In Uttar Pradesh, law is misused to target minorities

Christophe Jaffrelot, Syed H A Rizvi
Yogi Adityanath launched Operation Clean, in the framework of which the police was encouraged to open fire on those suspected of a crime. (Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

Patterns of communal violence are changing in Uttar Pradesh. As Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar had shown in Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh (OUP, 2018) after the 2004 BJP defeat, which former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, partly attributed to the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Hindutva forces have opted for a new modus operandi. Rather than instigating major and violent state-wide riots as in the past, the BJP-RSS have attempted to create and sustain constant, low-key communal tension together with frequent, small, low-intensity incidents out of petty everyday issues that institutionalise communalism at the grass roots, to keep the pot boiling. Vigilante groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) of Yogi Adityanath have been instrumental in implementing this technique of polarisation.

Things changed again when the BJP gained office in 2017. While Muslims have remained the main target of Hindu vigilantes, as evident from the series of lynchings, their situation deteriorated also because policemen and vigilantes began to work together. The typical scenario involved provoking communal clashes, something the HYV excelled at, with the aim of destroying Muslim homes and small businesses. When the police intervened, it was more to apprehend the victims than the instigators of the violence.

And when the police arrested them, it often resorted to booking them under laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Security Act, which are intended for criminals posing a threat to state security and under which inpiduals can be held without charge for up to 12 months. In 2017, 160 Muslims were arrested under the NSA. A former police officer, S R Darapuri, noted: "For the first time in Indian history, this law is being misused so much. This is part of the BJP policy to rule through terror. They are using the police as their power arm to overawe the Dalits and minorities."

Parallel to that, Yogi Adityanath launched Operation Clean, in the framework of which the police was encouraged to open fire on those suspected of a crime. In June 2017, the chief minister announced on television: "Agar apradh karenge, toh thok diye jayenge (If anyone engages in crime, they will be shot)". Soon after, he informed the state assembly that 40 criminals had been killed in police shootouts. There were reportedly over 1,100 shootings of this kind between February 2017 and February 2018, a record.

While the targets were supposed to be hardcore criminals, victims of the shootouts were mainly Muslims, some of whom, according to their families, were killed in cold blood. Prashant Bhushan, after investigating the subject with support from the NGO, Citizens Against Hate, concluded that, "people are being murdered in an organised manner…" with complicity of high-level officials. The National Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry in 17 cases and found that "the police personnel in the state of Uttar Pradesh appears to be feeling free, misusing their powers in the light of an undeclared endorsement given by the higher-ups." The NHRC said: "It further appears that they are using their privileges/ legal authority to settle scores with the people which in a civilised society, where rule of law is fundamental… cannot be accepted. The police force is to protect the people and these kind of alleged encounter killings would send a wrong message to the society by creating an atmosphere of fear which is not the correct way to deal with the crime or law and order as the case may be." The NHRC issued a separate notice to the UP government about the killing of a 20-year old Muslim of Muzaffarnagar in November 2018. The Supreme Court also issued a notice to the UP government on a PIL alleging that several fake encounters had taken place in the state.

The sense of impunity was reinforced by Yogi Adityanath's decision to withdraw all the complaints that the state had filed against him and his associates since the 1990s. Cases involving Hindu nationalists implicated in the Muzaffarnagar riots (including 13 charges, out of a total of 131, for murder) were withdrawn. But at the request of human rights organisations, the SC, in 2018, asked Yogi Adityanath to explain the rise in the number of victims in police shootouts. The Court also refused to dismiss the 2007 hate-speech case against the chief minister, for which he had been imprisoned briefly. Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E Tendayi Achiume, reported that "Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been linked to incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities".

After a multi-national company executive, Vivek Tiwari, was shot by a UP constable in Lucknow, the number of encounters diminished, but those arrested under the UAPA, NSA or some other law continue to be in jail, pending trial. Last month, special designated Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act court judge S C Khatti, found that 11 Muslim men who had spent 20 years in jail in a terrorist case were innocent. In 2016, the Bombay High Court acquitted nine Muslims who had been accused of the 2006 Malegaon blast. The judge concluded that the ATS had fabricated evidence against the accused to allow the real culprits escape. In 2014, the Supreme Court acquitted eight Muslims who had been convicted by a POTA court in the 2002 Akshardham case (three of them had been awarded the death penalty). In Delhi, the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association prepared a list of 24 persons - mostly from Kashmir - who had been arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell but the association claimed they were innocent. Two of them, from Srinagar, were released in 2017 after 12 years in jail. In UP, human rights activists, including an NGO, Rihai Manch, are fighting the case of 11 young Muslims who are in jail.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 25, 2019, under the title 'UP’s new normal'.

(Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King's India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rizvi is a former UP state information commissioner)