On Saturday, two anti-Citizenship Amendment Act activists of the Pinjra Tod women students group were arrested for staging a sit-in protest in February against the controversial law in Jaffrabad. The events that followed clearly indicate how the Delhi Police and the Union Home Ministry that controls it are using the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as a cover to attack the democratic right to dissent..

After Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita were arrested on Saturday based on a First Information Report filed on February 24, the magistrate before whom they were produced granted them bail, rejecting the police demand that they be taken into custody. The magistrate noted that the two women were merely protesting and did not commit any violence.

The Delhi Police would have none of this. Immediately after the women were released on Sunday, they were again arrested, this time under a more stringent FIR filed in March that included penal sections such as the Arms Act and attempt to murder. This FIR was registered in connection with the communal violence that convulsed Delhi between February 25 and 28.

These arrests reflected the fierce determination of the Delhi Police to prosecute people protesting the government’s flawed citizenship initiatives. The police could in the first instance have arrested the women under both FIRs. But they waited for the magistrate to decide on the first before acting on the second, a tactic to exert pressure on the court by creating a fog of notoriety around the activists. In the second case, the court accepted the police submission and allowed them to take Narwal and Kalita into custody.

This pattern of booking activists in a more stringent case after they get bail in a first has been employed by the police several times. For instance,Safoora Zargar, a media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, an organisation of students and alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia university that was involved in the protests against the citizenship initiatives, was arrested on April 10 for the demonstrations. On April 13, a court granted her bail. However, she was arrested again the same day under the FIR registered for the February violence and her bail application in this case was rejected.

The Delhi Police’s disdain for the procedures established by law has been evident in several arrests related to the February riots, even as many activists have accused the police of displaying a communal bias against Muslims. As Scroll.in reported in this two-part series, several victims of the riots were arrested by using FIRs that included their own complaints.

Often, the police used coercive tactics: a member of the family was detained by the police and used as a bait to get to the accused. The families of the accused were often kept in the dark about the grounds for arrests. Many were not given a copy of the FIRs for several days after the arrest. In normal course, lawyers would have been able to intervene on behalf of the accused. But because of the lockdown, access to legal aid is impaired.

With access to the courts being hindered and with no possibility of citizens mobilising to protest these vindictive arrests, the Delhi Police is using the Covid-19 lockdown to destroy the infrastructure of democratic dissent. The courts have not done enough to check the police, allowing requests for custody even though the mala fide intention behind the arrests is clear.