Seventy-six year old advocate Mohammad Shoaib fought to have innocents branded as terrorists under repressive laws released, and risked multiple assaults by right-wing lawyers as he took these cases through various courts in Uttar Pradesh. His contemporary, former police officer SR Darapuri became a human rights activist and writer after he retired. Neither would have imagined one day they would be lodged in jail, charged with rioting and creating disaffection, under similarly draconian laws.
But as everybody knows, in Uttar Pradesh today Shoaib and Darapuri are not exceptions. They are just two notable figures among the hundreds of socio-political activists, writers and cultural workers—not to forget ordinary folks—who have been packed into various state prisons for opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). These protests are going on across the country, and started peaking after 19 December, when students spontaneously poured out in the streets against the new law and the proposed policy.
Uttar Pradesh’s administration has come down on those protesting with a heavy hand. The Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, tried to project the opposition to the bill as a purely ‘law and order issue: therefore, he sought to justify seeking “revenge” against those who damaged public or private property.
A fine example of how the vendetta is unfolding in the northern state is in Varanasi. Here, one of the FIRs lodged by the police names 56 people, including leading social activists, labour leaders and more than twenty students of Banaras Hindu University. They have been collectively charged under eight sections of the Indian Penal Code. The arrest of an activist couple, Ekta Shekhar and Ravi, who work on environmental issues, has become symptomatic of the callousness of the law and order machinery. They have been denied a visit by their 14-month-old daughter.
The question arises whether the burden of law and order rests only on the ordinary people or does it also apply to the supposed upholders of this law and order as well?
For instance, no question is raised about miscreants in civil dress who had covered their faces, engaged in arson and even attacked anti-CAA protesters while the police turned a blind eye.
In many instances, the police have leveled serious charges against people when not even a semblance of violence had occurred. The arrest of activist Deepak Kabir, who was apprehended inside the police station where he had gone to look for his missing friends made national headlines, but his is not the sole such instance either.
Reports tell us that the police did not even spare thirteen-year-olds. Children from Bijnor have shared harrowing accounts of how the police beat them after CAA protests. They said they were “tortured over a period of 48 hours” before they were released. The police, they said, wanted to teach them a lesson.
Videos on social media, and some which have featured on the mainstream TV channels, strongly suggest that the police provoked people into getting violent, by using high-handed tactics. Recall that a leading channel had revealed policemen, deliberately and without apparent provocation, had destroyed motorcycles at the gate of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). This was right before AMU students and the university premises came under attack from the police.
Police personnel have also been found to be allegedly entering houses of people, especially of the Muslims, after first breaking CCTV cameras to destroy any evidence of their wrongdoings. They have been accused of creating mayhem and even looting homes. It is a marker of the deteriorating situation in the state that a newspaper, which always maintained a moderate image, has questioned the “in-your-face brazenness of the Uttar Pradesh law enforcement machinery” in dealing with anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters.
According to it, “In trying to project a harsh, no-nonsense approach for maintaining order on the streets, the message the Yogi Adityanath government has managed to send across inadvertently or intentionally does not camouflage communal overtones: ‘don’t you dare (protest)’... Probing questions are going unanswered on selective targeting of protesters, amid widespread charges of police brutality across the state.
National Human Rights Commission has also issued a notice to the UP Director-General of Police over their actions taken during the anti-CAA protests. The NHRC had been receiving petitions seeking its intervention in the alleged incidents of violation of human rights by the state police.
A fact-finding team of rights activists comprising Yogendra Yadav, Kavita Krishnan and Riad Azam recently toured parts of UP. In their report they say that the Yogi Adityanath government has unleashed a “reign of terror” in Uttar Pradesh. The report released by them cites district-wise statistics and testimonies from families, and accuses the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government of brazenly targeting Muslims and social activists.
Their report says that developments in the state demand a special investigation under the supervision of the Supreme Court and also that the police officers accused of atrocities must be suspended so that the real guilty can be identified.
The question is, why has Uttar Pradesh witnessed the most violence and deaths (at least 20 people have died) in the anti-CAA protests and why does UP also stand out for making the most arrests? In UP, the police have booked 21,500 people in 15 FIRs in just Kanpur and it has filed an FIR against 1,200 AMU students for simply holding a candlelight march, which did not see any violence.
“The property of each element involved in this violence will be confiscated, and used to recover compensation for public property which was damaged. All their faces have been identified. They are visible in the videograph and CCTV footage. We will take revenge by confiscating their properties, I have ordered strict action.”
The free hand given by the Yogi government to the police to go all out to “curb crime” using fake encounters has encouraged an atmosphere of impunity in the forces. In the first 16 months of Yogi government officially there were 3,026 police encounters, in which 69 criminals were gunned down, which the government highlighted as an “achievement”.
Now the government has put up “wanted” posters of ordinary people who participated in the protests, declared them “rioters” and asked people to report their behaviour in exchange for a suitable reward. It also wants to seize the properties of protesters, apparently because they engaged in violence and destruction of property. The process of attachment of properties has already begun. “In Muzaffarnagar, around three dozen shops have been sealed with the intention of recovering the loss of public property by selling the goods stored in these shops and shops themselves if needed. In Kanpur, 28 persons have been identified as the perpetrators,” this report says. The administration of Rampur has similarly issued notices to 28 people it has “identified for violence” during last week’s protests.
The basic idea of judicial oversight has been overlooked in issuing these orders, but the real game plan is apparent. The UP government wants to criminalise and terrorise any protest. Whether this unholy alliance of a section of the law and order machinery with right-wing miscreants, lasts will determine the future of this democracy. Would this be allowed to succeed or would it be challenged with all our might is the big question.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.