New Delhi: A case that reeks of brazen abuse of power at a time when citizens are hard pressed to place full faith on the state machinery to contain the coronavirus pandemic has come to light in Uttar Pradesh.
The Uttar Pradesh police arrested Dr. Ashish Mittal on March 23, 2020. At the time, chief minister Adityanath had already imposed a lockdown. Mittal, who was one of the many supporters of the women-led anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests had received warnings from the state police to get the dharna in Mansoor Park area of Prayagraj stopped, failing which “lawful action” could be taken against him.
However, when he was arrested two days later, the Uttar Pradesh police bizarrely slapped the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, against the Allahabad-based doctor and another activist Umar Khalid, who was also put in police custody.
Ashish, who graduated from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, is the general secretary of the trade unionists’ body, the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS). On March 23, the district administration issued a notice to him to “immediately get the dharna by women stopped and fully cooperate with administration” and that if he does not do so, the authorities would assume his “full involvement” and “lawful legal action will be taken” against him.
Curiously, two days later, the Epidemic Diseases Act was invoked against him, despite the fact that the colonial era law that has been continuing in independent India had little bearing on charges against him.
This Act gives special powers to officials to penalise and arrest persons in the interest of controlling an epidemic disease.
AIKMS feels that at a time when the state has a mammoth task to contain the spread of coronavirus in the state, the Act has been deliberately abused to shut down a democratic voice like Dr. Ashish Mittal’s.
“…the provisions of this Act have been abused against Dr. Ashish and Umar Khalid. The violation (or non-compliance) of that order (against Ashish) is to be treated as under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. The provisions of the (Epidemic Diseases) Act have no bearing on the case against Dr. Mital,” the trade union’s president, V. Venkataramaiah, said in a statement.
“Everybody knows that the dharna was started by women against the CAA-NRC-NPR which are attacks on (Indian) secularism. People came out in protest in large numbers and several organisations supported these protests,” he further said, adding that Dr. Mittal was not the only supporter of the dharna.
The statement said that the Uttar Pradesh government has made repeated attempts to remove the protesters from the protest site, much before the coronavirus pandemic had started in India. The Adityanath-led BJP government has been particularly brutal against the protesters who have largely been staging sit-ins peacefully against the contentious Act.
At the time when he was arrested, the women protestors had been already taking adequate precautions and had reduced in numbers substantially to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Demanding his immediate release, AIKMS said that the Uttar Pradesh government’s action is vindictive and under the pretext of containing a pandemic it was suppressing the voices of those people who have been at the forefront of exposing its corruption and high-handedness.
“We apprehend that the UP government has taken this action against Dr. Mittal also for his role in the peasant movement in UP, particularly in the region,” AIKMS said, while adding that Ashish was one of the most important voices in exposing the illegal sand mining mafia in the region. He has also been protesting against brutal exploitation of workers in sand mining.
Earlier this month, Ashish’s wife Dr. Madhavi Mittal also came under the UP government’s scanner. Her ultrasound clinic in Prayagraj was singled out for a raid when the couple was out of town. The authorities sealed her clinic on March 8 and claimed that the action was taken against the medical facility on grounds of “technical deficiency”.
Madhavi too is an alumna of the radiology department of AIIMS and is a renowned ultrasonologist at Prayagraj.
The Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum (PMSF), a trade union, had called the UP government’s action against the clinic an unjustified act to “teach a lesson” to the doctor’s family for expressing dissent against the CAA.
Since Ashish’s arrest, several doctors from AIIMS too have registered their protests against such arbitrary police action against the couple.