India is going through a never-seen-before nationwide lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, and life has literally come to a standstill. Not for everybody, though. Over the last few days, Indian authorities have been arresting and summoning student activists and leaders who participated in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests from December 2019 to February 2020
Most recently, the Delhi police invoked the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, who are both students of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, along with Umar Khalid, a former student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Both Haider and Zargar were part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), a group of students and alumni from the university who spearheaded the anti-CAA protests in some parts of Delhi. The Act, which has been used liberally to crackdown on journalists and their right to expressions in India in the past, can land those charged in jail for up to seven years. At the moment, at least 50 other students have also been summoned by the Delhi police.
Last year, when the Government of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill and made it an Act—one that seeks to provide citizenship for persecuted minorities from neighbouring nations but is being criticised for excluding Muslims—students from universities across the country, particularly Muslim-minority educational institutions such as Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), came out to protest against it. In the following weeks, the country saw clashes between groups opposing and supporting CAA, which eventually escalated to full-blown communal riots in northeast Delhi, leading to a loss of at least 53 lives.
The current charges are a follow-up to those events. While Haider was arrested on April 2 for allegedly hatching a conspiracy to incite those communal riots, Zargar was arrested days later for allegedly leading a protest in the Muslim neighbourhood of Jaffarabad in Delhi. Those charges have been framed under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including 124 A (sedition), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.) and 120 B (criminal conspiracy). Umar Khalid, who has been named as one of the prime accused in a First Information Report, has been accused of making hate speeches and disseminating propaganda to destabilise the visit of Donald Trump in New Delhi.
Umar Khalid, a former student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, is one of the visible supporters of the anti-CAA protests in India. He's one of the people currently charged under the controversial Unlawful Activities (and Prevention) Act. Photo: Naman Saraiya
"This is witch-hunting on part of the government. Meeran and Safoora actively participated in student politics on campus. That is their only fault,” Mohsin Ahmed, a student at JMI, told VICE. “They are not criminals. Meeran was even involved in the relief work during the lockdown."
The timing of the police action has raised eyebrows, especially at a time when strict restrictions on the mobility and assembly of people are placed in the country because of the complete lockdown. "While the country is shut down fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the government is finding opportunities to detain and arrest students as they expect no resistance owing to lockdown," Nabila Hasan, a Supreme Court advocate who is providing legal assistance to the students, told VICE.
She further says that the administration is falsely framing students under criminal offences for merely protesting against the policies of Central government. "They are students with no criminal records but the charges levelled against them are serious in nature,” she said. “They are being accused of rioting, murder, arson, and hatching criminal conspiracies. Their only crime is protesting against a discriminatory law. The police at the behest of the Central government is leaving no opportunity to carry out a witch hunt against the Muslim students belonging to minority institutions who participated in anti-CAA protests."
Students Now Fear ‘Random’ Arrests and 'Witch-hunting'
The current trend has instilled fear of being framed under false charges among many other students, who participated in the protests. "[The police] are framing charges as they wish. There is fear among all the students who participated in the protests,” said a student member of JCC who did not want to be named. “This government can go to any extent to stifle our voices. Everyone feels they will be the next in line to be arrested." At the same time, some students have shared concerns that the Delhi Police is randomly arresting their peers, in some cases even without serving notice.
On April 16, Amir Mintoee, a student from AMU in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was providing food to the patients stuck at a local hospital because of the lockdown, when the local police arrested him. The student activist was a part of his university’s coordination committee, which was coordinating the anti-CAA protests on AMU campus. Today, Mintoee’s friends confirm that he has been arrested for being critical of the government's anti-Muslim policies. "Amir is not only a dissenting voice but is also helping the immediate kin of the people who have been lynched in the recent communal attacks in the country. This doesn’t bode well with the government," Imran Jalali, Mintoee’s friend from the same university, told VICE.
Many students are also accusing the government of targeting them and their universities because of their religious identity. "Scholars from institutions like JMI and AMU are deliberately being hounded for their Muslim identity. This is simply a move to terrorise us and warn us of repercussions if we won't budge," said Umar Ashraf, a student of development communications from JMI.
Arresting Students Even During Lockdown is Suspicious
With courts across the country closed and virtual hearings through video conferencing being done for “important cases” only, social activists and legal experts believe the government's ploy to arrest protesting students during the current health crisis may be a deliberate move. This is also the time when protestors would struggle to get bails.
"This seems so planned and intentional," Shabnam Hashmi, a New Delhi-based human rights activist told VICE. "They (the government) know getting a bail during this time is very difficult. Even civil society and other protesting people cannot assemble. This government is absolutely shameless." Hashmi believes that the government is using all its draconian powers during a major international health crisis with the sole intention of silencing dissenting students. "The government is using lockdown to not only intimidate but also suppress all voices of dissent," said Hashmi. "This is unprecedented and it feels like an undeclared emergency in the country."
VICE tried to reach out to Delhi Police but the Public Relations Officer MS Randhawa offered no comment over the issue.