On Thursday morning, 29-year-old student Shefali Saini received an unexpected call from Mumbai’s Colaba police station. She was served a show-cause notice to sign a bond promising lawful behaviour for two years, against a surety of Rs 1 lakh.

This notice had been prompted by the fact that Saini had participated in the “Occupy Gateway” protest in January, to condemn the violent attack on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Even though more 2,000 people attended the protest at Gateway of India from January 5 to January 7, the Colaba police named just 10 people in its first information report against the protesters. Saini was one of them, booked for unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint and under sections of the Bombay Police Act.

Similar cases have been filed against selected students and activists involved in protests early this year at Hutatma Chowk and Mumbai Bagh in Mumbai Central against the violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s Citizenship Amendment Act.

Unlike other cases against citizen protesters, however, the Mumbai police’s approach in these three cases has been particularly harsh.

Since August, the police has served show-cause notices and demanded hefty surety bonds from 25 people booked for the protests at Gateway of India, Hutatma Chowk and Mumbai Bagh. On Thursday, Saini became the 26th person to be served this notice.

“I have been a part of many public protests in Mumbai and this is the first time such a thing has happened,” said Saini, a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The surety amounts that the police have demanded range from Rs 1 lakh for some to Rs 5 lakh for most others. A surety bond is a legally binding contract in which one party – the accused, in this case – promises to pay the specified amount if they fail to fulfill the terms of a bond. Even though surety bonds are supposed to be proportionate to a person’s financial capability, ne activist – 24-year-old Dalit student Suvarna Salve – has been asked for Rs 50 lakh.

According to the terms of the bonds, this surety could be confiscated and the person could be externed from Mumbai if they pose any threat to law and order over the next two years.

In the case of the accused in these three cases, merely participating in any public protest could be interpreted as a threat to law and order.

“This is clearly an attempt to target and intimidate vocal activists, to clamp down on their freedoms and stop them from participating in any political protests,” said lawyer Lara Jesani, who is representing a number of the accused listed in the FIR by MRA Marg police at Hutatma Chowk. Jesani is also one of the accused in the case, but has not been served a notice to sign a surety bond.

“What is the point of democratic systems if you cannot protest?” she said.

Women at the Mumbai Bagh protest on January 27. Credit: Aarefa Johari

‘Chapter proceedings’

The protests at Gateway of India, Hutatma Chowk and Mumbai Bagh were not isolated events. They were part of a large-scale, nationwide citizens’ movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act – which seeks to introduce a religious test to the process of granting citizenship to immigrants – as well as the BJP government’s plan to implement a National Register of Citizens.

Taken together, the CAA and NRC were widely seen as attempts to erode India’s secular foundations and delegitimise the citizenship rights of Indian Muslims. From December 2019 to March 24, lakhs of protesters across India staged rallies, sit-ins and unique women’s protests that were stopped only when the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic came into effect.

However, three months into the lockdown, the Mumbai police resumed action against the 35 people named in the FIRs against protesters at Occupy Gateway, Hutatma Chowk and Mumbai Bagh.

One of the controversial steps taken by the police in these cases was to initiate “chapter proceedings” against the accused. These are proceedings issued under sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which accused is summoned for “hearings” before an Assistant Commissioner of Police and is asked to explain why they should not be made to sign bonds of good behaviour to prevent them from being a nuisance to law and order. If the police official is not satisfied with the response, the accused could be made to sign a bond and pay fines.

“Such chapter proceedings are uncalled for in our cases – they are meant to be used for hardened criminals, not people participating in protests,” said Susan Abraham, a lawyer who has been booked in the FIRs by both Colaba and MRA Marg police stations for her alleged participation in the Gateway and Hutatma Chowk protests.

Suvarna Salve, the first of the accused to be issued a show-cause notice, was unable to attend her first hearing in the chapter proceedings on August 28. “There was no public transport because of the lockdown, so I could not go,” said Salve, a member of Samta Kala Manch, a cultural group that raises awareness on issues of caste-based oppression. Salve and 15 other accused in the MRA Marg police’s FIR have been other attending hearings since September.

The main allegation in the FIR is that the accused held a protest without police permission and violated a Bombay Police Act rule against protesting in public in south Mumbai. However, the FIR repeatedly describes the protesters as “leftists” who were shouting slogans against the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Hindutva organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Mumbai in February. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Habitual offenders?

Even though this is the first time that protesters like Suvarna Salve and Shefali Saini have been booked in a police case, they police has described all the accused as habitual offenders.

Another protester, who has been booked by the Colaba and MRA Marg police, told Scroll.in that the only previous “offence” he had been booked for was participating in protests to save Mumbai’s Aarey forest from being cut down. That case was withdrawn by the state government last month.

“We have all been shocked by the FIRs and show-cause notices against a few of us, because there were thousands of people at those protests,” said the 27-year-old protester, a student who asked to remain anonymous. “We have no idea why they picked our names to put in the FIRs.”

Many other accused that Scroll.in spoke to echoed the same complaint. “There were so many celebrities and even politicians who attended the Occupy Gateway protest, and none of them have been named in the FIR,” said Saini. “So I don’t know how they narrowed down on my name.”

Lawyer Susan Abraham pointed out that at both Gateway of India and Hutatma Chowk, the police had been cooperative with the protesters. “The police did not try to stop or disperse the Gateway protest for two days, so why did they file FIRs later and selectively target some protesters?” said Abraham.

Lawyer Lara Jesani claims that she and three other accused were not even present at the Hutatma Chowk protest for which they have been booked.

None of the accused have signed the surety bonds yet, and are now planning to fight them through petitions in the Bombay High Court.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this report erroneously mentioned that lawyer Lara Jesani had been served a notice to sign a surety bond by the MRA Marg police. This has been rectified.