Senior Congress leader Pawan Khera was arrested by the Assam Police in connection with an FIR registered for allegedly for using objectionable words against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was deplaned from an IndiGo flight (6E204) headed to Raipur at the Delhi airport on Thursday morning by security personnel. Later in the evening, on Supreme Court directions, he was granted interim bail till Tuesday and was released.
He was travelling to attend the Congress’s 85th plenary along with other party leaders who sat on dharna on the tarmac protesting police action.
Mr. Khera has been variously booked under IPC Sections 153A (promoting religious enmity), 153B (imputations or assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295A (outraging religious feelings), 500 (defamation), 504 (intentional insult to provoke breach of peace), 505 (statements amounting to public mischief), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) in Uttar Pradesh and Assam.
Delhi Police said that a request was received from Assam Police for assistance in the arrest of Mr. Khera in case FIR No. 19/2023, filed at Dima Hasao police station in Haflong district.
High drama unfolded on the tarmac at Delhi airport, when the security officials asked Mr. Khera to deboard from the flight just after all the passengers had boarded the aircraft. “I don’t know why I have been deplaned. I was told that they need to check my checked-in baggage. I told them that I only have a hand bag, they still insisted that I leave the aircraft. I have now been told that Delhi Police DCP is on his way and will explain the reason for deboarding me,” Mr. Khera told reporters a few minutes after he was brought down to the tarmac. Several senior Congress leaders followed him outside the aircraft including Congress General Secretary (Organisation) K.C. Venugopal and Karnataka in-charge Randeep Surjewala.
Soon, Delhi Police reached the spot and asked for Mr. Khera to come along with them. The Congress leadership did not allow the police to take Mr. Khera. Instead they sat on a dharna on the tarmac raising slogans, “Jab jab Modi darta hai, police ke peeche chupta hai’”(whenever Modi is scared he hides behind police) and “Tanashahi nahi chalegi” (autocracy will not work). With the Congress leaders refusing to budge on advice of the security personnel the Indigo staff ferried the other passengers to the terminal. The flight was delayed by nearly four hours.
Meanwhile, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi filed a plea in the Supreme Court. “We have protected you, but there has to be some level of discourse…” Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a Special Bench comprising Justices M.R. Shah and P.S. Narasimha, told Mr. Singhvi.
Taking a dig at the Prime Minister’s ties with industrialist Gautam Adani, Mr. Khera is reported to have referred to Mr. Modi as “Narendra Gautam Das Modi” during a press conference seeking a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the US-based Hindenburg Research’s report against the Adani Group. The video of the press meet was played in the courtroom by Assam Police, represented by Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati.
Mr. Singhvi at the court said the use of language by his client though inadvertent was erroneous and that he himself would not stand by the use of such language during public discourse. He said Mr. Khera has tendered his unconditional apology. His words were not meant to be personally offensive. He said the wrong sections have been applied against him. The sections Mr. Khera has been booked under, if found guilty, would mean imprisonment of up to a minimum of three to five years.
The Congress leaders strongly condemned the police action against Mr. Khera. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said that actions like these underline the threat posed to the Indian democracy by the present government. “The Modi government has turned India’s democracy into ‘Hitlership’. We strongly condemn this dictatorship,” he said.
Mr. Venugopal in a tweet said that the Narendra Modi government is acting like a “bunch of goons” and is using a “flimsy FIR” to restrict Mr. Khera’s movement and silence him. Later in the evening, addressing a press conference in Raipur, party’s general secretary (communication) Jairam Ramesh said that such punitive action against the Congress leadership clearly belies the BJP’s growing anxiety. He said that the BJP has been on tenterhooks since the Bharat Jodo Yatra began. Just days ahead of the plenary on February 20, Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided the residences and offices of several Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh. Mr. Khera’s arrest, he said, is also part of the same exercise to derail Congress’s plenary.
“Today, the Modi government has displayed another example of politics of vengeance and intimidation by arresting Mr. Khera,” Mr. Ramesh said. He applauded the Supreme Court for giving partial relief to Mr. Khera, saying that the judiciary continues to provide hope. “The government has put up hoardings across the country, hailing India as mother of democracy. Their action differs from their words. They are murdering democracy. Not only is freedom of speech under threat but also freedom after speech is under threat,” he remarked.
The Congress, he said, will not be cowed down by such incidents. “In the last 15 days, we have posed 35 questions to Prime Minister Modi on the Gautam Adani group. We shall continue asking the questions,” he asserted.
BCAS to file complaint against Congress leaders
According to the Joint Director-General of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) it will be filing a complaint with Delhi police about “the unruly behaviour of the passengers who occupied the tarmac”, a restricted area.
The BCAS has also sought a report from the Terminal Manager of Indira Gandhi International airport and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) on the security lapse where passengers staged a dharna on the tarmac.
“A case was registered by Assam Police [against Mr. Khera], who then requisitioned Delhi Police to make the arrest. The police then approached IndiGo and asked the airline to offload the passenger during which some passengers accompanied him and started sloganeering and sat on the tarmac,” the senior official told The Hindu.