In September 2020, India woke up to yet another horrifying news of the gangrape and death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman died by four upper caste men in the village of Bhulgarhi in Hathras. This case gained more attention when the Uttar Pradesh police and administration officials cremated her body in the middle of the night without even the family’s consent. The state authorities’ response worsened when they tried to deny that the woman was raped to apparently protect the rape accused belonging to an upper caste section of the society.
In order to investigate and report the facts of the case, many journalists travelled to Hathras in Uttar Pradesh. Amongst them was the Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested by the UP police on October 5, 2020, while he was in a car around 42km radius of Hathras. This 42-year-old journalist who writes for the Malayalam-language news portal called Azhimukham was charged with the allegations of terrorism and sedition laws.
Police arrested him on the claim that Kappan was pretending to be a journalist from a defunct newspaper and instead, he actually belonged to the Popular Front of India (PFI) – a Kerala-based hardline Muslim organisation often linked to radical groups. This claim was denied by the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, Kappan’s lawyer, the PFI, and his employer Azhimukham. Though the union filed a petition in the Supreme Court for a release insisting that Kappan was just doing journalistic duties, he hasn’t been granted a bail till now.
The journalist, who has a diabetic condition, had tested COVID positive on April 21 and after Supreme Court received a letter from his wife requesting better medical treatment, he was transferred to AIIMS, Delhi. The Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to the UP CM, highlighting how Kappan was chained to his bed at the hospital, without even being allowed to go to the toilet. Reportedly, he was given a can to urinate in and was unable to even eat any food. Raihanath, Siddique Kappan’s wife, pointed out that the Kerala CM had until then not shown any inclination or interest in taking up the case of Kappan with other officials. However, as of May 9, a still unwell Kappan was taken back to the Mathura jail by the police, and in the process, denied the orders of the court by doing so.
Kappan’s counsel, Wills Matthews, claimed that, “He is still COVID positive and hasn’t been fully treated. He was even denied access to his wife and children when he was in AIIMS for six days, which is a rejection of basic human rights”, reported The Hindu.
Mathews further added that, “The step to bring back Kappan to Mathura is the contempt of court because the Supreme Court had ordered to shift him for treatment to Delhi”.
Yet again, the continued injustice towards journalist Kappan showcases the shift from a democratic republic to just a banana republic, given the political instability we are witnessing under a tyrannical government.
The ongoing state discrimination against the journalist is also reflective of the threat to press freedom in India. The recent report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India at 142 in the World Freedom Index, suggesting that the decreasing rank is due to an environment of intimidation created by the BJP supporters for any critical journalist. The report also stated that journalists who criticise the government are termed as “anti-state,” “anti-national” or even “pro-terrorist” by BJP supporters.
State authorities in India have increasingly come to have the reputation of charging the journalists with sedition and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Kappan is not the first case in UP: journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested in 2020 by Uttar Pradesh authorities over a social media post criticising UP’s CM. The state authorities accused him of disrupting communal harmony.
Moreover, police filed criminal charges against the journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal for exposing the fraud mid-day meals scheme in government schools in Mirzapur, UP. He was accused of defaming the state authorities.
There are many more cases against activists, journalists, human rights defenders, students, academics, and others critical of the BJP-led government, especially in UP headed by Ajay Mohan Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, who took office in March 2017. In these cases, the police inquiries were skewed, with the aim of silencing opposition and deterring potential demonstrations against the government and its policies.
Uttar Pradesh has also witnessed communal violence against the minorities, especially Muslims. According to the World Report 2020 by Human Rights Watch, the UP state authorities have arrested over 4000 people in the case of cow slaughter and used draconian National Security Act on 76 people charged for cow slaughter, by August 2020.
Due to the lack of accountability for the police abuses, the cases of torture in police custody and extrajudicial killings have also risen in the state. From 2017 (when the current Uttar Pradesh CM came into power) till July 2020, there have been around 119 alleged extrajudicial killings.
Moreover, the announcement by the UP government about the establishment of a special police force that can arrest without a warrant raises more questions about police brutality. Be it the case of Siddique Kappan’s detention or any other cases, the acts of the UP police are unacceptable, but it is not surprising, as that’s how an unbridled power acts.
The current UP government’s historical legacy increasingly appears to be the undoing of democracy. In a democratic state, charges like that against Kappan should ideally be put to trial with the convicted almost always released on bail. Instead, the move of the state authorities in the case of Kappan not only puts a life in danger but also showcases violation of the constitutional rights as a citizen of a democratic country.
Discriminating against the minorities, suppressing the voices of anyone who dares to be critical about the government, and justifying it under the shadow of a nationalist agenda is not what happens in a democratic state but in a banana republic of which, the UP government has come to be increasingly reflective of.