New Delhi, India – The arrest of several Muslim activists behind anti-citizenship law protests in India has caused an outrage, with writers, academics, lawyers and filmmakers calling it “unending witch-hunt” of protesters.
On April 1, police arrested students Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar from Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university for their alleged role in organising protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is considered discriminatory towards Muslims.
The passage of the law last December sparked nationwide protests largely led by Muslim women. Protesters and activists say the CAA coupled with a national citizenship register will lead to the disenfranchisement of millions of Muslims.
The United Nations special rapporteur on minorities has called the new citizenship law “fundamentally discriminatory” towards Muslims and other minorities.
Haider and Zargar – both research scholars at JMI – were part of the Jamia Coordination Committee that organised the anti-CAA protests.
Stringent ‘anti-terror’ law
Both the Jamia students along with another unidentified person have been charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly hatching a conspiracy to incite communal violence in New Delhi.
Another activist, Umar Khalid, has been booked under the same law, but he has not been arrested yet.
Police say the anti-CAA protests led to the February religious violence in northeast Delhi that left at least 53 dead, most of them Muslims.
Several anti-CAA activists from across the country have been arrested as part of the crackdown on protesters.
Members of civil society on Wednesday condemned the Delhi Police, which fall under the jurisdiction of Home Minister Amit Shah, for “falsely implicating” students activists in Delhi violence cases.
“This suppression of civil rights and liberties and targeting of our young democratic voices is reprehensible,” a 25-member civil society said in a statement.
“We find it utterly shameful that Delhi police is using the COVID-19 lockdown, and the enormous humanitarian crisis of hunger confronting our country, as an opportunity to trample on the democratic rights of innocents.
“This is a time to unite as a nation, not to isolate and target students.”
Earlier, 26 eminent personalities from across the country demanded the release of the activists.
“We condemn the witch-hunt by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police against activists and students who were at the forefront of the democratic upsurge against CAA/NRC/NPR …, Delhi Police is abusing the COVID-19 lockdown to silence and arrest those who oppose government policies…”
Dozens arrested amid lockdown
According to a report by The Hindu newspaper, more than 800 people have been arrested for their involvement in the February violence, with 25 to 30 arrested since the lockdown was announced in the capital.
Imran’s* father was one of those arrested during the lockdown. He says his 51-year-old father was picked up by plain-clothes policemen on March 30.
The only thing the family is aware of is that Imran’s 51-year-old father is currently lodged in a Delhi jail for his alleged role in the city’s worst violence since 1984.
I think there is an extremely cynical and dangerous use of the lockdown to pursue the government’s communal, anti-minority, authoritarian agenda.
“When my father asked them for a reason, they said, they will explain it in the police station and that he would be sent home soon. We asked if they had any notice or any document, they didn’t show us any,” said Imran.
When the family visited the police station they were told Imran’s father was shifted to a different part of the city for further questioning. The next day, a Crime Branch officer told them that he would be sent to jail.
“When we asked for a reason, they said, they have identified his father through a photograph from riots. We asked them that thousands had assembled during riots, will they arrest everyone? Since then, we have had no contact with my father. We have not received any formal document about cases on him from the police till now,” Imran said.
Imran said that because of the coronavirus lockdown they have been unable to go to the police station and do not know who to approach.
“With no lawyers available and courts not functioning, I don’t know how to help my father,” Imran told Al Jazeera.
The February violence erupted after peaceful anti-CAA sit-ins in northest Delhi were attacked by supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Activists say ruling party leaders who gave hate speeches and threatened anti-CAA protesters to end their peaceful sit-ins seem to have been granted impunity.
With no lawyers available and courts not functioning, I don't know how to help my father.
The police were blamed for not intervening with enough force to stop the carnage and in many cases were seen siding with Hindu mobs attacking Muslims and their properties.
Home Minister Shah, however, defended the police, saying they did a good job in controlling the violence.
Some lawyers say due to the lockdown, they have been unable to contact those arrested to ensure justice is done.
“In a regular scenario, lawyers can always verify if the arrests are justified or what was the role of the person who was arrested but during lockdown the legal procedure has become opaque. As soon as the arrest is made, the case enters a black hole and lawyers are struggling to get more information,” said Maneka Khanna, a lawyer, who is handling cases for some of those arrested during the lockdown.
Khanna is worried there is no legal remedy available during the lockdown.
“Since the regular courts are shut, these people are being produced in temporary courts inside jail premises which are hard to access by lawyers in lockdown.”
Delhi Police defends arrests
Responding to the criticism, Delhi Police issued a statement on Twitter claiming that it has done its job “sincerely and impartially”.
“All the arrests made have been based on analysis of scientific and forensic evidence, including video footages, technical and other footprints.
“Delhi Police is committed to upholding the Rule of Law and bringing the conspirators, abettors and culprits of NE riots to books and secure justice to innocent victims. It will not be deterred by false propaganda and rumours floated by some vested elements who try to twist facts to their convenience…,” read the tweet.
But Harsh Mander, an activist, who is also being investigated by the police for inciting violence, said the police force has lost all its credibility.
“The Delhi Police has lost any pretence of being a professional and impartial force in the way they function in the arm of the ruling party rather than a professional force and this is taking it to yet another cynical low,” Mander told Al Jazeera.
He accused the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using the lockdown period “very cynically” to pursue its “political agenda on matters related to minorities’ protests and the communal carnage”, especially when resistance and protest have become almost impossible.
In the past 24 hours, seven people, including three Kashmiri journalists, have been charged under UAPA, which allows the government to proscribe an individual as a “terrorist”.
Mander said it was “deeply troubling” that people have been arrested when elsewhere in the world, inmates were being released from jails.
“I think there is an extremely cynical and dangerous use of the lockdown to pursue the government’s communal, anti-minority, authoritarian agenda. Probably, it will reach people like me as well.”
* name changed