Delhi Police is acting on a script already reached by its political masters: Apoorvanand

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
22 June, 2020

Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi at Delhi University, is a vocal human-rights activist. In recent years, he has written and spoken out against the rising tide of Hindutva under the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government. Since December, when nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, began, Apoorvanand has regularly voiced his opposition to the act. He has also expressed his opposition to the government crackdown on academic spaces, such as police excesses at Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia university in mid December, as well as the attacks on students in Jawaharlal Nehru University in early January by members of student groups aligned with the BJP.

Along with other intellectuals, writers and activists, Apoorvanand has demanded a fair and impartial probe into the violence that broke out in northeast Delhi in late February, soon after the conclusion of elections in the capital, which resulted in the death of over fifty individuals, most of whom were Muslim. In an interview to Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, Apoorvanand, spoke about the recent protests, the concept of citizenship and why it matters, and the state of civil liberties in India. He further discussed the Delhi Police’s investigation into the Delhi riots which, he said, appears to create a pre-determined narrative.

Tushar Dhara: Can you describe the arc of events that took place between the enactment of the CAA and the Delhi violence?
Apoorvanand: If you go back to the enactment of the CAA, there was a stunning silence from the opposition parties. But the streets erupted in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. People came out and started protesting, including students at Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University [in Uttar Pradesh]. But it was put down in a brutal manner. The Supreme Court refused to take cognisance of any of this. They just made an observation that [protestors against the CAA] cannot destroy public property and said that if the protestors want to be heard, they have to get off the streets.

These events led to a unique development called Shaheen Bagh [a neighbourhood in Delhi where Muslim women led a sit-in against the CAA for over a hundred days]. It was an organic protest by the women there with the support of their families. What Shaheen Bagh did was to make the Preamble of the Constitution the battle cry for the demand for equality in citizenship. The CAA created pathways to attaining Indian citizenship, but blocked it for one particular religion, which introduced a discriminatory element in the concept of citizenship, which is against the Constitution. This is what Shaheen Bagh was trying to point out, and the means they adopted was peaceful. For the first time, Muslims were claiming citizenship.

TD: What was the effect that Shaheen Bagh had?
A: It inspired a number of similar protests across India, approximately two hundred-odd sit-ins. It broke many myths. One is that Muslim women are mostly burqa-clad, backward and uneducated. But here were Muslim women leading a movement and not allowing the clergy to have a decisive say in how the movement would run. The government found it difficult to break the movement and international observers were looking on with interest.

But let us admit that it was mostly a Muslim protest. Its appearance was distinctively Muslim—the political parties were reluctant to join and common Hindus didn’t feel attracted to it. A very old prejudice in the mind of Hindus is that while individual Muslims may be good, a group of Muslims must necessarily be conspiring and hatching a dangerous plot. This prejudice was reactivated.

TD: Did the anti-CAA protests impact the Delhi election campaign? How?
A: It took a very ominous colour. The prime minister had said much before the election campaign, of the anti-CAA protestors, that one could identify them by their clothes. It was a dog whistle [indicating that] the protestors are Muslims. The home minister [Amit Shah] told voters to press the EVM [electronic voting machine] button so hard that the current reaches Shaheen Bagh. This was a covert call for violence. Another union minister openly asked his followers to shoot the “traitors.” [Referring to a late January rally where the minister Anurag Thakur, of the BJP, led chants asking for “the traitors to the nation” to be shot.] A BJP MP said that the protests are a cover for those who are potential rapists, who will rape our daughters and sisters. The protests were vilified and sought to be de-legitimised in the eyes of Hindus. [The Delhi chief minister] Arvind Kejriwal distanced himself from the protests. Then, there were two gun-wielding men who appeared at Jamia Millia and Shaheen Bagh [in late January and February, respectively].

