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Umar Khalid’s arrest shows the future of dissent in India only gets darker from here

Those questioned by Delhi Police share with me their harrowing experience of being repeatedly called to interrogation chambers and threatened with imprisonment.

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The long drought of progressive student movements over recent decades was broken by the idealism of the anti-CAA-NRC protests, which animated students and youth in far corners of India. But these stirrings of vibrant protest in universities are sought to be crushed by a massive hunt-down of young protesters, most recently the arrest of Umar Khalid.

It is instructive to observe the selection of targets — people jailed so far on charges of conspiracy under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, for their alleged role in the Delhi riots. The large majority of these are young students and scholars. Those jailed include five women, all under the age of 31 years. Three of them — Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Safoora Zargar — are students; Ishrat Jahan is a lawyer; and Gulfisha Fatima is an MBA graduate and aspiring teacher. The majority of the men in jail are also young scholars. Umar Khalid was awarded a PhD for his study of Adivasis in Jharkhand.

In the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, students rose for the ideals of solidarity and the moral defence of the principles of equal citizenship, the cornerstone of the Constitution. The movement, led by young people and working-class Muslim women, rightfully reclaimed from the Right, the symbols of the nation. The national flag became the icon of national unity across religious faiths; the national anthem a ringing song of protest and resistance; the Constitution the fulcrum to defend the pledges of secularism, equality and fraternity.

The 100-day movement of India’s young and working peoples was a powerful and charismatic repudiation of everything the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), stand for. Retrospectively, it was probably naive to expect that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi would stand by and watch in silence, even as its ideological juggernaut to a majoritarian Hindu nation was so audaciously halted in its tracks. It hit back decisively with an election campaign in Delhi, driven by high-adrenaline hate speeches by both its most senior leaders and agent provocateurs such as Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur; by communal riots designed to punish the anti-CAA-NRC protesters; then, as its climax, a brazenly politically slanted investigation, which criminally demonised the protesters as dangerous insurgents.

Also read: In Modi’s India, Umar Khalid preaches peace but is called a ‘terrorist’: Jignesh Mevani

The farce of investigation

The Delhi Police alleges a sinister conspiracy to instigate violence in north-east Delhi in February 2020 targeting Hindus, to disrupt public life by sit-ins during the State visit of US President Donald Trump, and ultimately overthrow the lawfully elected Union government. The conspiracy is alleged in FIR 59, and arrests under this are being made, alleging grave crimes not just under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), but also the stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967), a statute that permits the State to abridge many civil liberties of persons accused of crimes against the integrity and sovereignty of the Indian State.

The Special Cell, usually charged with investigating terror crimes, in the course of probing FIR 59, interrogated more than 60 people. Again, the majority of those interrogated were very young, and all were those who had joined the anti-CAA protests. Many of them shared, in confidence with me and other human rights defenders, their harrowing experience of being called sometimes repeatedly to the interrogation chambers of the Delhi police’s Special Cell, retained for several hours, and threatened darkly with many years in prison.

At the centre of many of these interrogations were WhatsApp groups, which coordinated the anti-CAA protests. The peaceful democratic protests were treated as sinister crimes. But, what the police won’t see is that insurrections are not planned in unruly open WhatsApp groups with hundreds of members. Young people have confided that the police often asked them to sign disclosure statements charging others, both young people and senior activists, with instigating and training them for violence. They were assured that if they signed these documents, they would be saved from an otherwise certain jail sentence. Some resisted, others reportedly (and understandably) signed. Several senior intellectuals, activists and film-makers were also interrogated by the Special Cell.

Also read: Government is using sedition as an iron hand to curb free speech, says Justice M.B. Lokur

Forced confessions

In an open letter to Delhi Police Commissioner S.N. Shrivastava, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) claimed that at least five persons were forced to make confessions, and that the actual number may be higher. In other criminal cases related to the Delhi violence, people have reported being similarly coerced during police interrogation.

In extracting its ‘confessions’, the police have, often, not even covered their tracks. We find that, with breathtaking clumsiness, in the Ankit Sharma charge sheet (FIR 65/20), there were four identical ‘confessional’ statements. Similarly, in the Ratan Lal (FIR 60/20) charge sheet, one can find seven identical statements. In FIR 50/20, there are 10 identical statements in the charge sheet. The Indian Express reported that in the charge sheet of FIR number 39/20, 9 out of 12 confessional statements were nearly identical.

