A prominent student activist has been arrested under anti-terrorism laws for his alleged role in February’s deadly riots in Delhi. Umar Khalid, 33, was taken into custody around 11pm local time on September 13th. The law under which Khalid has been arrested, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), was amended last December. The riots that took place in February were incited by last year’s passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which many have accused of being anti-Muslim. Khalid is expected to remain in custody until September 24th. This comes after several other student leaders have been arrested in a police investigation that has been condemned as politically motivated, according to the BBC, Al Jazeera, and the Guardian.
Khalid became a prominent activist at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, write Al Jazeera and the Guardian. According to the BBC, Delhi police have accused Khalid of holding meetings in January to organize the February riots, and of inciting unrest through his inflammatory rhetoric. According to the Guardian, in a January speech at JNU, Khalid stated: “If they spread hate, we will respond to it with love. If they thrash us with lathis, we keep holding the tricolour.”
The February riots broke out when a pro-CAA group attacked a peaceful anti-CAA protest in Delhi. The CAA, dubbed “fundamentally discriminatory” by the UN, facilitates naturalization of religious minorities but excludes Muslims, writes Al Jazeera. According to the Guardian, the violence was provoked by Kapil Mishra of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as he threatened to remove Muslim protestors by force. The rioting swiftly took on religious overtones. Both Hindus and Muslims committed violent acts, but Muslims were disproportionately targeted, according to Amnesty International. Armed Hindu extremists attacked Muslims and burned down several mosques and thousands of homes. Amnesty International also claimed that Delhi police “committed serious human rights violations,” including assaulting Muslim demonstrators alongside the extremists. Altogether, of the 53 individuals killed, 40 were Muslims, writes the Guardian. The riots lasted for a total of three days, according to Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Many activists apart from Khalid have been charged or arrested by Delhi police under the UAPA, particularly over the last two months, writes the Guardian. According to Al Jazeera, Delhi police have arrested 1,575 individuals and filed over 700 First Information Reports (FIRs) on those involved in the riots. Human rights organizations say that Muslim activists have been unjustly targeted, an allegation which Delhi police deny, writes the BBC. Activists have responded that no police officers nor any members or supporters of the governing BJP who delivered hate speeches have been questioned or arrested, according to Al Jazeera and the Guardian.
However, the narrative that Delhi police have alleged is radically different. They claim that they have been employing their accusations, charges, and arrests to resist a conspiracy to exacerbate religious tensions led by activists like Khalid, writes the Guardian. Many organizations, politicians, and legal experts have released statements condemning his arrest, writes the BBC. United Against Hate (UAH), of which Khalid is a member, has accused Delhi police of conducting a “witch-hunt against anti-CAA protesters.” The group has also stated that “the police first misquoted Khalid’s speeches to frame him and then tried to fabricate witnesses …to intimidate democratic voices of dissent into silence,” according to Al Jazeera.
Khalid’s father, a politician, has been quoted by Al Jazeera saying that “it’s known to everyone who started the riots, who were the people who made hate speeches, who were the main sufferers and who lost the property and lives. Instead of filing FIRs against those responsible for the riots, police are trying to implicate Umar Khalid and some other people.” In addition, many legal experts have questioned the use of the UAPA to arrest activists, as the law allows designation of individuals as ‘terrorists’ without due process, writes Al Jazeera.
Amnesty International released a statement that Khalid speaks “in favour of the constitution in anti-CAA demonstrations across the country, particularly keeping in mind the peaceful, non-violent and democratic ways.” This is the very approach that the Indian government must take, not just to stop the rioting, but to remain true to India as a country of multiple religions. Rather than exploiting the powers of the legislature and the police force — not to mention inflammatory rhetoric and violence — to distort India into a Hindu nationalist state, the government must condemn violence and promote religious pluralism. Little is likely to change as long as the BJP remains in power, but the Hindu nationalism that has taken root in India over the last few decades and has been exacerbated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not have to be what defines this era of Indian politics. Change is fundamentally in the hands of the voters; it is up to them to shape a peaceful India.
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