A prominent student activist has been arrested for his alleged role in deadly riots in Delhi earlier this year, as police continue to round up anti-government figures in an investigation which has been condemned as politically motivated.
There was outcry among activists and politicians after police arrested Umar Khalid on Sunday night, naming him as a conspirator in the Delhi riots case and arresting him under a draconian terrorism law. He will be held in police custody for the next 10 days.
Kahlid’s father, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas who is a politician from the Welfare Party of India, said the arrest was “nothing but an attempt to corner the activists and silence the voices of those who dissent against the government.”
The Delhi riots which engulfed the capital over three days in February were some of the worst religious violence in the city in decades. Both Hindus and Muslims committed violence but Muslims were disproportionately affected, as armed Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, burned down thousands of homes and several mosques. Of the 53 who died, 40 were Muslims.
It has been widely documented that the riots were sparked by an incendiary speech made by Kapil Mishra, a leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who threatened to use force to remove a group of peaceful Muslim protestors.
A recent report by Amnesty International alleged that Delhi police had “committed serious human rights violations” during the communal riots, including beating Muslim protestors and taking part in the violence alongside Hindu mobs.
However, Delhi police have alleged an entirely different narrative, accusing pro-democracy activists and students of a conspiracy to stir up communal hatred. Arrests over the past two months have targeted those who were involved in protests in December after the government passed a new citizenship amendment act (CAA) which was seen as discriminatory to Muslims.
Khalid, a former student activist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who was very involved in the anti-CAA protests, has been accused of masterminding the riots at meetings in January to coincide with a visit by US president Donald Trump. He is also accused of making incendiary speeches
In the speech in question, made to students in at JNU in January, Khalid said: “We won’t respond to violence with violence. We won’t respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it with love. If they thrash us with lathis, we keep holding the tricolour.”
Khalid is one of dozens of pro-democracy and human rights activists who have been arrested or named in the Delhi riots charge sheets. However, none of the BJP figures or police officers implicated in the violence have been questioned or arrested.
Dr Shashi Tharoor, a politician from the opposition Congress Party, tweeted in response to Khalid’s arrest: “PM says he welcomes criticism, but forgets to mention the cost of criticism to be paid by those who who speak out.”
“It’s a conspiracy by the police to frame peaceful activists in the guise of investigation,” said prominent Indian lawyer Prashant Bhushan.