Umar Khalid was also implicated in FIR 50/2020 based on near-identical testimonies of Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, which the police themselves record that the two students refused to sign, and the alleged testimony of Gulfisha Fatima. In another open letter to the Delhi Police Commissioner, Umar Khalid had earlier also alleged that the police tried to coerce an acquaintance to sign a confession statement, which would implicate him in the violent conspiracy.

Under the now-abrogated anti-terror laws TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act] and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002), statements made before police officers were admissible as evidence in the court. This is not the case in UAPA, which otherwise retains many of the other abrogations of civil liberties of the earlier anti-terror laws.

‘Confessional’ statements made before the police are today not admissible in any court as evidence, in recognition that these may be extracted under torture or intimidation. Despite this, and clear instructions from the Delhi High Court against leaking statements to the police to media, these so-called confessions and disclosure statements have been cynically leaked by the police to the press to ignite a series of shrill media campaigns against those charged with conspiracy and crimes related to the communal conflagration in Delhi. These selected leaks are being used for feverish demonisation by media channels — of Umar Khalid, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Meeran Haider, Tahir Hussain, Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Khalid Saifi, Sharjeel Imam, the incarcerated young people, as well as of senior intellectuals like Delhi University professor Apoorvanand.

The arrest of Umar Khalid — a charismatic young voice for secularism and peace — further deepens my intense disquiet about the future of dissent in the Indian Republic. Dissent, peaceful protest and freedom of conscience are the lifeblood of a functioning democracy. All but those most committed to the ideological and political fundamentals of the ruling BJP and the RSS can clearly see that the Delhi Police, presumably under the directions of the Union Home Ministry, is acting in ways that are unabashedly partisan. The official project is both unapologetic and diabolical — to savagely target and decisively crush all voices that are raised in resistance to the ideological project of the BJP-RSS.

Harsh Mander @harsh_mander is a human rights activist and former IAS officer. Views are personal.

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  1. Theprint and Shekhar Gupta has always been a mouth piece of leftist mindset and divisive INDIA group of Congress & CPI Hence nothing new can be expected from them. Harsh Mander, Umar Khalid and others are again a stanch paid active supporters of KAC gang of US who played important role in unrest in Kashmir & India. So nothing new can be expected from them.

  2. We have seen your eloquence on future of dissent when making mockery of High Court, house of a female film actress was demolished and a Navy veteran thrashed.

    Shekhar jee, have high hopes from you. There is a Bloomsbury approved group of writers who have written a book on Delhi Riots. How about a piece from them? We expect balanced views from you, otherwise we can always read or watch NDTV.

    Harsh is an agent of foreign powers. Who reads him? You are providing him respectability.

    • Mr Rajiv Ranjan: Mind boggling that the knee-jerk reaction of even educated people like you when reading material that is critical of the fascist Hindutva forces in power is to louldy bray:

      “.. Harsh is an agent of foreign powers ..”

      Should Mr Harsh Mander also be charged with sedition and treason ? After all you seem to possess evidence to that effect don’t you Mr Rajiv Ranjan?

      Supporters of fascism like you are the destroyers of democracy and will be instrumental in ushering in India’s second Emergency.

  3. Umar Khalid is surely innocent when compared to Hindu hater Harsh Mander. Without action on Harsh Mader’s, the arrest Umar Khalid would remain incomplete.

    • What crime would you accuse Mr Harsh Mander of ? Helping and sympathising with the Muslim victims of the pracharak’s first pogrom ? Showing that not all Hindus believe in the violent, fascist ideology called Hindutva that you and your ilk adhere to?

  4. 3 articles in 2 days by different authors on Umar Khalid’s arrest? Really? He is nothing more than an Islamist radical. Don’t you guys have anything better to write for?

    Also author suggests that Umar is a PhD holder. So what? Is it a free pass to incite violence or preach hate or praise terrorists like afzal guru? What are you trying to say please explain. People are not fools.

    • JP: Get your facts right. Umar Khaled has not been accused of Islamic radicalism. And the article does not suggest that since he has a PhD, he has the right to do what he pleases. Please do not put words into the author’s mouth.

      And having read your crazy post, we all know how the fool in question is.

        • An intellectually impotent, itchy-groined gaurakshak who is unable to muster a single cogent argument to refute my comment spotted here. Why don’t you go around and play with your lathi or hang around with Adityanath or Godse worshipper Pragya Thakur?

