Around 9 pm on Thursday, Delhi-based activist Nadeem Khan shared a poster with journalists on WhatsApp asking them to attend an event marking 1,000 days of the incarceration of activist Umar Khalid. Khalid has been behind bars since September 13, 2020, under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for his alleged involvement in the Delhi riots earlier that year.

The poster titled “Democracy, Dissent and Censorship: A Discussion by Concerned Citizens” said the event was scheduled for 3 pm on Friday. The venue: the Press Club of India at Raisina Road in New Delhi.

Only days earlier, Khan had sent out a similar poster for the event, but with a different venue: the Gandhi Peace Foundation at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg near ITO in the national capital. The poster, too, had a slightly different title: “Dissent Under Trial: 1000 days of Injustice”.

But on Thursday, the IP Estates Police Station wrote to the office-bearers of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, a charitable trust, telling them to cancel the booking for the event, according to a copy of the letter accessed by Scroll.

This was not the first time in recent months that the Delhi Police has acted to shut down a discussion of this sort.

“These days, it’s hard to find a hall for organising a seminar on an issue that goes against the government narrative,” said Prashant Tandon, a member of the Press Club India who frequently acts as a nominee for civil society events at the venue. “And if you get some space and gather 20 people, you will see a large contingent of police surrounding the venue and creating an environment of dread.”

He said the government was denying citizens their democratic right to assemble and hold discussions. Tandon said the officials who manage venues should not be blamed for declining to rent out their spaces for such events as they are facing pressure from the police and other investigating agencies.

The letter telling the Gandhi Peace Foundation to cancel Thursday’s event about Umar Khalid was hand delivered by two policemen, said an official at the venue who requested anonymity.

The official said that the policemen were “angry” and asked why the foundation was allowing events without informing them. “We gave them the contact number of the organisers of the event and then they left,” said the official.

The letter stated that the police had received a “local input” that “some anonymous” group was planning to hold a public meeting on “Dissent on Trial” on Friday. It said that the police made efforts to obtain details about the members of the group but could not verify the information. The letter told the venue officials to cancel the event because “there is a discreet input of disturbance in the law & order situation in view of organising this public meeting”.

The Gandhi Peace Foundation then told Khan to look for another venue. “We had booked the hall under Apoorvanand’s name,” Nadeem Khan said, referring to the Delhi University professor who is a prominent civil society figure. Khan said the police had not contacted Apoorvanand or anyone else but instead sent the letter ordering the event to be cancelled.

Kumar Prashant, president of Gandhi Peace Foundation, declined to comment on the cancellation, saying that he was out of Delhi and did not have details about the developments.

Scroll asked the Station House Officer of the IP Estates Police about the police decision but he declined to comment. The Deputy Commissioner of Police, Central Delhi, did not answer phone calls or reply to text messages from Scroll.

Khan scrambled to find an alternative venue. He said he called up several centres and clubs in Delhi but all of them declined to take a booking.

Finally, around 8 pm on Thursday, the Press Club agreed to host the event. “We booked the club under the name of Khalid’s father SQR Ilyas, who is a member of the club,” said Khan.

On Friday afternoon, the courtyard of the Press Club was packed as journalists, students, activists and academicians gathered to hear panelists talk as they marked 1,000 days of Khalid’s incarceration. The speakers included journalist Ravish Kumar and economist Prabhat Patnaik.

Supreme Court advocate Shahrukh Alam, who spoke at the event, noted that the Station House Officer, instead of invoking sections of the law, had used the authority of his office to order the cancellation of the event. “There is no legal basis for such a request,” said Alam.

She added: “We are not thinking in terms of constitutional and civil liberties. We are operating in terms of law and order and national security.”

MP Manoj Jha speaks at the Press Club on Friday. Credit: Umar Khalid/Facebook.

Growing curbs, shrinking space

This was not the first time that the Gandhi Peace Foundation has been asked to cancel a civil society event. Three months ago, a discussion about press freedom in Kashmir had to be canceled at the last minute after the Delhi Police issued a similar letter telling the foundation officials to provide details of the audience expected to attend the talk.

