Students arrested under cover of COVID-19, activists say

Academics, opposition parties and other university groups have condemned a series of arrests of students and activists in the past month, alleging that they have been being carried out “under the shadow of coronavirus” while the country was preoccupied with the lockdown against the pandemic that was imposed at the end of March.

On 1 April, Delhi police arrested Meeran Haider, a PhD student at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university in Delhi, for allegedly conspiring to incite violence in Delhi. Safoora Zargar, a JMI MPhil student, was arrested on 13 April and Shifa-Ur-Rehman, president of the JMI Alumni Association, was arrested on 26 April. Ten others were arrested last month.

Haider and Zargar are also members of the Jamia Coordination Committee, a group of current and former JMI students. All three were part of protests at the university in February against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA passed in December 2019, which allows Indian citizenship for those from neighbouring countries only if they are not Muslim.

The arrest of Zargar, who is pregnant, has sparked a particular row as she has been denied bail despite pleas on humanitarian grounds. Police claim she took part in an anti-CAA protest and road blockade near a New Delhi metro station on 22-23 February.

Her husband, who does not want to be named, said: “She is four months pregnant. This is a very difficult time for us. She is alone in the prison at a time when she needs better food and care. I don’t know whether she is getting the required medical help.”

The students have been charged with the serious offences of murder, attempted murder, rioting, sedition, conspiracy, causing damage to public property and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.

A series of violent incidents began in the north-eastern parts of New Delhi on 23 February between CAA supporters and those opposing it – even while United States President Donald Trump was on a state visit to the country – and continued for several days, with 53 killed and more than 200 people injured in the worst communal riots in the city since the 1980s.

But many of those arrested in April have also been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA. The amended UAPA gives the government authority to jail people without charge and makes it nearly impossible for them to get bail.

A former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader, Umar Khalid, has also been booked under the UAPA.

Many student activists arrested

A group of more than 20 scholars and activists released a statement on 12 April saying the arrests were “autocratic” and made at a time when the country and the world were fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement signed by lawyer Teesta Setalvad, activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Kavita Krishnan, former JNU student leader Umar Khalid and others said the arrests were part of an “emerging pattern” by the government to use the law as a tool to repress dissent.

Human rights activist Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and also a leading member of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said many student activists had been arrested and others had been intimidated and threatened with arrest.

“They have been arrested during the COVID-19 pandemic and others are being asked to come to the police station and appear for investigation during this pandemic,” she said. Lawyers have said at least 50 other students had been summoned by the Delhi police since the start of the lockdown six weeks ago.

The government’s motive is to punish voices protesting against the CAA, Krishnan said. “It is extremely shocking that those who are actually involved in openly instigating such riots and indulged in hate speech are
untouched,” she added, referring to pro-CAA groups.

Lockdown imposes limitations

“The lockdown cannot be a lockdown on the rights of citizens and must not be abused by the authorities in this manner,” said a statement issued on 19 April by the Jamia Coordination Committee which pointed out that the Indian constitution gives people the right to express their views and this cannot be unlawful.

However, “at a time when various governments are releasing under-trials from jail to relieve pressure on the prisons and restrict chances of [COVID-19] contamination, the Delhi police are pushing students and activists in[to] jail,” the Jamia Coordination Committee statement said.

Others said the coronavirus lockdown limited detainees’ ability to access legal assistance or to expect a proper hearing while courts are shut during the lockdown and only the most important cases are being heard via video-conferencing. Getting bail is also difficult during a lockdown, lawyers pointed out.

Activists noted that civil society and other supporters of the students are unable to assemble during the lockdown or raise the alarm when students are seized by police.

University teachers speak out

The Jamia Teachers’ Association and the JNU Teachers’ Association, along with other organisations including the Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Associations, condemned the arrests and demanded the release of all students, including Haider and Zargar.

In a joint statement released on 14 April, they said Delhi police had launched “retaliatory vindictive action” against students peacefully demonstrating against the CAA, although all protests were halted during the lockdown.

They said JMI student leaders Zargar and Haider were arrested “on trumped up charges” and “other unfounded allegations”.

However, Delhi police, in a statement, said: “Everything was done within the purview of the law and there is evidence against those arrested for their involvement in inciting riots.”

Police sources claim police found “incriminating evidence” against Shifa-Ur-Rehman, leading to his arrest on 26 April.

In joint statement released on 9 May, Women of JNU expressed solidarity with the jailed student leaders. Such arrests were one-sided and served as instruments of state propaganda “that wants to achieve two things – first, to completely delegitimise the entirely peaceful anti-CAA protest. Second, it wants to shield the actual culprits of the violence in North East Delhi”, which they claimed was part of a “venomous state election campaign” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party.

Women of JNU said as long as there are women who see through this ruse, and refuse to be a part of it, the government cannot win.

Leaders of various opposition parties condemned the arrests of student activists under the UAPA and demanded an end to “the politics of vendetta” against protesters and political dissenters.

A letter written by eight political parties to India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, on 11 May, said: “In Delhi, the police [acting] directly under the Home Ministry are arresting prominent activists including women involved in the totally peaceful anti-CAA movement under the draconian UAPA on totally manufactured charges seeking to link them with the communal violence in Delhi.”

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