In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, less than 10 days ago, a complaint was filed against Delhi Minorities Commission chief Zafarul Islam for promoting feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion. It was followed by a plea in the Delhi High Court on May 5 seeking to remove him from his post. A group of policemen reached his home to arrest Khan for a social media post where he had thanked Kuwait for highlighting the cause of Muslims in India. The same post had also stated that Indian Muslims did not seek or require external help.
Just on the heels of this incident, an FIR was filed against 22-year-old law student Mahoor Parvez based on a complaint of a Bajrang Dal office bearer. She had criticised the Handwara encounter in Kashmir on May 3. In the same week, referring to Justice Deepak Gupta’s February speech during the judge’s farewell, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal said, “Your thoughts that citizen has a right to protest in a peaceful manner will never be forgotten; a very bold statement to make while holding office as a Supreme Court judge.” Many saw it as a veiled warning. Justice Gupta had, in February, stated, that dissent is essential in a democracy. “If a country has to grow in a holistic manner where not only the economic rights but also the civil rights of the citizen are to be protected, dissent and disagreement have to be permitted and, in fact, should be encouraged. It is only if there is discussion, disagreement and dialogue that we can arrive at better ways to run the country,” the judge had said.
This is not new. The right-wing Narendra Modi government at the Centre have been long attempting to silence opposition and protests under the guise of national interest and patriotism. All those who remonstrate have been targeted, using the police and other investigative agencies. When dissenters are arrested, it goes against the protection accorded to citizens under the Constitution. Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud had called dissent ‘a safety valve of democracy’. He had underscored that the destruction of spaces for questions and dissent destroyed the basis of all growth—political, economic, cultural and social.
Though not surprising, that the government would continue with its agenda of vendetta even during the COVID-19 lockdown is unexpected when its attention should have been focussed on combating the Coronavirus crisis. Twenty days into the lockdown, human rights activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were detained in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case. They have been charged under the country’s main counter-terrorism law – the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Both have been scathingly critical of the government for failing to ensure communal harmony, its persecution of activists and its lack of attention to social welfare. Maharashtra Police had claimed that the activists had been involved in a Maoist plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For almost two years, nine other prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira and Sudhir Dhawale – have been detained in the same case.
The space for dissent has been steadily shrinking over the last few years and the draconian Sedition Law has been used to clamp down on all those who are critical of the government. The vaguely-worded colonial law is a tool in the hands of an increasingly intolerant right-wing government. With the rise of the Hindutva right, dissent has been criminalised in the country. The right to dissent is a fundamental element of any democracy. The government’s utmost disregard for this does not augur well for India’s democracy.
Just as the COVID-19 lockdown began on March 24, Delhi Police cleared protestors at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar. To remove all physical traces of the protest, the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia, which had a number of artworks by students, were painted over. It was an attempt to whitewash our memories of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
To many of us under the lockdown, those days of protests seem faraway and a reminder of times when we could all walk down a street cheek by jowl while screaming our lungs out. The government headed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is haunted by the possibilities of such protests. So, the lockdown gave them the perfect opportunity to systematically arrest young and bright college students who dared to protest against the government’s plans.
Delhi Police began with the questioning of Jamia Millia Islamia student Meeran Haider on April 2 in connection with the riots in north-east Delhi in February. Then came the arrest of the three-month pregnant Safoora Zargar, a student of the same university, for allegedly leading a protest in north-east Delhi’s Jaffrabad. The Delhi police slapped the stringent UAPA on both of them. Their only crime was they were actively involved in campus politics.
Umar Khalid has been accused of making hate speeches and instigating people to protest ahead of Donald Trump’s New Delhi visit in February 2020. In reality, Khalid had said that the government was destroying the values of Mahatma Gandhi.
Before the lockdown and before the protests, in February 2016, Khalid and his Jawaharlal Nehru University mate Kanhaiya Kumar were charged with Sedition for allegedly holding an ‘anti-national’ event at JNU. They were labelled ‘urban naxals’. Ideological support should not be equated with criminal complicity in violence, the courts have repeatedly stated. But when has that ever stopped the State?
These are not the only names. Delhi Municipal Councillor Ishrat Jahan; Gulshifa, an MBA student and a coordinator of the CAA protest at Seelampur-Jafrabad; activist Khalid Saifi and Shafi-Ur-Rahman, president of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association, have all been arrested allegedly for hatching a conspiracy to provoke communal riots in northeast Delhi.
What all of these youngsters had in common was that they were all at the forefront of the protests against the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. The lockdown is being used by the Delhi Police as a suspension of the Constitution and rights. It is outrageous that the riots where minorities suffered the most is being used to arrest students and activists from the same community under the pretext of having instigated the mayhem in northeast Delhi in February.
And, all this while, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who called for violence in north-east Delhi in February under the watchful eye of the Delhi Police, has been roaming free. As a part of this targeted hunt, Aligarh Muslim University student Amir Mintoee was arrested when he was serving food to patients stuck at a local hospital because of the lockdown. He was also a part of the committee, which was coordinating the antiCAA protests on AMU campus.
We are a country of argumentative Indians. Even Dr BR Ambedkar dissented with Mahatma Gandhi. A democracy without dissent cannot be called a democracy. Free men and women will speak out and a mature democracy should know how to handle it. The Indian State is not showing signs of prudence by making covert arrests at a time when functioning of the courts has been kept to a bare minimum. These arrests tear through the heart of Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on the midnight of August 15, 1947: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.” Nehru has said. Modi’s narrow-minded India, unfortunately, stands antithetical to Nehru’s vision of an open and vibrant democracy.