Hope Again: Dr Kafeel Khan released
India seems to have grown used to the culture of arrests. Detention is followed by denial, often repeatedly, of bail. Yet the Supreme Court had in 1978 enunciated the principle that bail is the rule and jail the exception. This principle, however, seems to operate rarely nowadays. Those arrested two years ago in the Bhima Koregaon case, for example, detained still without trial, have been refused bail even on medical grounds, whether grievously ill like Varavara Rao, or vulnerable to the Covid-19 infection, such as Sudha Bharadwaj. Therefore it is indeed reassuring that the Allahabad High Court has ordered the release of Kafeel Khan, the doctor detained for seven months under the National Security Act for allegedly trying to promote hatred in an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act speech in Aligarh Muslim University last December. The court dismissed the allegation, reportedly saying that the speech was a call for national unity and integrity. Selected references from the speech had been used to formulate the charge while its intent had been ignored. This was “bad”: the court asked the Uttar Pradesh government to release Mr Khan “forthwith”.
The Allahabad High Court’s pronouncements on Mr Khan’s detention matter greatly in the context of the use of law by different authorities against those who displease them. Mr Khan was first arrested in 2017 when he was charged with irregularities in the conduct of his duty in trying to save children in Gorakhpur’s Baba Raghav Das Medical College by arranging for oxygen when cylinders fell short. The efforts of Mr Khan and his colleagues exposed the negligence of the authorities. There can be little doubt, especially after the court’s ruling, that the government’s displeasure led to the doctor’s further detention in a different case. The Delhi High Court, too, granted bail to the student and Pinjra Tod activist, Devangana Kalita, charged with criminal conspiracy for allegedly instigating women of a particular community in northeast Delhi. The court said the material submitted by the police did not establish the charge. Although a similar charge against her remains to be heard, the decision for bail is important in the present atmosphere of fear.