Prosecution or persecution
The continued targeted arrests and detentions of anti-CAA protestors during a pandemic is indicative of a larger, organised attempt to silence members of a particular community
While the entire country is grappling with the devastation caused by the pandemic, lockdown and the after-effects, our Government is still busy arresting activists and students connected to anti-CAA protests and sending them to jail on charges of rioting, conspiracy to stir communal violence, and other serious criminal charges. No one can actually point a finger at such an exercise as the State is discharging its duty and law is taking its course. Whenever there is a riot in any part of the country, the police and investigative agencies always spring to action and endeavour to bring the culprits and perpetrators of such ghastly incidents to book. But in the present case, the police action clearly seems biased, prejudiced against a particular community and is aimed precisely to scare, harass, tame and intimidate the members of the particular community. The obvious reason that comes to mind is teaching a hard lesson to those who dare to oppose a citizenship law brought in by the Government by amending the 'Citizenship Act'. Obviously, this was unacceptable for a Government which was unwilling to backtrack on the law, making it a point of its prestige. Since the protesters and the Government both declined to retract, it became a flashpoint of egos. Amidst the logjam came the worst ever riots in North East Delhi where scores of innocent citizen lost their lives and properties were looted, burnt and destroyed. As it turned out, the victims of the violence and arson were mostly Muslims.
Amidst this chaos, the Lockdown was announced by the Government bringing everything to a grinding halt. Shaheen Bagh protest still survived but later, the 101 days non stop protest which seemed unending came to an abrupt end on March 25, 2020, when the police got the place evicted. The protest which had become the symbol of unity and harmony had thus fallen, bringing a proverbial sigh of relief to the Government.
Ideally, this would have drawn the curtains on the Shaheen Bagh episode but that was not to be.
The Government had rightly sensed the perils posed by this protest. At a time, when the Government wanted to avoid discussion on employment, economy, healthcare and other issues bogging the country, it unleashed the CAA which successfully took away the focus and provided relief to the beleaguered Government. That was the time when Shaheen Bagh cropped up, and it soon began to threaten the existence of the Government. Of course, it posed no imminent danger to the Government, but its potential to do the irreparable damage was writ large. Due to Lockdown, the protest got uprooted. The Government now taking advantage of the situation, wanted to finish it for good knowing fully well that its resurgence would pose a greater threat than ever. Systematically, all the prominent leaders of the anti-CAA protest have been taken into custody and jailed. Some of them have even been slapped with draconian UAPA. The most prominent detainee is Safoora Zargar, the Jamia protest coordinator. She was arrested in a state of advanced pregnancy. Ishrat Jahan, the organiser of the Khureji protest, herself an advocate and a councillor, is another prominent example. Khalid Saifi, Pinjra Tod volunteers and other activists and scores of others from the North East Delhi, mostly Muslims, have been jailed and are languishing in jails at a time when, in the wake of COVID-19, the Apex Court has ordered decongestion of prisons. In Assam, Akhil Gogoi, a prominent anti CAA protestor has been sent to jail. He recently tested COVID-19 positive.
The police has recently come out with a version which has named the Anti-CAA protesters as the conspirators and perpetrators of the North-East Delhi riots, which has come as a shock to many who believed the involvement of many belligerent Hindu groups in the riots. The police claim that the motive of these protestors was to create unrest and social discord to malign the image of the Indian Government in the presence of international media who had come to cover the Trump visit to India.
On the heels of the police charge sheet comes the report prepared by the NHRC, till now the hallowed organisation considered guardian and protector of the interest of the victims of human right violations and the downtrodden. NHRC report bought the theory floated by the police which is highly improbable, vexatious and biased in view of the incontrovertible evidence in the shape of videos, photos, damaged properties, FIRs, and the version of eyewitnesses which point to a premeditated pogrom. The matter, however, is sub judice and the truth will come out once the trials are completed.
The fact that while Zargar, Ishrat, Kalita, Narwal, Dr Kafeel, Gogoi and Saifi, all have been arrested for inciting violence, Kapil Mishra of the BJP whose open exhortations and a threat to violence were followed by the riots, has not been brought to book and is roaming free, points to the greater malaise and prejudice in the system. The overnight sending of HMJ Dr Murlidhar, the high court judge who questioned the police inaction against Kapil Mishra to Rajasthan, has shown the vulnerability of our judicial system crumbling under political power.
Another aspect which points to the victimisation of riot victims and protection of their attackers is the botching up of the investigative processes. In a number of cases, multiple complaints have been clubbed in a single FIR which has the potential to mar the cases due to opacity in the investigation on this count.
The social activists from the Muslim community, the do-gooders during the riots, are all being charged for involvement in the riots. A doctor who saved hundreds of lives of the riot victims at the peak of violence when it was difficult to move the victims to hospitals is now staring at arrest, having been charged as part of anti-CAA protests in the area. At the time of writing of this piece, the news has trickled in from UP where Sharjeel Usmani, an AMU student has been picked up from Azamgarh for involvement in Anti CAA protests at AMU in February this year.
The recent steps of the UP Cheif Minister to recover huge damages from anti-CAA protestors, by trying to confiscate their properties is another attempt to achieve the harassment of these protestors thereby silencing and disheartening all such protestors.
The oppression and tyranny of the last three months which continues unabashed points to a well-coordinated attempt by the Central Government to discredit the leaders associated with anti CAA protests, to crush their resolve and bring them to a point where not only the leaders but their followers and sympathisers abandon any idea of relaunching or re-organising the protest. Another aspect which needs to be brought to the fore is the support of the AAP Government in Delhi in these efforts. The Delhi Government has displayed a strange approach since the beginning of the anti-CAA protests but that was taken to be a mark of caution in view of the highly polarised Delhi elections held in February 2020. Post Elections and series of meetings held between the Delhi CM and Home Minister have unfolded a sudden inexplicable rapport and camaraderie between the two, and recent decision to appoint Tushar Mehta, Aman Lekhi and others of the ilk as special prosecutors in the riots related cases is a pointer to this. So the question arises as to whether it is prosecution or persecution. As the persecution through prosecution continues unabated, unhindered, unchallenged, only the divine may save democracy and the democratic protestors.
The writer is a practising Delhi based lawyer. Views expressed are personal