Activists cry foul after student leader held for Delhi riots

NEW DELHI:  A group of high-profile activists, politicians and writers, including Arundhati Roy, voiced support for student leader Umar Khalid on Monday, after he was arrested for allegedly inciting religious violence during the Delhi riots in February.

“We condemn the arrest of Umar Khalid, demand his early release and ask Delhi Police to stop this witch hunt ... This investigation is not about the violence in February 2020 in the capital, but the completely peaceful and democratic protests across the country against the unconstitutional CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act),” a joint statement released by the group of 36 said.

Khalid’s arrest followed nationwide protests which began in the third week of December 2019 and culminated in the deadly Delhi riots, which killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, in the last week of February.

The protests were against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) enactment of the controversial CAA, which promises to grant citizenship to Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims. 

The CAA was part of the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) — an exercise aimed at identifying “genuine citizens” of India. 

Muslims in India fear being declared stateless if they don’t find a mention in the NRC, while Hindus remain protected under the CAA. 

The mobilization against the CAA galvanized many Muslims and a large section of students and intellectuals across the country, with Delhi becoming the center of the demonstrations. Soon after, the BJP launched a counter-protest which led to religious violence in North East Delhi in February.

The protests stopped after India declared a nationwide lockdown on March 25 to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease outbreak.

Meanwhile, the government began a massive crackdown on protesters by detaining them under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a non-bailable terror law, with Khalid being the latest to be arrested by the police on Sunday night after 11 hours of interrogation.

“Umar Khalid has emerged as a strong and powerful voice of young Indians in favor of the constitution and democracy. The repeated attempts by Delhi police to implicate him in several fictitious cases of conspiracy for the Delhi violence are part of a brazen attempt to try to suppress his voice of dissent,” the statement said. According to media reports, the police claimed in their investigation that Muslim activists and leaders involved in protests against the CAA had “hatched the conspiracy” to cause riots.

So far, police have registered more than 750 cases, filed 250 charge sheets and arrested 1,575 people.

“Some are taking a few lines out of the charge sheets filed in the courts out of context in order to create a controversy and doubt about the investigation. Their assertion is not true,” Delhi police said in a statement on Monday.

Experts, however, are not convinced.

Prof. Apoorvanand Jha, a public intellectual and academic at Delhi University, who is named in one of the charge sheets, said that the police had become an “ideological arm” of the BJP.

“The arrest of Umar Khalid is a political-ideological exercise, and Delhi Police has become an arm of it. That is the saddest part of the story,” he told Arab News, adding that by arresting young Muslims such as Khalid, the government was trying to “suppress” the political voice of the minority community.

“In figures like Umar Khalid, the Muslim youth find confidence and reassurance. So by continuously persecuting Khalid, the message given to the educated Muslim youth is that you are not allowed to have a political voice. You can earn your living but don’t dare intervene in the democratic process,” he added.

Commenting on the charges leveled against Khalid, Jha said it was an attempt to “create fear” among the intellectual class.

“The political class waiver in their support for the minority, but the intellectual class have stood by them. The government wants to make minorities friendless and isolate them; it wants to silence the voice of intellectuals by creating an atmosphere of fear by persecuting and harassing them ... This is the idea,” Jha, who was interrogated by Delhi Police for several hours last month, told Arab News.

The BJP,  however, denied any interference.

“The investigative agencies have been assigned a role of looking into criminality; the judiciary has been assigned the role of adjudicating the criminality; if the judiciary implicates a criminal, should a government be blamed?” asked Sudhanshu Mittal, a BJP spokesperson, speaking to Arab News.

“Police have done their job; the judiciary has recognized the job of the police. So to blame the government or police is the expression of frustrated mindsets,” he added.

Delhi-based political analyst Urmilesh Urmil said the BJP was hell-bent on implementing its majoritarian agenda.

“With Khalid’s arrest, the government has expedited its political program of criminalizing political and ideological dissent. The government wants only one Hindu majoritarian narrative to run in this country and silence all the dissenting and diverse voices. It’s a vicious design that has to be fought.”

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