The Union government appears to have used the conditions of the Covid-19 epidemic to eliminate dissent, using the harshest law available to it to do so. It has done this by conflating the successful citizenship law protests with terrorism. 

Under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which was amended last year, the state has the power to attribute criminality to any individual, group or action without restraint. Anything the government determines to be “unlawful activity” can be an act of terrorism. Last year, the law was amended to allow the government to designate an individual as a terrorist without a trial. 

This is how it has been able to link the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act  (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens with the equivalent of terrorism. It is pointless here to say again that the individuals representing the Union government who have been shown as deliberately provoking violence remain free and not even charged. Let us look here at those who have been, through the profiles that have been put out in their defence.

Safoora Zargar (born 1993) is an M. Phil student of Jamia Millia Islamia. A student activist leader from Kishtwar in Jammu, she was the media coordinator of the Jamia committee that was coordinating the “No CAA, No NPR, No NRC” protests. Zargar is in jail, accused of being part of a conspiracy to cause riots and of making an inflammatory speech on February 23.

She was initially arrested at her residence by Delhi Police on  April 10, with the police claiming she was among those who organised an anti-CAA protest and road blockade under the Jaffrabad metro station in Delhi on the night of February 22-23. On April 11, she was brought before the Metropolitan Magistrate and remanded in police custody for two days. On  April 13, she was granted bail, but immediately rearrested by the police on another charge. Additional charges were brought against her on April 20. 

Illustration: Binay Sinha

Natasha Narwal is a student and women human rights defender in India. A profile of hers by Frontline Defenders, an organisation tasked with protecting human rights defenders around the world, says that Narwal is one of the founding members of the Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and university alumni from across Delhi, who seek to lessen restrictions, such as curfews, placed on female students (which speaks to the origin of the name of the organisation, which means to break the cage). At present Narwal is a doctoral student at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Delhi Police’s Special Cell on May 28 “arrested” Pinjra Tod activist and booked her under the UAPA. 

Devangana Kalita is a student and women human rights defender in India. She is also one of the founding members of the Pinjra Tod. The collective challenges stereotypes on the need for women to be “protected”, and advocates against using concepts of safety and security to silence and suppress women’s rights to mobility and liberty.

Kalita is an MPhil student at the Centre for Women’s Studies at JNU. Since the CAA was passed and made law in December 2019, she has played a critical role in peacefully protesting and mobilising against the Act, on the basis that it violates the fundamental principles and protections of the Constitution.

She was first arrested on May 23 for her presence at the Jaffrabad anti-CAA protest and was subsequently released on bail. But after the court granted her bail, the Delhi police moved again and on May 28 arrested her in a separate case related to the violence that broke out in Delhi, under various charges including murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy. She has been charged under the UAPA. 

This is the background of some of the young women and men who are being tried as terrorists in our name. In another nation, activism in favour of the rights of others by those who are themselves protected by their background would attract honour and not opprobrium, much less persecution.

The state has no restraint as it goes after dissent. Our internal political structures have always been weak when it comes to defending the rights of minorities — and especially Muslims. The judiciary is, for whatever reason, statist and reluctant to step in to uphold fundamental rights. 

These women have repeatedly been denied bail and in fact been demonised by members of the ruling party and its supporters in the most shameful and sexist ways. 

The criminalisation of peaceful protests in favour of minority rights in India is happening at the same time as the upheaval over racism in the United States. And what happens in the US, especially things of this import, of this sort of momentous nature, do not remain restricted to the US. They will affect the world. Even Republican governors are today demanding laws on hate crime and some are promising to write the harshest one. Corporations like Coca Cola have weighed in openly on this. Many multinational companies have supported the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests in the most open and sympathetic terms.

Already India is on the US watchlist as a country of particular concern when it comes to the violation of religious freedom. This is not entirely without consequence and can be used to pile up pressure on the US executive to act. Our actions, since this has happened, against these young activists show that we are unconcerned as a nation about how the outside world views us. But it is no longer a world in which India has the sovereignty to persecute large numbers of its own people with impunity. Not only can mass protest bring pause or halt to such action, as the movement launched by our women against CAA and NRC showed, but the interest of the world in such things cannot be escaped. 

What is happening in the US will have an effect on India as well. Corporations and governments will continue to weigh in, in favour of the rights of individuals and of freedom. This will in turn pressure individuals to act, particularly celebrities. The chain of action in the long term makes it unsustainable for democracies to not adhere to broad liberal values and civil liberties. It is not possible for the government to continue what it is doing without damaging India’s reputation. There appears to be no goal for jailing young women activists except as an act of vengeance for their effective protests. The sooner this is realised, the better, and a good start would be to let these young women out on bail.

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