While anti-government activists are being rounded up under the draconian UAPA, here’s a quick look at some individuals accused of serious crimes who got away lightly for being on the right side of the political fence.

New Delhi: It’s become a new normal in Indian politics for students and activists to be incarcerated across India for expressing dissent and being vocal about certain actions and policies of the Narendra Modi government. The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – UAPA – has been clamped on almost all such persons, even for the flimsiest of charges.

In Assam, top leaders of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasant rights group, were among the first to be charged under the UAPA for leading protests in the state against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Curiously, the chargesheet that the National Investigating Agency (NIA) finally filed this past week – after months of jail time for leaders of the rights group – could only cite the use of the phrase ‘Lal Salaam’ – or ‘red salute’, a greeting used by all communists in India, including those who fight elections – the uploading of a photo of Lenin on Facebook and referring to friends as ‘comrade’ as proof of the accused persons being ‘Maoist’. But this was enough to accuse hem and thereby allegedly waging war against the nation.

In Delhi too, Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are among the student activists who took part in the anti-CAA protests against whom the UAPA has now been used in an attempt to accuse protestors of engineering the Delhi riots that broke out in February.

During the Emergency, hundreds of those who voiced their opposition to the Indira Gandhi government’s actions and policies were locked up under MISA the Maintenance of Internal Security Act). MISA was essentially a preventive detention law that gave the government wide latitude to detain individuals, without charge or bail, for up to extendable periods of 12 months at a time. MISA was repealed in 1978 but the UAPA today is arguably the new MISA – a law used essentially to keep politically inconvenient individuals in jail indefinitely, without the chance of getting bail – with the added benefit, in the eyes of the ruling party, of tarnishing its critics as ‘terrorists’.

In 2019, the Modi government amended Section 35 and 36 of the Act to pave the way for the executive to declare an individual a terrorist without charge or trial. Petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court to declare the amended UAPA violative of fundamental rights. The court issued notice to the Centre but the matter has not come up for hearing yet.

Even as the government, armed with the UAPA, is upping the ante against those protesting its policies, the Narendra Modi government has been lenient its attitude towards those on its side of the political-ideological fence even when they have been accused of serious offences. The process began with the CBI’s refusal to appeal the discharge of Amit Shah from the Sohrabuddin-Kauser Bi murder case in December 2014.

Among the eight individuals included in the list below are those who had been accused of terrorism, custodial killings, human rights violations and serious weapons-related offences – crimes that have cost several lives and which the government would have had no problem labelling as “terrorism” if they could have been pinned on its political opponents.

1. Kapil Baisala
On February 1, Kapil Baisala, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, fired two rounds in the presence of the Delhi police at Shaheen Bagh where protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was underway. A supporter of the Modi government, he was vociferously opposed to those protesting the CAA. The image of him in the media – brandishing a country made pistol and aiming it at protesters – shocked the public.

Baisala had shouted “Jai Shri Ram” and said, “Hamare desh me aur kisi ki nahi chalegi, sirf Hinduon ki chalegi (only Hindus will rule in our country, no one else),” as he was taken into custody by Delhi police.

He was nabbed from the spot along with his weapon. However, on March 6, a Delhi court granted him bail on the basis of submissions by his lawyer which included.

Kapil has deep roots in society and there was no possibility of his absconding from the law.
Kapil has clean antecedents and he had never been involved in any other case in the past.
Kapil has the responsibility of his wife and minor child.
No purpose would be served by keeping the accused in judicial custody. Trial will take time.
The complaint and other witnesses in the case are police officials and as such there was no apprehension of influencing them.
Investigation qua the applicant/accused has already been completed and he is no more required for the purpose of investigation.
Even after the PC to Investigating Officer, nothing was recovered from the applicant/accused.
South East district magistrate Gulshan Kumar granted bail to Baisala “considering the totality of facts and circumstances”. As per the court order, the police opposed the bail application, stating that the allegations against Baisala were “very serious and the case was at an initial stage”. However, it is not clear if the Delhi police has appealed the grant of bail in a higher court.

