Amidst the dark shadow of India’s lockdown, the Delhi police – controlled by the Central government – has been busy with tasks entirely unrelated to controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. Its schedule is packed with searching homes and offices; confiscating phones and documents; and questioning, detaining, and arresting large numbers of persons.

It is instructive that these arrests are being made when the Supreme Court has directed governments to decongest jails to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The charges levelled against the arrested persons relate to their alleged role in organising protests against the discriminatory amendments to India’s citizenship law, the proposed National Register of Citizens and National Population Register. They are further accused of instigating and participating in the violent communal carnage that engulfed working-class settlements in Northeast Delhi in February, the gravest Hindu-Muslim conflagration in the capital since Partition riots of 1947.

Home ministry’s orders

This rise in detention and arrests – after a brief respite following the imposition of the lockdown – has reportedly come after Home Ministry’s instructions to the Crime Branch at the end of March.

The Hindu reported that from March 22 to mid-April, around 25 to 30 arrests were made in the violence-affected, Muslim-majority areas of Northeast Delhi. The Indian Express reported a total of 802 arrests, of which at least 50 were made during the lockdown. But some accounts pitch the figure much higher, at around six to seven arrests every day.

The exact numbers are hard to verify, because of the severe restrictions on the media and legal services under lockdown. But this estimate is ratified by my lawyer colleagues, who worked closely with local residents in the weeks following the carnage.

The targetting of Muslim residents in the area was ominously followed by grave criminal cases against young Muslim activists, including youth leader Umar Khalid, and Jamia Millia Islamia students leaders Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, who is pregnant. They have been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The dragnet then spread further, to Left student leaders like Kanwaljit Kaur of All India Students Association, whose phone was confiscated in a police raid in her home.

Deploring these “random arrests”, the Chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission sent a notice to the police commissioner stating that the police was “arresting young Muslim boys by their dozens every single day”, even during the lockdown. He has since been charged by the Delhi police for sedition, for his criticism of the communalisation of the pandemic.

A protestor in Delhi in December 2019. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Access to legal services snapped

It is significant that while the police redoubled its detentions and arrests, legal services were not included in the “essential services” permitted under the lockdown. This, in effect, meant the suspension of the accused persons’ fundamental rights.

There is no regard for legal norms. The families of those who are rounded up said they were not provided with copies of first information reports. They report being distraught and frightened, often unable to understand the grounds for arrest, and bereft of financial and social capital to arrange legal help.

Their helplessness is compounded because most are petty traders or daily wagers, whose livelihoods are crushed by both, the carnage and the lockdown.

The legal requirement that the accused must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of detention has been reduced to an empty formality, fulfilled at the jail premises rather than in open court. The accused persons are presented by the police before magistrates inside jail premises, denied the opportunity to represent themselves. Even lawyers are not allowed to attend hearings in the name of the lockdown and physical distancing norms. The lower courts have no facilities for video hearings.

Journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders also have little access to those being targeted by police operations. Few media reports penetrate the enveloping veil of secrecy and fear. It is as though, under this health emergency, justice is not an essential service and the principle of equality before the law is itself under lockdown.

A distant memory

There are reports of right-wing authoritarian rulers across the world exercising unprecedented power over citizens’ movements and stifling democratic rights under the guise of the pandemic. It is evident that the Indian ruling establishment is borrowing from the same playbook.

In the claustrophobia of the lockdown, the winter that all of India witnessed – of intense hope and peaceful democratic assertion – is already becoming a distant memory. This was an inspiring time when citizens across religious identities, class, caste, gender and language rose together to defend India’s secular constitutional morality, from the government’s bid to discriminate citizen rights based on religion.

The success of this movement, unprecedented in scale and moral salience since the freedom struggle, badly rattled the ruling establishment. This was because it struck at the heart of its majoritarian project.

It is evident that the ruling establishment is fighting back hard, cynically using the crisis of the pandemic to kill all dissent and create an alternative mythology – that the movement against amending India’s citizenship laws was violent and seditious. If it is not halted in its tracks, both democracy and the fight against the pandemic, would be critically weakened.