(New York) – Indian authorities should immediately drop politically-motivated charges against those peacefully protesting against citizenship policies that discriminate against Muslims and release them from custody, Human Rights Watch said today.
Police have used draconian anti-terrorism, sedition, and other laws against students, activists, and other government critics, but have not acted against violence by supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In some cases, the police filed new charges after activists were granted bail to ensure that they remained in custody, placing them at further risk during the Covid-19 outbreak in overcrowded prisons with inadequate sanitation, hygiene, and access to medical care.
“The Indian authorities have used the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent, and deter future protests against discriminatory policies,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of addressing past police abuse, the authorities seem to be trying their best to add to the list.”
In December 2019, the BJP-led government adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which for the first time in India makes religion a basis for citizenship. In response, protests broke out throughout the country following fears that the act, together with a planned nationwide verification process to identify “illegal migrants,” could threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims.
Violence around the protests broke out in Delhi on February 24, 2020, leaving at least 53 people dead and hundreds injured, most of them Muslim. The police failed to respond adequately and were at times complicit in these attacks. The authorities have failed to conduct impartial and transparent investigations into the violence.
While peaceful protests were dispersed after the government announced a lockdown in March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19, the authorities have since started arresting protesters, including students and activists, and filing charges of sedition, murder, and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), accusing them of a “conspiracy” to “defame the country in the international arena.”
Those arrested include Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, and Gulfisha Fatima, student activists; Shifa-Ur-Rehman and Khalid Saifi, activists; Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, student activists from the feminist collective Pinjra Tod; Tahir Hussain, a local political leader from Aam Aadmi Party; and Ishrat Jahan, local leader from the opposition Congress party.
Zargar, arrested on April 10 for rioting, was granted bail three days later. But that day the police booked her under the UAPA and for murder and sedition. She was denied bail on those charges despite her being in the second trimester of pregnancy and having an underlying medical condition, two factors that could place her at heightened risk of complications if she were to contract Covid-19.
Kalita and Narwal were granted bail after being arrested for rioting. In Kalita’s case, the magistrate noted that the police could not produce any concrete evidence to prove her role in the violence. However, the Delhi police immediately booked them on other charges, including sedition, murder, and under the UAPA, and they remain in jail.
Violence broke out in Delhi on February 24, soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. Tensions had been building for weeks, with BJP leaders openly advocating violence against the protesters, portraying anyone who spoke out against the government as working against the country’s interests.
Clashes between BJP supporters and citizenship law protesters soon transformed into Hindu mobs rampaging through northeast Delhi, killing Muslims and damaging their homes, shops, mosques, and property. While several Hindus were also killed, including a policeman and a government official, Muslims overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the violence.
Activists fear the police have overwhelmingly arrested Muslim residents from northeast Delhi neighborhoods where the violence took place in February, some of them victims of attacks, while failing to act against those responsible for the mob violence. The Delhi police have denied these allegations, saying the number of people arrested from the two communities are “almost identical to each other,” but have failed to disclose arrest details. The authorities have even provided contradictory information. In March, Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament that the violence was a “well-planned conspiracy” and that the police had filed over 700 cases, and detained 2,647 people. In a media briefing a day later, the Delhi police said that 200 people had been arrested. A month later, in reply to a Right to Information request, the Delhi police claimed that 48 people had been arrested. In May, a police spokesperson said that more than 1,300 people had been arrested in over 750 cases.
In several cases, Human Rights Watch found that the police did not follow procedures established under the criminal code such as producing an arrest warrant, informing the person’s family of the arrest, and providing them a copy of the First Information Report, the official police case, or ensuring that those arrested have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation.
A lawyer reported that his 45-year-old client was accused of looting and burning a shop as part of a mob. On April 2, when the man and his wife were not at home, several policemen barged into their house, searched it, and took their younger son to the police station. His son was released only when the man presented himself to the police, who detained him without telling him or his wife of his charges. His wife was given a copy of the First Information Report after 10 days. He was not able to meet or speak to his lawyer until he received bail over two months later.
A 35-year-old man who was shot and injured during the violence in Delhi in February was detained without a warrant on April 7, his lawyer said. His family went to three police stations to inquire about his whereabouts but were given no information. They were eventually informed that he had been arrested but were not given a copy of the First Information Report. His lawyer had to apply for his records through the courts and found out that he was charged with murder. He remains in jail.
Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, those arrested have limited to no access to legal counsel or to family members. A 21-year-old man was arrested on April 7 on charges of rioting and arson. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that she is yet to meet her client: “At the beginning of the lockdown, access to court records was a huge challenge. Generally, people being arrested were being sent into judicial remand without a lawyer present. I have had no contact with my client. Under normal circumstances, he would have been produced in court every 14 days and I would check on his health, have a conversation with him, move an application if he needs anything, but I cannot do any of that now.”
Activists and students across the country, especially in BJP-ruled states, continue to be targeted for participating in anti-citizenship law protests. In Uttar Pradesh state, Farhan Zuberi, a student at Aligarh Muslim University, was arrested on charges of sedition, rioting, and attempted murder. Dr. Kafeel Khan was initially arrested for promoting enmity between groups for a speech during the protests, but after he received bail on February 11, he was charged under the draconian National Security Act and kept in custody.
In Assam state, the police arrested several activists, charging some of them with sedition and under the UAPA. In January, Delhi police charged a university student, Sharjeel Imam, with sedition and he remains in jail. In February, Amulya Leona Noronha was arrested for sedition in Karnataka for raising the slogans for Pakistan and India unity at a protest but released on bail after over three months in detention because the authorities failed to file charges within the 90-day mandated time period.
Human Rights Watch previously documented that the authorities responded to the largely peaceful protests in a partisan manner. In many cases, when BJP-affiliated groups attacked protesters, the police did not intervene.
Nor have the authorities taken any action against BJP leaders who incited violence against the protesters, calling to “shoot” them. The Delhi High Court, while hearing petitions about the violence in February, questioned the police decision to not file cases against BJP leaders advocating violence, saying it sent the wrong message and perpetuated impunity. The government’s attorney said that the situation was not “conducive” for registering complaints against BJP leaders.
Indian authorities should uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. The government should act to repeal or substantially revise the UAPA as well as repeal the colonial-era sedition law to end the abuses committed under these laws.
“Instead of locking up people who dare to speak out against discriminatory government policies, the authorities should listen to their legitimate fears and grievances,” Ganguly said. “The government has repeatedly said that minorities in India have nothing to fear, and the authorities should put actions to those words.”