Curiously, Baisala was only charged under Section 336 (endangering the life or personal safety of others) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the IPC and various sections of the Arms Act. Even though a Central minister, Anurag Thakur, had actually prompted BJP supporters in Delhi to chant, “Shoot the traitors”, three days earlier, the police do not appear to have probed the conspiracy angle to the crime.

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2. Manish Sirohi
Even as Delhi was reeling from communal violence in which several victims were killed by gunshots, the Delhi police arrested an arms dealer, Manish Sirohi, and recovered guns and ammunition from him. He was charged with ordinary IPC and Arms Act offences.

However, Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and other anti-CAA activists have been arrested under UAPA when the only concrete accusation against them is that they blocked a road during a protest and no arms or ammunition were recovered from them.

While Safoora – who has never been involved in any other case prior to her arrest – is languishing in jail even though her lawyer had submitted to the court in her bail application that she is undergoing a complicated pregnancy and runs the risk of catching COVID-19 in jail, Sirohi was granted bail by a Delhi court on May 6. Incidentally, one of the reasons cited was the threat of contracting coronavirus while in detention.

3. Milind Ekbot
Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote – accused of inciting anti-Dalit violence at an event held on January 1, 2018, to commemorate the Bhima Koregaon battle – was released on bail in April that year, just weeks after he was arrested. The Maharashtra police had arrested him after his anticipatory bail was rejected by the Supreme Court. One person lost his life in the violence.

In January 2019, a Pune court further relaxed his bail conditions, allowing him to participate in public rallies and speak to the media.

Another Hindutva leader, Sambhaji Bhide, was a co-accused in the case but was never arrested by police. An RTI reply showed that six months before the Bhima Koregaon violence, the then Devendra Fadnavis government had withdrawn six prior cases against Bhide, citing lack of evidence.

The focus of the Bhima Koregaon case soon changed to a set of activists, some of whom had been associated with an event held a day before the violence took place. In November 2018, the Pune police filed a 5,000-page chargesheet. News reports said it virtually absolved Bhide and Ekbote of all charges, and instead accused five human rights activists and lawyers of inciting the violence through their “inflammatory” speeches. Only two of those arrested by police had, however, attended that event.

While the new state government under Uddhav Thackeray was mulling over setting up an SIT to handle the case, the Centre handed it over to the agency under its direct control – the NIA – from the Pune police without consulting the state. Those arrested have been charged under the UAPA and accused of being ‘Maoists’. None of them have been granted bail yet.

4. Major Leetul Gogoi
Major Leetul Gogoi earned the Indian Army international infamy in 2017 by taking a voter in Kashmir hostage and using him as a ‘human shield’. The major justified his criminal act by claiming he was trying to rescue election commission officials reportedly endangered by a “bloodthirsty” mob of 700-900. The hostage in question, Farooq Dar, was claimed to be an anti-election ‘stone pelter’, though it emerged that he had actually cast his vote.

Though the officer broke a slew of laws, military and civil, he was celebrated as a ‘national hero’ by supporters of the ruling party.

A court of inquiry was duly set up by the Army but the then Army chief, General Bipin Rawat (who has now been made India’s first chief of defence staff), scuttled it and instead awarded the controversial soldier a medal.

In less than a year though, Major Gogoi fell from the pedestal on which he had been placed. A second court of inquiry found him guilty of breaking “military discipline” for “fraternising” with a local woman and “being away from place of duty while in an operational area” and reduced six months seniority from his career book.

A former army officer, Lt. Gen (Retd) H.S. Panag, wrote, that Maj Gogoi had “violated Indian Army’s ethos, standard operating procedures, rules of engagement, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS)’s Commandments, the Supreme Court guidelines for application of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), Article 21 of the Constitution and Sections 63 and 69 of the Army Act read in conjunction with the Indian Penal Code. It is not too late for the Indian Army to reopen the ‘human shield’ case by holding a fresh court of inquiry and take necessary follow-up action depending upon the investigation.”

5. Aseemanand
On March 20, 2019, an NIA special court acquitted former RSS pracharak, Swami Aseemanand aka Naba Kumar Sarkar, along with three others, of all charges in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case that had claimed the lives of 70 persons. The court said the investigating agency, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, failed to prove the conspiracy charge against them, and therefore, ruled that the accused deserve benefit of doubt.

