Uttar Pradesh police have arrested more than 700 people over the last week for protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Most of the arrests have taken place in working-class Muslim neighbourhoods where residents allege the police turned violent, fired bullets without warning and ransacked homes.

However, in Varanasi, even social activists among the educated middle class have not been spared. Scroll.in found that as many as 69 activists were arrested on December 19, after they staged a peaceful demonstration. Fifty-six of them have been charged with grievous crimes such as violent rioting.

Many of those arrested are long-time social activists in Varanasi. Others are young scholars – for instance, Divakar Singh, a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University, who has a one-month old child. Two other activists arrested, Ravi Kumar and Ekta, have a one-year old child. Many others are students.

These arrests have created such a wave of fear and panic in Varanasi that everyone Scroll.in interviewed for this story – including some of the most established activists and scholars in the city – requested that their identities be protected.

A Twitter thread on those arrested by the Joint Action Committee at the Banaras Hindu University.

Brutal force in Uttar Pradesh

Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill on December 11, for the first time introducing a religious element to the country’s citizenship laws. This has sparked intense anxieties among Indian Muslims, who fear the Act may be used in combination with the National Register of Citizens to deprive them of citizenship.

Large, peaceful protests have been staged nationwide against the CAA and the NRC. However, in Uttar Pradesh, the state government imposed section 144 – the Indian law that bans public assembly – across the entire state on December 19. When protestors still came out to stage demonstrations, either on purpose or simply because they did not know it was in place, they were met with brutal force. The next day, in several places when there was no formal protest, Muslim prayer gatherings came under police fire.

Of the 24 people killed in the protests in BJP-ruled states – there have been none in states ruled by the Opposition – as many as 17 are from Uttar Pradesh.

Mass arrests

In Varanasi, the Beniya Bagh area saw a modest protest on December 19 with less than a hundred people.

According to several eyewitness accounts, the protest was entirely peaceful. “It was a shantipoorna pradarshan [a peaceful demonstration],” said Aqeel, a tea-seller in Beniya Bagh. “They were walking down Nai Sadak shouting slogans.”

The police rounded 69 of the protestors into a bus.

“There was absolutely no violence, no damage of even a rupee” said Amit*, a social activist associated with the organisers of the Thursday protest. “In fact, protestors willingly got into the police vehicle since this happens all the time. Police often detain protesters and leave them after a few hours.”

But this would be a break from that pattern. The police detention continued for a couple of days, even as the city of Varanasi remained tense with Internet shut.

And the peaceful protestors were charged under strict laws: Section 147, 148, 149, 188, 332, 353, 341 of the Indian Penal Code as well as Section 7 in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1932. The sections range from violent rioting with deadly weapons to assaulting a public servant.

The First Information Report accessed by Scroll.in lays out the police version of events as they transpired on Thursday: “[The protestors] became aggressive, attacked the police force and pushed us. They also chased people passing by and blocked the road which caused chaos in the surrounding areas.”

Many student organisations have asked for the release of the BHU students.

‘Unprecedented madness’

There is great shock over the police FIR, which activists say is a complete fabrication.

“The protest was completely peaceful,” said Naren*, one of Varanasi’s city most well-known rights activists. “These people are well known members of civil society. And they have been doing this for years. This is shocking.”

He continued: “To say that people like Divakar, a scholar at IIT BHU were violent is bizarre.”

The realisation – that what has taken place is unprecedented – was common among the activists Scroll.in spoke to.

“I have been doing activism for 20-30 years,” said Naren. “I have seen Congress, Samajwadi, Bahaujan Samaj, even other BJP governments – but never this sort of madness.”

Silencing dissent

The government’s aim was clear, several people said. “They want to crush this anti CAA-NRC movement,” said Amit. “That is why they are adopting this Hitlershahi, Hitler rule.”

Unlike earlier, where long-time activists would get a hearing from the administration, this time there was nothing. “The district magistrate said that if you do such things, then I will break down your door, enter your house and beat you up,” said Naren. “They have got orders from the top to do this. Nothing else explains it.”

The district magistrate did not respond to Scroll.in’s phone call and text message, seeking his comments to this allegation.

The police crackdown is not limited to Varanasi. Across Uttar Pradesh, the police stand accused of arresting peaceful protestors. On Friday, the Lucknow Police detained and assaulted activist Deepak Kabir after he went to a police station to inquire about his friends missing after they staged a peaceful protest against the Citizenship Act.

*All names have been changed on request.

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