India Accused Of Using Coronavirus As Cover For Arrests Of Muslim Activists04 May 2020
Activists in India have accused police in New Delhi of arresting high-profile activists under the cover of the on-going coronavirus lockdowns in the country. According to activists, since the imposition of a coronavirus lockdown in New Delhi, which witnessed heavy communal violence earlier this year, police have stepped up the arrests of individuals, often on flimsy legal pretexts.
The arrests which, according to activists and lawyers, have been going on since February, will test the credibility of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which announced last week that it would reach out to the country’s Muslim community after receiving growing backlash for stoking Islamophobia in India and fostering a violent Hindu-nationalist agenda.
“We have been receiving daily calls from people for help”
The warnings about the arrests came from a network of prominent lawyers and activists, who warned that police in New Delhi have been arresting people indiscriminately. Prominent criminal lawyer, Nitika Khaitan, said that she recorded at least 50 people who were questioned, detained or arrested in relation to the New Delhi riots earlier in February. She said that the arrests are often not on strong grounds and warned that the detainees’ access to legal assistance was also being restricted.
These claims were corroborated by Raqib Ansari, a resident of the Mustafabad neighbourhood that was hit by the February violence, who said that his 51-year-old father was arrested in late March. The police said that he was captured on a video of the riots holding a stick. Ansari himself says that they put him in jail without charges.
Similarly, Aysha Renna, a member of the Jamia Co-ordination Committee set up to organise protests against the citizenship law that triggered the New Delhi violence, said that three members of the group were arrested in the past month and accused of sedition, murder and rioting. Renna said that because of the restrictions against protests due to the coronavirus lockdown, her group has not been able to protest the arrests and accused the police of trying to arrest as many people as possible. Other academics and activists in India have made similar allegations.
A spokesperson for the New Delhi Police acknowledged that investigations over the rioting has continued during the lockdown but said that it arrests people only when there is sufficient evidence. According to official numbers, 2,647 people have been detained or arrested in connection to the riots but did not comment on arrests made after the lockdown.
The Indian Government is trying to improve its international image
These new allegations come at a time when the Indian Government is trying to improve its international image following growing criticisms of Islamophobia. BJP officials and affiliates were recorded attacking Indian Muslims as foreigners or claiming that they are deliberately spreading the coronavirus under a so-called “Corona Jihad”. Growing suspicion towards Muslims has resulted in instances where they were denied admittance to hospitals or were outright attacked. Fake news about Muslims breaking quarantine have further stoked Islamophobia.
After coming under increasing pressure from international partners, especially those in the Gulf, the Indian Government launched a charm offensive to show it takes Islamophobia seriously, with prominent BJP officials engaging in outreach with the country’s Muslims.
However, Islamophobic incidents and statements, including those involving BJP officials, have continued. The news of the arrests in New Delhi during the lockdown risks damaging the government’s credibility further. Although arrests predate last week’s outreach efforts, the sincerity of the outreach will be judged on whether these arrests continue in the coming weeks.