TD: What was your role in the Shaheen Bagh protests?
A: I have been involved in democratic and civil-rights issues and people keep inviting me to speak on these issues. I don’t organise these meetings, but if I agree with their ideas, I support them by speaking or writing. I am against the CAA because in my view it is discriminatory towards one religion. Yes, in a way, it didn’t affect Indian Muslims, but the home minister and the ruling party made it clear that the CAA should be seen together with the NRC. We have seen the disastrous results of the NRC in Assam, where both Hindus and Muslims have been excluded in the final list. It led people to detention camps, and jeopardised the lives of lakhs of people. Then came the attack on Jamia Milia Islamia, which disturbed us a lot. I am a teacher, I cannot remain aloof when students are supressed. Then came Shaheen Bagh, where the women started a sit-in. I addressed the women first in end December. There were also similar protests across Delhi which were beginning to attract students and concerned citizens. My participation was limited to writing in favour of the protests, speaking wherever I was invited, and responding to the criticisms of Shaheen Bagh.

TD: And in the days preceding the Delhi violence?
AA: On 24 February, when I learnt that tension was mounting especially in Jaffrabad, some of us decided to try and persuade the women protestors to vacate the road, so that Kapil Mishra and his men did not get a pretext to become violent. Along with [the politician] Yogendra Yadav, [the activists and filmmakers] Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan, and [the activists] Kavita Srivastava and Khalid Saifi, I went to Jaffrabad to try and persuade the protesting women [to halt their protest], but they did not agree with us. Then, we went to Seelampur and made an appeal to persuade the women blocking the road to withdraw, because we didn’t want the protest to get delegitimised by violence. Khalid and I then went to the Khureji protest [in northeast Delhi] and we succeeded in persuading the women there to vacate the road. When we were returning, we learnt that violence had broken out.

On 25 February, we called civil-society activists, teachers and intellectuals to discuss how to bring about peace. We also formed relief-and-rescue committees for the riot affected, irrespective of religion. I visited the riot hit area on 29 February to understand the nature of the violence, and for the next three to four days, I re-visited to assess the damage. We also requested the Delhi government to set up relief camps, the first of which came up at the eidgah in Mustafabad [an open ground used for Eid prayers and religious gatherings]. The aim was to bring peace and harmony and make Hindus and Muslims talk to each other again. The coronovirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown started two or three weeks after and we couldn’t move around. We started a community kitchen in Delhi University to distribute cooked meals in different parts of Delhi.

TD: How did violence erupt in northeast Delhi?
A: A call for a Bharat Bandh [a nationwide shutdown] was given by the Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Ravan after the Delhi elections. The women of Seelampur [in northeast Delhi] reached the Jaffrabad metro station and blocked the road. We may debate whether doing that was right or wrong, but blocking the road was not violence. A newly minted BJP leader [referring to the politician Kapil Mishra, formerly of the Aam Aadmi Party] said that “we will wait till the US President Donald Trump­’s visit is over and then get the road vacated if Delhi Police doesn’t.” Violence erupted after this. This is the sequence of events.

When we visited northeast Delhi on 29 February, we spoke to people and saw burnt houses and shops. Hindus also suffered and were killed. But the number of Muslims killed and their properties damaged was disproportionately high. Another feature of the violence was a deliberate attempt to target mosques. Apparently many mosques were damaged or destroyed. We saw that gas cylinders were used to cause explosions in Muslims’ homes and mosques. There was a distinct anti-Muslim tone to the violence. When the riots were coming to an end, the home minister said that the violence was spontaneous. My theory is that the BJP was trying to tell its constituents that this was similar to the Gujarat violence of 2002, which were at that time called a spontaneous reaction to a preceding act of violence—the burning of the coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express. In Godhra, even before the train burning was investigated, it was concluded that the coach was burnt by Muslims. The post-Godhra violence was sought to be justified as a spontaneous outburst of Hindus.

The home minister’s statement was akin to saying that the anti-CAA protests were violent in nature and the reaction of aggrieved Hindus was a spontaneous response. But soon after, the home minister took another line. In parliament, Amit Shah said that certain individuals were responsible and their speeches called for violence. He referenced a speech by [the scholar and activist] Umar Khalid and United Against Hate. [Khalid co-founded UAH, an activist collective. In late April, he was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in connection with the violence in northeast Delhi.]

