NEW DELHI — On Friday Pooja Shukla, a student leader with the Samajwadi Party, learnt that the Uttar Pradesh Police had booked her under two more First Information Reports (FIRs) in connection with the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
This brings the tally of FIRs against Shukla, a member of the Samajwadi Party based in Lucknow, to four FIRs that cites dozens of crimes under the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and the Information Technology Act.
Shukla said she found out about the FIRs when she was summoned to the Thakurganj Police Station on Friday to sign undertakings that she would not tamper with any evidence or witnesses.
Sadaf Jafar, a political activist and member of the Congress Party, and the only woman arrested in Lucknow in connection with the anti-CAA protests on 19 December, found out about at least two more FIRs registered against her when she was similarly summoned to the Thakurganj Police Station on Tuesday, last week.
This spate of inquiries, opposition party members say, suggests the Uttar Pradesh government, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Ajay Singh Bisht, is using the state police to criminalise dissent.
“Anyone raising their voice against the government, the police is creating criminal backgrounds against them in a very planned way so they don’t get any help legally,” Shukla said.
In Uttar Pradesh, protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, started on 19 December 2019 as a peaceful demonstration that soon descended into chaos. Violence spread to several districts, with protestors blaming the police and the police blaming protestors for the unrest. Thousands were arrested.
Widely circulated video-footage revealed police violently assaulting protestors. Chief Minister Bisht, who goes by the name of Yogi Adityanath, outlawed any protest against the CAA — an act, that critics say violates the constitution by making citizenship for asylum seekers contingent on their religion.
Last week, the UP Police said that 52 FIRs were registered in connection with the events of 19 December and it had filed charge sheets — the final report of the investigation — against 287 people. The police said they were planning to book 18 people under the National Security Act, which allows for preventive detention and imprisoning a person without a charge for one year, 68 people under the Uttar Pradesh Gangster And Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, and 28 under the UP Control of Goondas Act.
It took nearly a month for the anti-CAA protest to resume after the BJP government’s December crackdown. The new round of protest was in the form of a sit-in staged mostly by Muslim women near the iconic Ghanta Ghar, inspired by the sit-in staged by women in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi.
Shukla was one of the few non-Muslim faces at the Ghanta Ghar protests.
Two more FIRs
One of the two new FIRs that Shukla found out about on Friday was registered on 19 January booked her for breaching the peace, rioting, disobeying a public servant and assaulting a public servant.
The second was registered on 16 March and cited Section 66 of the Information Technology Act that pertains to “computer related offenses.”
This FIR says that women started an illegal sit-in on 17 January, and hammered nails and put banners on the door of the Ghanta Ghar, ruining the beauty of the heritage site.
Men and women, the FIR says, raised anti government slogans. The FIR says the accused misbehaved with Indian and foreign tourists who were visiting Ghanta Ghar and then used social media to lie and say the police was misbehaving with the protesters.
“I feel they are raising the heritage site point because they want to file the NSA against social and political activists. But we don’t have that kind criminal background, that is why they are bringing up things like ruining heritage sites, breaching the peace and creating divisions in the community. Their motive is to frame us as traitors,” said Shukla.
Shukla, who is 24 years old and attends Lucknow University, shot to prominence after she waved a black flag at the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in 2017, and spent almost a month in prison.
“There’s a world of difference in being a woman or an activist in Delhi and being a politically active woman in Uttar Pradesh,” she told HuffPost India’s Piyasree Dasgupta at the time.
Shukla said the seemingly never-ending cycle of FIRs, arrests and court hearings did not frighten her anymore, but she is afraid of the perception this sustained vilification creates in society and the permanent harm that it will cause her.
“Every student is afraid of going to jail, getting accused of crimes, getting thrown out of University, but I have already gone through it. This government has taken that fear out of me,” said Shukla. “The only thing is that I had not seen a period of Emergency and now I’m seeing it.”
“I’m not afraid of the police investigation. I’m afraid of the way in which they are misguiding society, and how easily people believe the rumours that are spread about the people who stand up to them. They are making it difficult for people who criticise the government to live in society,” she said.
The first FIR registered against Shukla in connection with the anti CAA protests was registered on 18 January and booked her for joining an unlawful Assembly, rioting, disobeying a public servant, and obstructing the public way.
All four crimes are repeated in subsequent FIRs.
U.P. Police arrested her on 25 January under Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows for sending a person to judicial custody if the police believe that she or he will commit a crime.
Earlier, it was the district magistrate who would have to approve preventive detention, but since the UP adopted the Police Commissionerate System in January, it is the Assistant Commissioner of Police who signs off on it.
Devendra Upadhyay, Shukla’s lawyer, said that “one policeman makes the arrest for preventive detention and another policeman approves it.”
A second FIR was registered against her at close to four in the afternoon on 25 January, even though she was arrested and sent to jail earlier that day.
This second FIR — FIR 38/2020 — is erroneously referred to as FIR 29/2020 in a letter dated 27 January from the UP Police to a magistrate asking that she be remanded to further judicial custody.
Shukla, who was granted bail from the preventive detention on 27 January 2020, believes the UP Police booked her under the second FIR to prevent her from getting out of jail.
Shukla, however, was released on 29 January before the police’s remand request could be executed.
Regarding the erroneous citation of FIR 29 in the letter, Shukla said she had searched for an FIR with that number for several weeks only to discover that it concerned an ATM dispute which had nothing to do with her.
“How is the police making such big mistakes in such a grave matter and then sending an official letter to a magistrate with that mistake,” she said.
On 4 February, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court said the U.P. Police could not arrest Shukla for any crime with a prison term of less than seven years without informing her via a police notice.
Then and now
Shukla is no stranger to the state’s coercive machinery, but she finds there to be even less space for dissent than the first time she was arrested shortly after the BJP returned to power in UP with a sweeping majority in 2017.
“When I went to jail in 2017, the police did not manhandle political prisoners. The people who were arrested this time were treated like terrorists. They were beaten, verbally abused,” she said.
There also changes at home. In 2018, Shukla told HuffPost India that her parents were wary of her political ambitions and protests that were landing her in jail. Two years later, she says they too have become used to the cycle of FIRs, arrests and court hearings.
“My father was very worried, but nowadays he is fine,” she said.
On the four FIRs, and getting slapped with several of the same sections over and over again, Shukla said that she was worried that the police were preparing the ground for booking her under the NSA.
“There is only one motive and that is to silence people who point out the problems in governance,” she said.