The Patiala House Court in Delhi has issued bail in favour of Manan Gulzar, a 25-year-old Kashmiri photojournalist from Srinagar who was arrested last year by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) as part of a sweeping crackdown in the aftermath of civilian killings that rattled the Srinagar city in October 2021.
On Monday, Manan’s bail order issued by the Additional Sessions Judge Shailender Malik at the Patiala House Court noted that “upon analysis of entire evidence and at least, for the purpose of disposal of the bail application, it can be observed that accusation against Manan does not appear to be cogent and true.”
Security Crisis Prevails in J&K
It also, however, cautioned that “It is being specifically clarified that observations given (are) only for the limited purpose to decide the bail application and would not tantamount to an expression of opinion on detailed merits of the matter which would be taken into consideration at the stage of charge.”
Near 13 civilians were killed in various hit-and-run attacks including members of Sikh and Pandit communities in October, thus, precipitating a major security crisis in the UT that the police attributed as “hybrid militants”.
Around two dozen individuals that the security agencies alleged were conspiring “physically as well as in cyberspace to undertake violent terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir” were arrested following the spate of targeted killings.
The chargesheet against Manan and 24 others arrested in the conspiracy case was filed in April last year.
Manan was taken into police custody on 10 October on the same day that the case was registered under sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 121A (conspiracy to commit crime), 122 (collecting arms) , and 123 (concealing, with the intent to wage war) of India Penal Code (IPC) as well as 18 (punishment for conspiracy), 18A (organising for imparting training in terrorism, 18B (recruitment), 30 (objections to the seizure of property), and 39 (support to the terrorist organisation) of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) of 1967.
His parents said they were not informed about his arrest and his subsequent transfer to Delhi at the hands of the NIA. The family learnt this through press reports nearly fourteen days after he was first summoned by the Batamaloo Police in Srinagar. The agency’s chargesheet mentions he was formally arrested on 22 October.
Concerns Over Declining Press Freedom
Manan’s imprisonment had since drawn sharp responses from Global Rights watchdogs like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In February last year, a letter by 58 press freedom organisations addressed to J&K’s Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, sought immediate release of Manan and three other jailed Kashmiri journalists including Fahad Shah, Asif Sultan and Sajad Gul.
Over the last one year, Manan’s case had become a metaphor of the worsening press freedom scenario in Kashmir following the Abrogation of Article 370.
It also reflected an increasing trend of going after journalists and editors with anti-terrorism cases, awash with accusations that the members of the media fraternity were trying to influence “narratives” around the political conflict in Kashmir to the detriment of the Indian establishment’s interests.
But critics and free speech advocates insist the nature of these allegations is sweeping and questionable and is intended to forestall criticism and dissent by conflating it with militancy.
“Police in J&K have been filing multiple cases using preventive detention laws and summoning journalists at will for several years now, intensifying this post the Abrogation of Article 370,” said Geeta Seshu of Free Speech Collective.
She said that the objective of such actions was to create a climate of intimidation and send warning signals to other journalists. “There is a chilling effect, unfortunately, but the real casualty is the work journalists do, the stories they need to tell and the information they need to disseminate,” Seshu said.
Manan Gulzar Was Published by Reputed Publications
On Wednesday, Manan’s family members told The Quint that he was out of jail and was with his cousins in Delhi. “He has to appear at the Patiala Court on 12 January. So we haven’t yet decided on coming back to Kashmir,” a relative said. “We have no words. We want to thank the God Almighty first and then, the Hon’ble Judge.”
A freelance photojournalist in Srinagar, Manan’s work was published not only by the regional media agencies but also by global outlets like The Guardian and Pacific Press Agency. Before his arrest, he was selected for Integrated Journalism and Mass Communication 2022 at Cluster University, Srinagar.
What Are the Charges Against Manan Gulzar?
The NIA’s argument against Manan Gulzar was that he was part of an alleged conspiracy planned by the proscribed militant organisations under the aegis United Jihad Council (UJC) headed by Syed Salahuddin in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The NIA’s chargesheet said that Manan was furthering the ideologies of these groups. The agency reportedly came to this conclusion after sending Manan’s mobile phone device for forensic examination to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team.
The agency claimed the extracted data contained images of slain militant individuals being eulogised as “martyrs” and the statements of militant groups like al-Badr, Hizbul Mujahideen and The Resistance Front (TRF).
Some of these statements as per NIA’s submission to the court were threatening officials of J&K Education Department and school students from participating in India’s Independence Day celebrations.
It was on the basis of this “evidence” that the NIA accused him of being “radicalised.” During the hearing, the agency also produced some witness who deposed before the court that Manan used to attend “radicalising lectures” of the cleric in the mosque exhorting the Kashmiri youth to pelt stones at armed forces (the bail order citing NIA depositions does not specify which cleric and which mosque).
The NIA also accused Manan of masquerading as a "photojournalist” to hide his role of being a “hybrid cadre” determined to execute small-scale attacks against members of minority communities and armed forces and “create unrest and spread terror.”
The agency also accused him of participating in social media chatting in which the pictures revealing the security forces’ deployment were being shared with the militant handlers.
What the Court Says
In the bail order, however, the Sessions Judge has observed that the perusal of the evidence that the NIA has furnished “do not indicate that such messages/chats were sent by the accused.”
As for the recovery of pictures of the militants from Manan’s phone, the bail order said that the “evidence is only up to the extent (of) such photographs being stored in the mobile phone and taking into account all (this) evidence ... it would be enough to observe... that such evidence do not connect or are not sufficient to indicate (that) the accused (is) part of the conspiracy or other charges.”
On the charges of Manan being a “hybrid cadre,” the Court emphasised that “such allegations must be supported by direct evidence of any such activities. Mere assumptions or incomplete evidence to establish such facts may not be sufficient.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)