Framed and hanged: How the Indian state persecutes dissent

I documented and wrote about the Delhi communal riots. Now I am being portrayed as conspiring to incite violence.

People carry the body of Hashim Ali, who was wounded on Tuesday in a clash between people demonstrating for and against
People carry the body of Hashim Ali, who died after being injured in communal riots in New Delhi, India on February 29, 2020 [File: Reuters/Adnan Abidi]

Over the past few months, I have increasingly felt as if I am becoming a character in a Kafkaesque drama. It all started in late April when a civil rights activist called me regarding some information appearing in the press that the police is investigating a “professor” for his role in plotting the communal violence that shook Delhi in late February. She thought that person could be me.

She was working on the Bhima Koregaon case, in which five intellectuals and activists were arrested following clashes between right-wing Hindu groups and Dalits, prompted by the desecration of a Dalit shrine in the state of Maharashtra.

She felt that the actions of the authorities after the Delhi violence might be following a similar pattern – throwing false accusations of conspiracy at public figures.

I did not think much of what she said until May 22, when in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a friend frantically calling me. She had just heard about a report aired by news channel The Times Now that evening, which had claimed that a certain Delhi University professor, part of a “leftist, Islamist, radical coterie”, had plotted to incite violence during the visit of US President Donald Trump to India to portray the government as intolerant to minorities.

These allegations were aired on prime-time TV and were watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers. My friend, too, was sure that the unnamed professor was none other than me and wanted to warn me.

Me, a professor of Hindi and a writer, planning violence? I did write a number of articles about the Delhi violence, which may have upset certain quarters, but I never imagined that they would go as far as concocting such a fantastic allegation and drag me into the ongoing “conspiracy” investigation by the police.

So I tried to dispel my friend’s fear and said she was reading too much into what was simply the flight of imagination of a section of the media, which had to keep whetting the appetite of its audience.

The matter, however, turned out to be serious. Shortly after, another report appeared on a YouTube channel called Capital TV, which repeated the same allegations.

More friends started calling and saying I should not take it lightly and that I was indeed being targeted in these reports. My family too became worried. My wife, who had just lost her father, cut short a stay with her family in Patna to be with me.

Two months later, on July 30, a notice came to me from the special cell of Delhi police that is probing this so-called “conspiracy angle” of the investigation into the Delhi communal violence.

To help the reader understand why such an angle was introduced in the first place and why I, along with many others, have become a convenient scapegoat, I must provide some background.

The riots in February came as a shock, but we, observers and critics of the politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its pronounced majoritarianism, had apprehensions even earlier that such violence might be unleashed any day on Muslims.

What was the basis of our fear? In December 2019, the BJP, using its majority in parliament, had secured approval for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which created a pathway for Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to attain Indian citizenship on grounds of religious persecution. Muslims were excluded.

This move was preceded by a long ideological campaign by the leaders of the ruling party who kept threatening to throw out “Bangladeshis” who had allegedly entered the country illegally. It was not difficult for anyone to understand that the term “Bangladeshi” was a code word for Muslims in general.

The passage of the new law introduced an element of religion in defining citizenship. It went against the secular principles of the Indian constitution. It was designed to insult Muslims.

The Muslim community felt hurt and humiliated and started protesting against this discriminatory law. Demonstrations were held in various places and by different communities, including in universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, which was raided by police on December 15.

Meanwhile, a unique protest started taking shape in a dense, predominantly Muslim area, known as Shaheen Bagh, in southern Delhi. Women of the neighbourhood came out and started occupying a section of the road close to them. The protest soon spread to other parts of Delhi and was joined by many Muslims and some non-Muslims alike, especially students and the youth. People like me who have been long critical of the sectarian turn of the ruling establishment in India felt enthused about these protests. We felt that they might give strength to the opposition and help it find its voice and secular resolve.

Not only was there no response from the government, but also BJP functionaries started actively inciting anti-Muslim sentiments ahead of the local elections in Delhi in February. They gave a communal twist to a protest that sought to restore the secular principle of equal citizenship. The air was thick with wild theories. A whisper campaign to tarnish the secular image of the protests succeeded in turning a normal Hindu mind against the protesters.

Despite this hate campaign, the BJP lost the assembly election. Its frustration grew and it continued with its vilification campaign.

Eventually, on February 22, some female protesters started coming out on the main roads and blocking traffic – a tactic many citizens’ acts of civil disobedience had used before. The difference was that the government did not treat these protesters as citizens of India. Its leaders portrayed them as “enemies”. Shortly after, BJP leaders announced they would take law into their own hands if the demonstrations did not disperse.

On February 24, as Trump started his official visit to India, violence broke out but the police did little to stop it. In the following days, the High Court asked the police about its reluctance to act against BJP functionaries inciting violence and directed it to facilitate the safe passage of ambulances carrying injured people and ensure the protection of victims.

The violence left 53 dead, hundreds injured, hundreds of houses and businesses damaged or destroyed. Three-quarters of those killed were Muslims, the rest were Hindus.

