Lockdown Being Misused To Persecute Government's Critics

The COVID-19 created situation and the fallout of the lockdown has many dimensions. A concern is what happens to civil liberties and democratic rights in such a period. This is not an academic question but one that arises because of certain developments in the capital of India.

The concern is that the restrictions imposed by the lockdown are being used here in Delhi for a violation of constitutional, democratic, civil and legal rights of a certain group of citizens, defined by their religious belief. FIRs, arrests, imprisonment without evidence and delays in court hearings of bail petitions have become the new norm. It is a different kind of emergency and since no public protests are possible, the police have an open-ended license to implement whatever instructions they are receiving without any public scrutiny or publicity.

There are two parts of what seems to be a politically motivated plan being implemented by the Delhi police during this period of lockdown. The first is the random arrests of young Muslim men in the north east part of Delhi which was ravaged by communal violence from February 23-28. The second part is the targeting of Muslim activists who were involved in the anti-CAA protests including students of Jamia.

Piecing together the various actions of the police, it seems to be a clear attempt to link the communal violence in north east Delhi to the peaceful anti-CAA protests in the southern part of the city, linking it to a grand conspiracy of anti-government forces. In this narration, many goals are achieved: a demonization of the anti-CAA protests and its suppression; the deepening of a communal divide; the whitewashing of the role of hate-mongering leaders of the ruling regime and their open incitement; protection for the men in uniform who joined the communal attacks. All this apart from inflicting a sense of insecurity and fear among the minority community in general.

Before the lockdown, the Home Minister in parliament had stated that "All culprits behind the killings of Head Constable Ratan Lal and IB Officer Ankit Sharma have been arrested while the investigation into the wider conspiracy is ongoing," adding that over 1,900 people who were "spreading arson and breaking infrastructure have now been identified using facial recognition software." As has been pointed out by several commentators, this software has been graded by our own agencies including the Delhi police as having just 1 to 2 per cent accuracy. But leaving that aside, how many of the 1,900 people so "recognized" have been arrested? And who are they? Do they include those guilty in the other murder cases? 

In the initial phases of the communal violence in north east Delhi, there were attacks and counter-attacks, leading to clashes in which both communities were involved. Criminals within both communities used guns, used knives, committed arson. There is no doubt that they must face severe punishment. But with the backing of the police after the initial clashes, the attacks on the minority community intensified and the patterns that emerged in an assessment of homes and property damaged and lives lost show that the overwhelming number of victims are of the minority community. In such a situation, if arrests made are primarily from the community most affected, then the only conclusion is that of a communal bias.

The only way to know if indeed this is so, is if the police implement Sec 41 C of the IPC. Under this section, the police is legally bound to put up the lists of those arrested in a control room at the district level. In Delhi, all local police stations are supposed to put up lists of those arrested, under which sections of the law were the arrests made and by which police officer. Among all the police stations in the north east only one, the Dayalpur police station, had put up a list of those arrested in the early days. It showed that on March 3-4, 27 men were arrested in that area, of which 26 were Muslims.

Although there have been no lists since then, hundreds more have been arrested. In the period of lockout, such arrests are continuing. Men in plainclothes routinely patrol minority-inhabited areas and pick up young men. They are taken to the local thana and interrogated. Just a few days ago, an incident occurred in Mustafabad where four men were picked up and harassed, being accused of crimes such as stealing, keeping illegal arms, storing ammunition and so on. After a couple of hours of intimidation and bullying, they were eventually released. 

The Crime Branch is also calling in people for interrogation. A message is sent to them which acts as a curfew pass to reach their office. In one such case, a young man was told by the police interrogating him that it was known that he is a love jihadist trying to entrap innocent young Hindu women. That young man is now locked up in jail. In another case, the person called in for interrogation was asked if he had connections with JNU or Jamia. There seems to be a clear agenda. The problem is the threats and beatings those called in are being subjected to serve in getting the answers the police want. Two petitions have been filed with the National Human Rights Commission by lawyers who had recorded complaints of custodial torture by the victims. 