Aseemanand was granted bail in the case in 2015, but continued to remain in jail as he was arrested in 2010 by the Central Bureau of Investigation from an ashram in Haridwar as an accused in the Ajmer Dargah blast case, and thereafter in the Mecca Masjid blast case.

While the Ajmer blast in 2007 took two lives, the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad in the same year killed 16 people.

By the time the NIA court acquitted Aseemanand in the Samjhauta blast case, through 2017 and 2018, the NIA special courts in Jaipur and Hyderabad respectively had acquitted him also in the Ajmer Dargah and Mecca Masjid blast cases because of the Central agency’s inability to prove the charges.

In 2011, the NIA had charged Aseemanand of planning the Ajmer blast and subsequently in the other acts of terror.

Now, with no one charged in these blasts anymore, the families of 88 people killed in 2007 await justice.

Meanwhile, the BJP reportedly used Aseemanand’s release as “a key poll plank” in the Karnataka assembly elections.

6. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur
Madhya Pradesh resident Pragya Singh Thakur, or Sadhvi Pragya, was granted bail in 2015 in the Malegaon blast case after the NIA gave her a clean chit. While ten people were killed in the blast carried out in Malegaon town of Maharashtra in 2008, over 100 were injured.

The NIA clean chit came after the special public prosecutor, Rohini Salian, told the Indian Express that the agency under the Central government had put pressure on her to slow down the case. The court, however, rejected the NIA’s views on Thakur and placed terror charges on her under various sections of the UAPA.

In October 2018, the NIA had framed charges against her – ten years after the blast was carried out and nine years after she was arrested.

In 2017, the special NIA court dropped charges under the draconian Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act against Pragya and the other accused. That year, the Bombay high court granted her bail on health grounds. She, however, will face terror charges under the UAPA.

In 2019, she joined the BJP, and is presently a Lok Sabha MP from Bhopal. Pragya was a member of the RSS’s youth wing, ABVP, during her college days.

In June 2019, her lawyer filed an application at the special NIA court in Mumbai for “exemption till further orders” but the court rejected it – forcing her to appear. It was the first time she appeared in court after the framing of charges in 2018.

7. Maya Kodnani
In 2018, Maya Surendra Kumar Kodnani, former minister of state in the Modi government in Gujarat, was acquitted of all charges in the Naroda Patiya case in 2002 by the Gujarat high court. She walked out of jail after nine years. Two years later, there is no sign of an appeal against that acquittal in the Supreme Court.

Daughter of an RSS pracharak, Kodnani was sentenced to 28 years in prison by a trial court in the case. In April 2013, the Gujarat government under Modi had moved an appeal in the high court seeking her death sentence but withdrew it three weeks later. As per news reports then, the Modi government consulted the advocate general of the state after right-wing groups slammed the chief minister (Modi) for endorsing the recommendation of the Supreme Court-appointed SIT seeking the death penalty for Kodnani and eight other accused including Babu Bajrangi.

Kodnani’s fate began to shine since then. In July 2014, she was granted bail by the high court on health grounds. On April 2018, the state high court overturned the trial court order and acquitted her in the case.

In the Naroda Patia massacre, 97 persons, including 36 children, were brutally killed.

8. D.G. Vanzara
Former deputy inspector general of Gujarat Police D.G. Vanzara, accused in the extra-judicial killings of Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh, walked out of Sabarmati Jail on bail in February 2015 to a grand welcome after eight years of incarceration.

In December 2018, Vanzara and every other accused person were acquitted of the murders of Sohrabuddin and Kauser Bi. In May 2019, the controversial police officer was discharged from the Ishrat Jahan murder case as well. Though this was a court decision, the role of the political executive in preparing the ground was quite evident.

Though Vanzara denied the encounters were fake, he dodged media questions on a letter he had written in 2013 accusing then state home minister Amit Shah of misguiding him.

