In what has emerged as a pattern of activists who speak out against the government being harassed, the authorities in Uttar Pradesh have detained Dr Kafeel Khan under the stringent National Security Act (NSA). Under the provisions of the Act, he can be kept behind bars for a year without any charges being filed and without access to a lawyer.
Dr Khan is accused of making an inflammatory speech at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on December 13 last year. News outlets have cited this remark to prove his anti-national credentials: “Tum hume nahi hata paoge, hum 25 crore hai” (you will not be able to throw us out, we [Indian Muslims] are 25 crore). While his speech was passionate, only by a wild stretch of the imagination can it be described as instigating violence. By invoking the NSA against Dr Khan, the Yogi Adityanath regime has only exposed its own politics of vendetta.
Dr Khan’s wife wondered how his speech could be seen as inflammatory when he was only echoing the sentiments expressed by many others and in a much milder way. She questioned the basis of his detention under the NSA and asserted that such intimidatory tactics would not stop people like her from speaking out against the government’s unjust policies and excesses.
Two days after Dr Khan gave his speech, the police used excessive force on the AMU campus: they fired tear gas shells, entered hostels, vandalised the premises and injured scores of students. There were allegations that the police fired live ammunition. A first information report (FIR) filed at the Civil Lines police station under Sections 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups), 153 B and 109 of the Indian Penal Code accused Dr Khan of provoking the students, vitiating the university’s peaceful atmosphere and disturbing communal harmony.
Forty days after the FIR was registered, a Special Task Force of the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested him from the airport in Mumbai, where he had gone to participate in anti-CAA protests. He was taken to a jail in Aligarh but was soon moved to a jail in Mathura.
A court in Aligarh granted him bail on February 10, but the jail authorities kept delaying his release. After his lawyer, Irfan Ghazi, filed an application with the Chief Judicial Magistrate, his release order was dispatched with a messenger directing the jailor to expedite his release. Yet he was detained, illegally and in contempt of court, for another three days. Then the NSA was invoked against him, ensuring that he does not step out of prison.
There is a widespread perception that Dr Khan’s AMU speech was used as a pretext for targeting him. This was the third time that he was arrested since August 2017, when close to 70 infants died in Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College of Gorakhpur. Many of the deaths were allegedly caused by a disruption in oxygen supply, which happened because payments to the supplier had been kept pending. The State government, however, maintained that the deaths were caused by Japanese encephalitis. Dr Khan, who was a paediatrician at the hospital, was accused of negligence and arrested, along with eight others.
The State government instituted a single-member inquiry commission under Principal Secretary Himanshu Kumar. The commission found no evidence of medical negligence or corruption against Dr Khan and unequivocally described the charges against him as inconsistent and baseless. The report pointed out that Dr Khan was not in charge of the ward where the deaths occurred and had nothing to do with either the supply and storage of liquid oxygen or the processes of tendering, payments and orders relating to oxygen supplies. It noted that Dr Khan had terminated his leave when the tragedy was unfolding and rejoined work to help out the hospital. He had rushed to the hospital and managed to procure 500 jumbo oxygen cylinders from different companies. It praised him for doing everything he could to save lives. He spent his own money to obtain oxygen cylinders and worked overtime during the crisis.
The inquiry report was submitted to the State government in April 2019, but Yogi Adityanath termed the whole incident as “drama” and continued to blame Dr Khan for the deaths.
In June, there was a murderous attack on Dr Khan’s brother, Kashif Jameel, who survived with three bullet injuries. The family by then was emotionally harassed and financially broke as people refused to do business with them, fearing the wrath of the Yogi Adityanath government.
After nine months in jail, Dr Khan was released on bail in April 2019, and in September he was acquitted of all charges by a court. He received a hero’s welcome as a huge crowd turned out to greet him upon his release. Soon after, Dr Khan told reporters that the Gorakhpur deaths had been caused by human greed and the practice of extracting a 10 per cent commission on all orders. He alleged that the contractor supplying oxygen to the hospital at the time had written 14 letters, including one to the Chief Minister, seeking pending payments but no action was taken. He said he had decided to move the Allahabad High Court for justice.