After that speech, the investigation seemed to have been following a template—that the northeast Delhi riots were the result of a conspiracy by those who were part of the anti-CAA protest in any manner, that they were plotting against Hindus and the Indian state and when Trump came they unleashed violence to embarrass the government. The police is trying to peddle a narrative that the anti-CAA protestors were plotting and conspiring to do violence and it found expression in the last days of February. [It is doing this] instead of asking who the outsiders who came [to northeast Delhi] and rioted were. Who were the men in helmets raising slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” [Hail Ram]? Who participated in the violence and who organised it? Who all have been arrested in the riots? Students of Jamia Milia Islamia, members of the Jamia Coordination Committee [which helped organise the peaceful protests outside the campus] and young people like Gulfisha [a 25-year-old MBA student who was arrested in an FIR under the UAPA] who were involved in the protests. She had participated in political protests for the first time.

TD: Delhi Police has reportedly filed 751 cases related to the Delhi violence. Of the 53 dead, 38 are Muslims. The police appears to be blaming the Jamia Coordination Committee, the activist organisation Popular Front of India, Pinjra Tod, United Against Hate and possibly intellectuals like you and Harsh Mander, while people like Kapil Mishra go free. How true is this?
A: Before the actual act of physical violence comes verbal and psychological violence. This was what we saw directed against the anti-CAA protests. The protestors were largely Muslims and [non-Muslim] supporters of minorities. But Muslims, United Against Hate, Not In My Name [another activist collective], Pinjra Tod, professors and teachers—all of them are being targeted in this verbal and psychological violence.

Unfortunately, it seems like Delhi Police is not interested in investigating the actual perpetrators of the violence, but is trying to act on a script that has already been reached by its political masters.

TD: There has been no official communication from the Delhi Police that it is investigating you. Yet, your name has cropped up as someone whom the police is interested in investigating. Where are you getting this impression from, if there is no official communication?
A: I have no official intimation, it is speculation. And the speculation started because of a debate aired on Times Now on 22 May in which they showed pictures of me, [the Rajya Sabha MP from Rashtriya Janata Dal] Manoj Jha, [the lawyer] Teesta Setalvad and Salim Engineer [of the Islamic organisation the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind]. All of us were part of a meeting the day before and the images were taken from there. They [Times Now] kept claiming that the police had unearthed a conspiracy in which the “pogrom lobby” had been silenced and the home minister vindicated, meaning that those who were calling the violence a pogrom had been silenced. Claims were made that they [the channel] were privy to police documents and were repeatedly saying that a Delhi University professor was involved and that they had proof. But that is again something that is not being substantiated. There was also an Indian Express report that spoke of a “professor” on the police radar.

We have been saying that here is an act of violence where Hindus and Muslims have been killed and property damaged and the violence needs to be probed. But the police has been working on a bizarre link that those who were involved in the anti-CAA and Jamia protests were responsible for planning the violence to embarrass the government.

TD: The aftermath of the violence saw the coronavirus pandemic occupying centre stage, followed by a national lockdown that has shuttered the country for two months. How has this affected civil liberties?
A: Just after the riots, there were a lot of displaced Muslims. We were demanding relief camps and after a tussle, one camp was established at the eidgah in Mustafabad. But soon after this the fear of the pandemic took over. We feared that these people were vulnerable and there was a dilemma: the people needed to be dispersed, but where would they go? At the same time, we were trying to mobilise relief for the victims of the Delhi riots, when the lockdown was announced. Many of the affected people had nowhere to go and no money left. Secondly, there was no way to protest collectively. The focus also shifted to providing relief to migrants who were left jobless by the lockdown and were starting to return home. 

