On May 17, 2020, Indian authorities arrested Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), in apparent retaliation for his peaceful participation in protests against a controversial citizenship law.
Tanha, a third year student studying Persian at JMI and member of the Students Islamic Organisation, participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA, which was enacted in December 2019, generated widespread criticism for discriminating against Muslim migrants by excluding them from a pathway to citizenship provided in the same law. Introduction and passage of the legislation sparked protests at universities across India, often met with violent force by police and counter-protesters.
Police have arrested a growing number of student-activists in connection with the anti-CAA protests, often accusing them of inciting violent riots that occurred in New Delhi in February 2020 that left 53 people dead, mostly Muslims, and hundreds injured and displaced. The riots occurred shortly after Kapil Mishra, a well-known member of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, held a rally in New Delhi and called on authorities to clear the city of anti-CAA demonstrators. While some clashes broke out between Hindu nationalists and anti-CAA activists, the riots were largely marked by reports of Hindu nationalists violently attacking Muslim Indians and destroying their homes and businesses, as well as reports of police refraining from intervening and even stoking anti-Muslim violence.
On May 17, police arrested Tanha for his alleged involvement in an anti-CAA protest on December 15, 2019, and inciting the February riots. Police have pointed to his membership in the Jamia Coordinating Committee, a group that organized many of the anti-CAA protest activities, and Whatsapp chat transcripts with fellow student-activists who have been arrested in the same case. Tanha has been charged, along with at least twenty others, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. As of this report, Tanha remains in jail.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and prosecution of a student in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression 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 refrain from retaliating against the nonviolent exercise of such rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.