India’s opposition parties and social media users are outraged over the arrest of nearly two dozen people accused of putting up posters critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the weekend, posters in Hindi appeared on the walls in the Indian capital, asking: “Modi Ji, why did you send vaccines meant for our children to foreign countries?”
With India reeling under a vicious second wave of the coronavirus, Modi opened up vaccinations for all adults from May 1, doubling the number of those eligible to an estimated 800 million.
But a severe shortage of vaccines has hampered the drive, angering people who had watched India export and donate more than 66 million COVID-19 shots earlier this year to nearly 100 nations around the world earlier this year.
Only 10 percent of India’s 1.35 billion people have received at least one dose of the vaccine while less than 3 percent of its people have been fully vaccinated, according to the health ministry’s data.
‘Is India run by Modi Penal Code?’
The alarming shortage of vaccines amid rising deaths has triggered widespread criticism and anger, the posters in Delhi being an example.
“I was relaxing in my house when Delhi Police arrived on Saturday afternoon. They asked me to come along with them and didn’t tell me anything,” Santosh Kumar, a resident of the Mangolpuri area in Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
— MANJUL (@MANJULtoons) May 16, 2021
Kumar is among the two dozen people arrested by Delhi Police, which comes under the direct control of India’s home ministry, led by Modi’s closest aide, Amit Shah.
“Police told us that they were following orders from the higher-ups,” said Kumar.
As of Monday, as many as 17 first information reports (FIRs) were registered in the capital under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and state laws, including the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property Act. Since most of these charges are bailable, many of those arrested have been released on bail.
Among those arrested were rickshaw pullers, daily wagers and auto-rickshaw drivers who might have been paid to paste the posters up and who might have taken the job because livelihoods have been drastically affected by a month-long coronavirus lockdown in Delhi.
In a statement following the arrests, Delhi Police said its officers “noticed walls in several areas being defaced by pasting posters”.
“More FIRs are likely to be registered if further complaints are received in this regard. As of now, the investigation is under way to ascertain on whose behalf these posters were being put up and accordingly further action will be taken,” a senior police officer told Indian news agency PTI on Sunday.
Meanwhile, India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted an image of the same poster, with the caption “Arrest Me Too”, which became one of the top trending items on Twitter across the country on Sunday following an outcry about the arrests.
Arrest me too.
मुझे भी गिरफ़्तार करो। pic.twitter.com/eZWp2NYysZ
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) May 16, 2021
“Putting up critical posters against PM is now a crime? Is India run by the Modi Penal Code now? Is the Delhi Police so jobless in the middle of a raging pandemic?” tweeted Congress party’s Jairam Ramesh.
“I am putting up posters on my compound wall tomorrow. Come get me.”
A string of police action
The poster arrests were the latest in a series of such measures reported from across the country.
Last week, Srinivas BV of the Indian Youth Congress, the youth wing of India’s main opposition party, was questioned by the Delhi Police, along with several other Delhi-based politicians for their relief efforts amid the pandemic.
Srinivas and his team of volunteers have earned praise for reaching out to coronavirus patients with oxygen cylinders, medicines and helping families find a hospital bed for their loved ones across India.
“The questioning was done following a High Court order,” claimed Delhi Police. On May 4, the Delhi High Court had directed the police to examine politicians allegedly procuring and distributing the drug remdesivir, demand for which had spiked along with COVID-19 infections.
Delhi Police on Monday said there was no proof of any fraud by the politicians who were raided and that they were only helping people.
Also last week, former parliamentarian and president of Jan Adhikar Party, Rakesh Ranjan (Pappu Yadav), was arrested in the eastern state of Bihar after he “raided” the premises of Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a member of parliament belonging to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
During his “raid” which he recorded and shared on social media, Yadav claimed to have found dozens of unused ambulances, covered with tarpaulin, parked on Rudy’s land.
Yadav alleged the ambulances, purchased from funds given to parliamentarians for developmental work in their constituencies, were being used for ferrying sand, even as people reeling under a pandemic scrambled for ambulances, hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.
In his defence, Rudy said the ambulances were lying unused because he could not find drivers amid a pandemic.
Yadav’s party said he was arrested “under pressure from the BJP”, which is the largest party in Bihar’s governing coalition.
“He (Yadav) was exposing the failures of the government… The day he exposed the standing and unused ambulances in BJP MP’s premises, the BJP-led government in the state and centre ensured that he was arrested,” JAP’s national secretary Premchand Singh told Al Jazeera.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has denied allegations the government was trying to stifle criticism.
“If you go by the trends of social media or TV channels, the opposition is criticising the central government day in and day out. Are all of them getting arrested? No. Only a few people, who are trying to take law in their hands have been booked by the Delhi Police,” BJP’s national spokeswoman Anila Singh told Al Jazeera.
“There may be a little problem or one might have to try several times to book a slot for vaccination but saying that there is acute shortage of vaccines or people are not able to get slots is a false narrative,” she said.
On Monday, lawyer Pradeep Kumar filed a petition in the Supreme Court, citing the citizens’ right to freedom of speech and asking the top court to quash all the FIRs against those who allegedly put up posters critical of Modi.
“Is asking the prime minister for vaccines a crime? Is India not a democratic country anymore?” asked Sanjay Chaudhary, a leader of Delhi’s governing Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).