On April 1, 2020, police arrested Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) PhD candidate Meeran Haider based on accusations that he and others conspired to incite violent riots that began on February 23. His arrest, however, appears to be in retaliation for his participation in protests against a controversial citizenship law.
Haider, who is also president of the student wing of Rashtriya Janata Dal, a leftwing political party, was reportedly actively involved in protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a controversial law enacted in December 2019 that excludes Muslim migrants from a pathway to citizenship. Students at JMI and other major universities have protested the CAA, which has widely been described as discriminatory, since it was introduced in bill form. While anti-CAA protesters were by and large peaceful in their actions, reports indicate that police frequently used violent force and arrests in order to quash their activities.
Haider was arrested in a case that has since implicated two other activists, Umar Khalid, a prominent former student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Safoora Zargar, a graduate student at JMI and media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, a key organizing group within the anti-CAA protest movement. Authorities have accused the three of conspiring to incite violent riots that overwhelmed New Delhi for several days starting on February 23, 2020. While it is unclear whether Khalid has been officially charged as of this report, Haider and Zargar have been charged with violating India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which has routinely been used to restrict activists. The two also face charges of sedition, murder, attempt to murder, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and rioting, as part of the same case.
The February 23 riots occurred shortly after a member of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held a rally in New Delhi calling on authorities to clear the city of demonstrators protesting the CAA. While some clashes broke out between Hindu nationalists and anti-CAA activists, reports indicate that the riots were largely marked by reports of Hindu nationalists violently attacking Muslims and destroying their homes and businesses, and reports of police refraining from intervening and even stoking anti-Muslim violence. The three days of riots left more than fifty people dead and hundreds injured.
In a statement obtained by the Guardian, police claim that Haider was arrested based on an “analysis of scientific and forensic evidence, including video footage, technical and other footprints.” As also in the Guardian, Haider’s lawyer questioned the existence of evidence connecting him to the riots and asserted that Haider was not present at the riots. State authorities have been accused of taking advantage of a countrywide lockdown in India, intended to limit the spread of a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, in order to detain or otherwise punish activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.
As of this report, Haider remains in judicial custody. It is unclear when he will appear in court.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of a student in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have an obligation to respect and refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent expression, assembly, or associations. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests and prosecutions intended to restrict or retaliate against such conduct undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.