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.
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.
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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