When protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act erupted around the country on December 19, the Uttar Pradesh Police decided to take pre-emptory action.
It imposed prohibitory orders across the entire state, arrested at least 1,200 protestors, detained thousands more – including minors – and opened fire in a number of places across the state, leading to more than 20 deaths.
But a month later, the police is struggling to substantiate its decision to take such sweeping and in many cases brutal action.
An analysis of 13 court orders from Muzaffarnagar, Varanasi and Lucknow by Scroll.in showed that judges are granting bail to many of those arrested because the police have been unable to put forward evidence.
“The specific role of the accused has not been outlined,” said one bail order for 14 men who were arrested in Muzaffarnagar, echoing orders from other parts of the state.
As protests against the controversial Citizenship Act amendments – which many fear will be used to harass Indian Muslims – continue to gather steam around the country, the spotlight has returned to Uttar Pradesh, which saw the most violence, arrests and casualties in December.
Many witnesses have claimed that the police was responsible for provoking the violence, a fact borne out in several cases by videos. District court judges are also taking a look at the actions of the authorities and the evidence, or lack thereof, on the record.
On January 13, the sessions court in Muzaffarnagar granted bail to 14 people accused of violence in connection with protests on December 20. The accused were charged with offences such as rioting, obstruction of public officials from discharging their duties and assaulting them.
The bail order reproduces a list furnished by the prosecution of 18 policemen who were allegedly injured in the protests, detailing the kind of injuries they had suffered. However, the prosecution admitted that the injuries were not serious: “Police officials did not suffer a lot of damage because they had body protectors and helmets”.
The prosecution claimed it had evidence showing the accused vandalising public property. “The photographs of the incident have been made part of the investigation,” the prosecution stated, adding that further investigation in the matter was pending.
But the defence lawyers pointed out that the police had not produced any evidence in the form of video footage despite claiming so. “Teen hazaar vyaktiyoon ki bheed mein se kissi ka koi specific role nahi hai,” the defence argued in the order. “There is no specific role of anyone in a crowd of 3,000 people.”
District and Sessions Judge Sanjay Kumar Pachauri observed that there was no evidence against the accused in the colour images submitted to the court. “Prarthi/abhiyukt ka koi vishesht role ullekith nahi kiya gaya hai,” the judge noted. “No specific role of the accused has been outlined.”
The judge ordered the accused to furnish a bail bond of Rs 1 lakh each.
In Varanasi, 69 people were arrested on December 19, 2019, while staging a demonstration against the amended Citizenship Act. Those arrested included long-time activists, research scholars and students of Banaras Hindu University.
Fifty-six of those arrested were charged with serious offences such as rioting with weapons, obstructing public officials from doing their work and assaulting them. All 56 were granted bail on January 1, 2020 and were asked to furnish two bonds of Rs 25,000 each.
The names of these 56 activists were spread across nine bail orders that Scroll.in reviewed.
In all the orders, District and Sessions Judge Sarvesh Kumar Pandey summarised the prosecution’s case that the accused went ahead with the protest despite not having permission and despite being told that it violated the prevalent prohibitory orders. “The accused became aggressive and attacked the police force. Around 1 pm, they shouted anti-national slogans because of which the law and order situation was affected and people were shut in their homes,” the prosecution was cited as saying.
The defence lawyer, however, argued that the police had failed to produce any evidence against the accused, nor did they have any independent witnesses. The defence laywer also pointed out that none of the accused had a criminal record.
While granting bail to the activists, the judge noted that no clear role of the accused had been established in the violence, apart from the accusation that the activists took part in the protest without obtaining permission.
“There is no other specific accusation of a certain kind on the accused and it is with this reference that the conclusion [in the order] is being drawn,” the order noted.
Activist Sadaf Jafar was taking part in a protest at Lucknow’s Parivartan Chowk on December 19, when the police arrested her. Jafar live-streamed the encounter even as police officials hauled her away. She was charged with rioting, attempted murder and assault on public servants.
She was granted bail on January 4, 2020 and was asked to furnish two bonds each of Rs 50,000.
In the bail order, the District and Sessions Judge Sanjay Shankar Pandey summarised the prosecution’s claim that Jafar had been arrested because she had taken part in a protest which had turned violent. Police officials had been attacked and public property had been destroyed in the violence, the prosecution claimed. However, it did not produce any specific evidence against Jafar.
The judge noted that Jafar’s counsel argued that she did not play a specific role in the case. “Certain anti-social elements entered the protest and created problems…they could have easily been identified through the police but the police at that time arrested the accused who was filming a video of the incident and could have helped the police in identifying the anti-social elements,” the defence argued, as per the bail order.
In the order, the judge concluded that there was no evidence to establish Jafar’s role in the violence and granted her bail “without commenting on the merits of the case”.
Robin Verma, an activist, was arrested by police officials on December 20 in connection with protests that took place in Lucknow on December 19. On December 20, Verma was hauled away by police along with Omar Rashid, a journalist from The Hindu while they were sitting at a restaurant.
Rashid was freed after a few hours but Verma spent 25 days in jail. He was charged with grievous offences including rioting with a deadly weapon, obstructing public officials from carrying out their duties and assaulting them.
He was granted bail on January 7 and released from Lucknow district jail a week later on January 14 after the court ordered him to furnish two bonds of Rs 50,000.
In the order, the District and Sessions Judge Sanjay Shankar Pandey noted that the prosecution argued that the accused had taken part in a protest while Section 144 was applicable in Lucknow. The prosecution said the protest led to violence and vandalism and that the accused was arrested on the basis of “enough evidence”. The bail order however did not specify the kind of evidence the prosecution spoke of.
The defence, however, pointed out that the accused had not been named in the First Information Report filed by the police. “The counsel for accused also stated that it was the fundamental right of the accused to protest against the CAA on December 19, 2019,” the judge noted. The defence lawyer argued that Verma was not involved in vandalism or violence or any kind and that there was no evidence of it either.
In the order, the judge stated that Verma was not named in the FIR and that there was no evidence to suggest that he had a role to play in the alleged violence. “During the arguments, the prosecutor made a statement that with regards to arson the role of the accused has not been established,” the judge noted.
Mohammad Shoaib, a lawyer and president of the human rights group Rihai Manch, was kept under house arrest by police officials on December 18, in anticipation of protests against the amended Citizenship Act in Lucknow. The next day, he was taken away from his home to an unidentified location. Only after his family filed a habeas corpus petition did the police disclose that he had been formally arrested.
On January 15, the district court in Lucknow granted bail to the 76-year-old lawyer.
The judge noted that Shoaib’s lawyer had argued that he was placed under house arrest since the evening of December 18, 2019. The next day, police officials came to his house around 11.45 at night claiming that the Nazirabad Circle Officer wanted to meet him.
The defence also pointed out that Shoaib had not been originally named in the First Information Report related to the alleged violence at the protests for which he had been arrested.
In the order, the judge noted that the prosecution stated that there was no evidence to establish the role of the accused in the vandalism. “Affirmative evidence to prove that the accused was present during the incident has not yet been compiled,” the judge said.