Note: This story, originally published on May 24, is being republished on May 25, 2020, with the update that the activists received bail and have been re-arrested.
New Delhi: The Delhi Police, which on Saturday arrested two founding members of the women-led rights movement Pinjra Tod for taking part in a sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Jafrabad in February this year, re-arrested the two after they were granted bail. This time, police claimed to have acted on an FIR that includes murder charges.
Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, both students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, had been at the forefront of the Pinjra Tod movement, which started as an effort to break punitive hostel curfew hours for women.
Pinjra Tod activists said that both Kalita and Narwal were first arrested at around 6 pm Saturday evening by personnel of the Jafrabad police station, shortly after New Delhi Range of Special Cell officers interrogated them at their homes.
They said that police did not offer any reason to their family members before arresting them. The organisation has called the police action a “witch-hunt of democratic activists.”
Ved Prakash Surya, DCP (Northeast) has confirmed that the two activists had been arrested under sections 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the Indian Penal Code.
Curiously, the FIR registered against them makes no mention of an assault or criminal force against a public servant.
The FIR merely says that the two activists were among those who led a group of women and children to stage a sit-in protest under the Jafrabad overhead metro rail station on the evening of February 22, 2020. While the FIR says that the group blocked traffic and raised slogans against CAA, there is no allegation of violence whatsoever against them.
According to a report on The Indian Express, a Delhi court granted them bail on Sunday.
Duty Magistrate Ajeet Narayan had said that that the section 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the IPC which was invoked against them was “not maintainable”, and that they were “merely protesting against NRC and CAA”.
“…[T]he accused have strong roots in society and are well-educated. Accused are ready to cooperate with the police regarding the investigation,” the order, as quoted by Express, stated.
At the same time, the Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch arrested them under charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy. Crime Branch investigating officer Kuldeep Singh sought their custody for 14 days and was given two by the judge.
Kalita is pursuing her M.Phil degree at the Centre of Women’s Studies while Narwal is a PhD student at the Centre for Historical Studies. Both had graduated from Delhi University before joining JNU.
It was the Jafrabad anti-CAA protest, for which police arrested Kalita and Narwal on Saturday, that had prompted BJP leader Kapil Mishra to give an incendiary speech demanding that the protesters leave, following which communal violence had broken out in north-east Delhi in February this year that took the lives of nearly 60 people.
While no action has been taken against Mishra and his supporters to date, the arrest and re-arrest of the Pinjra Tod activists is being seen as part of the Delhi police’s crackdown on student leaders who had organised against the CAA since December.
Earlier, Jamia Millia Islamia students Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, and Asif Iqbal Tanha were arrested and slapped with the stringent terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in connection with their alleged role in the Delhi violence.
Zargar, who is lodged in Tihar Jail, is pregnant.
Commenting on the initial arrests on Saturday, a New Delhi-based lawyer Sarim Naved said, “There was no need to arrest them. The incident happened in February, however, the police arrested them in May. The two activists had not gone anywhere. The police should have ideally filed a chargesheet, and asked them to cooperate in the investigation instead of arresting them.”
The crackdown on students at a time when India is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is being seen by some in the opposition as an opportunist act by the Modi government since public protests are banned.
Before the arrests of the Jamia students, the Delhi police took time out to first erase the protest art students had painted on the walls of the university.
It has since then been investigating several students who had peacefully protested against the controversial CAA and trying to link their non-violent protest to the Delhi riots case.