EVEN as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, the right-wing regime in India is working overtime to stifle democratic voices. A strict lockdown, which prevents citizens from gathering, has come in handy for the government to crush dissent against its communal policies, especially the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. According to some reports, as many as 800 people have been detained or arrested since the lockdown began on the charge of rioting in North East Delhi. Some activists against the Act have been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allows the police to detain an accused for up to six months without producing a shred of evidence for crime.
At a time when governments across the world, including in India, are decongesting prisons to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Delhi Police's heightened arresting spree seems to be out of step and inhuman. Advocates Seema Misra, Sowjhanya Shankaran, Maneka Khanna and Nitika Khaitan made a representation to the High Powered Committee (HPC) formed on the the orders of the Supreme Court to deal with the issue of release of prisoners. The committee looked into the summoning, detention and arrest of the persons by the police during lockdown in connection with the first information reports (FIRs) relating to the February-end violence in North East Delhi. The advocates pointed out that if the recipients of the summonses tried to comply with them, they would render themselves liable to penal action for violating lockdown orders. But the HPC, headed by Justice Hima Kohli of the Delhi High Court, who is also Executive Chairperson, Delhi State Legal Services Authority, did not intervene in the matter. The committee said: “The members of the committee are of the considered opinion that the submissions advanced in the representation and prayers made therein, are beyond the scope and purview of this committee.”
Prior to the lockdown, 3,304 people were arrested or detained, and 763 cases, including 51 under the Arms Act, were registered, according to G. Kishan Reddy, Minister of State for Home Affairs. They were charged with fanning the February communal violence in North East Delhi, in which 53 lives were lost and 226 houses and 487 shops were damaged. While some Hindus suffered in the violence, Muslims bore the brunt of it and were targeted by not only rioters but also the police and political leaders.
Most of the people arrested during the lockdown were Muslim men and women (one of them pregnant), including university students and riot-affected people. The arrests were linked to either the anti-CAA protest sites of Jamia Millia Islamia, Shaheen Bagh and Brijpuri Pulia or riot-affected areas such as Chand Bagh Mazar. Many of the accused were picked up from their homes or directed to appear at Crime Branch or Special Cell police stations for questioning and arrested without being given a chance to obtain legal help. The police did not share FIR copies with them, nor allowed them to meet family members or even talk to anyone on the phone. The affected persons could not challenge such violations of fundamental rights.
Speaking to Frontline , North East Delhi residents said that even some 40 days into the lockdown, the police kept coming in droves of 20 or 30 to arrest young Muslim men. If they could not find the person they were looking for, they picked up his family members and detained them until the person they were after appeared before them.
Moonga Nagar, where Hindus and Muslims live in harmony, was unaffected in the February violence. Yet the police picked up several young Muslim men from there. A resident of Moonga Nagar said: “We are all very scared. Just day before yesterday hordes of policemen, some in plainclothes and some in uniform, came and picked up two men aged 35 years and 22. Their families are in distress. One of them has two small daughters. His wife can't stop crying. We don’t understand whom we should fear more: the coronavirus or the Delhi Police.” The families later came to know that the two men had been shifted to the Mandoli jail but had no way of ascertaining their well-being.
Many have been picked up from Chand Bagh, Bhajanpura, Chaman Park, Mustafabad and adjoining areas. But since everybody remained indoors there is no clarity on the exact number of the arrested, said Taj Mohd, former Councillor of Nehru Vihar. People whose homes were burnt in the riots are in a precarious situation. “While the community is pooling in money and helping those living nearby with rations, there are families stuck in Hindu-majority areas with no help. Before the lockdown, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and individuals from outside used to come and help, but that has stopped now. We hear about their plight but are helpless,” he told Frontline .
The Delhi Police have blamed the violence in North East Delhi on students and activists at the forefront of the anti-CAA protests. The Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), a collective of students and alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia, has emerged as their target. More than 50 JCC members have received notices from the Delhi Police. Among them are Shifa-ur-Rehman, president of the Jamia alumni association, Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider and Gulfisha. Badre Alam and some others were released after questioning. All the arrested , including the suspended Aam Aadmi Party councilor Tahir Hussain, have been booked under the UAPA. Umar Khalid, former JNU student and activist, and Kawalpreet Kaur of the All India Students Association (AISA) are also apparently under investigation.
Commenting on the Delhi Police’s attempts to blame the violence in North East Delhi on Jamia students, JCC member Imran Khan told Frontline “Jamia has no relation with North East Delhi, and nor have we organised any protest there. Some of our members were invited to give speeches in those protests, and so they went, but that is it.”
Meeran, 29, president of the of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s youth wing, was arrested on April 2. A JCC member said: “The FIR on the basis of which Meeran was arrested is far-fetched and does not sound believable to any sane person. It brings together randomly chosen leaders and cooks up connections between them in an effort to shift the blame for the riots and to cripple voices of resistance against the regime.” The JCC member said that while the country was facing a massive health crisis, the state machinery was busy harassing and framing student activists in false cases to suppress voices of dissent.
