New Delhi: When law student Sonu Mansoori was released from a prison on bail on 23 March 2023 after a Supreme Court order, the first thing she did, said her elder sister Sayaara, was to grab her phone and read all that was written about her during her 54-day incarceration.
On the four-hour auto rickshaw ride home from prison in the district Madhya Pradesh city of Indore, Sonu, a 21-year-old second-year student and law intern from Khargone, 120 km to the south, scrolled down her sister’s phone.
Sonu was tense and distressed, Sayaara said, as she read how she had been labelled a jasoos or spy for the banned Islamist Popular Front of India (PFI), how her family apparently had no idea she as a PFI agent.
When she reached home, Sonu barely spoke. “She cried for four hours,” said Sayaara, a homemaker in her early 30s. “The hatred made her numb.”
The tears have not left the slight, bespectacled young woman since then to the day this story was published.
The police arrested Sonu on 28 January, the same day lawyers mobbed her after they saw her recording court proceedings of the bail hearing of a member of the Hindu fundamentalist Bajrang Dal. She was denied bail by a local district court after her lawyer did not show up for four hearings.
On a request from her family, four lawyers from New Delhi moved the Supreme Court, which granted her bail.
“Instead of detaining the group of lawyers for shooting a video of her and publicly frisking her, violating her privacy, the police made a case against her,” said one of her lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity after local lawyers warned that no one should offer her legal representation.
“We will throw you off the terrace if you take up her case,” was one of the threats the lawyers received in court, according to an account provided by one of them.
On 28 March, a day before this story was published, Sonu was discharged from a local hospital, where she was treated for two days. She was “unwell”, her family said, and weak after emerging from jail, after not eating for a few days.
“She has locked herself in a room and keeps crying about all that she has lost,” said her elder brother Iqbal, 39, a spice merchant.
When her sister asked if she would speak about her ordeal, this, according to Sayaara, was her response: “Even if I shout my heart out, this media (sic) will not listen to a word I say, not the media that has spread so much hatred against me.”
The daughter of an unemployed man, Sonu is a law student at the Dewas Government Law College and only one of seven siblings from a lower-middle-class tribal Muslim family who was determined to get an education and—eventually she hoped—a secure, government job.
“She has lost the chance to give (third semester law) exams and probably a chance to get any government job because of this case,” said Iqbal.
Criminal Charges For Recording Court Proceedings
The case against Sonu, according to a first information report (FIR) filed by the police on a complaint from a lawyer called Surendra Singh Alawa, is that she was “impersonating a lawyer”, videographing court proceedings, “spying” on “Hindu-Muslim cases” on behalf of the PFI and carrying Rs 100,000 in cash.
There was, her lawyers said, no evidence of any of these accusations and the sections of law applied against her did not match the accusations.
“There has been no evidence produced till now,” said Sonu’s lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity since warnings had been issued by local lawyers against providing legal representation to her.
“The FIR was filed on presumption,” said the lawyer. “Instead of charging the rowdies, the local police under their pressure, lodged an FIR against the law intern, on the complaint of Advocate Surendra Singh (Alawa), who himself was part of the crowd.”
Article14 sought comment from Alawa, but he did not respond, except for sharing a copy of the FIR.
It was on 28 January 2023 that Sonu was set upon by lawyers in the Indore district court when recording on her phone the proceedings of a case against a Bajrang Dal member called Tannu Sharma, who allegedly abused the Prophet during a 26 January protest against Pathaan, a movie starring Shah Rukh Khan.
Recording court proceedings is not a crime, especially in an era of live court telecasts. As Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud said in September 2022, “...what’s the big deal in it? It’s an open court hearing. Nothing is confidential here.”
A viral video outside the court shows Sonu surrounded by lawyers, shouting questions at her, as a woman lawyer searches her and others grab her by the collar and call her a PFI agent. Alawa, the man who filed the police complaint that led to Sonu’s arrest, is the lawyer for Sharma of the Bajrang Dal.
The lawyers accosting Sonu found she was carrying Rs 100,000 in cash, which she said she was carrying as surety for a client involved in a cheque-bouncing case on behalf of the lawyer with whom she was interning. The lawyers alleged it was a payoff from the PFI and that she was, according to the FIR, a “fake lawyer”.
“She was booked under trumped-up charges and sent on police and judicial remand,” said Sonu’s lawyer, previously quoted.
Sonu was charged with impersonation (section 419), cheating (section 420) and criminal conspiracy (section 120-B) of the Indian Penal Code 1860, her case a reflection, as experts and studies have noted in general (here and here) of precipitate legal action or bias against Muslims.
Another lawyer from the Delhi team said, “They (the complainant) had absolutely no idea what to do with the charges. While they talked about Sonu videographing the court proceedings, they pressed charges of cheating. How are the allegations and charges even matching here?”
Article 14 sought comment on the allegations from the Mahatma Gandhi Marg police, calling the station three times on 28 March. Each time, the officer who picked up the call refused to comment.
Article14 called Indore commissioner of police Makrand Deuskar, additional commissioner Rajesh Hingankar & additional deputy commissioner Rupesh Kumar Dwivedi but they did not answer calls. Whatsapp messages and emails to them were not unanswered. If they respond, we will update this story.
Traumatised & Fearful Of The Future
The effect of the criminal cases against her, said her family, has traumatised Sonu and either set back or destroyed her ambitions after being the only one in her family to get higher education, despite living in a conservative society that frowned on such ambition for women.
Sayaara, Sonu’s elder sister, said the family was struggling to calm the traumatised young law intern and keep her hopes up.
“We keep telling her that she was right and should not worry about anything but nothing seems to compensate for the months of distress she has undergone,” said Sayaara. “Nothing seems to work.”
