All branches of govt collapsed in UP: Former bureaucrats in open letter

Photo courtesy to Yogi Adityanath

A group of 87 former bureaucrats criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Uttar Pradesh government for the “blatant violation of rule of law” and the breakdown of governance.

In an open letter, the bureaucrats highlighted Uttar Pradesh’s use of criminal charges to crush dissent including the anti-CAA movements, extrajudicial killings in the state, misuse of anti-conversion laws against Muslims and other minority communities, legitimisation of vigilantes and shortcomings in COVID-19 management.

Here is the full text of the open letter:

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked for decades with the Central and state governments. As a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but are committed to the Constitution of India.

We write today to convey to the Government of India and the Government of Uttar Pradesh (UP), as also to the people of India, our deep anguish at what we see happening in UP. We note with mounting alarm that the present ruling regime in UP has ushered in a model of governance which swerves further and further away from the values of the Constitution and the rule of law with each passing day. It seems clear that all branches of the administration, including the executive magistrates and the police, have collapsed.

We fear that, unless checked now, the damage to the polity and institutions in the state will result in the decay and destruction of democracy itself.

1. Detentions, criminal charges, and recoveries to suppress dissent have become common instruments to be employed against all those who exercise their right of democratic protest. Even as peaceful protests broke out countrywide against CAA, NRC and NPR, the UP government stood out by responding almost immediately with an armoury of repression, including a) police attacks on peacefully protesting students in Aligarh Muslim University, including using stun grenades, normally deployed against terrorists, and tear gas shells; b) filing 10,900 FIRs against protestors; c) resort to police firing killing 22 people; d) arrest of 705 people on charges of rioting, property destruction and attempt to murder; e) investigating 13000 social media posts and filing 63 FIRs with arrests of103 netizens; f) detention and torture of 41 minors; g) serving over 500 notices for alleged damage to property, and notices served for recovery to 57 persons; h) erecting hoardings in Lucknow displaying photographs of activists and civil society members accused of instigating violence and damaging public property (The Allahabad High Court declared this to be undemocratic and admonished the state government); i) passage of the Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Ordinance, 2020 which empowers the state to set up a claims tribunal to recover compensation from citizens, not requiring the presence of the accused before passing final orders. (The Allahabad High Court observed the “ordinance is arbitrary”, designed only to frustrate the law and stayed orders in several cases of recovery. However, the UP legislature approved the conversion of the Ordinance into an Act without removing the flaw of arbitrariness.)

One particularly egregious example is the arrest of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, on his way to the UP town of Hathras to report on the brutal gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl and the complicity of the administration in the hurried overnight cremation of her body that had caused national outrage. Kappan has so far spent more than 200 days in prison. More recently, these repressive measures have taken the form of punitive actions against those highlighting lethal shortcomings in UP’s healthcare system.

2. Encounter injuries and killings as official hate targeting

From 2017 to 2020, 124 alleged criminals were shot dead in 6,476 “encounters”, according to data compiled and released by the UP police to the media. The word “encounters” has been used to also include the infliction of serious injuries caused, for example, by shooting a person in both knees and leaving him disabled for life.

This means a police “encounter” every five hours every day during the first three years of CM Adityanath’s tenure. In a January 2019 letter to district magistrates, the Chief Secretary listed these “encounters”, including extra-judicial killings, to be among the prominent “achievements” of the Adityanath administration.

The “encounter” campaign led by Adityanath crosses new lines, because data shows that most of those killed in these encounters are either petty criminals or innocents, against whom no charge has been proven. They are also predominantly Muslims, Dalits and other backward castes. The fact that a significantly disproportionate percentage of those killed till August 2020 were Muslims carries its own message.

3. Institutionalization and legitimization of vigilantism with the phenomenon of ‘police mitr’ etc.

UP has seen a systematic blurring of the lines between actions of the state, particularly its police force, and that of vigilante groups such as the Hindu Yuva Vahini and other ‘cow vigilante’ groups that have enjoyed immunity for their violent actions. Members of these groups are appointed as “police mitr” or friends of the police, endowing them with authority and legitimacy, and enabling the police to work openly with vigilante groups. Recent administrative orders further institutionalise vigilantism under the garb of community policing through the ‘Prantiya Rakshak Dal’ and the ‘S10’.

4. The law on what is termed as ‘love jihad’, and biased investigations and arrests

On 24 November 2020, the Uttar Pradesh cabinet passed an ordinance “Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance”. On 25 February 2021, this was passed in the legislature by a voice vote. The SIT set up by the state government to look into the cases of “love jihad” could find “no evidence of foreign funding or organised conspiracy”.

On another occasion, the Union home ministry in February told Parliament that “love jihad” was not definedunder the current laws of the country. The bogey of “love jihad”, thus has no empirical, legal or official standing.

Euphemistically against ‘forceful conversion’, the law prohibits conversion from one religion to another by what it calls the use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement, fraud or marriage. These are defined ambiguously leaving ample space for the police and administration to misuse the law against minorities; for the police to file arbitrary cases; and for vigilante groups to threaten families, assault minorities, organise mobs and create conditions for minority exodus.

