The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

India’s Use of Lock-Ups During the COVID-19 Lockdown

Under the cover of anti-pandemic measures, the Indian government continues to target its opponents.

By Tarini Mehta for
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India’s Use of Lock-Ups During the COVID-19 Lockdown
Credit: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

Imagine that all the countries in the world are gathered in one classroom. They are asked to raise their hands if they have implemented either a partial or full lockdown in order to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. More than a hundred arms go up in the room.

Billions of people’s lives have been brought to a veritable standstill in the hope that restricted economic, political, social, and cultural activity will impede the speed at which the contagious virus gets around. Sitting in the first row of the classroom, the Indian state waves its hand enthusiastically in the air.

More than 1.3 billion people had been under a strict lockdown beginning in March, but some political activity actually did occur during that period: the government moved to arrest activists. Almost on a daily basis, the rising figures of COVID-19 cases in the country were accompanied by fresh news concerning charges made against activists who opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The controversial CAA fast-tracks Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian religious minorities who fled from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh before December 2014, on the grounds of “religious persecution.” The Act curiously leaves out these countries’ largest religious group, Muslims, while also intensifying the apprehensions of demographic upheaval for the indigenous communities of northeast India. The Act was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2019, sparking large nationwide protests. A major characteristic of this national movement was the sprouting of sit-in protests led by Muslim women, epitomized by those in the Shaheen Bagh area of Delhi.

Things reached a fever pitch when clashes between pro- and anti-CAA protesters mutated into full-fledged communal violence in northeast Delhi from February 23 to 26. According to official reports, 53 people lost their lives in the violence, of which 38 were Muslims. More than 400 people suffered injuries and a large number of shops and houses were burnt or destroyed.

The demonstrations sustained momentum up until the early days of March when the coronavirus necessitated social distancing and finally did what the federal government had been trying to do for months. The global health crisis also created conditions — limited legal aid, compromised access to courts, and a complete ban on assembly and mobilization of people — that have proven to be fertile ground for the further strangling of the anti-CAA movement by arresting activists and leaders.

On March 24, the first day of India’s first three-week lockdown, the Delhi Police (and “local authorities”) removed art installations and whitewashed graffiti at the Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia University protest sites. Even as the disease began to travel and prey on Indians, the urgency with which this was executed points to the State’s anxieties about the infectiousness of the anti-CAA activists’ revolutionary ideals instead. This was indicative of what was yet to come.

On April 9, 28-year-old Gulfisha Fatima, who was an active participant at the Seelampur and Jaffrabad sit-in protests in Delhi, was arrested under Sections 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public function) and 147 (rioting) of the Indian Penal Code, among others. She was granted bail by a Delhi court on May 13. However, she, along with Jamia Millia Islamia students Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider, had been slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act (UAPA) earlier on April 18. The law, aimed at the prevention of terrorism, was amended in August 2019 in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term so that individuals, and not just organisations, could be deemed terrorists, and has since then consistently been used to criminalise dissent. As of now, Fatima’s custody has been extended through June 25 by a court.

Zargar, a media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), and Meeran Haider, a member of the JCC, have both been accused of devising a conspiracy to incite communal riots in Delhi in February. Apart from the draconian UAPA, they were also charged with sedition, murder, and rioting. Zargar, three months pregnant at the time, was first arrested on April 10 and subsequently granted bail three days later. However, she was immediately re-arrested on the basis of a different police complaint – a pattern that repeatedly emerges in this activist witch-hunt – and has remained in custody since then. Most recently, her bail petition was dismissed by Delhi’s Patiala House court on June 4 despite her being 21 weeks pregnant and suffering from polycystic ovarian disease. Judge Dharmendra Rana provided a metaphor as explanation, “When you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind for having carried the spark a bit too far and spread the fire.”

The coronavirus clearly likes being the center of attention, and does not enjoy sharing screen time with other kinds of news. So, on May 18, the number of cases in the country crossed the 100,000 figure and all eyes were on this milestone. But even as India grappled with a rapidly increasing case count as well as a humanitarian migrant worker crisis, the government’s targeting of activists continued without a pause.

Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and members of a women’s collective called Pinjratod, were arrested at their homes on May 23 for participating in the Jaffrabad sit-in protest where a roadblock was staged on February 23. The Duty Magistrate granted them bail the following day, stating that “the accused were merely protesting against the proposed NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA and did not indulge in any violence.” But as in the Zargar case, the police immediately slapped fresh charges on them, including attempted murder, rioting, and criminal conspiracy. They remained in custody, and on May 30, Pinjratod released a statement detailing that Natasha had been booked under the UAPA in the same complaint filed against Zargar and other activists.

Devangana, on the other hand, was charged due to a new complaint related to an anti-CAA protest in Delhi’s Daryaganj area on December 20, where several protesters, including her, were injured after police beat the protesters with batons. On June 6, her name, too, was added to the list of activists charged under the UAPA.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Indian Express newspaper, in a meeting held at the beginning of April, senior Ministry of Home Affairs officials insisted that arrests in the February violence cases continue to be made despite the lockdown.

The Delhi Police Crime Branch, meanwhile, has made 182 arrests, of which at least 50 were made during the lockdown. The Delhi Police has, meanwhile, arrested at least 620 more people in connection with the violence.

Several activists, including former municipal councilor Ishrat Jahan from the opposition Congress party, activist Khalid Saifi from the United Against Hate campaign, President of Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association Shifa Ur Rehman, and Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha, along with many local Muslims, are currently battling these apparently arbitrary charges and languishing in jails.

Even with mounting evidence that local Muslims suffered the most during the Delhi violence while police allegedly either stood by or participated, it is a terrible twist of fate that they, along with student activists, are the ones largely being branded as perpetrators.

In the meantime, Kapil Mishra, a local leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who made a speech against the anti-CAA protesters allegedly inciting violence on February 23, has gone scot-free. In fact, his role has completely been omitted in the Delhi Police’s charge-sheet that details the chronology of events. The partisan nature of these investigations is clear as day.

This pandemic-induced lockdown appears to be a convenient time for the government to change the narrative surrounding the Delhi violence and anti-CAA protests. To save face, they seem to be completely shifting the onus onto peaceful protesters and activists. But the age of the internet has armed the people with the power to remain vigilant and to ensure that history is not tailored to fit the preferences of the oppressors.

A COVID-19 vaccine is not the only need of the hour; the world also needs a vaccine for government overreach.

Tarini Mehta is an Indian journalist with StoriesAsia.