  5. This is bad journalism, law needs to be respected. Sowing seeds of doubt on law is not always right. If a person has misused JNU and has been known for speaking against india. Let him fight in court and prove innocence.

  6. It is ironic how you consider Anti CAA protests to be a movement by public because thousands of people were part of it and yet When RSS members numbering in crores want to express their opinion they suddenly get villified.
    If we go by the classic definition of public opinion shouldn’t the numbers of RSS and BJP supporters count as public opinion. They too after all are citizens of India, they too have the same rights of expression.

    If it isnt your hypocrisy then what would you call it. Your Bias is showing, i would have thought that after this much experience you’d do a better job of writing neutrally and objectively.

    • Mr Vicky: An salient feature of democratic states is that unlike autocracies and dictatorships, they do not fear protests or demonstrations. The right to protest is a given in any democracy.
      Through demonstrations, aggrieved citizens establish an ad hoc channel to force the government to talk to them and listen to their demands or problems.

      And yes, even your friends, the fascists of the RSS have a right to demonstrate and protest. But you will note that most of the time, what the RSS does is put on shows of strength rather than demonstrate for a cause. Hundreds of khaki clad men marching with their lathis for no obvious grievance is not exactly a demonstration is it Mr Vicky? In fact, the RSS marches remind one of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, the fascist groups that were the paid thugs of the Italian dictator. Not very surprising though since B.S. Moonje, the inspiration for Damodar Savarkar and the RSS was impressed by Italian fascism.

      Indeed, Moonje visited Benito Mussolini in 1931 and saw how the Italian youth were trained through institutions such as the Fascist Academy of Physical Education and organisations such as the Balilla and Avanguardisti where they received para-military training. These organisations later became the templates for the RSS.

      You talk of the RSS being vilified despite its popularity in India. Well, in many countries, the RSS is banned – the UK being one of them. Sheer numbers alone do not lend credibility to a organisation, especially when the agenda of the organisation is the sowing of discord in societies.

  7. Seriously Print, I understand views from both sides need to be presented. But what this writer has written and claims of getting darker, damn your standards are dropping down to drains. You started with a bang, but deteriorating minute after minute by allowing headlines and almost Fatwa type statements like “Its going to get dark from here”.

    PS: Not a big fan of populism and ruling co, but sensationalism & dooms day thinking like this does deserve all trashing from every corner of universe.

  8. umar Khalid and the psudo-jehadis from Jami Milia, AMU etc have made a concerted and orchestrated attempt to cause chaos and created a nationwide insurgency type situation about a law that in no way affects any single Indian citizen – the CAA. By fabricating conspiracy theories and weaving diabolical fantasies they have sought to claim Muslim citizens in India will be stripped of their citizenship rights and thrown out . By using such scare mongering, they were actively trying to subborn insurrection and committed treasonous seditious activity – even going so far as to openly call for the breaking up of India, the succession of various parts of India and various other activities . Further, the ultimate aim to embarrass, defame and condemn India and its elected Govt through foreign liberal institutions was orchestrated by various Islamic organizations and even political opponents . The occupation of public roads and holding the public at large hostage to their endless political jehad was entirely politically motivated to defeat, disturb and oppose Hindu nationalists and the BJP in particular.
    JNU, Jamia Milia, AMU and other universities with various left-liberal academics have openly stood against the Govt in times of crisis and in the international fora even going so far as to dispute the legitimacy of the elected Govt of India.

    All these acts are TREASON – they deserve to be treated as such and this treason is the root cause of the violence of Delhi and the riots that followed.

  9. Harsh mander is a subversive stooge of Pakistan and his finger prints can be find behind every anti social rabid element,who wants to break India,time has come to sweep clean the Lutyens media,judiciary of elements like lokur,shah who were planted by congress and have been and continue to be a disgrace to our system.

    • Atul Bhardwaj: Does criticising the breakdown of the notion of rule of law amount to becoming an anti-national and stooge of Pakistan? Indeed your views are fully compatible with those found in the Army run country called Pakistan. So why don’t you bugger off to Pakistan ?

    • Mr Rajan Joshi: Does someone become an anti-national if he criticises government policies? So dissent in India is now the same as sedition? Even the British imperialists were much better than the BJP and believed in some semblance of rule of law.

