As Delhi Police continue to arrest student leaders and search their mobile phones in cases related to the February communal violence, courts have cited the coronavirus pandemic as reason to skip close monitoring of the police investigation.

On April 25, a district judge heard a petition filed by a student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University who alleged the police had seized her phone without following due procedure. She asked the district court at Patiala House to monitor the investigation and seek weekly reports from the police. The judge said: “The court is of the considered opinion that due to current circumstances ensuing in the nation due to pandemic created by Covid-19, it is not feasible to call for weekly reports and to monitor them in such times.”

The court’s reluctance to monitor the police investigation has deepened the growing sense of alarm among Delhi’s student activists who allege the police is using the lockdown to frame them in communal violence cases based on weak evidence.

Communal violence erupted in North East Delhi between February 23-26. More than 50 people were killed in the violence, most of them Muslims, with hundreds injured and thousands displaced. The violence had begun as clashes between protestors opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens and groups which backed the government.

Student activists allege they are being targeted by the police for mobilising peaceful anti-government protests starting December 2019. They say they had no role in the communal violence that erupted in February.

The protest at Jaffrabad metro station in February. Credit: PTI

Jamia to Jaffrabad

Among those arrested is Safoora Zargar, a media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, a student body at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. She was first arrested by Delhi police on April 10, Friday, hours before the courts shut for the weekend.

The police have accused her of instigating protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Jaffrabad in North East Delhi on February 22. The First Information Report filed by an officer of the Jaffrabad police station on February 24 had identified 14 people as the accused. The officer alleged they had instigated protestors to sit near the Jaffrabad Metro station and shout slogans against the government and the police, vitiating the peaceful atmosphere in the area.

However, Zargar was not among the 14 named in the FIR.

“She has nothing to do with the riots,” her husband told He requested anonymity.She was only coordinating with the media for CAA protests in Jamia. She is being framed for being part of the anti-CAA protests.”

The Jamia Millia Islamia University is located in South Delhi, 20 km from Jaffrabad, which is in North East Delhi. Students of the university were actively involved in protests near the campus, which picked up steam after the police entered the university on December 15, firing tear-gas in the library and beating up students.

We are very worried about the fact that she has been kept in isolation,” Zargar’s husband said. “She is four months pregnant. The entire day goes by worrying about her health and the health of the unborn baby. We can’t even eat our food properly thinking about her situation.”

On April 13, a magistrate awarded Zargar bail in the case. However, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, now investigating an alleged conspiracy that fueled the North East Delhi riots in late February, arrested her under an FIR filed on March 6. Her bail application was rejected on April 21.

On April 21, she also contested before the court that the April 13 arrest was irregular, an application the court dismissed stating it was a defence to be taken up at an appropriate stage. In another application, she has claimed before the court that on April 10, she was taken to the Special Cell station in Lodi Colony and arrested after sunset and not the Jaffrabad Police Station, which filed the February 24 case.

An omnibus FIR

The investigation against student activists now centres around the March 6 FIR filed by the Delhi Police crime branch and now being investigated by the Special Cell.

Like the February 24 FIR, the March 6 FIR did not name Zargar either. It had only two names, that of former Jawaharlal Nehru University student activist Umar Khalid and president of the Popular Front of India in Delhi, Mohammed Danish. The Popular Front of India is the student wing of the Social Democratic Party of India, known for hardline Islamist politics, primarily in South India.

The FIR said Khalid had made provocative speeches in several locations in the city, appealing to Muslims to block roads and protest during United States President Donald Trump’s visit to Delhi on February 24 and 25. Firearms, acid bottles and other dangerous weapons were allegedly mobilised for this purpose. Women and children, the FIR said, were deliberately mobilised and sent to blockade the Jaffrabad Metro station.

The FIR mentioned four sections under the Indian Penal Code: 147 for rioting, 148 for rioting armed with deadly weapons, 149 for participating in an unlawful assembly and 120 B for criminal conspiracy to commit a crime. All these were bailable sections.

However, despite the nature of the provisions, the Delhi Police took Danish and two other PFI members into custody on March 9. Khalid is yet to be arrested.

Three days later on March 13, a Delhi court slammed the police for failing to award bail to the accused at the police station itself. The FIR of March 6 did not contain any non-bailable sections and thus the accused were eligible for bail at the station.

In her order granting bail to the three PFI members, Metropolitan Magistrate Prabh Deep Kaur said: “There is no explanation by the IO [investigating officer] as to why he had not offered bail to the accused persons at the first instance as per the constitutional as well as procedural mandate. Therefore, let a written explanation be called from the IO concerned with respect to his failure to offer bail to the accused persons in bailable offences as per the constitutional and procedural mandate returnable on March 17.”

