The arrests of 29 protesters under non-bailable sections from Aarey and their overnight jailing at Thane and Byculla prisons marked a new turn in the way police deal with civic protests in Mumbai and has evoked widespread surprise.
Usually, when protests are seen as disrupting public services such as blocking roads or railway tracks, the police have until now followed the practice prevalent in most parts of the country of detaining some of the protesters and allowing them to leave after a few hours without registering cases against them.
But this time, it appeared that police wanted to make an example by arresting some of the protesters to prevent more people from reaching the spot which would have led to a snowballing of the situation.
A senior officer from the Mumbai Police who was at the spot where the 29 protesters were arrested Friday night conceded as much. They were arrested under Section 353 relating to obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty, and Section 332, relating to voluntarily causing hurt to a public servant to prevent him from discharging his duty.
“Seeing the situation, we took the decision to register an FIR against the protesters under non bailable sections to ensure that it deterred other protesters from reaching the spot,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified.
Predictably, the protest cooled off after the arrests and the energies of the people participating in it got diverted into releasing the arrested persons, who were granted bail on Sunday by a holiday court for a surety amount of Rs 7,000 each. They were released late at night on Sunday from Thane and Byculla jails.
Seeking to justify the arrests as a “necessary” exercise, the official said the police could have arrested many more, but chose not to do that. “We had detained nearly 50 persons who could have been placed under arrest. We let the rest go and arrested only the 29 who we felt had been aggressive and roughed up the police. Had we not done that around 10,000 people would have reached the spot and the situation would have gone out of hand,” the official said. Also, the imposition of Section 144 allowed the police to prevent gatherings on Sunday, he said.
Among the 29 arrested, the official said, the police were checking their precise role in the protests and would not pursue cases against non-serious offenders.
The arrests had a chilling effect not just on those protesting at Aarey, but on other protesters across the city. An international movement for calling attention to climate change called Extinction Rebellion had organised a protest on Sunday in major capitals across the world, and its volunteers in Mumbai had called for a gathering at Bandra Reclamation near the sea link bridge for a “die-in”, which means they would lie down and pretend to be dead.
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Organisers said they had the permissions but when they reached the spot, there were policemen deployed there who told them that the permission had been revoked, and that prohibitory orders were in place across the city. “The police officials never gave us in writing explaining as to why our permission was being revoked. In fact these officials started threatening that they would ruin my career,” said one volunteer, who did not wish to be named.
The police forcing the gathering to disperse, the Extinction Rebellion volunteers left, without challenging the police to show them written orders. It was only later they learnt that the prohibitory orders were only at Aarey.
“They did this to scare us. We have just passed out of college and we will soon start working but after police arrested these 29 protesters at Aarey, we were scared that they may put us behind bars and as we did not want to spoil our lives, we left,” said a volunteer.
The volunteers tried reassembling at a new location 200 metres from Bandra Reclamation. “However, the police officials followed us there and started forcing us to leave. We weren’t even protesting, it was a peaceful gathering. They followed us until we were only a couple of people left,” added another volunteer.
Sanjeev Samantul, Mumbai vice president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) who also has been involved with the Aarey protests, said, “The Save Aarey movement is a citizens movement, not an organisational one. While there may be smaller groups involved, most come through social media. Hence they know that if we scare some, others will be scared too. However we will not back down.”
On charges of crowds attacking policemen, he said, “I have taken part in several protests and a bit of pushing around happens. No policeman was however beaten up, ask them to show the wounds. This is the first time they have registered a case, in the past they would detain people but later allow them to go later.”
Vishwas Utagi, convenor of the Trade Union Joint Action Committee (TUJAC), who has participated in several protests in the past, said that over the years, police had curbed protests in the city through various methods.
“Earlier when we protested, cops came along with us to provide us safety. Later after citizen groups approached the Bombay High Court, protests were just limited to Azad Maidan. Now we hear that protesters at Aarey were put behind bars….” He added, “Protests are however a citizen’s right in a democracy. That right cannot be muzzled. It is part of our fundamental rights that cannot be denied by the state.”
The right of assembly is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.
Former Commissioner of Mumbai Police Julio Ribeiro said, “They had to start detaining protesters otherwise things would have gone out of their hands.”
The former top cop said that the protesters were “heroes” in his eyes, but it was also necessary for the police to get them away from the spot.