Jharkhand Prof’s Arrest for FB Post on Beef is Travesty of Justice

Not only is the case unsound on merits, there are questions to be asked on the procedural basis for Hansda’s arrest.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Professor Jeetrai Hansda has been arrested 
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In Jharkhand, like many other states in India, killing bovine animals is a crime. Transporting bovine animals for killing is a crime. Selling the flesh of bovine animals which have been killed in Jharkhand is a crime.

But is it also a crime to just talk about eating the meat of bovine animals, ie, beef?

That’s the absurd and frankly alarming question at play in the arrest of Jeetrai Hansda, a lecturer at the Government School and College for Women, Sakshi, Jamshedpur, who hails from a tribal community.

Hansda has been arrested and remanded to judicial custody in connection with a criminal case against him for putting up a Facebook post on 29 May 2017, in which he argued that eating beef was part of Adivasi culture, that laws against cow slaughter were an imposition of Hindu values on them, and that legislators should stop making such laws.

Too caught up to read the whole story? Listen to the article here:

How is This a Violation of the Law?

If you’re confused how saying something like this could break the law, don’t worry – that is absolutely the correct reaction to have to this farcical travesty of justice.

The Quint has accessed the FIR against Hansda, which was registered on 2 June 2017 under the following sections of the Indian Penal Code:

  • Section 153A(1)(a): Promoting disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will between different communities by words on the basis of religion, caste, etc;
  • Section 295A: Insulting or attempting to insult the religion or religious beliefs of any class of citizens of India, with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage their religious feelings;
  • Section 505(2): Making a statement containing rumour or alarming news with intent to create or promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different communities by words on the basis of religion, caste, etc.

That probably hasn’t helped clear the confusion, and rightly so. These provisions of law are meant to deal with incitement of communal tensions, and insults against the faith of a religious community. Hansda’s post does neither of these two things, as it is making a limited point about Adivasi customs regarding beef.

Given that he at no point says Hindu tradition also involves eating beef (for which there is scholarly support, by the way), how this can amount to an insult to the religious feelings of the Hindu community is a mystery. Equally mysterious is how this can be treated as promoting feelings of enmity or ill-will. If that is the case, talking about the evils of the caste system and how it was imposed by upper-caste Hindus would also amount to hate speech.

Also note that these provisions require an intent to achieve these aims, whether to provoke enmity, or to insult a religion – Section 295A specifically requires deliberate or malicious intent. How exactly any such intent is evident from Hansda’s post, which is speaking out against a state imposition, or could even be proved by some other evidence, is yet another mystery here.

The only thing which could have made his post stray into legally dubious territory were if he were making a manifestly untrue statement, if in fact it were a complete falsehood that any Adivasi communities eat beef. However, this is certainly not the case, as Adivasi leaders like Manish Kunjam have made the same claims, as have scholars like Professor DN Jha.

What’s Really Behind This Arrest Then?

But if his statement doesn’t actually break the law, why is he in the dock?

Before anyone tries to argue that this is just something which has been misguidedly filed and will go away without any actual consequences, Jamshedpur City SP Prabhat Kumar confirmed to The Quint that the investigation has been completed and a charge sheet filed with the court, and that the court has accepted the charge sheet. This which means that Hansda will have to face trial for his two-year-old Facebook post.

Coming back to the question about why this is happening, you cannot but have doubts about the bona fides of it all.

First off, the complaint which formed the basis of the FIR was not made by either Hansda’s university or its students, or any member of the general public. The complainant, instead, was Anil Kumar Singh, who was the officer in-charge of the Sakshi Police Station at the time.

Interestingly, Hansda had put up another Facebook post on 1 June 2017 which was (relatively) more provocative as it talked about having a beef party. This statement had been condemned by students affiliated to the ABVP and other right-wing organisations, and demands were made by them to the university to sack the professor, according to Hindustan Times.

However, that post is not part of the FIR, so what necessitated the FIR about the other post in the first place?

Secondly, we know that the fundamental right to freedom of speech is often ignored in this country, but surely the argument made by Hansda falls within the bounds of what even staunch Hindus would consider reasonable. Or can one no longer even voice opposition to orthodox upper-caste Hindu practices, no matter how reasonable or fact-based?

Hansda was entitled to hold the opinion he did about cow slaughter laws, and was entitled to express it, especially in the manner he did. There is no way in which Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which allows reasonable restrictions on free speech, can be invoked in this instance.

Note that what we’re talking about here is not about his arrest, it’s about a case being registered against him at all. The blame for that rests with the police, of course, as well as the magistrate who accepted the charge sheet. In case after case like this, we’ve seen the local authorities take the path of least resistance and leave innocent citizens out to dry, without appreciating the law they are supposed to be upholding.

Sure, there is more to this than just the individual actions of the police and the judge in question. Cow slaughter became an important cultural battleground for the BJP government during its previous tenure, with an increased focus on hyping up and enforcing existing and new cattle slaughter rules – which in turn fed into the ‘need’ for cow protection that emboldened vigilante gau rakshaks to wreak havoc across the country.

In such a climate, no doubt the police and the courts find themselves under pressure to actually file cases about such things, and take them to trial.

But even with all that baggage, this is a particularly egregious case because it shuts down the mere discussion of whether we need cow slaughter laws in India, let alone any alleged violation of those laws, and is a direct action of the state machinery to chill speech. 

Surely this is a position that will not only be taken by ‘liberals’ and the amorphous ‘Left’ but also all those who argued against the arrest of defence commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and of BJYM West Bengal leader Priyanka Sharma?

Surely, this arrest doesn’t have anything to do with the BJP sweeping back to power and wanting to make cow slaughter an issue again?

Was the Arrest Sound on Procedural Grounds Either?

On top of all this, we also have the fact that Hansda’s arrest was possibly effected on illegal grounds. According to SP Prabhat Kumar, he was arrested because he had been proclaimed as an absconder, and the court had issued process against him under Sections 82 and 83 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. These provisions deal with the proclamation of a person as an absconder and how their property can be attached after such a proclamation.

The Indian Express was also told by police officials that Hansda had been arrested now because he “was absconding since the filing of the charge sheet.”

But is this even true? Hansda’s lawyer denies it, and says that the professor has been active in the community and was not hiding.

Of course, you might doubt what he has to say, but what about the Jharkhand High Court? On 3 October 2018, Justice Rongon Mukhopadhyay quashed two orders by the Chief Judicial Magistrate Jamshedpur from January 2018, in which Hansda had been declared an absconder, and the process for a non-bailable warrant initiated.

Jharkhand Prof’s Arrest for FB Post on Beef is Travesty of Justice
Order available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/411596973/Jharkhand-HC-Order-Jeetrai-Hansda 

According to the high court, there was nothing to show that Hansda was evading arrest, since the police had failed to even explain what efforts had been taken by the Investigating Officer to apprehend him. All that was mentioned before the court was that Hansda hadn’t surrendered.

The Quint asked SP Prabhat Kumar whether a fresh court order had been passed after the high court decision declaring him to be an absconder, but Kumar refused to answer the question. He would not say what the date of the court order was which had been relied on for the arrest either.

If no new court order was passed, then the basis for arresting Hansda cannot be that he had been proclaimed an absconder by the courts, which means the prosecution and police will either have to change their story, or pretend they never argued this in the first place.

Either which way, the registration of a complaint, the filing and acceptance of a charge sheet, and the arrest of Jeetrai Hansda, are all legally suspect, and, to be honest, terrifying because of what they imply for our freedom of speech in this country.

We can only hope that this complete travesty of justice is rejected by the courts at trial, or at the time of a quashing petition or appeal by the high court.

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