Devangana Kalita was arrested last year on charges of sedition
A court in India has granted bail to two female activists arrested in May 2020 over an anti-government protest.
Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita joined the sit-in last year against a controversial citizenship law a day before deadly riots broke out in Delhi.
They were among several protesting activists who have since been charged under a stringent anti-terrorism law.
The two-judge bench criticised the government for confusing the right to protest with terrorist activity.
In a strongly-worded order, the high court in Delhi said: “We are constrained to express, that 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. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of using the pandemic to crack down on dissent. A colonial-era sedition law and an anti-terrorism law that makes it nearly impossible for the accused to get bail (UAPA) have been widely used to jail activists, journalists and protesters.
On Tuesday, the court also granted bail to Asif Iqbl Tanha, a student activist who was arrested in May last year for his participation in protests days before the rioting.
Ms Narwal had been granted interim bail in May for three weeks to perform the last rites of her father. Mahavir Narwal, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), died from complications after contracting Covid-19.
Natasha Narwal is one of the founding members of the Pinjra Tod movement in India
Ms Narwal and Ms Kalita, both in their early 30s, are founding members of Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), a popular student movement that enables women to reclaim public spaces.
The movement was first formed to challenge the unreasonable curfew timings imposed by the authorities in women’s hostels of Delhi University – male hostel members were allowed to stay out until midnight but female students were required to return to their accommodation by evening.
Soon this movement gained traction and spread to other universities across India as students spoke for the rights of minorities, Dalits, wage workers and farmers.
Ms Narwal and Ms Kalita were among many students and activists who took part in peaceful protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Critics say it discriminates against Muslims, a charge the government denies.
But the law sparked massive protests across India. And one of these protests in north-east Delhi – the sit-in which Ms Narwal and Ms Kalita attended – sparked a political rally in favour of the law the following day.
Later that day, minor clashes were reported between Hindus and Muslims. But the situation escalated and soon turned into deadly riots that killed 53 people, mostly Muslims.