      India is becomg a one party state with democratic freedoms being trashed. And that descent into autocracy is being aided and abetted by blinkered, blind bhakths like you.

      Pathetic indeed Mr Rajan Joshi.

  10. Harsh ji , Umer Khaled is 33 years of age. How does he qualify to be a ‘student activist’ ?
    It would be better if Umer associated himself with a political party and used democratic methods to achieve his objective.
    By fanning students to violence – he is playing with others lives amd causing social disruption -Hence UAPA is justified. As you explained- “, a statute that permits the State to abridge many civil liberties of persons accused of crimes against the integrity and sovereignty of the Indian State.”

  11. This writer should also have been named as an accused and arrested. In his talks to CAA protestors, he has clearly called for taking law into people’s hands, as the SC had let down the minorities of this country. He was instrumental in Delhi HC holding midnight hearings.

  12. Yes, the author’s surmise is valid – only blood, toil, sweat and tears await ordinary Indians – even those who broadly are supportive of the govt or not actively opposing them. The Rhea Chakraborty episode is ample demonstration of what happens if the regime needs to make an example of you, even if you are no threat to it in any way at all.

    • Rhea Chakraborty wanted fame – she got it and it has nothing to do with the BJP – but everything to do with Maharastra , its police and Govt. Trying to impugn the bJP is farcical.

        • You don’t know? Rhea Chakraborty murdered her boyfriend because she wanted fame. People often do that. What better way to get fame (and 20000 death/rape threats per day) ?

          • Exactly !

            Murdering is a surefire way to become famous. Although there is the slight problem of getting death threats. Mr Mazo seems to have ignored that.

            But Mr Mazo and his ilk who make these death threats remind me of a quote from the French writer and historian François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778) :

            “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”

  13. Giving space to contrary views is one thing but giving space to anti-national propaganda is process of narrative building. These articles shall be recycled internationally to give certain impression about India and Indian institution.
    There are more than countable instances where space for anti-national views is sponsored by this portal.

    • Mr Jayesh: But in India today, any criticism of Modi, the BJP and your itchy-groined gaurakshak friends is regarded as anti-national. After all, in today’s India, Union Minister Jayanth Sinha had no issues in garlanding and handing sweets to the 8 gaurkashaks who had been convicted – I repeat convicted – of killing cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari. Needless to say, these convicted thus were out on bail thanks to friends in high places.

      In your warped worldview shaped by the semi-literate gaurakshaks who run the BJP, killing an innocent trader is OK, but protesting against government policies is anti-national.

      Welcome to Modistan 2020 !

  14. So? Umar khalid openly supported Burhan Wani, islamic fundamentalist, separatist terrotist. And you consider Umar khalid as a charismatic young voice for secularism and peace? And you are what? Senior intellectual? Really? need to examine your head. You are a human rights activist, how about me violating YOUR human rights?

  15. You cheap and pathetic writer I would day. He was doing nare bazi against India. And you ppl are showing off your sympathy towards them. You belongs to this country and your parents too. The next generation future is Dark just because of you people. Because you lost your dignity to show the real news. Feeling petty for your parents upbringing. Shame on YOU

    • These are writer’s personal views. He is merely voicing them. You may not agree with the views, then question the views – debate. By just calling the writer shameful, you are not making any valid points. On the contrary, this makes you sound very inconsiderate!

    • These are writer’s personal views. He is merely voicing them. You may not agree with the views, then question the views – debate. By just calling the writer shameful, you are not making any valid points. On the contrary, this makes you sound very inconsiderate.

  16. If “dissent” means inciting violence, rioting, destroying hundreds of crores worth of public property, burning buses and vehicles, brazenly attacking police and killing police and other civilians- then yes, there are dark days ahead for “dissent”.

  17. Umar Khalids father is a Convicted SIMI terrorist, just Google, and this Harsh Mander and his daughter are converted Christians, Leftists and Urban Naxals always support Jihadists and The Print under Mulla Shekhar Gupta will block my comments,

    • Oh no reddy ji, your comments are published, now bite your per your logic, kapil mishra can be spared but not umar khalid

      • Brilliant riposte Mr Arvind !!!

        Armchair gaurakshak Reddy has been checkmated brilliantly by that short post of yours !

        • Brilliant deduction that Reddy is a gaurakshak. I am flabbergasted by your logical brilliance Harsh. But why use a pseudonym to troll readers on your own op-ed? Insecurity?

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