As of Thursday, India had over 21,000 cases of Covid-19, with 681 deaths. The country has been under a lockdown for almost a month since March 25. Normal life has come to a halt and the economy has almost ground to a halth. But for the Centre and the Delhi Police that functions under the Union Home Ministry, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to subvert the procedures of law.
Media reports on Wednesday said as the nation has been fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Delhi Police over the last few weeks had been busy arresting scores of people in connection with the communal violence that ripped through the capital in February.
The Indian Express reported that the continuing arrests were the result of pressure from the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah. Two weeks ago, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, home ministry officials told the Delhi Police not to halt action in the riots cases. The newspaper said 802 arrests have been made so far. The crime branch, investigating 42 murder cases, has made 182 arrests, while the North East district police has arrested 620 people in connection with the riots. Out of the 182 arrested, 50 were taken into custody during the lockdown.
As part of this campaign, student leaders of the Jamia Millia Islamia have been charged under the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, on charges of conspiring to instigate the violence. The offences they have been charged with include sedition, murder, rioting and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. Also in the police net is Umar Khalid, the former Jawaharlal Nehru University student activist.
In many of these cases, the families of the arrested were not notified, let alone being offered legal aid.
The actions showcase the egregious attempt of the Centre and the police to take advantage of the extraordinary restrictions due to the pandemic to undermine the liberty of citizens. The communal politics behind the move is blatant, as many of those booked for conspiracy are Muslim.
Courts across India are currently functioning at bare minimum capacity, hearing only what they believe are urgent matters. Lockdown restrictions and social distancing norms in place mean that those being arrested during the lockdown may not get the legal representation that they require. It would be difficult, and frankly dangerous, for lawyers to venture out to question the police on the arrests and represent the people taken into custody. This makes it easier for the authorities to take action without robust scrutiny.
Besides, the arrests run contrary to attempts by the courts, including the Supreme Court, to decongest prisons in times of a pandemic. While on the one hand the courts have ordered the release of undertrials who have not committed heinous crimes on bail, the Delhi Police is sending scores of people to prison under the claim that they are acting acting against the perpetrators of the violence.
Pandemic or not, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution are non-negotiable. It is important that the courts intervene and ensure the police does not take advantage of the lockdown to deny people their constitutional rights.