Indian authorities should immediately drop politically-motivated charges against those peacefully protesting against citizenship policies that discriminate against Muslims and release them from custody, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Police have used draconian anti-terrorism, sedition, and other laws against students, activists, and other government critics, but have not acted against violence by supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the international body claimed.
HRW also alleged that in some cases, the police filed new charges after activists were granted bail to ensure that they remained in custody, placing them at further risk during the Covid-19 outbreak in overcrowded prisons with inadequate sanitation, hygiene, and access to medical care.
“The Indian authorities have used the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent, and deter future protests against discriminatory policies,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Instead of addressing past police abuse, the authorities seem to be trying their best to add to the list.”
In December 2019, the BJP-led government adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which for the first time in India makes religion a basis for citizenship. In response, protests broke out throughout the country following fears that the act, together with a planned nationwide verification process to identify “illegal migrants,” could threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims.
Violence around the protests broke out in Delhi on February 24, 2020, leaving at least 53 people dead and hundreds injured, most of them Muslim. The police failed to respond adequately and were at times complicit in these attacks. The authorities have failed to conduct impartial and transparent investigations into the violence.
While peaceful protests were dispersed after the government announced a lockdown in March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19, the authorities have since started arresting protesters, including students and activists, and filing charges of sedition, murder, and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), accusing them of a “conspiracy” to “defame the country in the international arena.”
Those arrested include Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, and Gulfisha Fatima, student activists; Shifa-Ur-Rehman and Khalid Saifi, activists; Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, student activists from the feminist collective Pinjra Tod; Tahir Hussain, a local political leader from Aam Aadmi Party; and Ishrat Jahan, local leader from the opposition Congress party.
Zargar, arrested on April 10 for rioting, was granted bail three days later. But that day the police booked her under the UAPA and for murder and sedition. She was denied bail on those charges despite her being in the second trimester of pregnancy and having an underlying medical condition, two factors that could place her at heightened risk of complications if she were to contract Covid-19. She was finally granted bail on 23 June 2020, in her sixth month of pregnancy, on humanitarian grounds.
Kalita and Narwal were granted bail after being arrested for rioting. In Kalita’s case, the magistrate noted that the police could not produce any concrete evidence to prove her role in the violence. However, the Delhi police immediately booked them on other charges, including sedition, murder, and under the UAPA, and they remain in jail.
Violence broke out in Delhi on February 24, soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. Tensions had been building for weeks, with BJP leaders openly advocating violence against the protesters, portraying anyone who spoke out against the government as working against the country’s interests.