The event, “Media blackout and state repression in Kashmir”, was scheduled to be held at the Gandhi Peace Foundation at 2 pm on March 15. It had been organised by the Campaign Against State Repression.

The wording of the letter the foundation received was similar to the one issued by the police on Thursday. The letter claimed that the event was being organised by an anonymous group and that there were inputs about a possible disturbance in law and order.

The speakers listed for the event included retired judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Hasnain Masoodi, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader MY Tarigami, filmmaker Sanjay Kak, Mir Shahid Saleem of the United Peace Alliance and Delhi University professor Nandita Narain.

Hours before the event was to begin, a posse of policemen in riot gear arrived at the venue and blocked the gates. Deepak Kumar, a civil rights activist who was part of the organising team, had told Scroll then that the police locked one of the gates of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and barricaded another. The talk was eventually cancelled.

Kumar said they tried looking for an alternative venue, but no one was ready to host such an event. “[It] shows there is no space at all for discussion on Kashmir in Delhi,” said Kumar.

Two days later, the Delhi Police, according to a report in The Hindu, told the Gandhi Peace Foundation to seek permission for all future programmes.

The report, citing an unidentified person at Delhi’s India International Centre, a cultural centre, said police permission is sought depending on the type of event. “If it’s a private event, we don’t seek police permission,” said the person. “But if it’s a discussion on a topic that could create law and order concerns, we alert the police.

Activists in Delhi said that this denial of permission points to larger efforts by the government to restrict space for civil society activities in the national capital. The Delhi Police are under the jurisdiction of the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah.

Deepak Kumar said the police were trying to put a stranglehold on venues to “choke space for civil society and curb dissent in Delhi”. “They want to control clubs, centres and venues that still enjoy some independence,” said Kumar. He said the police were making excuses citing “law and order” apprehensions to prevent events from taking place.

Kumar said that over the past eight months, the police had tried to cancel at least four events planned by the Campaign Against State Repression.

Activist Deepak Kumar at the Press Club on Friday. Credit: Scroll Staff.

According to Kumar, the police interference began in October when the group organised a discussion at the Gandhi Peace Foundation about the Supreme Court staying the acquittal of former Delhi University professor GN Saibaba, who has been jailed for having links with Maoists. “The police started harassing the venue officials,” said Kumar. “But they did not budge and we were able to hold the event” on October 28.

Bu in December, Kumar alleged that the Campaign Against State Repression had to cancel a programme on Saibaba after the Rajendra Bhawan near ITO denied space to host the event. Saibaba, a scholar and human rights activist, has been in jail since 2014. The event was finally held at HKS Surjeet Bhavan, which is owned by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

On January 12, the group scheduled another event at the HKS Surjeet Bhavan on the political prisoners incarcerated for their alleged role in the protests against the National Register of Citizens in 2019-’20 and the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad caste violence in 2016.

The event was planned at the Press Club, but the management denied permission saying “it was a political programme”, said Kumar. “We approached some journalist friends to intervene on our behalf but it did not work.” The organisers then shifted the programme to HKS Surjeet Bhavan. But there, the police arrived half-an-hour before the event was to start and began questioning the venue management.

“The police were telling us that they would not allow discussion on GN Saibaba,” said Kumar. “But the management assured them that they would take responsibility for maintaining law and order during the event.” The event was finally allowed to continue.

Tandon of the Press Club said that there is a growing reluctance among members to put down their names as nominees for political events. “I know when I give my name for an event, I get calls from police asking uncomfortable questions.” he said.

Khan, however, said that institutions such as the Press Club, Gandhi Peace Foundation and Constitutional Club had been created precisely to host events of this nature. “These institutes should not succumb to the police pressure,” said Khan. “What are they afraid of? If we are not allowed to assemble in such places, then where will we go to express dissent?”