Hathras: Kerala Family Waits for Release of Journalist Held Under Terror Law By Yogi Govt

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Journalist Siddique Kappan is father of three children. The eldest, Muzamil (left), 17, is a student of 12th grade. Clarion India Photo

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His wife Rehannath said she wanted to talk to him just once. Since Kappan’s arrest, she has largely been alone and sad. “We used to talk two-three times every day but since his arrest, we have not talked at all.”

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Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

NEW DELHI — The second rainy season of the year in Kerala has begun but an unfinished roof at his humble house lets the water pour into the living room.

Malayali journalist Siddique Kappan was working hard thousands of kilometers away from his home to put together some cash to get the roof work done.

But his efforts were cut short last Monday when the police detained him and his activist friends near Mathura town in Uttar Pradesh. The four were on their way to a village in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh to meet the family of a 19-year-old girl who was allegedly gang-raped in mid-September. Soon, they found themselves in jail as the police slapped sedition charges and invoked Sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against them.

The family came to know about Kappan’s arrest through media reports but has not been able to contact him. The police, the family said, have not made any attempts to reach out to them.

His wife Rehannath said she wanted to talk to him just once. Since Kappan’s arrest, she has largely been alone and sad. “We used to talk two-three times every day but since his arrest, we have not talked at all,” she said. “We had never thought we would have to face this difficult time.” The family has not told Kappan’s ailing mother about the arrest. “She is more 80 years old. She will not be able to handle the shock,” Rehannath said.

In the days since his arrest, the media and some local politicians, including those from the Congress, the main opposition party at the Centre, have thronged their home. The family says these visits have not brought much relief and are seeking intervention of top politicians in Delhi for Kappan’s release but say they are not well-connected to approach them.

His neighbour and childhood friend Shahbuddin, who works at a restaurant in Chennai, specifically mentioned Shashi Tharoor, a popular Congress MP from Kappan’s home state of Kerala. “If you can ask Shashi Tharoor to intervene, maybe that will help us,” said Kappan’s brother.

This reporter wrote an email to Tharoor for comment. If and when he responds, the story will be updated.

Says Shahbuddin: “I know Siddique from childhood. He will never indulge in any criminal activity. He is a very simple man.”

But here, he adds, “a girl has been killed. He went there to write about her. You are a media person. This is what you do, isn’t it?” he wonders.

However, T. N. Prathapan, another MP from Kerala, appealed to Prime Minister Modi to ensure Kappan’s release and revocation of charges agianst him.  “Arresting and charging a journalist under UAPA by UP Police is disappointing,” Prathapan said.

Police officers claimed Kappan and the activits were plotting a conspiracy to foment trouble in the area amid the widespread outrage over the sexual assault on a teenage girl who happens to be a Dalit, a lower, marginalised caste in the Indian social hierarchy. The four gang-rape accused are an upper caste. The police backed the charges claiming the journalist and activists possessed “suspicious literature”–booklets and a poster speaking of justice for the victim.

Journalists and activists have denounced the arrest of the Keralite scribe, Kappan, saying that by arresting him the police were denying him his right to report.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a global organisation that works for the rights and welfare of journalists, appealed to the authorities to free Kappan. Aliya Iftikhar, a senior Asia researcher at the organisation, said that the police in Uttar Pradesh should allow Kappan do his job.

Freedom of press in India, worlds largest democracy, has shrunk in recent times, according to surveys by watch dogs.  Journalists complain of being subjected to harassment and legal action for critical reportage.

Lately, activism in India has also become difficult to practice as government agencies have gone after human rights defenders, left-leaning intellectuals and Muslim activists for standing up against policies of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The authorities have charged some of them with terrorism. Under Modi, official data shows a sharp spike in cases filed under sedition and anti-terror laws.

The Hathra gang-rape sparked a massive outrage across the country after the police hastily cremated the girl’s body without informing her family. Leaders of opposition parties and activists came out on roads to protest the mishandling of the case.

Kappan and three others at a court in Mathura. Credit: TOI

The Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled regime of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh promised justice to the family. But, in the same vein, he started pedaling theories of conspiracy; that there are international forces behind the protesters to defame his government. According to his administration, Kappan and his activist friends were part of that conspiracy. The police did not acknowledge his journalistic identity in their statement to the press.

The activists belong to a student outfit called Campus Front of India. Kappan comes from Malappuram district. He has been married for 19 years and has three children. The eldest, Muzamil, 17, is a student of 12th grade.

In 2011, he quit his job in Saudi Arabia and waded into journalism. For the first two years, he worked in Kerala. Then he moved to Delhi. For the past seven years, he has been the secretary of the Delhi unit of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists.

He used to cover politics for different outlets, including a Malayali website called azhimukham.com

Kappan, the police alleged, and his activist friends are associated with a student wing of an organisation called Popular Front of India (PFI) who was subjected to police investigations previously.

The police also said: “There was a conspiracy behind the visit of Kappan and other activists to Hathras”. The police accused them of raising funds “illegally” but an agency responsible for curbing financial frauds found no evidence to approve claims that Rs 100 crore were pumped in for instigating riots over the case.

The police have also charged the arrested activists of running a now-defunct website which asked people how to deal with violence during protests.

These accusations have been refuted by PFI who termed the arrests a way of the government to divert attention from the rape- and-murder case. “Such acts only show their nervousness due to the growing anger among the people of UP and rest of the country,” Anis Ahmad, head of the group, said in a media statement issued after the arrests.

Similar accusations were made by Kavita Krishanan, a well- known left-leaning activist. “The government arrested a Muslim journalist and Muslim activist because they wanted a scapegoat to divert attention from the real issue.”

It seems to have worked to some extent; Sections of TV channels have either shifted prime-time focus to other issues or are giving airtime to Hindu nationalists who are rallying in support of the alleged rapists. The coverage of protests has waned. And very few have spoken in support of journalist Kappan.

Aslah Kayyalakkath, a journalist from Kappan’s home state, said that labeling Kappan as a conspirator is “not justified”. “The governments must not muzzle the press. It must immediately release and drop all charges against Siddique Kappan.”

On Monday Supreme Court while hearing Kappan’s petition urged his lawyer Kapil Sibal to approach Allahabad High Court for relief.

Wills Mathew, a Delhi-based lawyer, said he would file a petition in the Allahabad High Court soon for reversal of charges against Kappan.

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