A petition was filed in the High Court for a direction to the police to implement Sec 41 C. The Court decided to postpone the hearing because of the lockdown. So while the police gets the benefit of the truncated nature of judicial processes, continuing to make arrests within a conveniently opaque system and while violating Sec 41 C, ordinary citizens accused of crimes suffer. 

What happens to the bail petitions of the hundreds of those arrested? A representative case is that of a young man Javed (name changed ) who was an employee along with four others in a medicine shop owned by a Hindu. On February 24, when the mobs had taken over the streets, the owner decided to shut his shop and kept his employees safe inside. But in spite of his protests, the police came into the shop, checked the religious identity of the employees, and arrested two who were Muslim including Javed. Along with 18 others also randomly picked up from the area, he was locked up in the thana where they were beaten badly.

The owner of the shop told me that he had made eight trips to the police station over the next four days, begging the officer in charge to let off his innocent employees, but to no avail. After keeping Javed and the others in four days of illegal confinement, the police filed an FIR, lied about the date of arrest as being on the 28th and sent them to jail.

His bail petition, like the others, was rejected by the lower court. In fact, the same non-speaking orders were issued in two separate FIRs with different charges against different people. In the lockdown, the situation in courts is worse because with most lawyers quarantined, those wrongly jailed face difficulties in their own defence. Moreover, the lower courts cannot hear bail petitions in serious IPC crime cases such as murder cases and it is difficult to get a hearing in the district courts. In Javed's case, when the case finally came up in the High Court, despite noting the possibility of custodial violence, of lack of evidence from the police, of gaps in the official version, the vague and omnibus nature of the witness statement, the court still denied bail. In this period of lockdown, where information is limited, it is difficult to collate all such similar cases and the views of the courts in such cases which should really be open-and -shut cases to grant bail.

The second aspect is how the Delhi police is picking up activists during the lockdown who were involved in the anti-CAA protests. In the north- east, there were eight different spots where women-led sit-in protests were taking place. They were mainly spontaneous, as were the hundreds which had sprung up all over the country inspired by Shaheen Bagh. But in order to spin a false and manufactured narrative, the police are linking the communal violence in the north east to the totally peaceful anti-CAA protests which were taking place including in South Delhi and filing false cases against many of the leaders. These include cases against activists from Jamia. In the last week during the lockdown, several activists have been arrested including a student leader affiliated to the CPI and one to the RJD. He has been included in an FIR linked with murder and attempt to murder charges connected with the north east violence. His lawyers have shown that he was never present in that area and yet his bail has been rejected twice. A three-month pregnant activist, Safoora Zargar, who was involved in the anti-CAA protests in Jamia has also been arrested and remanded to custody.

The most shocking and inhuman case is that of Ishrat Jahan, a former councillor of the Congress party who was prominent in one of the anti-CAA protest sites in an area called Khureji in East Delhi which had nothing to do with the Delhi violence. She was arrested when she protested police action against the protest site, was in jail for weeks, finally given bail on March 21. On the same day, the Special Branch claimed remand for interrogation in one of the many open FIRs linked to the communal violence. She was interrogated for two weeks on charges of murder on an FIR filed in a police station and areas she has never visited in her life. They found nothing - since there is nothing to find. But she is still in jail, her health seriously compromised, a vibrant committed political worker whose spirit they are trying to break. It is worse than travesty of justice. It is murder of justice. Since protests are not possible, these atrocious arrests have gone unmarked.

But in contrast, all the visuals, the videos and photographic evidence of those who led the mobs attacking minority areas, of identifiable men in police uniform joining them in stone-pelting, of men in uniform forcing injured victims of violence to sing the national anthem, have not persuaded the police or the SIT or the crime branch to take action and arrest them.

It is such double standards which have intensified during the period of lockdown which cause concern. Who can people so victimized turn to? The top police officials are unreachable, the courts are barely functioning and political and public mobilization is banned. Blatant injustice such as is happening in these cases in the capital of India cannot remain unchallenged for long, whatever the circumstances. Those in authority who can intervene to establish constitutional processes should do so before it is too late.

The undermining of constitutional and legal procedures in the name of lockdown also deeply undermine the unity required to deal with the present Coronavirus crisis. 

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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