The civic protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) reported from cities across the country have been largely peaceful, barring in states ruled by the BJP — and especially in Uttar Pradesh. UP has seen the maximum violence, accounting for 17 of the 24 deaths reported so far. As this newspaper has reported, 14 of the 16 who lost their lives, all Muslims, died due to bullet injuries from firearms. Subsequently, there has been official confirmation that one person in Bijnor was killed in police firing. Reports are trickling in of the brutal police action inside the campus of Aligarh Muslim University, including in hostels; at least six students have been hospitalised with grievous injuries. There are serious questions concerning the conduct of the UP police and state administration and about how much their actions have contributed to the escalation in violence.
The right to assemble and protest peacefully is guaranteed by India’s Constitution. That thousands of people, particularly young people, belonging to diverse faiths, regions, ethnicity and language, have chosen to contest the CAA despite the tame response from political parties is a sign of the argumentativeness of Indian democracy. However, the UP administration seems to be unabashedly unmindful of democratic niceties. Its tone has been confrontational; it has refused to allow any outlet for people to express their disagreement with the controversial Act. The government has detained thousands of people, including human rights activists such as retired IPS officer S R Darapuri and lawyer MohammadShoaib, banned mobilisations and curtailed the internet. The language used by UP Chief Minister Adityanath when the protests intensified — that his administration would extract “badla” (revenge) for the violence — does not befit a person holding high public office; it may even have set the template for the UP police to use excessive force against protestors. The fact is the UP police in the Adityanath regime has had a notorious record of ignoring due process while enforcing law and order. Officials have admitted to over 3,500 police encounters and nearly 80 killings of alleged criminals in a period of over two years, forcing the Supreme Court to intervene.
The UP government must rethink its adversarial strategy towards the citizens’ freedom of expression, including the right to express disagreement. In this, it could take a cue from another BJP government. After the CAA protests in Mangalore turned violent and resulted in the death of two persons in police firing, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident. Adityanath, too, should order a probe into the charges of police brutality against protestors in UP.