Release Khalid Saifi, Even if Only to Ease the Burden on Indian Prisons

With the apex court's order to release prisoners to avoid overcrowding jails during the coronavirus outbreak, there is a ray of hope for Khalid Saifi.

In a coronavirus induced humane gesture, the Supreme Court, contrary to its record in the recent past, has asked states to explore the possibility of giving bail to prisoners to decongest jails. The top court also asked the states to form high-level committees to identify cases fit for temporary bail or parole.

I see a ray of hope in this order for Khalid Saifi. Before talking about him, we need to understand the importance of the order of the Supreme Court.

As per the order, prisoners convicted or charged with offences having a jail term of up to seven years can be given parole. The apex court’s order was clear that prisoners were being released in an attempt to avoid overcrowding of jails during the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had asked the chief secretaries of all states to respond by March 20 with measures that were needed to curb overcrowding in jails amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the apex court’s order, the Maharashtra government had moved the Supreme Court seeking permission to release 5,000 prisoners keeping in mind the threat from the coronavirus pandemic and the impracticability of “social distancing” in overcrowded jails.

Whilst appreciating the benevolence of the highest court, my mind went to the 22 persons this court itself had resent to jail cancelling the bail given to them by the Karnataka high court. It was very unusual for the Supreme Court to intervene in a matter in which the high court had found the claims of the police, against the arrested, bogus and had, in fact, directed the filing of cases against the police itself.

In its order, the high court had given temporary relief to the 22 arrested and jailed people. It must be noted that the court had not quashed the case against them. And yet the state moved to the Supreme Court with extraordinary urgency to annul the order of the high court. It was not left disappointed.

Also read: COVID-19: Here’s How Many Prisoners Will Be Temporarily Released From Jail, By State

One can only hope that those jailed would be on the list of persons to be released prepared by the state of Karnataka. It all depends on whether the charges are considered unimportant enough. Or those languishing in the overcrowded jails of Uttar Pradesh for having dared to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens.

I wonder if the Delhi government will include Khalid Saifi in its list? Or will the decision be the prerogative of the Delhi police? The same police which, in the most outrageous manner, framed Khalid in a criminal case – not once but twice.

Khalid Saifi, a young Muslim, a businessman who sports the type of beard which makes him look distinctly Muslim. A man who understood what the right to citizenship entailed – which ultimately became his undoing.

A Muslim is allowed to study, get a job or be an entrepreneur in India but for him or her to even consider voicing a political opinion makes him or her a suspect in the eyes of the state, as in the case of Khalid Saifi.

Saifi, one of the founders of a group called United Against Hate (UAH) which was formed after lynchings under the guise of cow protectionism became rampant. The group undertook a fact-finding mission, created awareness and tried to provide legal aid to victims and their kin. The group also participated in protests against the CAA, NPR and NRC.

Khalid, as a conscientious individual and as a member of the UAH group supported many protests across Delhi. The protest, which took place in public, where speeches were made in public, had nothing conspiratorial about it. There was no hidden agenda as the government would have us believe. A perfectly non-violent protest, which is the right of all the citizens, even Muslims, of the country, took place.

I saw Khalid when I was invited by the Khureji protestors to talk to them. He was there to ensure that no untoward incident took place. There was a slight commotion in one corner. Khalid chuckled and informed me that a man had tried to enter the protest wearing a burqa and had been caught by volunteers. I did not ask him about the identity of the intruder and Khalid also did not feel the need to discuss it.

On February 24, we started getting calls from Jafrabad and other areas about the increasing tension in the region. I soon learnt that women had created a roadblock near the Jafrabad metro station after the Bhim Army had called for a Bharat bandh. News of a speech inciting violence made by a BJP leader was being circulated.

Also read: Activist Khalid Saifi, Detained From Khureji Protest Site, Charged With ‘Attempt to Murder’

I called Nadeem, a friend of Khalid and one of the leaders of the UAH. He told me about the urgency of the situation and the need to vacate the roads.

I met Yogendra Yadav, Rahul Roy, Saba Deewan, Kavita Srivastava, Nikhil De and some others at a cafe in the afternoon. Khalid too arrived with Nadeem. We ordered coffee and I noticed that Khalid preferred black coffee. What he got instead was a cappuccino. Even though he was disappointed by the carelessness of the waiter, he did not crib. We spoke for a while and concluded that the roadblocks needed to removed urgently.

How can one do that? We took an audacious decision. We decided to go to the spots and appeal to the women to withdraw from the road. We had two cars. Khalid suggested that we first go to Jafrabad in his car. Some of us squeezed into his car. Apart from Khalid and I, four other women occupied the rear seat of the car.

On our way, we started receiving news of violence. We were now worried. Was it safe for Khalid to go there? Even if he was apprehensive, he did not make it known. His phone rang and he put it on speaker mode. The deeply worried voice of his wife from the other side asked, “Where are you?”

To diffuse the tension, Khalid cracked a few lighthearted jokes and attempted to reassure his wife.

As we approached Seelampur, we saw police barricades. Khalid parked his car under the metro bridge and we moved to the site. There was palpable tension in the air. Khalid wanted us to persuade the protestors to move away from the road. It was so chaotic that we could not even be heard.

Disappointed, we returned. Khalid was not about to give up though. He suggested that I go with him and persuade the protestors to remove the roadblock at the Khureji protest site. We drove together to Khureji. A crowd was starting to assemble when our car approached the protest site. Khalid got out and started talking to the women. I joined him.

A young woman broke down. Khalid patiently argued with her. Ultimately the young woman relented. I saw the police on the other side of the barricade smiling. The road had been cleared.

He dropped me to the nearest metro station and I returned home happy. The relief was short-lived. But the violence had already begun. Khureji had also been struck by it.

Also read: Allegations of Manhandling, Detentions as Delhi Police ‘Clears’ Protesters From Khureji Khas

Soon after, we got the news that Khalid had been arrested. I saw a video where Khalid could be seen moving to the police and talking to them. Suddenly he was surrounded by the police and arrested.

Khalid was charged by the police for provoking violence. A most atrocious lie. I was witness to his role as a peacemaker.

Later when I saw his photograph, I was shocked. Khalid was being wheel-chaired into the court. He was walking when he was arrested. How had he been reduced to this state? Why did the magistrate not feel the need to ask this basic question? Why did the court not notice it?

We waited with bated breath for the hearing of his bail petition and were devastated when it was rejected. To make matters worse, we were told that the Delhi police had decided to frame him in another, a more serious case with graver consequences.

Khalid was remanded to police custody. He is at the special cell of the Delhi police. We cannot meet him.

Would Khalid’s release be considered under the Supreme Court’s order? Even if it is just to ease the burden on the prisons and the police.

Khalid must be released for his arrest was unjust in the first place. But that would take long for the courts to decide. The pandemic has nudged the system into considering a more humane approach to prisoners and it should hopefully free Khalid. He should be with his wife and his children. This is the least that can be done as the first step. Or, is this asking for too much from our state?

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.