As per rules, he was suspended from his job following his arrest by the state government. By the time he got out of jail, his service period had passed. He retired on May 31, 2014. However, after his release from jail, the BJP government in Gujarat gave him a promotion.

Meanwhile, another state police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, who had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court against then chief minister Modi, claiming that he attended a meeting during which the chief minister allegedly asked top cops to let Hindus vent their anger at Muslims during the Gujarat riots (the SC-appointed SIT, however, said he didn’t attend the meeting), is in jail in a 1990 custodial death case, along with six other policemen. In June 2019, Bhatt was sentenced to life imprisonment in the case by a Jamnagar sessions court.

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Cases that could have been

1. Suresh Tiwari and Brijbhushan Rajput

These two BJP MLAs from Uttar Pradesh made headlines in the middle of the national lockdown against COVID-19 for making communal statements against Muslims. Tiwari, an MLA from the state’s Barhaj constituency, was seen in a widely circulated video clip asking the public not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors as he alleged that they were a ‘source’ of the virus. Brijbhushan Rajput, MLA was seen in a video intimidating a Muslim vendor.

BJP national president J.P. Nadda issued a show cause notice and said that the conduct of the MLAs was against the party’s policy. However, the state police didn’t take cognisance of their inflammatory statements.

Instead, Congress state chief and former MLA Ajay Kumar Laalu was arrested on May 20 in Agra for protesting against the administration’s refusal to allow the buses his party had organised to transport migrants to the state. They were reportedly arrested for unlawful assembly, some of them not wearing masks or maintaining proper distance. Laalu got bail but was soon arrested in another case.

It must be mentioned that suspended doctor from a state hospital, Kafeel Khan, has been prosecuted and jailed under the National Security Act for his remark at an anti-CAA protest in Aligarh Muslim University in December last year. He had reportedly said, “Tum hame nahi hata paoge, hum 25 crore hai (You will not be able to throw us out, we (Indian Muslims) are 25 crore).

2. Sri Rama Vidya Kendra, Mangalore

Last December, this RSS-run school at Kalladka in Mangalore celebrated its sports day by enacting L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the proposed construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in the presence of Puducherry Lt Governor Kiran Bedi and Union minister D.V. Sadananada Gowda. Bedi posted a video of the event on social media too.

Though the communally charged play attracted criticism, Kalladkha Prabhakar Bhat, the school owner and RSS’s south-central region executive committee member, told The News Minute, “Even though the Supreme Court has said that what happened in Babri was wrong, we have questioned that part of the judgement itself. We cannot accept everything that is said in the judgement. I don’t agree with it.”

A month later, yet another school, in Karnataka’s Bidar, staged a play, with the theme of opposing the CAA. As the news spread, Bidar police took cognisance of it and slapped a case of sedition and promotion of enmity against the school, its headmistress, a teacher and a student’s mother. The mother was arrested because her minor daughter allegedly uttered an anti-Modi slur in her dialogue during the play held on January 21. The school is run by Shaheen Group.

Police interrogated several children in the first week of February. The teacher and the mother were finally granted bail on February 14 – after 15 days of their arrest.

3. Anurag Thakur, Parevsh Verma and Kapil Misra

Media reports showed Union minister Anurag Thakur and Delhi BJP leaders Parvesh Verma and Kapil Misra delivering communal and provocative speeches just before the Delhi riots. Though the Delhi high court asked the Delhi Police to take a quick decision on filing FIRs against them, the judge, Justice S. Muralidhar, soon found himself shifted out the state, and the case was listed before high court Chief Justice D.N. Patel in a highly unusual manner.

On being asked about the video clips, deputy commissioner of police (crime branch) Rajesh Deo had told Justice Muralidhar that he had not watched them. This prompted the judge to say that he was “really amazed at the state of affairs of the Delhi Police”, adding that the commissioner’s office must have several TVs. Police personnel were present at the spot when Mishra delivered his speech.

While the chargesheet filed by the police in the Delhi riots case has omitted Mishra’s speech in the “chronology of events” part, the words uttered have, nevertheless, hit the headlines this week for being the benchmark of hate speech for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said his company would not allow them to remain on the social media website.

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Courtesy The Wire