This law has been used by the state to frame innocent Muslim men who have friendly or romantic relations, or enter into marriage, with Hindu women. In just a month after the Ordinance, 86 people were booked in 16 cases alleging conversion for love or marriage among Hindu women and Muslim men. 54 people were arrested, including friends and family members of the main accused. The key accused in all the cases are Muslim men.

Since coming to power, the bias of the present government of UP against Muslims has been open and uninhibited. The recent instance of the destruction of a building allegedly housing a mosque in Barabanki, in contravention of a high court stay order, is a flagrant display of disregard for law and procedures.

Further, keeping in mind the forthcoming elections, we apprehend that such actions by the UP government, if not controlled, may cause communal polarisation and disturbances.

5. Misuse of NSA in the name of cow slaughter and against dissenters

The National Security Act, 1980 (NSA) is a preventive detention law under which the government can pre-emptively detain, up to one year, anyone it thinks is a threat to the security of the country or state, public order or maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community.

However, officials under the UP government have been using the law openly against mainly Muslims, Dalits and dissenters, for alleged offences that cannot be seen as a threat to national security. As per reports, of the 139 people booked under the law the year 2020, 76 are for alleged cow slaughter, 13 for anti-CAA protests and 37 for alleged heinous crimes.

In 2017, the Director General of Police directedSPs and SSPs of all districts to book people accused of cow slaughter or transportation of cows for slaughter under NSA and the Gangster Act.

In April 2020, the government said that whoever attacks police personnel during the COVID-19 lockdown will be booked under NSA. These blanket orders to apply NSA defeat the purpose of letting District Magistrates, who understand the ground situation, to judiciously apply their judgment to each case.

6. Handling of the Covid crisis

The hubris customary with the UP government is also in full display in its handling of the Covid crisis. The Allahabad High Court scathingly observed that medical services in UP are running at god’s mercy. (Ram Bharose). The doctors trying to meet the Chief Minister to explain the ground situation and to present a set of demands were instead detained.

A news article on health services in rural UP was titled, ‘People are Dropping Dead like Flies in Uttar Pradesh Villages’. As a case in point, Dhanoli village in Gorakhpur District did not have a single house without a Covid patient. Many of the PHCs in villages are shut or do not have any medical personnel. The people are left to fend for themselves. There are no testing centres available. Reports of patients dying due to non-availability of oxygen have been frequent in UP.

The Chief Minister however claimed that not only was there no such shortage, but those alleging this on public forums would be arrested for spreading false information, and their properties seized. The police proceeded to frame charges against hospitals which claimed oxygen shortage.

People faced massive difficulties in getting tested for Covid. Reports emerged that ‘unofficial’ orders had been issued to private labs to stop testing.

The most damning illustration of the government’s failure to provide healthcare to Covid patients was the gruesome spectacle of several thousand dead bodies floating in the Ganga river and buried in shallow graves in the sands along its banks. The world bore witness to the catastrophe that the people of UP had to endure owing to the failure of the government to act in time. Reports from crematoria show that across districts, deaths are being massively undercounted in Uttar Pradesh.

A call to restore constitutional norms

We demand that:

● Arbitrary detentions and torture of and police attacks on peacefully protesting students, minorities, dissenters and others be stopped forthwith and recoveries for alleged damage to property under an “arbitrary” law be discontinued.

● There have been more than 6000 “encounters” including both serious injuries and extra-judicial killings, which are eulogized as achievements by top bureaucrats, their main targets being Muslims, Dalits and other backward castes. This illegal and unconstitutional practice must stop.

● The institutionalization and legitimization of vigilantism by appointing “police mitras” and giving immunity to cow protectors for the violence they inflict dissolve the distinction between the State and private armies. These policies must end.

● Targeting Muslim men for alleged “forced conversion” of Hindu women with whom they have a friendly or romantic relationship continues apace under a vaguely worded law that allows the police and administration to misuse it. This idea of “love jihad” – without legal empirical or official basis – must be jettisoned.

● National Security Act (NSA) has been mainly used against Muslims, Dalits and dissenters for alleged offences like cow slaughter, protests against the CAA and attacks on the police, that cannot be seen as a threat to national security. This misuse of law must stop and normal penal provisions invoked, if at all justified.

● Finally, the Covid crisis has been wholly mismanaged and thousands have lost their lives for want of health facilities like trained staff, hospitals, ICUs, oxygen and medicines. But the administration has denied any crisis and has slapped charges against those who write objectively or complain of the situation on the ground. The crisis needs urgent handling and the practice of harassing or penalizing media or persons who report on inadequacies in the health system or voice their grievances in that regard cannot be allowed to continue. The invidious tendency to “shoot the messenger” must stop.

Satyameva Jayate

(The open letter has been signed by 87 IAS, IPS, IFS, IPS and other officers, and has been endorsed by hundreds of people which include former judges of SC/HCs, university professors, film makers, activists and civil society members)