NEW DELHI: Three Indian student activists detained for more than a year — including on terrorism-related charges — for protesting a citizenship law were released on bail Thursday, in a high-profile case that is now headed to the nation’s supreme court.
The trio was arrested by Delhi police in May last year for protesting the 2019 law, which made it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship — but not if they are Muslims.
Natasha Narwal, 32, Devangana Kalita, 31, and Asif Iqbal Tanha, 25, were charged under several laws, including anti-terrorism legislation, for allegedly plotting riots in Delhi by taking part in the demonstrations.
Critics say the citizenship law, passed by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, violates the basic principles of the officially secular nation by singling out Muslims.
The February 2020 riots that followed the mass demonstrations were the worst in decades in Delhi, with more than 50 people killed in clashes between Muslims and Hindus.
On Tuesday, the Delhi High Court ruled that the trio were to be released on bail, setting aside a trial court’s orders that they would have to remain in custody.
“It seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred,” the two-judge bench said in its ruling.
“If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
Police sought to delay their release from Delhi’s Tihar Jail ahead of Friday´s hearing in the Supreme Court, where they are challenging the bail order, but a lower court ordered their release on Thursday.
Kalita said outside the jail that she welcomed the High Court´s decision to uphold the “very important right of democratic dissent”.
“It feels crazy and it’s still unbelievable. It was difficult to believe that someday we would get to step out from these gates,” she told Indian broadcaster NDTV.
Narwal, who was given bail for three weeks in May to attend the funeral of her father who died from COVID-19, said they would continue to fight for the rights of others who were detained.
“Every voice of dissent […] is being suppressed by the government through such means, by the fear of incarceration and actual incarceration of people,” she told NDTV.