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New Delhi, India – This week, a Muslim journalist in India will complete 150 days in jail after he was arrested on his way to report on the death of a Dalit teenager days after she was gang-raped.
Siddique Kappan, 41, was arrested in October while attempting to reach Hathras, a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, about 200km (124 miles) from the capital New Delhi.
On September 14, a 19-year-old Dalit young woman had been gang-raped in a field by four men belonging to the Thakur community, an influential caste among Hindus.
The young woman suffered serious injuries to her spinal cord due to the assault and died two weeks later at a hospital in New Delhi, triggering nationwide outrage and protests.
Dalits, the former “untouchables” who fall at the lowest rung of the complex Hindu caste hierarchy, have been subjected to systemic discrimination and violence for centuries.
To make the matters worse, authorities in Hathras secretly cremated the young woman’s body at approximately 2:30am on September 30, without the consent of her family, who alleged they were locked up in their house by the police during the cremation.
The forced, secret cremation of the victim intensified protests against the gang rape, with many reporters rushing to Hathras to cover the suspicious developments.
Kappan, who was a regular contributor to the Malayalam language news website Azhimukham, was one of them.
On October 5, he was picked by Uttar Pradesh police while he was travelling with three other men in a car to Hathras.
Alleged PFI links
Police first accused Kappan of intending to start a caste-based riot and creating communal disharmony. Later, sedition charges and provisions under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were added.
Four months later, India’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), which probes financial crimes, also added money laundering charges against him.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, a senior Uttar Pradesh police officer, who initially was in charge of the case, denied knowing Kappan was a journalist when he was arrested.
“It wasn’t clear initially. He didn’t say it and he had no identification card on him,” said Additional Superintendent of Police Shrish Chandra. “Otherwise, why would we stop [Kappan] when every other press reporter was going there?”
Chandra said the police found the four people in the car “lying about a few things” and that they found some “PFI-related writings and documents” in the vehicle.
PFI, which stands for the Popular Front of India, is a Muslim organisation often accused by the Indian authorities of links with “terrorist” outfits, kidnappings, murder and violence.
The group has denied the allegations and says it works to fight against the “unequal treatment” of India’s Muslims.
Police said two of the three men arrested with Kappan were members of the Campus Front of India, the PFI’s student body.
During a hearing in India’s Supreme Court on a petition filed by the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) challenging Kappan’s arrest, police said he was an “office secretary” of the PFI and only used journalism as a facade.
The KUWJ, which elected Kappan as the secretary of their New Delhi chapter in 2019, also rejected the police’s claim that he was not carrying a press card when he was arrested.
‘False and frivolous statements’
Kappan’s lawyer Wills Mathews told Al Jazeera the case against his client is littered with inconsistencies and that the police made “false and frivolous statements” in the court.
Mathews said police had no evidence to back their claim that Kappan was a PFI “office secretary”.
“Prima facie, there is nothing against him. It was subsequently developed into a larger issue after the arrest. Why were additional FIRs with serious offences added later?” he asked, referring to the First Information Report filed by the police following a complaint.
According to the documents submitted in court, Kappan was initially charged with bailable offences, but more serious charges were added later to keep him in custody.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court allowed him a five-day interim bail to visit his ailing mother in Kerala state’s Malappuram district with a rider: that he would not talk to the media.
Kappan’s wife Raihanath Kappan told Al Jazeera her husband was targeted for his Muslim and Malayali identity. She also alleged he was tortured by the police during the interrogation.
“He was asked if he consumed beef and how many times had he seen Dr Zakir Naik,” she said, referring to the controversial Muslim preacher who faces hate speech and money laundering charges and is currently living in Malaysia to avoid arrest in India.
“He was also asked why Muslims showed sympathies with the Dalits,” Raihanath added.
She said the police gave Kappan the option to name two Communist Party of India-Marxist parliamentarians to secure his release. She said he was also asked about “his links with Rahul Gandhi” – the opposition Congress party leader Raihanath had met for support.
Officer Chandra, however, rejected the allegations of torture.
“This is false because there was a medical [test] done immediately. There were no injuries. And when they (the four men) were detained, we didn’t even know he (Kappan) was from Kerala,” Chandra told Al Jazeera.
He was also asked why Muslims showed sympathies with the Dalits.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Headed by Yogi Adityanath, a hardline saffron-clad Hindu monk, the state government has been accused by rights groups and activists of targeting the Muslim minority.
After nationwide protests against India’s controversial citizenship law erupted in 2019, PFI was accused of organising and instigating demonstrations that led to a brutal police crackdown in many places, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government wrote to the federal home ministry, seeking a ban on the organisation.
“UP police said PFI was the mastermind behind the protests. They even arrested members of our ad hoc committee and brought them before the media with masks and called them the mastermind. But they could not prove anything in court,” PFI General Secretary Anis Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
Despite the allegations and continuing investigations, the organisation remains a legal entity in most Indian states.
Kappan moved to New Delhi about nine years ago after he was transferred to the city bureau of a newspaper called Thejas, a Kerala-based Malayalam daily that is now an online news portal, also known as a PFI mouthpiece.
Kappan lost his job when Thejas shut down its print operations in 2018 and started working with another Malayalam newspaper, Thalsamayam. He was elected New Delhi secretary of KUWJ a year later.
But Thalsamayam soon shut down due to financial constraints and he lost his job in November 2019. In January last year, Kappan joined Azhimukham.
The allegations of Kappan’s PFI link can be traced back to his association with Thejas.
PK Manikandhan, a Malayalam journalist based in New Delhi and former KUWJ secretary, said many journalists work for “mouthpieces” of different parties but do not find themselves targeted.
“He (Kappan) even did a story against PFI in Azhimukham, writing about how PFI is a threat to the Muslim community. It means he has no connection with that ideology,” he said.
Manikandhan said he and his colleagues saw Kappan as an unbiased reporter whose writings did not reflect any political ideology.
Besides KUWJ, the Press Club of India, Kappan’s former editors and managers from Azhimukham and Thalsamayam also submitted letters to the top court attesting to the credibility of his journalism career.
Kappan’s lawyer Matthews said the journalist’s job at Thejas was “under no circumstances an illegal act and the organisation itself is a legally registered entity”.
“Even if he is going with some Popular Front [of India] people, what is wrong in it? Even if it was a planned trip, what is wrong with it?” asked Matthews. “Even if it is a banned organisation, as a journalist, he has the right to travel with them or talk to them.”
PFI’s Anis Ahmed also denied claims that Kappan was a member of the Muslim group.
“What they wanted was to divert the public attention [from the Hathras gang-rape case] and, in those four people, they got a scapegoat,” Ahmed said.
India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has witnessed a decline in press freedom as legal cases and police intimidation against journalists are on a rise.
The country ranked 142nd in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index – down from 136th in 2015 and 133rd in 2016.
In January, sedition cases were filed against several journalists and publishers in five states, all ruled by the BJP, for their allegedly “misleading” social media posts on the months-long farmer protests.
Among them was Mandeep Punia, who was arrested in New Delhi for his report exposing the alleged links between the BJP and rioters targeting the protesting farmers.
“The most difficult thing is to report from ground zero and power has made it a challenging task in India today,” Punia told reporters after his release last month.
“Just like me, Siddique Kappan should also be released who is also a journalist and all those who are facing state repression.”
Shaheen Abdulla contributed to this report from the Malappuram district in Kerala, India.