India has seen increasing instances of human rights violations during the lockdown. Of these, glaring incidents of discrimination against minorities and brutal attacks on dissenters have emerged from the state of Uttar Pradesh. To shed light on the nature of these violations and carve a way forward to ensure accountability of state authorities, noted civil activist Teesta Setalvad hosted a webinar, ‘Lockdown in Uttar Pradesh and Human Rights’ where she was joined by noted activists, journalists and human rights defenders like Abdullah Ansari, Father Anand, Sadaf Jafar, Dr. Muniza Khan, former Presidents of the municipal corporations as well as the General Secretary of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP), Aflatoon among others.
Dedicating the webinar to late Dr. Swati, the co-founder of Samta Sangathan and the Vice-President, SJP, Teesta said that the meeting was to unite affiliates and re-commit to the causes that Dr. Swati always actively fought for. The aim of the virtual meeting, said Teesta, was to understand the current situation of human rights in Uttar Pradesh from different perspectives and convey it to the citizens at large.
The subversion of rights of various communities and sections of society in Uttar Pradesh, be it Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, skilled and daily wagers, etc. has always been questioned. This has become an even more pressing issue post 2017, where the atmosphere in the state has seemed to become more dictatorial than ever.
The meeting touched upon various causes – minority rights, women’s rights, rights of small business owners, atrocities on anti-CAA protestors and the economical atrocities on the people of India.
Sandeep Pandey, veteran social activist and Magsaysay Award winner who has been batting for communal harmony for decades, said that during the lockdown, the government in UP has shrunk the rights of the citizens, evidence of which can be seen every day. “When the lockdown began on March 22, UP CM Yogi Adityanath took part in a ceremony to shift the idol of Lord Ram to the Ram Janmabhoomi premises. Thereafter there was a mela to be held in Ayodhya, but it was not known if it would be called off. While all other events were stopped from being held, this event did take place and when journalist Siddharth Vardarajan questioned this, the police force which was ready to enforce laws during the lockdown, was made to travel by road to deliver a notice to Vardarajan in Delhi. I don’t understand how the police got so much time to do this. The police have been active all this while, especially against dissenters like those who participated in the anti-CAA protests. The police have been going door-to-door to serve notices to protestors and threatening them to compensate or lose their properties. Even a rickshaw driver was not spared and was sent to jail because he couldn’t pay the amount he was asked to pay up for allegedly participating in the protest. It is astonishing to see that while everyone has been asked to stay home, the police are being made to actively go after all those the regime sees as threats.”
Pandey also spoke about the false claims of the Yogi government when it said that all criminals had either been killed or had taken back their bail pleas and opted to stay in jail. He questioned how someone like Vikas Dubey, who was recently killed in an encounter, was allowed to roam scot-free for all this time given the evidence against him. “Uttar Pradesh can possibly be called ‘Encounter Raj’,” said Pandey, as there is no semblance of law and order in the state.
Speaking about how migrants were treated by the state government during the lockdown, Pandey said, “The Congress said it would arrange for 1,000 buses for migrant workers to get them back home and the UP government asked them for a list of the buses. It was found that some of the vehicles were not buses, but others like taxis or cars and Congress leader Ajay Kumar Lalloo, was sent to jail on the accusation that the Congress furnished false information about the number of buses. Then, CM Yogi said that the government had a repository of 90,000 buses to get migrants back to the state. If that was the case, why did it bother asking the Congress for the list of buses? Instead of ensuring the safety of people and providing them food and other healthcare facilities, the focus of the UP government was to play politics against the Congress party.”
He added, “I conducted a survey and found that out of 89 migrants in Unnao and 36 from Sitapur, only one person received Rs. 1,000 twice in his bank account. The others who didn’t get the money said that they were told they weren’t eligible for it as they didn’t return to the state using government approved means like the Indian Railways or Uttar Pradesh Parivahan Nigam. How could this have been possible when the trains and buses were not being run? On the other hand, the government is paying for those returning from abroad. There are different rules for the rich and the under privileged. Commoners have spent an average of Rs. 2,000 from their own pockets to reach home. Also, out of the 89 people in Unnao only 3 got the promised share of ration from the state government. Another hoax is that of skill mapping. Out of the 125 migrants from Unnao and Sitapur, none has been visited by a government official to ascertain what work they do in order to give them employment. Almost 70% of these migrants are Dalits and have no land in the villages. They now say they have to return to the city for work. People have neither compensation, nor food as promised by the government. The reality is quite contrary to the claim of CM Yogi’s promises that even people without a ration card would get food. Even through MNREGA, people have hardly received any work. Whether it is human rights defenders or the common man down the street, all are equally struggling in UP.”