Supporters of the Citizenship Amednment Act jump over a road divider during a clash with those opposing the law in New Delhi in February. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Dreaded UAPA

Subsequently, Delhi Police went on to add several non-bailable sections to the FIR, invoking the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Zargar is one of several student leaders who have been arrested under this expanded FIR.

On April 2, Meeran Haider, a 35-year-old research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia and president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s youth wing in Delhi, was called in for questioning. Hours later, he was arrested. On April 16, Haider was sent to 14 days judicial custody. Haider was not provided station bail because the police has invoked tough sections, including provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Like Zargar and Haider, others have also been arrested using the same FIR during the nationwide lockdown, when restrictions make it difficult for lawyers to attend to their clients.

On April 26, the Delhi Police arrested Shifa Ur Rehman, head of the Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia. In an application for remand filed before the Patiala House Court, the police claimed Rehamn was actively involved in the conspiracy by instigating protests at various places in the capital. He was also accused of getting funds from the West Asia to organise the protests.

His name, the police said, came up during interrogation of others arrested. These include the three Popular Front of India activists subsequently given bail in March and others activists such as Haider, Zargar, Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi, Gulfisa and former Aam Aadmi Party councilor Tahir Hussain.

Long list of offences

Shifa Ur Rehman’s remand application showed the Delhi Police Special Cell had added several new sections to the March 6 FIR: 302 for murder, 307 for attempt to murder, 353 for assaulting a public servant, 186 for obstructing a public servant from discharging duty, 212 for harbouring offenders, 395 for dacoity, 427 for mischief causing damage of more than fifty rupees, 435 for destroying a public landmark, 436 for mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, 452 for house trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint, 454 for lurking house-trespass or house-breaking in order to commit offence punishable with imprisonment and six other IPC sections.

This was in addition to the provisions under the UAPA, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act and the Arms Act.

These additions mean that there was no immediate scope for those arrested to get bail. The judge, citing the gravity of the offences, declined to consider Rehman’s lawyer’s opposition to the remand and sent him to police custody till May 6.

“I don’t think the police have acted fairly in this case,” said a relative of Rehman. “They are peaceful protestors. They have no role in the riots. Protesting peacefully is their constitutional right. The allegations against them are totally ridiculous.”

The relative, who did not want to be identified, said it was not unusual for alumni to come forward to support their alma matter during difficult times. “How is that connected to the riots? It is obvious that this is to get back at home for the CAA protests,” the relative said. “This is extreme injustice and is meant to snuff out our constitutional right.”

Seizing phones

In the meantime, the Delhi Police have also seized the mobile phones of other student activists, allegedly sending notices to over 50 people as part of this investigation. All this has happened when the country is under a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 25, two cases against seizure of mobile phones by the Delhi Police in connection with the March 6 conspiracy case came up before a magistrate at the Patiala House Court.

The first was filed by a student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the application, two primary pleas were made: return the mobile phone seized and monitor the investigation taking place under the March 6 FIR by seeking weekly reports from the police. The student said that due procedures under the law were not followed.

The student alleged that the password for the mobile phone was obtained from her under duress during the search and seize operations. The student feared that the contents could be tampered with and asked for a clone of the phone memory submitted to the court. This is done to ensure that any tampering could be detected later by comparing with the duplicate in the court’s possession.

The judge refused to grant any of the remedies. On the monitoring of the case, the court said due to the Covid-19 lockdown when courts are functioning only for urgent matters, “monitoring by the same magistrate is highly doubtful”.

“The same is not pragmatic apropos to the current situation,” the court said. “Resultantly, the court is of the considered opinion that due to current circumstances ensuing in the nation due to pandemic created by Covid-19, it is not feasible to call for weekly reports and to monitor them in such times.”

Further, the judge said the applicant had not provided any concrete reason for the court to monitor the case, other than an apprehension that the phone could be tampered with. The reference by the student’s lawyer to a case in Delhi High Court, in which taking of the phone’s password by the police was stayed, was refused to be considered as a precedent for reasons including the fact that the password has already been given to the police.

An identical order was also passed in an application moved by another JNU student on the same day, seeking the return of seized mobile phone.

The seizure actions have continued. On Wednesday, Kawalpreet Kaur, Delhi president of the All India Students’ Association, took to Twitter to describe how her phone was seized on April 27.

Lawyers associated with some of these cases said it is not clear how many have been subjected to search and seizure operations. A lawyer on condition of anonymity said the lockdown has cause severe hardship for those affected to seek legal help.

“Ideally, people can insist on a lawyer present during the police action,” one lawyer said. “But how will lawyers get to the spot quickly when there are so many restrictions in place?”

This article has been updated on April 30.