But meanwhile, the Delhi Police kept working on the script it was given. They started arresting young people who had participated in and organised the anti-CAA protests. They also activated a bogey that there are “masterminds” sitting in universities and elsewhere who are plotting against the Indian nation state, and that they are “urban naxals.” There is a history to this. It was alleged that there is a “tukde tukde” gang [a term BJP members have used to refer to those it claims want to split India into “tukde,” or pieces], active in campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University, [Kolkata’s] Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University, and India is facing ahuge danger. When [the former JNU student union president and politician] Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested, the then home minister Rajnath Singh made a serious allegation that [the government had] evidence that these students have links with terrorists across the border. This has created a permanent life risk for people like Kanhaiya and Umar Khalid. This is being done from 2015 onwards, when intellectuals started protesting the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq [a farmer who was lynched in Dadri, Haryana, by a Hindu mob that accused him of smuggling cow meat]. A campaign was unleashed against intellectuals by central ministers in which they were called “armchair intellectuals” and “anti-national.” This has been going on for the last six years. It was easy to build on that because it has created a “common sense” against JNU, students participating in political parties, et cetera.

TD: What are parallels between the Delhi violence investigation and the Bhima Koregaon investigation?
A: In Bhima Koregaon, Dalits had assembled. They were marking the victory of the Mahar regiment over the Peshwas, as an act of Dalit pride. While returning from the Elgar Parishad [an event in Pune, held to mark the occasion] they were attacked. That was the act of violence. Leaders of two Hindutva organisations were named the accused. Dalits protested and demanded an investigation and punishment [of the culprits]. The government was rattled. After this, the Pune police raided houses and offices of human-rights activists and intellectuals across India, and a story was built. The story is that a huge network of conspirators—who look respectable and speak English—are active against India. A letter was unearthed in which it was alleged there is a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister. The police turned the Bhima Koregaon case on its head.

The same template is being used in the present investigation, where you make people forget the actual incidents of violence and you present very dangerous elements—dangerous young English-speaking Muslims and their secular supporters—as the aggressors.

TD: What has been the role of courts and the judiciary in protecting civil liberties? 
A: [The former Supreme Court judge] Justice Madan Lokur, in a piece in The Wire, gives grade F to the Supreme Court in the migrants issue [referring to the crisis migrant workers found themselves in after the government suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus]. I would not even give an F to the Supreme Court in the matters of defending the rights of vulnerable sections of Indian society. When the question of violence [by police against anti-CAA protestors] in Uttar Pradesh was raised, the Supreme Court said it cannot tolerate [property destruction] and that first, the violence must stop. The Supreme Court was approached with a plea to ask the police to stop the violence and it said let the violence first stop. So, it abdicated its duty.

The role of the Supreme Court has been disappointing. It has been anti-people, it has worked in favour of the majoritarian executive. There are glimpses of hope in the lower courts and the high courts—that is why Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general, spoke against high courts at the Supreme Court. Then, we saw a change in the roster in the Gujarat high court and other high courts where benches had taken a stand against governments. Earlier, Justice S Muralidhar was transferred the moment he gave an order against the police in the Al-Hind case. [Muralidhar had convened an emergency hearing regarding the difficulties that ambulances were facing in reaching the Al-Hind hospital in northeast Delhi, amid the violence. He ordered the police to ensure a safe passage for the ambulances. The next day, the law ministry notified his transfer to the Punjab and Haryana high court.]

TD: What would constitute a peaceful and ethical response by people who have been charged by the police?
A: [Mohandas] Gandhi shows the way for people like us. Gandhi was ultimately killed for standing by minorities and Dalits. The path is for open democratic political action and to stand for the rights of minorities, only then can we call ourselves a civilised nation. A nation where minorities live in fear, intellectuals are afraid to speak their minds and campuses go silent, is an unfortunate nation. We are not Stalinist Russia or China or the Turkey of [the president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. We are still governed by a constitution that gives us rights. We need to go back to the Preamble, which was in fact invoked by Shaheen Bagh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Gulfisha Fatima as a member of the activist group Pinjra Tod, based on news reports about her arrest. The news website The Quint reported on 12 June 2020 that, according to her brother and her lawyer, Fatima was not a member of the group. The Caravan regrets the error.

Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.