The Indian Penal Code, to the best of one’s knowledge, makes no mention of the crime of ‘poisoning the mind of the people’ or ‘causing international embarrassment to the Government’. Yet, if media reports are to be believed, many of those being questioned or arrested in connection with the rioting in Delhi during February are charged with committing these ‘crime’ besides conspiracy and murder.
Questioning of Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand, naming activists Yogendra Yadav and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander and now the arrest of Umar Khalid for supposedly instigating Delhi riots in February would therefore have been laughable but for the grim message that such acts convey.
The message from the Union Government, to which Delhi Police reports, is that it will not tolerate political rivals and critics, that it will incarcerate anyone at any time, that it will charge them with anything and detain them without trial for years. It is a message from a police state that people must fall in line or be prepared to have their freedom curtailed.
Similar signals were given when Dr Kafeel Khan was arrested and detained for allegedly naming the RSS and ‘Mota Bhai’ in a speech he delivered at Aligarh. Similar arrests and detention, arbitrary but not accidental, in the past one year have driven the message that India is now officially a police state.
Detention of political leaders in Kashmir is also a case in point. The Supreme Court dismissed Habeas Corpus petitions because the Solicitor General solemnly told the court that they were not under detention. There was nothing on record and no order on paper to detain them. But Prof Saifuddin Soz cannot move freely even in Srinagar. As a perceptive observer quipped this week, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was somewhat foolish in declaring a state of Emergency provided in the Constitution and having it ratified by the President. The much smarter present dispensation likes to keep its hands clean.
The arrest of Umar Khalid, the latest among dozens of students, scholars, writers and activists, should not therefore have come as a surprise. One must be prepared for more such arbitrary and inexplicable arrests.
What is troubling is the roving nature of the investigation. Much like Pune Police, which has been investigating the Bhima-Koregaon slash since January, 2018 and arresting people at leisure, some in 2018, others in 2019 and a few in 2020 (who knows when it will stop ?), Delhi Police is also taking its time to identify the perpetrators, the so called conspirators and the masterminds. The ‘work in progress’ is so arbitrary and draconian laws like UAPA, Sedition and NSA so convenient that the police can afford to overlook the requirements laid down in the Cr.P.C.
What does also come as a surprise is the willingness of the top brass of the Delhi Police to act as their master’s watchdog and not the people’s. The last nine months have seen Delhi Police in very poor light. They have been caught on camera smashing CCTV cameras, vandalizing the library in Jamia Milia University, standing as mute spectators and allowing an armed mob to run riot in the JNU, stand frozen and watch miscreants open fire at protestors at Shaheen Bagh, pelting stones with the mob during riots in Delhi and thrashing unarmed and outnumbered Muslim youth brutally.
When a senior journalist was called up in June by Delhi Police and asked what she was doing on a given date in North-East Delhi during the rioting indicated how Delhi Police was investigating the riot. Phone locations and call records were used to summon people who went to the area to report, to reach relief, to rescue people or to plead with the police for questioning. If they could be shown to have been in touch with anyone on the list of suspects or those who have already been arrested, they were sought to be implicated.
In the absence of any law that provides for disciplinary or punitive action against false cases and arrests, and with no provision for the state to be made to compensate for illegal detentions, police have been behaving as a law unto itself. And its investigation so far into Delhi riots has not done anything to enhance the reputation of Delhi Police as a formidable and professional law-enforcing agency. On the contrary, the behaviour has been of an unlawful, vigilante group that is confident that it will get away with a shoddy, partisan and politically coloured investigation.
What can the citizens do? It is not enough for young lawyers to get together and move the court, though a large number of them are doing just that. It is necessary for Members of Parliament, for retired police officers and judges, bureaucrats, activists and journalists to conduct a forensic, social audit of the investigation and release the findings.
To be a lawyer in a lawless state, quipped someone after the arrest of Umar Khalid, is like being a clown among people with no sense of humour.
What is it like to be a policeman?