Activist Sadaf Jafar who was brutally assaulted by the UP police after being arrested for participating in the anti-CAA protests, spoke about the inhumane treatment at the hands of the regime. She said, “The government is using the lockdown not just to target the CAA, NRC protestors, but also anyone who questions the government or expresses dissatisfaction against its workings. The government is blatantly torturing people with impunity. Khalid Saifi was beaten up, questions were raised about Safoora Zargar’s character and talking about myself and people who were arrested around the same time, the worst was the government sending notices to confiscate our properties without proving our crime in the court of law. We were remanded to judicial custody without being produced before a magistrate. After being hit, I was bleeding profusely in jail and all that they gave me was two sheets of newspapers so that their car seat wouldn’t get soiled. In prison, male colleagues were made to strip, while I was still in the vicinity. There is no medical aid or other facilities in jail. It is horrid. This was the height of dehumanizing someone.”
She added, “We were labelled as ‘stone pelters’ and ‘rioters’ by the people in jail and even the media. The police broke CCTV cameras and looted shops, they attacked journalists who were recording the brutality. The police were hand in glove with the administration. Women were kicked in the stomach and knees and the hatred in the eyes of the police and the administration is very visible. Even secular officers can’t do much as they have to keep their jobs. Virtues like secularism have now become abuses. Women in prisons are treated like animals. The quantum of cases are being increased by booking us under different complaints. Hoardings with our names and addresses were put across town without our crimes being proved. This also threatens the safety of my kids. There are daily wagers and small business owners who have been targeted by the government. A rickshaw driver was re-arrested for not paying up compensation for allegedly being part of the anti-CAA and jailed when he tried to start a tea stall during the lockdown. What is the need to arrest someone when crimes are not proved? We are being vilified. My neighbours and employers are being contacted asking them if they knew I was a ‘rioter’. The government is trying to emotionally, physically, morally and mentally break us. If we don’t start a legal fight, what is our option?”
Unite people to fight back legally
Roma Malik, the General Secretary of the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) started her address with ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ saying the current situation in the country is dreadful and horrifying. She said that she had seen this situation of brutality in the forest areas, but the same had now spilled to the cities. Agreeing with Jafar about the situation in jail, Malik recalled her time in prison stating that the situation of women there was indeed pitiable. She said that the current attacks on dissenters had never been heard of before.
Malik said, “AIUFWP and I support the fight for secularism unconditionally.” Speaking about the effect of the lockdown in forest areas, she said, “People in forest areas like Sonbhadra, Mirzapur, Chandauli have fortunately not faced any problems with regards to food security. There, the problem is that the forest and the police department are trying to evict them from their lands. However, people are resisting this. Recently, the forest department and police assaulted forest dwellers in Lakhimpur Kheri in Dudhwa National Park but for the first time in history, the women registered an FIR against the police and forest officials. I think we need to channelize all our agitations – be it those in forest areas or by CAA protestors, and work unitedly to fight against the oppressors. This is why Adivasis extended their solidarity to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh.”
Pointing out a more pertinent issue, especially of concern today, Malik said, “This government won’t work towards generating employment because it works for the corporates. They want cheap labour for the private companies. This is a big challenge and this is why migrants are being kicked around from state to state. It is important to identify pockets where migrants are suffering and start agitations, streamline the process to fight for rights. For example, the Forest Rights Act, allowed us a democratic space to voice our concerns. Before that all forest dwellers were termed as Maoists. Similarly, we need to start a debate through a political process, to talk about employment, education and healthcare. This government has already sowed the seeds of hate against various communities, hence it is important that it be countered by large agitations and take up the issues that the marginalized are faced with – be it land allotment, NREGA, etc. We’ve learned how to be self-sufficient from women who dwell in forests, from how they have nurtured community forests and generated employment on a small scale. We need to build-up a co-operative movement and speak about making a committee to help those in distress.”