Currently, Sonu believes that her life is ruined, she will not be able to continue her law studies or get a job after being called a PFI agent and likened by the media to a traitor.
As much as Sonu is worried about her studies and career, she frets equally about the reactions of society, who she feared might ostracise her and her family, said Sayaara.
Neighbours and acquaintances, said Sayaara, had taunted the family for allowing her to sign up for higher education and letting her make her own choices. But the family was steadfast, she added.
Accusations & Charges Do Not Match: Lawyers
On 28 January, when a bail hearing for the Bajrang Dal’s Sharma was underway, the atmosphere in the courtroom was fraught, said witnesses.
The court was filled with angry Hindu lawyers supporting Sharma. The lawyer opposing bail was Ethesham Hashmi, a Supreme Court lawyer who had been given police protection.
It appeared that many lawyers had seen Sonu, an intern for a senior advocate called Noor Jahan, recording proceedings. As soon as Sharma got bail and Hashmi stepped outside the courtroom with his police guards, some lawyers, who believed she was linked to Hashmi, the advocate who opposed bail, caught Sonu by her collar and dragged her to the office of the bar association.
When they searched her, they found the cash, which they alleged was a payoff from the PFI. No such evidence has emerged.
Apart from other allegations, the lawyers who harangued Sonu said she was not a lawyer, which she was not–yet. As a law intern, she had been a regular visitor to the Indore district court.
Iqbal was at home on 28 January when Sonu’s colleague called, telling him to go to the Mahatma Gandhi Marg police station, 1.3 km from the court. Sonu had been taken to the police station at 5 pm, but the FIR was filed only around midnight, her lawyers said.
That was possibly because there was no evidence of the accusations the lawyers had made, so the police filed charges that had little to do with the “vague allegations” made.
When Iqbal entered the police station where Sonu had been detained at around 5:30 pm, he said he saw a sight he could not forget.
More than 15 lawyers were inside the police station, questioning Sonu in front of two police personnel.
“I was told (by the lawyers) to persuade and guide Sonu to say certain things, if she wanted to get out of the mess,” said Iqbal.
“Jaisa hum bol rahe hai agar waisa bolde police walo ko, to aap le jao Sonu ko, lekin nahi bolegi to hum iska career khatam kar denge (If you say to the police what we say to you, you can take Sonu away, if not, we will ruin her career),” the lawyers allegedly told Iqbal.
‘I Am An Intern. What Is The Case About?’
Iqbal said the lawyers associated with Alawa told him to ask Sonu to implicate Noor Jahan, the lawyer whom she was interning with, and become a government witness, but Sonu refused. She believed she would get bail quickly.
“Mujhe 2-3 din mai bail mil jaani chahiye thi to itna time kyu lag raha hai bhaiya. Meri galti kya hai? (I was supposed to get bail in 2-3 days, what’s taking so long brother? What is my fault?)” her brother Iqbal recalled her as saying when he met her in jail.
As the days dragged on, her nervousness grew.
“15-20 days ago when I met her in jail, she was crying and kept asking me why she was not getting bail,” said Iqbal. “She complained of being tortured and being asked to lift heavy things.”
Sonu’s sister Sayaara also said her sister had alleged threats in jail. “She didn’t tell me what exactly the threats were, but she was very tensed and told me to tell our brother Iqbal about them,” said Sayaara.
Lawyers were reluctant to represent Sonu, the family said.
‘Drop The Case Or We Will Throw You From The Roof’
“From the point of the arrest, we knocked on the doors of a few lawyers, who refused to represent us,” said Iqbal, who cried as he narrated the ordeal.
One of the lawyers and his junior who began work on Sonu’s case were allegedly threatened by the complainants. The lawyer concerned asked for anonymity and said his junior received multiple threats before they decided to drop the case.
“Case chordo warna chath se phek denge (leave the case or we will throw you off the roof).” was one verbal threat, according to the lawyer, who did not specify where it was made.
The team of four Delhi lawyers who eventually took the case recalled how they returned home quickly from the Indore court because of tension, fear, and constant threats.
“On 1 February when we applied for bail and submitted the bail application, our local counsel got an anonymous threat,” said one of the lawyers. “‘Jo bail application laagayi hai, usko wapas le lo, warna aacha nahi hoga (take back your bail application otherwise it won’t be good),’ was the threat.
The Delhi lawyers met the president and vice president of the bar association, but they were denied assistance, they said, and told to return to Delhi because of the “heated environment” after Sonu’s arrest.
They told the Mahatma Gandhi Marg police station about the threats, they said, and were only given a number to call if they needed help.
When well-known lawyer Dushyant Dave urged the Supreme Court on 17 March to consider Sonu’s case, a bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Bela M Trivedi was initially reluctant to bypass the Jabal bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, the relevant higher court.
But the justices agreed when Dave told them that no lawyer was willing to represent Sonu in Indore and of the threats they faced.
“I think this is disgusting,” said Dave referring to cases that the police file with little or no evidence. “I feel this is the bigger failure of the judiciary when cases like these are presented before the concerned judge and they send the girl on remand without looking at the matter.”
On 24 March, Dave told the Chief Justice that things were “going out of control” in India as regards threats against minorities and the lack of protective judicial action. “You can only save us my lords,” he said,
“Article 21, the right to liberty cannot be taken away,” Dave told Article 14, referring to Sonu’s case. “The complaint, on its face, has no legs to stand on.” In general, he said, “the judiciary had failed to protect Muslims and Christians from such criminal cases”.
Five days later, at the next hearing on 23 March, the Supreme Court granted Sonu bail. Back home, she found little comfort in her freedom.
“She isn’t well at all,” said her sister Sayaara. “Even if she wants to talk to somebody, she breaks into tears. The jail time and whatever she went through over the past two months has left her with endless trauma.”
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(Samriddhi Sakunia is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)