The State government now started a departmental inquiry against Dr Khan for allegedly spreading misinformation about the probe report and making anti-government remarks during his suspension. Later, Dr Khan told reporters that in 2017 Adityanath had told him “I will see you” [as a warning].
Umar Khalid, the former student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said: “Anyone who knows Kafeel Khan would attest to the ludicrousness of the charges. He is being consistently persecuted by the Yogi government since 2017, when he saved the lives of infants in the BRD Hospital, Gorakhpur. His efforts at saving lives exposed the Uttar Pradesh government, which had not given dues to the oxygen suppliers. Since coming out of jail, he has been speaking out about the complicity of the Uttar Pradesh government in the death of infants at Gorakhpur. Recently, the departmental enquiry at BRD hospital gave him a clean chit in the BRD oxygen tragedy. Not just that, even as he remains suspended, he has organised over 100 free health camps across the country. This is vendetta and witch-hunt at its worst. The good doctor needs our solidarity again as he is arrested for the third time in the last two and a half years.”
Security laws have emerged as handy tools for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation to intimidate citizens who question the government. In October last year, the Uttar Pradesh Police threatened to invoke the NSA over social media posts. The media cell of the Uttar Pradesh Police lodged 17 FIRs and blocked 67 social media accounts for allegedly vitiating communal harmony and warned that the NSA would be invoked. In December, during a brutal crackdown on anti-CAA protesters, the Uttar Pradesh Police booked 165 people for violence and the NSA was slapped against three people in Bhadohi. Incidentally, all of them were Muslims.
The Dalit icon and Bhim Army chief, Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan, was repeatedly arrested by the Uttar Pradesh government and detained for 15 months under the NSA. In January 2018, the government released a report saying that it had detained 160 people under the NSA within a year of Adityanath assuming office as Chief Minister.
By targeting vulnerable individuals who do not enjoy the backing of any political party, the government is sending out the message that it can go to any length to curb dissent. The case of IIT graduate and JNU student Sharjeel Imam is a case in point. On January 16, he was booked for sedition for allegedly making an inflammatory speech at AMU, and the Assam Police filed an FIR against him under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. A section of the media painted him as the “mastermind” of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest, and he was soon arrested from Bihar. Central agencies, along with the Jehanabad police, raided his home in Bihar and detained two of his relatives. His mother was reportedly traumatised by the abuse and harassment faced by the family. Sharjeel does not owe allegiance to any organised party. The Shaheen Bagh protests are still going on. There is no basis for keeping him behind bars, but he continues to languish there. When a group of people raised slogans in his support during the anti-CAA protests in Mumbai, 50 of them were booked for sedition.
Evita Das, Akshat Jain and Shahrukh Khatib wrote on the blog Raiot: “Sharjeel Imam is a computer scientist and a scholar of modern history speaking and writing about the most pressing issues of our times— the place of minorities in majoritarian democracies, the monopoly of the leftist narrative on the sensitisation of the masses, the silencing of oppositional voices in history writing, the integrity of nation-states which hold on to their claimed territories using brutal military force, the role of Islam in particular and traditional communal solidarities in general in anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles today, etc. Sharjeel was instrumental in setting up the protests at Shaheen Bagh, before the protest site became cool and a favourite hangout spot for all ‘concerned’ citizens. He has a plan and a direction for the burgeoning youth of this country, something that very very few other people have. He has written articles that don’t just give high-sounding views but construct an alternative viewpoint from which the fight against oppressive corporate-statism can be waged. Sharjeel Imam is immensely useful to struggles of minorities all over the world and, if he is allowed to live, he will contribute to these struggles in a lasting manner.”
As for the speech for which Sharjeel was booked, organisations in JNU released a statement where he stated that he was highlighting the method of Shaheen Bagh roadblock and was suggesting the same for raising the concerns of people in Assam. “I was saying we should try to peacefully block roads wherever possible. In that context, I said you have to block roads going to Assam. It was basically a call for chakka jam.” According to the statement, his speech was taken out of context and misinterpreted by media friendly to the Sangh Parivar and the BJP spokesperson in order to target him with false propaganda. “The fascist spin doctors are now conflating his call for chakka jam as a cry for tukde tukde of India. This is in line with the government’s continuous attempt at suppressing of assertive Muslim voices in the anti-CAA protests across the country,” said the statement.