Mumbai: A week after a Mumbai sessions court rejected a pre-arrest plea filed by rights activist Harshali Potdar, the MRA police on Monday, January 11, picked her up from a café in South Mumbai only to release her after five hours.
Potdar, who is charged in a case of allegedly inciting communal hatred between communities, was informed that she was arrested, and her family and lawyers too were asked to be present in court for the hearing on Tuesday. But a few hours later, the police seem to have changed their mind. “They suddenly told me I was only called in for questioning and let me go,” Potdar told The Wire.
Potdar, an alumna of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, had allegedly shared a post on social media platform Facebook which had criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The post, originally written by another political activist Mohsin Shaikh, was shared by Potdar for a brief period and eventually deleted. This message, according to the police, was communally charged and incited hatred between two communities. A part of the message reproduced in the FIR mentions: “Corona… Media… Muslim… and Brahmin.” It is unclear which of the following words exactly incited communal hatred.
Similar to BJP-run states, the Maharashtra government, which is run by a coalition of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress, too filed multiple cases against those who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event at Markaz Nizamuddin in Delhi. The Facebook post had allegedly looked at the government’s role in handling these cases and had accused them of targeting the Muslim community.
This is not the first case Potdar has been booked in. The activist, who is a part of the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan, a banner under which the Elgar Parishad was organised in Pune on December 31, 2017, is named as one of the prime accused in the FIR registered by the Pune rural police soon after the January 1, 2018 violence at Bhima Koregaon. The case eventually was taken over by the National Investigations Agency (NIA) and Potdar hasn’t been arrested in that case yet.
As a political activist, Potdar has a few cases registered against her for participating in protests and making critical comments against the current dispensation. Those cases were used as grounds to oppose her pre-arrest bail last week. The police’s written submission to the court did not have any specific grounds for her arrest. “The police only harped over the fact that they needed her phone (allegedly used to share the Facebook post) for investigation. Instead of taking the phone in their custody, they sought her custody,” her lawyer, Ishrat Ali Khan, told The Wire.
On Monday, Potdar, along with other activists, had visited a café in South Mumbai. While their informal meeting was on, the police showed up there and whisked Potdar away. “I was clearly told it is an arrest. I was asked to sign some papers and just while I was questioning my arrest and refusing to sign the papers, the police suddenly changed their stance. It is unknown why and how they decided to let me go,” Potdar says.
Potdar alleges that her detention was “illegal”. “They have not issued any summons. They picked me up from a public space without any warning. And after detaining me for over five hours, they let me go. No legal process was followed,” she says.
In 2020, during the lockdown, Maharashtra police filed multiple cases against activists and mediapersons. These FIRs, in most instances, were unfounded and the state has been criticised for targeting activists and journalists who questioned their role in handling the COVID-19 outbreak.