I, along with members of civil society, went to the areas where violence had taken place, observed it first-hand, and talked to Hindus and Muslims. My understanding was that it was preplanned violence. I talked to members of the security forces and could see a distinct hostility among them regarding Muslims.

I saw the apathy of the Delhi government in arranging relief for the victims, again mostly Muslims. It took a lot of noise from civil society to move the state government to set up a relief camp for displaced victims.

Then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March made any kind of movement impossible. Relief and rehabilitation efforts took a hit. Many of us who supported the anti-CAA protests tried to help the victims by organising the distribution of food, clothes, medicines, etc and helping the injured in getting medical aid. We somehow managed to keep the relief operation going.

It was in the midst of all this that I learned that the investigative agencies had started to weave a narrative of a “conspiracy” aimed at defaming and embarrassing the government when Trump was in town. It is worthwhile to note that this so-called ‘conspiracy’ is not even an offence in itself – it is not a crime to organise and peacefully protest even if it embarrasses the government.

Nevertheless, the police, while framing charge sheets, wrote about a drawn-out conspiracy going back to the Jamia protests. It even tried to implicate a known peace activist like Harsh Mander – who had petitioned the Supreme Court to look into the BJP’s hate speech – in inciting street violence. It claimed that those protesting against the citizenship law and their supporters had a nefarious anti-government agenda and the February violence was part of it. The political narrative and now the legal case seem to assume that the fact of the street protest was apriori reason for retaliatory violence.

Young Muslim women and men who were involved in the protests were getting arrested even before the February violence. Two young non-Muslim female activists supporting the protests were also detained. Notices from police started reaching the homes of students who had to move to their hometowns due to the pandemic.

The investigation is trying desperately to find evidence of a crime that never happened: the claim that gullible Muslims were misled about the new law, provoked to protest and brought to the roads, which in turn provoked the Hindus to become violent.

Targeting of writers and intellectuals, who were active in these protests, is a clear design of this government to set an example and give a warning that the act of dissent would be treated as a crime and that non-Muslims should not dare to come out in the support of Muslims.

On August 3, I headed to the special cell of the Delhi police to follow up on the notice I received. After being interrogated for five hours, I decided to issue a statement, in which I wrote: “While cooperating and respecting the right of police authorities to conduct a full, fair and thorough investigation, one can only hope that the probe would focus on the real instigators and perpetrators of the violence against a peaceful citizens’ protest and the people of Northeast Delhi. It should not lead to further harassment and victimisation of the protesters and their supporters, who asserted their democratic rights through constitutional means.”

The statement was widely covered by the media. The Times of India, a leading mainstream daily, wrote an editorial criticising the line of investigation. It wrote: “Delhi University professor Apoorvanand’s interrogation, purportedly over support for the anti-NRC-CAA protests that long preceded the riots, spins a deceptive narrative. If a false equivalence is sought to be drawn between dissent and rioting, nothing could be more absurd and self-defeating. Dissent makes democracy meaningful and representative.”

The police reacted to this editorial by issuing a statement, saying: “criminal jurisprudence treats the act of conspiring to commit a crime as “a distinct evil” from the crime itself.”

This rebuttal was rapidly followed by a series of “exposes” by a section of the media known to be closely aligned to the ruling establishment. On August 10, Zee News claimed in a news report that Gulfisha Fatima, a young activist involved in the anti-CAA protests who, like many other young protesters, is in jail on charges of inciting, planning and participating in the violence, had confessed to the Delhi Police that I held many secret meetings with her, along with other activists, to instigate and plan the riots.

Similar reports were carried by other media outlets, like Aaj Tak, DNA, TV9, Opindia and others.

These exposes have been followed by more alleged “disclosures” made by people who are in jail for a very long time. They claim to expose other aspects of the “conspiracy” the investigative agency has been talking about.

It needs to be noted that the law specifically says that custodial confessions cannot be treated as evidence. Also, the High Court of Delhi in a ruling restrained the police from sharing any information regarding a person who is in jail while being investigated for the February violence, lest it becomes a media trial against the person.

Since my interrogation, I have not heard back from the police after August 3. But I am only one of the characters in this Orwellian script. The police is busy collecting testimonies and evidence against people it seeks to paint as conspirators behind the violence. And they are, in the eyes of the investigative agencies, obviously those who had supported and participated in the anti-CAA protests.

It is clear now that the establishment is using state agencies and a pliable media to spread hate against minorities, especially Muslims and liberal intellectuals, writers, academics who have been speaking up for the rights of minorities.

One feels sorry that the energy, talent and the expertise of the people involved in these investigations are being used to forge something so surreal. They are being made to work against the very people they are meant to serve. I do feel dismayed.

So where to from here? I abhor the idea of young Muslim activists left alone to suffer the state oppression for having dared to protest and therefore, I would happily own the protests. So, my fate should not be different from what they are going to face. If we are to become one people, can our fates be different?

People like me can only wait and hope for the constitutional conscience of the organs of the state to stir, civic morality in all sections of the society to awaken. I can go on doing my duty of writing and speaking, of alerting my people that they were making a Faustian pact and would be left soulless, that we cannot live as Indians with our heads held high if minorities are reduced to the level of second-class citizens.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.