Fanning the flames of the outrage caused by the booking of a newspaper vendor for selling the January 17 issue of the Urdu daily Avadhnama, the J J Marg police arrested two vendors in connection with the case late on Wednesday night.
The vendors Sharif Sheikh (left) and Salman Sheikh outside the Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Sewree yesterday. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
The paper had carried a photo of the cover of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with a controversial cartoon of Prophet Mohammed. The two vendors, Sharif Sheikh (62) and Salman Sheikh (20), were charged under Section 295 A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the IPC.
When the men were presented before the Metropolitan Magistrate’s court in Sewree, however, and the police asked for their custody, the judge slammed the police, immediately turned down the plea and granted the vendors bail. “How can you just pick up someone and put them in jail?” the judge asked the police.
Even this silver lining, though, came at a huge cost for the vendors. The bail was set at R7,000 each and arranging the amount proved difficult for the men, who make barely around Rs 14,000 a month. While activists, legal experts and former cops fumed over the police’s latest volley and the shell-shocked vendors association remained aghast, the complainant stood his ground and made an odd comparison.
He claimed that since a drug manufacturer and drug seller were both criminals, the same should hold true in the case of the newspaper sellers.
Speaking to mid-day Sharif’s brother, Sameer, said, “My brother was picked up for investigation and later arrested. He has been running the newspaper stall at Bhendi Bazaar junction for over 30 years and is known to everyone in the area.”
Salman’s brother, Tahir, said, “Our father had been running our newspaper stall for 25 years and Salman took over six months ago.” After their arrest on Wednesday, the vendors were produced at the Metropolitan Magistrate’s court in Sewree last afternoon.
The cops had made a remand copy asking for police custody for both the accused saying that they needed to conduct further investigations and not arresting them could cause communal problems. The judge, A A Kulkarni, gave his order in no time.
After asking the inspector the representing the J J Marg police what the two accused did and what their crime was, he slammed the police and asked, “How can you just pick up someone and put them in jail?” He immediately remanded the men in judicial custody, following which their counsel, advocate Jamal Khan, asked for bail. The bail was granted for Rs 7,000 each.
Speaking to mid-day, advocate Khan said, “The section does not stand in the case. It was stupidity on the Mumbai police’s part. They should have just seized the copies of the newspaper, not arrested the vendors. The judge was not satisfied by the cops’ allegation and slammed the police.”
While police officials have been saying that the vendors were arrested based on the complainant’s allegation that they knew Urdu and knew that the article was defamatory to Islam, Sharif told mid-day that he doesn’t know how to read and write and Salman said he was too busy trying to make ends meet to find out what was printed in each of the newspapers sold at his stall.
The complaint was filed by Riyaz Chali, trustee of Phool Gully Athari Masjid in Bhendi Bazaar. Additional Commissioner of Police Krishna Prakash said, “The vendors were arrested because the complainant emphatically insisted that they knew fully well that the front page matter was defamatory to Islam and, yet, continued to sell the newspaper.
Another thing that he has claimed is that he asked several vendors not to sell the newspaper and all of them stopped, barring these two.” Soon after his release, Sharif told mid-day, “I don’t know how to read and write Urdu or any other language. I am a very poor man and make a living by selling newspapers.
I had even apologised to Chali after the incident, but he did not accept the apology. I sell around 15 newspapers at my stall and I don’t look at what’s in any of them.” Salman, too, said he doesn’t read any of the newspapers sold at his stall. “I make a living for my family by working in the day and selling newspapers in the evening. We sell around 10 newspapers at our stall and I don’t read any of them.”
The vendors had, between them, allegedly sold five copies of the newspaper to Chali, following which he had filed he police complaint. Speaking to mid-day, Chali said, “Selling such newspapers is very dangerous and should be punishable. I went to several stalls to buy that newspaper, but no one sold it except these two.
Even if they don’t know Urdu, they would have at least seen the front-page cartoon. How could they sell it after that?” “The one making drugs and the one selling them are both criminals and the same holds true in this newspaper case, in which the two vendors sold the newspaper. You cannot kill someone and than say sorry,” he added.
Niranjan Shetty Chief spokesperson, Mumbai BJP
The arrests of the newspaper vendors seem to have been done in haste. The police officer who arrested the vendor should be investigated for taking such a hasty decision. If the vendors did sell copies of the controversial newspaper, the police should have questioned them to reach the culprit, but not arrest them.
Hari Pawar, General secretary, Vendors Association
This is not acceptable. Now we are very afraid to sell papers and we don’t know what may offend whom. The cops’ action was not right at all. They unnecessarily framed the two vendors. We are supporting the vendors. We will hold a meeting soon and protest against the cops.