Exactly a year ago, Siddique Kappan’s arrest in Mathura kicked up a storm on print and social media. The journalist from Kerala was on his way to Hathras with three other men to meet the Dalit victim’s family, who was gang-raped and murdered and then cremated in the dead of night, all alone, by a panic-stricken administration. Today, the chargesheet submitted by the police against him under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including sedition, promoting enmity, and under the Information Technology Act, and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, (UAPA), is being contested. Meanwhile, Kappan still languishes behind the bars.
Why was Kappan arrested by the UP police? There are two reasons. First, the district and state administration was totally unnerved by the unprofessional, pathetic behavior of the local police and district administration after the reportage of a heinous crime. Botched-up response instigated more blunders, till a flustered and befuddled state-ordered cremation at night, violating all protocol and Hindu traditions.
Quick to cash in on a grave lapse on the part of the state, the Opposition used all its might to discredit the government, with political leaders making a beeline to Hathras to organize protests and dharnas. Sure enough, to cover the trail of the sequence of events were troupes of journalists too. A panic-stricken state was petrified at the developing law and order situation over such a sensitive issue which would certainly have a fall-out on the state election in 2022.
But Kappan was the only one of his tribe, who was apprehended – which brings us to the second reason for his arrest. It is the job of the security agencies to sound alert in delicate situations and track arrivals of individuals in such sensitive areas. Kappan was traveling with Atif-ur-Rahman, Masood Ahmad, and Mohammed Alam, all alleged to be from the Campus Front of India (CFI), the youth wing of Popular Front of India (PFI). In their possession were many pamphlets emblazoned with protest slogans.
PFI is an extremist Islamic organization of Kerala but the central government despite planning to proscribe it has not done so yet. In 2012, Kerala state submitted to the High Court that PFI was the new face of banned SIMI outfit. A series of raids carried out by Kerala police in 2013 found PFI cadres in possession of bombs, explosives, and lethal weapons. The CFI has been active in spreading PFI propaganda, acutely critical of government actions on various issues. It strongly opposed the ban on headscarves of female students in some colleges.
Faced with a delicate law and order situation and his presence along with three CFI members, the district administration decided to effect Kappan’s arrest. Would any state act differently under the situation? Any police would play safe and go for a preventive arrest.
Once arrested, Kappan denied any connection with the three men, CFI or PFI. However, it was clearly established that he knew his co-travelers from before. Besides, he had worked for Tejas, a newspaper and mouthpiece of the PFI, which closed in 2018. In fact, he was a member of a PFI committee on minority affairs and had actively participated in countrywide protests over Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Afzal Guru hanging, and the Bhima Koregaon case. At present, there are 12 writ petitions filed in various courts against the incarceration of the four men, charge-sheet, and the terror charge invoked under the UAPA. PFI has a legal cell that is orchestrating his defense in an extremely planned manner.
On balance, it does appear that the fall out of the dastardly event in Hathras called for some preventive measures on the part of the state to stop the protests from becoming viral and violent, but the question is, was the detention justified when the apprehension of breach of the peace was over i.e. once the case was closed by Mathura SDM court.
Despite his alleged association with the PFI, it was an overreaction on the part of the state to charge him with sedition and Sections of UAPA. Perhaps, Kappan’s anti-state stance in every article pertaining to the Muslims led the police to charge him for creating communal disharmony. Legally, this charge may not be sustainable in court. But slapping him with sedition and UAPA sections went too far.
The use of the Sedition Act despite the Supreme Court’s trenchant criticism of its misuse and defining the scope of the Act in a series of judgments is a worrisome factor. Introduced in 1870, its wording can encourage an overzealous police officer to use it for hyping up any case. Vociferous protest against the government, without inciting violence, cannot constitute sedition. There is no case in fact of continuing with this outdated law which has no place in a democracy. There is near unanimity amongst legal experts on the issue.
The use of UAPA again is stretching one’s imagination too far. Association with PFI, which is not banned yet, does not invite UAPA. What is puzzling is that even prosecution sanction was missing for UAPA, which is a ground for filing some of the petitions by Kappan’s lawyers. Several supervisory officers who are supposed to overlook such cases were either oblivious or chose to ignore the fact.
Hathras incident is a heart-rending one. It jolted the minds of individuals across the country – a village in UP, deeply divided on caste lines and virtually mirroring our rural landscape; a horrendous crime inviting a shoddy response from an unprofessional local police and insensitive district administration; opposition rushing in to cash on the state’s failures and journalists swooping in hordes to make it their prime-time story.
A year later – the victim’s family wants to move out despite police protection and waiting for justice. The opposition has disappeared and so have most journalists.
Meanwhile, Siddique Kappan still awaits the outcome of the petitions against his incarceration and the charges arraigned against him.
Yashovardhan Azad is Chairman, DeepStrat, a New Delhi-based Think Tank and Strategic Consultancy. He is a former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.