By Abdul Bari Masoud
Mumbai, Nov. 20: People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Maharashtra denounced on Sunday the unlawful arrest of 13 nonviolent protestors, four of whom minors, and the Mumbai police’s criminal case against them. A silent, nonviolent protest was held on Nov. 14, 2023, Children’s Day, in remembrance of the children who had died in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli bombardment. The prominent civil liberties organisation demanded to drop the FIR registered against the 13 civilians and to allow right to hold peaceful protests.
Expressing grave concern over the increasing trend of criminalising public protests or any other form of public expression on social issues, PUCL Maharashtra deplored the manner in which Mumbai police speedily lodge cases against those participating in such democratic events. Especially in the context of the ongoing Israeli war on Palestine resulting in civilian deaths, Mumbai police has in effect imposed a de facto ban on any form of peaceful public protest by citizens demanding an end to the violence. Even holding of peace gatherings and prayer meetings and candlelight vigils at public places are not allowed.
In Delhi too, people took precaution in organising the prayer meeting for Palestinian children who were killed in Israeli airstrikes.
The recent example of an FIR lodged by Juhu police under Sections 37(1), 37(3) and 135 of Maharashtra Police Act (MPA) against 13 individuals, 11 of whom are students, on Nov. 14, for alleged violation of prohibitory orders, is a case in point. All of them were picked up on Nov. 14 after they responded to a multi-city call emanating from an Instagram account ‘solidaritymovement’, to observe Children’s Day with a quiet prayer recital of the names of children who were killed in Palestine.
It appears that several persons attended the peaceful prayer gathering at Juhu beach. However, after the prayer gathering ended and participants had dispersed, Juhu police picked up 17 individuals at around 10.30 a.m. They were taken to Juhu police station and illegally detained there until 7.00 pm when they were released. Four of them (2 boys and 2 girls) who were underage, were allowed to leave at 4 p.m. and their parents were called.
According to the PUCL Maharashtra, of the 17 individuals – all from the minority community, picked up by the Juhu Police, 11 students and 1 mother of a student had gone immediately after the prayer gathering ended to collect the posters they had earlier voluntarily kept at the police cabin near the beach as it was decided that the gathering was meant to be silent i.e. without any posters or banners. The police present there however started questioning them and asked them to pose with the posters and placards and photographed them. The police then told them they would escort them to the Bus Stop to ensure they leave safely. As they proceeded under the directions of the police, suddenly they found a police van had arrived and they were forcibly pushed into the van, detained and taken to the Juhu Police Station. The youth were frightened and many were crying. At the police station, none of them was allowed to contact his or her parents or seek any legal help and call up a lawyer.
It stated that all this was in clear gross violation of their basic legal rights. The 17th person picked up by the Juhu Police was social activist Feroze Mithiborwala. He too was picked up by Juhu police after the prayer gathering had ended and was also made to remove posters from his bag, though he had never displayed any posters at the prayer gathering. But the police were not willing to listen. In this manner, the 13 people illegally detained were finally released only at 7.00 pm on Nov. 14, after being served with notices. They were asked to return the next day i.e. on Nov. 15 at 11.00 am to submit their Aadhar Card copy and 2 photographs. Then, on that day, the rest were allowed to leave by around 1.00 pm, but Mithiborwala was detained there till 6.30pm once again, when he was extensively questioned.
PUCL Maharashtra said the police action was clearly excessive and arbitrary, and this is a clear case of police harassment. Disturbingly, the attitude of the police was also intimidatory towards the young members of the minority community, especially the young girls, who had peacefully participated in a prayer gathering for peace. The youth were asked to provide all their personal details and their parents were later summoned to the police station.
Mithiborwala was repeatedly questioned whether he had organised the meeting, despite his repeated denial that he had only come in response to an online call and knew none of the youth involved. Even a copy of the FIR was provided to them after an application from their lawyers.
There was no ground for the police to file an FIR, that too after the peaceful gathering had dispersed and when there was no disturbance to public order or violation of law.
Moreover, in any event, none of the 13 people was involved in organizing the event but had only responded to a humane call on social media for the prayer gathering.
It underlined that right to protest is a fundamental right of citizens guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and essential to our democracy. However, the increasing number of such instances show that the right to protest of citizens is not only being infringed upon, but even attempting to assemble peacefully in Mumbai is being met with harsh and intimidatory police action and criminal sanctions, creating an atmosphere of fear in which democracy cannot thrive or find expression.
There has been continuous imposition of prohibitory orders under Section 37(1) and (3) of the MPA, thereby providing ground to the police to criminalise peaceful gatherings and protests, and to selectively restrict protests.
The police have been serving notices under Section 149 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (CrPC) to the applicants/organisers while denying permission to protest and the applicants/organisers have also on occasion been put under preventive detention under Section 151 of the CrPC. Just last month, the Mankhurd Police had arrested two young Mumbai activists and charged them under Section 353 and 332 of IPC, among other offences for violation of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of CrPC and Section 37 of MPA, and also detained 4 persons under Section 151 of CrPC, in connection with a protest against the Israel’s ongoing violent attacks impacting civilians in Palestine.
It is shocking that public demonstrations calling for an end to the ongoing violence in Palestine are being penalized in such fashion, considering India’s own history of freedom struggle from colonial rule and its long-standing recognition of the statehood of Palestine and the self-determination struggle of Palestinians.
This creates a chilling effect, amounting to censorship and is against the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, association and assembly. PUCL Maharashtra reiterates its demand that the legitimate right of citizens to protest be protected in the interest of our nation.