Crackdown sans prima facie evidence against accused is designed to suppress democracy
Ghazanfar Abbas | Clarion India
NEW DELHI – Amidst Covid-19 lockdown, India witnessed the biggest crackdown on students and activists who had led historic protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). They have been dealt with a draconian anti-terror law – Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – along with sedition charges for allegedly “hatching a conspiracy to incite communal riots” that occurred in Delhi in February.
Clarion India interviewed eminent civil rights defenders and student activists who termed the unprecedented crackdown by the ruling BJP government as brazen “abuse of power”. Accusing Delhi Police fabricating charges against the accused, they demanded immediate release of the students and activists.
Abuse of Power
Calling arrest of the students involved in the anti-CAA/NRC campaign as “Absurd”, Ravi Nair, director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, said, “Special branch of Delhi Police is acting as political handmaiden of the BJP’s Hindutva government,”
Adding to this, Adv. Colin Gonsalves, founder, Humar Rights Law Network (HRLN) said, “Actions of Delhi police against those who were engaged in democratic protests against the government, CAA and NRC is a blatant misuse of power, totally illegal, unconstitutional and unwarranted.”
Use of Lockdown
On the rise of arrests of anti CAA & NRC protesters, student activists have a common refrain. The government has used lockdown period to “suppress the movement”.
Sucheta De, national president of AISA, said, “Shamefully, Indian government has chosen a time of nationwide lockdown amid pandemic to arrest activists, frame charges against them and putting them into jail for months.”
Maskoor Ahmad Usmani, former president of Aligrah Muslim University Students Union (AMUSU) said that the witch-hunt of protesters has gone beyond students. It is now “focused on Muslim activists mainly”.
“To protest is our constitutional right. But government wants to usurp our rights and suppress our movement. Using draconian laws against students and Muslim activists is completely wrong,” asserted Maskoor Ahmad.
CAA speaks of granting citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, deliberately exempting Muslims from the provision of the Act. National Register of Citizens (NRC) and update of National Population Register (NPR) along with the CAA are bound to prove a lethal combination for Indian Muslims. Their apprehensions of losing voting along with all civil rights as citizens of the country are not unfounded. Besides, Government’s insistence on the NRC triggered nationwide protests that continued till the lockdown.
Crackdown before Lockdown
Dr Zafarul Islam Khan, Chairman of Delhi Minority Commission, said that the Delhi Police had started arresting Muslim youths just after the riots, a month before the lockdown was imposed.
“They (the police) started randomly picking up Muslim boys aged between 20 to 30 years. I sent a notice to the police over this and they replied that they were not doing this but from the ground reports I knew that it was happening,” Dr Khan told.
On April 13, Indian Express had reported: “Ministry of Home Affairs insisted that the police must continue making arrests under any circumstances” and over 800 arrests were already made in connection to Delhi riots by that only.
Timeline of Arrests and FIRs
Targeted activists are mostly Muslims and students from Delhi’s 100-year old Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University. A possible reason for this could be that Jamia and nearby Shaheen Bagh area had become iconic sites that witnessed regular massive protests since the CAA was passed by Indian Parliament in December 2020. Two students of AMU and three of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have also been sent to jail. Besides invoking UAPA, they were charged with sedition, murder and dacoity etc.
Here is a timeline of the arrests and the FIRs filed by the police against the accused:
April 2, 2020: Meeran Haider (28), a Ph D scholar of JMI
April 9, 2020: Gulishfa (25), a student activist
April 12, 2020: Safoora Zargar (27), JMI M.Phill student. She was three-month pregnant at the time of her arrest.
April 21, 2020: Umar Khalid, a noted youth activist and former Ph D scholar at JNU
April 26, 2020: Shifa-Ur Rehman, president of Jamia Alumni Association
April 29, 2020: Sharjeel Imam, a Ph. D scholar at JNU, was first booked under National Security Act (NSA) in January before UAPA under lockdown.
May 21, 2020: Asif Iqbal Tanha (24), JMI student
May 24: Two JNU students AMU Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal
May 29, 2020: Two AMU students – Farhan Zuberi and Ravish Ali Khan
Dr Kafeeel Khan and Khalid Saifi, founder of United Against Hate group, Advocate Ishrat Jahan and a 19-year-old journalism student Amulya Leona who was arrested under sedition law in Bangalore in February this year, were arrested among others who were already languishing in jail for staging anti-CAA-NRC protest are activists.
Did Students Really Instigate riots?
Dr. Zafarul Islam said that the Delhi Police are trying to connect two different things — the riots and the anti CAA and NRC protests while the real culprit is BJP leader Kapil Mishra who had made an inciting speech on February 23 just before the communal violence started in northeast Delhi.
“The riots started with a call of Kapil Mishra, the BJP point man. I myself visited the affected area (northeast Delhi) and found a lot of evidence showing that this was planned. Rioters were brought from outside. Around 90 per cent victims were Muslims who were either killed or injured or whose houses were burnt. About 21 mosques were blasted,” Dr Khan told.
While Advocate Colin Gonsalves referred to starting from provocative and hateful speeches delivered before Delhi election (February 2020) against protestors by BJP leaders including Home Minister Amit Shah, MoS Anuragh Thakur and MP Parvesh Verma as a background of the riots.
“These (BJP) ministers should be in jail for inciting murders,” he averred.
On May 27, while hearing plea of a Jamia student, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Patiala House Court has also pulled up the Delhi Police on its probe into the communal violence. “Perusal of the case diary reveals a disturbing fact. The investigation seems to be targetted only towards one end,” court observed.
Why are Students in Jail?
“All these actions of the police are basically on the dictation of Home Minister Amit Shah to intimidate, frighten and terrify the students to ensure that they never come out in democratic protests again. Their (government and agencies) purpose is not to punish them (students) in criminal offence because they know there is no such offence committed by students,” said Adv Colin.
The UAPA was amended by the BJP government in August 2019. Commenting on this, Sucheta claimed that the amendments have not been brought to defend the safety and security of the citizens but “to silence those who speak for the rights of poor Indians, working class, minorities, women and Dalits.”
Adding to this, Dr Zafarul Isalm said that there was no terror case here rather “it is only misuse of an Act.”
“They (the students) were protesting peacefully and legally very well within their legal rights under the Indian constitution. I hope that courts will trough out this UAPA against these protesters which is unjust,” he maintained.
Demand for Release
These arbitrary arrests came in for censure from several students and teachers’ forums along with political opposition and global rights’ bodies such as Amnesty International. They have demanded to immediate dropping of all the charges against protesters and action against the “actual perpetrators of Delhi violence”.
A letter written by the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) to Indian government in May, reads: “Against this background, there are also increased fears that the legislation might confer discretionary powers upon State agencies. Indeed, the vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ could allow for wide discretion by the government in applying the law. Such a process would substantially weaken judicial oversight and the protection of civil liberties in the country.”