Safoora, who is in the second trimester of her pregnancy, was arrested on April 10 and charged with being a “key conspirator” in the Delhi violence. She has been kept in solitary confinement in Tihar jail. She was apparently granted bail, but the UAPA was invoked to keep her behind bars. Human rights organisations and civil society groups have called for her release. Her sister penned an emotional letter to her saying, “You’re the strongest person I know and now I’ve seen so many people be strong for you. I’m taking lessons from memories of you having courage. Of being resilient. Of being kind. Of welcoming everyone. Of being so so brave.”
Gulfisha, 25, an MBA student, was arrested by the police on April 9, but the details of the case against her, including charges of sedition and those under the UAPA, remain blurry. She remains in judicial custody without access to her family or a lawyer.
A statement issued by the Campaign Against Witch-Hunt of Anti-CAA Activists and signed by people like Anand Patwardhan, Aakaar Patel, Saeed Mirza and Yug Mohit Chaudhury condemned the arrests of anti-CAA protesters. Referring to FIR No. 59/2020, it said:
“FIR means First Information Report, i.e., the receipt of information that a cognisable offence has been committed. However, FIR no 59/2020, shows a glorious absence of any information. It has conjectures, yes, even a theory of what the complainant, a sub inspector of the Delhi police thinks, has transpired, but certainly no information. By hypothesising that Muslims did not send their children to schools on the day violence broke out, it attempts to elevate prejudice and conspiracy theories typical of WhatsApp bilge to ‘legal fact’. The original FIR names only two accused while listing offences that are wholly bailable. But overtime, the Special Cell has been expanding its pincer grip, arraigning more and more anti CAA activists—from Khalid Saifi, to Meeran, to Safoora, at the same time invoking very serious sections that were absent initially. This FIR has enabled the stitching together of a political narrative where a direct link is sought to be made between anti CAA protests and the widespread violence that rocked North East Delhi in the end of February. Yes, lives from both communities were lost but the worst brunt was borne by the Muslims, and the loss of property and business was almost exclusively Muslim. It allows simultaneously the criminalisation of the peaceful and democratic protests, while granting full immunity to the perpetrators of anti-minority violence. It blanks out even a whisper about the purveyors of hate speech who led angry mobs and gave ultimatums to the police to clear out protests.”
On April 24, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s general secretary Maulana Mahmood Madani filed a petition in the Delhi High Court concerning arbitrary arrests of Muslims on the pretext of investigation of offences relating to the Delhi riots. The court on April 27 directed the Delhi Police to comply with the D.K. Basu guidelines regarding arrests and detentions, which includes access to a lawyer.
Sharjeel Imam of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr Kafeel Khan, JNU scholar Chingiz Khan, Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi and Sabu Ansari are others who have been arrested since January.
‘Punishment’ for Vice Chancellor
Even Jamia Vice Chancellor Dr Najma Akhtar, an appointee of the BJP government, has come under the scanner. On March 8, Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, a member of the search committee formed in 2018 to look for candidates to be appointed as Vice Chancellor of Jamia, wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking him to rescind Dr Akhtar’s appointment. He claimed that the Central Vigilance Commission had denied clearance to Akhtar in an office memo dated January 10, 2019, and had recommended that she should not be considered for any post-retirement assignment or re-employment in any organisation, institution or university under the ambit of the Human Resource Development Ministry.
Students of Jamia suspect that she is being punished for her criticism of Delhi Police after they entered the campus in December 2019. But they pointed out that she was forced to make the statement almost a month after the incident when students gheraoed her office and demanded action against police brutality. “It seems this government is vengeful and will not tolerate even a mild criticism of its actions,” said a student.
Chairman of Delhi Minorities Commission Dr Zafarul Islam Khan was charged with sedition for a Facebook post in which he thanked Kuwait for expressing solidarity with Indian Muslims who he said were facing persecution at the hands of Hindutva bigots. A large posse of policemen landed up at his doorstep, perhaps to arrest him. But they were deterred by several local residents, including AAP MLA Amanatullah Khan and former Congress MLA Asif Mohammad Khan.
His lawyer, Vrinda Grover, released a statement saying, “You are informed that Dr Zafarul Islam Khan is a senior citizen of 72 years age and he suffers from old-age-related physical illnesses that make him extremely vulnerable to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The law as per Section 160 of CrPC [Criminal Procedure Code] mandates that the police cannot compel attendance of a person above 65 years age at any place other than their residence for the purpose of investigation and interrogation. You are required as per law to question/interrogate Dr Zafarul Islam Khan only in his residence and you cannot compel him to go to any police station.” Several individuals and organisations, including the Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, strongly condemned the witch-hunting of Dr Khan.
A statement released by 1,100 feminists demanded that the Delhi Police immediately make public all FIRs, arrests and detentions with their legal status and conduct a free and fair investigation into all the incidents of violence. It demanded that the real culprits should be booked, including the likes of Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and others who had instigated hate and triggered the violence.