formulates sedition under Section 124A,” said advocate Maitreyi Krishnan, who is one of 10 lawyers who have filed Vakalat in Amulya’s case.
The IPC defines someone as guilty of sedition—a 150-year-old law promulgated by a colonial government—if they “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law”.
In Kedar Nath Singh Vs State of Bihar the Supreme Court allowed the sedition law to stand with the caveat that it could be used if "a person could be prosecuted for sedition only if his acts caused incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace”.
“This is a complete abuse of the law,” Krishnan said. “I can’t think of sedition laws being used so frivolously in the recent past. This has become a tool of harassment with the state effectively suspending the personal liberties of the person for days. It is fully answerable to how it has conducted itself,” she said.
A Karnataka sessions judge on 3 March 2020 granted anticipatory bail to two women charged with sedition because of a satirical play with these words, “The drama has not caused any disharmony in the society. Considering all the circumstances, I am of the opinion that the ingredients of Section 124A of IPC (sedition) are prima facie lacking."
All Poetry Is Political
Ardra, a poet, was eerily quiet the night Amulya was arrested. Saighal recounted how when their whole WhatsApp group was buzzing and divided over what Amulya should have said and done, Ardra didn’t say anything. Their social media handles were silent as well. “I am sure it was an impulsive act. There was no plan or agenda. They were angry and wanted to express that. How could we have said they shouldn’t?”
Ardra has been booked under 153A (creating disturbance to public tranquility with words or indication against a particular group) and 153B (making statements against national integration), sections that have been popularly clubbed with the other sedition cases filed so far in the state. The prosecution must prove that any statement or action that was allegedly made by the defendant, was also intended to cause public disturbance.
Ardra’s bail had already been rejected once in the magistrate court on the grounds that there was intent and that because they were friends with Amulya—and with both cases in the FIR stage— they might be needed on hand for the investigations.
Arguing against the bail petition filed in the district court, the prosecution’s main argument is that, considering they are Amulya’s friend, they indeed went to Town Hall with the intent of provoking the Sri Ram Sene members who had assembled there to protest Amulya.
The prosecution claimed to have also conducted searches of Ardra’s home and produced evidence of posters and other material that show they have been engaged in protests against the government, according to Basava Prasad Kunale, an advocate fighting Ardra’s case. This, he said, was no secret.
Ardra’s friends are largely people they interacted with in queer circles, poetry and spoken word performances and student collectives. “We met at a workshop,” recalled Akshay Balan, one of Ardra’s peers from the Student Outpost, a virtual safe space created to discuss student issues and to ‘educate, agitate and organise’. “They are always encouraging and their viewpoint is unique. They look at everyone with kindness and are not afraid to be vulnerable to their friends,” he said, adding that even before they came into student activism, they were travelling and performing with theatre groups that were engaged in activism through art.
Ardra was actively campaigning against the trans bill. “Ardra always said that trans* people have no option but to be political,” said Balan. “Anything that is discriminatory by nature will first hit the queer community.” And in many ways, they were also the perfect foil to Amulya. “While Amulya is always ready to get into trouble, Ardra would avoid controversy if they could,” said Braggs.
Which is why, she says, she is confident that Ardra was not courting arrest that day at the Sri Ram Sene rally. “Ardra definitely didn’t know that there was a Ram Sene protest going on. If she had any clue, she wouldn’t have gone. We know her personally and she would think thrice before attending something like without knowing a bunch of friends are also going. They know that it, being trans*, it would be more problematic for them to get into trouble. They would think rationally and not emotionally about it.”
The Sri Ram Sene had filed an application to assist the prosecution during the bail hearing in both the magistrate and session courts; it was rejected both times.
Kunale explained this is a special privilege granted to victims, especially in Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) and cases alleging atrocities against Scheduled Tribes/Scheduled Castes, to enable victims to be heard when bail is applied.
“The Ram Sene claimed to be victims here, saying if Ardra had not been arrested, there would have been a disturbance and their members, who had obtained permission for the protest, would be held liable,” Kunale said.
Ardra’s lawyers have also filed a petition before the High Court to quash the FIR under CrPC 482. “That is yet to be admitted,” Kunale said. If it is allowed, the investigation will be quashed and they will be released.
As far as Ardra’s friends are concerned, that they would do anything to ‘create public disturbance’ is utterly laughable.
“They are the kind of people who’d inspire you to write poetry, who you would go to libraries with and with whom you’d do dull and boring stuff,” says Saighal. “I remember once when I was having a breakdown, Ardra called me over and they and I arranged everything in the house. As I was folding the clothes, I was becoming calmer and I realised, this is a sort of therapy. And that’s who they are - they are calm and boring people who help you become adults.”
Previously on Article 14:
(Ayswarya Murthy is an independent journalist based based in Bangalore. She writes on politics, policy and everything in between.)