When governments around the world began to invoke emergency powers to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, fears were expressed that lockdowns to contain the spread of the disease could easily be used as an opportunity to crush basic democratic rights. These anxieties have come true in India. In recent days, the Union government-controlled Delhi Police has arrested several people who had been protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. These initiatives had been widely condemned for adding a religious element to Indian citizenship law. Many feared they could be used to harass India’s Muslims.

Among those arrested are three people involved in organising protests at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Two are students: Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider. The third, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, is the president of the Jamia Alumni Association. In a related action, the police have seized the phone of the Delhi president of the All India Students Association, Kanwalpreet Kaur.

The arrests have been made under a host of harsh legal provisions, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, with the police claiming that these protesters were part of a shadowy conspiracy that led to violence in Delhi in February that left 53 people dead. However, till now, the Delhi Police has offered little evidence to support this claim. In fact, the first information report filed by the police does not bother to explain even the bare bones of what that conspiracy could have been.

Criminalising protest

This ambiguity in framing allegations, the use of the draconian UAPA as well as the lockdown has allowed the police to carry out actions that appear extremely prejudicial to civil liberty. These arrests seem less like a legal measure and more like political vendetta against protestors opposing a law passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled Union government.

In its submissions, the Delhi Police has actively tried to criminalise the very act of protest. For example, the Delhi Police told the Indian Express that the accused people had been “communicating with each other and discussing arrangements and plans for the protests”. In its submission to the court to take remand of Shufi-ur-Rehman, the Delhi Police said, “during interrogation” Rehman had “admitted” to being involved in the protests.

Ironically, even as the Delhi Police alleges a murky conspiracy that links the peaceful protests against the citizenship initiatives to the Delhi riots, obvious cases of instigation have gone unnoticed. The day before the riot began, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra had threatened protestors with vigilante action. In fact, there is direct evidence that the violence was instigated by Mishra, with eyewitness accounts at the time attesting to the fact that attackers mentioned his name while carrying out the violence. Yet the Delhi Police has not taken any legal action against Mishra.

To make matters worse, this decision to ignore of Mishra and the attempts to link protesters against the citizenship initiatives to the riots comes even as much of the violence in Delhi was directed at Muslims, with documented cases of even the police attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. Rather than make amends, the Delhi Police seems to be doubling down on its majoritarianism, paradoxically linking a movement to protect minority rights with a riot that in which minorities were the targets. Two-thirds of the people who died in the violence were Muslim.

Abusing lockdown

Even more egregious, this attempt to attack the movement against the citizenship initiatives comes at during a lockdown when the government has taken on extraordinary powers to tackle the pandemic. However, as is now apparent, this has resulted in a loosening of checks that is also being used for more insidious, political ends. As Scroll.in has reported, the courts have used the lockdown to justify a lack of scrutiny on the police as it cracks down on protestors.

The protests against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act were a peaceful movement that aimed to rescue Indian secularism by opposing moves to communalise India’s citizenship laws. The criminalisation of dissent against these initiatives is a significant blow to Indian democracy.