CAA protests: Ram Guha detention, Section 144 in Karnataka and UP suggest police overreach in handling demonstrations

  • Protesters, including historian, sociologist, writer and columnist Ramachandra Guha, were detained

  • This signifies that the authorities are not prepared to tolerate any form of dissent

  • The Uttar Pradesh and Bangalore Police have abridged the right of citizens to peaceful protest

On Wednesday, the government announced prohibitory orders in Bengaluru and several districts of Karnataka under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. These orders were to kick in at 6 am on Thursday and last till Saturday midnight.

Nevertheless, citizens of Bengaluru, like their compatriots in many other cities, held a peaceful protest march against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The protesters, including historian, sociologist, writer and columnist Ramachandra Guha, were detained. An outcry has broken out worldwide against this action of the Bangalore Police.

 CAA protests: Ram Guha detention, Section 144 in Karnataka and UP suggest police overreach in handling demonstrations

Ramachandra Guha being detained the Bangalore Police.

On a somewhat more enigmatic, if not outright bizarre, note, the administration imposed Section 144 on all of Uttar Pradesh, refused permission for protest rallies and meetings, and OP Singh, the director-general of police, sent out a tweet asking parents to counsel their children. ‘Section 144 is in force and no permission for any gathering has been given for 19 December. Please do not participate. Parents are also requested to counsel their children,’ the tweet said.

So, where exactly are we? A respected liberal academic and scores of citizens are detained for protesting a law that is not only patently discriminatory against Muslims and, very possibly unconstitutional. The authorities clamp prohibitory orders on the most populous state in India. Doubtless many of the over 2oo million people in the state will be inconvenienced. More than five people do assemble, after all, for purposes other than protest or the perpetration of mayhem.

But inconvenience is a minor thing in this context. The Uttar Pradesh and Bangalore Police have abridged the right of citizens to peaceful protest. That the peaceful protest, in this case, happens to be against an Act of Parliament that is widely seen as being injurious to the nation and its people in manifold ways, makes this abridgement all the more grievous.This signifies that the authorities are not prepared to tolerate any form of dissent, even from a person whom the Indian State had honoured with the Padma Bhushan award in 2009.

On the positive side, India must consider itself blessed that such blanket orders have not been imposed in most of the country. It could be argued that the Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka governments feared violence. This cannot, obviously, be a justification for banning peaceful assembly and protest. It is up to the police to put in place systems to ensure that those inclined to delinquent behaviour are not allowed to run amok. Other states are doing precisely that: Dealing with situations on merit.

And what are we to make of the tweet from the Uttar Pradesh director-general of police. What on earth does the last sentence mean? Parents are requested to tell their children that they must slavishly bow and scrape to authority; and that they should not develop a sense of right and wrong, or the moral courage to confront, decry and protest what they think is wrong. Is the Uttar Pradesh police’s model citizen a man, woman, girl or boy who will run away from the debates, often acrimonious, that shape and continuously transform the nation? In other words, does the Uttar Pradesh police want a body of automatons to govern over, or a citizenry?

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Unfortunately, over the past five years and counting, the dominant section of the ruling establishment wants precisely what the Uttar Pradesh director-general of police seems to want: a quiescent and complaisant citizenry that will accept authority no matter what iniquities and injustices it perpetrates. Above all, that is the tenor of the political message the Union government, the ruling party and the governments it controls in the states keep sending out. Protest will no longer be tolerated. Please don’t lecture us about the Constitution.

India is in a precarious position today. It is caught in a pincer movement. From one side, efforts to blot out the secular and embracing character of the republic is being sought to be erased. The CAA is not a step, but a lunge in that direction. It signifies that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now prepared to import the principle of theocracy and communal discrimination from the streets into the very heart of government. The principle that Muslims are second-class citizens has prima facie been legally sanctified.

From the other flank, is an attack on the republic itself. Over the past five years, all manner of institutions have been undermined – from the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Election Commission. Law-enforcement agencies controlled by the Union government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate, the Serious Fraud Investigation Office, the income Tax Department, et al — have been used to selectively target Opposition leaders. It’s not true, for instance, that the CBI was never manipulated before this regime was installed. The problem is that the scale and brazenness of the manipulation has changed qualitatively.

The intolerance of dissent and centralisation of arbitrary power has also been demonstrated by the arrests made in the Elgar Parishad case, in connection with which five persons, including lawyers, activists, a litterateur and an academic were arrested in a pre-dawn, countrywide raid by police teams from Maharashtra on 28 August, 2018. Five other activists – lawyer Surendra Gadling, retired English professor Shoma Sen, poet and publisher Sudhir Dhawale, and human rights activists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson – were arrested on 6 June, 2018. Nine of them are still in jail.

On Wednesday, the police drafted charges, which included a conspiracy to kill the prime minister. This theory had been floated by the police during the second round of arrests, but rests on a flimsy foundation. The suspicion that the case is fabricated to protect people belonging to the Sangh Parivar gains credence from the fact that the violence at an annual Dalit celebration in 2017, which resulted in the arrests, were provoked by members of a Hindutva organisation.

Of the two accused, one, Milind Ekbote, was eventually held, but the other, Sambhaji Bhide, also known as Guruji and close to senior BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was allowed to roam free. In a sudden about turn, this line of investigation was dropped and the pursuit of ‘urban Naxals’ initiated. This case is mentioned because of the egregious and opaque manner in which the process of law enforcement can be manipulated.

It doesn’t appear that the protests are going to die down soon. The scale and breadth of the protests have been escalated by the spontaneous protests of the students. There is still time for the Union government to invite representatives of the public for discussions and keep the framing of rules and regulations under the CAA on hold. Debate can defuse what appears to be a critical juncture. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2019 10:18:56 IST