Mumbai: Four months after initiating “chapter proceedings” against student leaders and young professionals in Mumbai for participating in public protests at different locations in south Mumbai in January this year, the MRA Marg police have slowly begun withdrawing these cases. Last week, the assistant commissioner of police, Azad Maidan division, withdrew the externment proceedings against eight persons, including students and anti-caste activist Suvarna Salve.
The police, along with two separate FIRs, filed by the Colaba Police and MRA Marg police, had also initiated chapter proceedings under Section 110 (e) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) against several activists who had participated in the “Occupy Gateway” protest in January, to condemn the violent attack on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. An executive clause, the proceedings under this section is initiated by an assistant commissioner of police (ACP) level officer and if convicted, the person is externed – asked to remain outside the district limit – for a stipulated period of time.
The Mumbai police had handpicked a few participants, mostly students and young professionals, and issued them notice seeking surety from individuals who could pledge an amount ranging between Rs one lakh to Rs 50 lakh, ensuring their good behaviour for the next two years. The Mumbai police had also decided to classify them as “habitual offenders” and initiate another administrative procedure of “externment” against them.
ACP Milind Khetle, who is heading the proceedings, told The Wire that so far, the police have withdrawn the process against eight persons and are in the process of closing the file against the others too. At least a dozen more activists and academic scholars – mostly from Mumbai University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences – are still facing the chapter proceedings.
While Khetle did not confirm the grounds for withdrawing the process, sources in the Mumbai police said the move came after a directive from the state home department to stop criminalising rights activists in the city.
‘Hope police will stop profiling activists’
Salve, a 24-year-old student and the lead singer of the cultural troupe Samata Kala Manch, was one of the first persons to have been served the notice in August. She was one of the few persons to have received four separate notices of chapter proceedings, with the MRA Marg police demanding a whopping Rs 50 lakh surety from her. Soon after, similar proceedings were initiated against her at Colaba and Kurla too.
Salve, welcoming the move to withdraw the proceedings, told The Wire that she is hopeful that the police will henceforth stop profiling and criminalising activists in the city. “It was an arbitrary action initiated against us. Now that one zonal police have withdrawn the proceeding, I am hopeful that others too will follow suit,” Salve said.
Similarly, a 26-year-old activist and Tata Institute of Social Sciences Alumnus, Megha Khirsagar too was served with a notice demanding Rs 5 lakh as surety amount. Megha – who is also part of Samata Kala Manch – says that when she along with some others went to the ACP’s office last week, they were informed that the proceeding was closed since no evidence was found against them. The department is yet to hand over the order copy to them.
The Wire had first reported about the Mumbai police’s move to criminalise student activists in the city for participating in protests. Most of them were the main faces of protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the city.
The Mumbai protest in January was an impromptu one, organised in response to the attack on students of JNU allegedly by the activists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) students’ wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Several rights activists and actors had gathered at the Gateway of India. The rally soon transformed into a sit-in protest at the Gateway and more and more people joined in support. State ministers like Jitendra Awhad visited the spot to negotiate with the protesters.
The protesters were assured that no action would be initiated against them, but later most of them found themselves implicated in not one but multiple cases. For example, in the case of a young teaching professional who had participated in the protest, the police not just filed two FIRs against him but also initiated chapter proceedings against him.
The Mumbai police had come under serious criticism for targeting dissenting voices. Several researchers pointed out that it is discriminatory and is disproportionately used against people from marginalised identities like Dalits and Denotified Tribes.
In most cases, researchers pointed out a pattern: executive officials hearing the case convict the person and the individual then has to move the high court to get their name cleared. This is a tedious process, requiring both resources and patience. In Mumbai too, those targeted belong to marginalised caste identities.