Father Anand Mathew, convener of the Sajha Sanskriti Manch (United forum for cultural diversity) seconded prior speakers, saying that all human rights were being sidelined in the state as the government started cracking down on dissenters. Saluting the spirit of the upholders of secularism, Father Anand said, “On December 19, we protested peacefully and yet 60 of us were arrested. Two of our members Anup Shramik and Jagriti were issued a non-bailable warrant and there was an award of Rs. 25000 to those who report their whereabouts. We helped in getting a stay in their arrest warrant. Even though Jagriti had no role in the protest and wasn’t even present there, she was painted as the ‘mastermind. We can say the lockdown took place in the shadows of the CAA, NRC protest and though the lockdown was a necessity, human rights violations have still been rampant and ongoing. All the advisories issued by the government during the lockdown asked people to stay safe and advised that domestic help, washer men, newspaper vendors should not be allowed in homes or on the premises. This was suggestive that only the rich and the middle class were seen as citizens of the country, but the lower strata were indirectly accused of carrying the virus. ”
He went on to say, “Even before the lockdown was announced, the UP government had announced a shutdown in the state. That’s when we realized that the working class would be badly affected due to it. For us food security, right to life, right to equality and dignity are all human rights. Hence we partnered with other organizations to provide relief since we knew the government wouldn’t do so. We were also supported by the younger generation who helped amplify the cause and raise funds through social media. Even then, we faced obstacles in our relief efforts and were only advised to stay home. Finally, we received a permit from the CMO to execute our relief plans and helped the marginalized – bunkars, nomadic tribes, daily wagers, etc. at the start of the lockdown. In May, just when we had exhausted our funds, we noticed that migrants had started returning to the state and hence decided to restart our relief efforts. This was an exercise in inter-faith networking. We noticed a lot of discrimination against Muslims during this time. People used to warn us to not go near Muslims, alleging that they were spreading coronavirus. We also conducted a survey in 307 villages and found that all claims of skill mapping are false. A lot of skilled workers are also working in MNREGA and hence it is upto us to raise our voices for the implementation of these promises made by the government.”
Crackdown on farmers
Aflatoon, General Secretary of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad said that the current situation, with the help of the Epidemic Diseases Act and the CrPC, is worse than the Emergency. He said that it was now, during the lockdown that the government was trying to do away with and change all the laws that protected people.
Shedding light on the farmers and weavers who are most affected by the policies of the government, said, “The Indian Government has said that as many as 80 lakh migrants have returned to their villages during the lockdown. Just like the government has given forest land to private companies and opened up coal mining for corporates, it is now going to privatize agriculture. The government recently announced that India’s farmers could sell their crops anywhere in the country. However, this is very dangerous as this only means that the farmer will not be able to sell the crop, but corporates from India and abroad will come and buy the crop at the prices they deem fit. The mandis also seem to be done away with. The government will encourage contract and corporate farming just like the US where the private companies own the land. Apart from this, the plight of the weavers is unfortunate. Since the advent of powerlooms, the weavers have been at a disadvantage. The economic packages do nothing for the small business owners, but only develop infrastructure to turn villages into cities.”
Uttar Pradesh took the lead in tampering with labour laws during the lockdown calling for long hours of work with nominal pay. Aflatoon added that the reservation of small business owners was taken away in 2015 and that the handloom industry should have been revived during the lockdown. “Instead of learning lessons during the lockdown and spending money on healthcare, they have allowed private hospitals to charge exorbitant amounts of money instead of providing free treatment,” he concluded.
Express solidarity to various causes
Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi of the People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVHCR), also spoke about how the Yogi government culled labour laws during the lockdown by asking people to work for long hours almost pushing people into bonded labour. Raghuvanshi said, “When there is corporate fascism, the administration will never work well. UP is a corporate fascist state. It is also somewhere our mistake that we never offered our solidarities to different agitations, which we should now do. The current government is very conspiratorial. It is important to vote them out and establish a secular, democratic government. Currently, there is a UP model on the lines of the Gujarat model. We have to fight on all fronts – in courts and on propaganda and make the basis of our agitation, the enforcement of the Constitution. If not, will democracy survive? We must do humanitarian work that fosters social change.”
Setalvad seconded Raghvanshi’s call, invoking late Justice Hosbet Suresh’s words who always called for the unity of people advocating for different causes to stand for a bigger agitation to bring about change in the society.
Weavers left at a disadvantage
Abdullah Ansari, who works among and for the weavers in Uttar Pradesh too said that the sidelining of weavers had started a long time ago when corporates were given leeway but small weavers were not. This led to them being pushed into poverty. Even now, Ansari said that weavers are exploited by being charged commercial rates for electricity, which is twice the slab rates given to the powerloom.
Ansari said, “Even though we have highlighted the plight of the weavers to the government, there has been no relief. UP has the highest rates of electricity – Rs. 7.35 per unit while in other states it hovers around Rs. 2 or Rs. 3. This begs the question, what does the government want from the weavers. Weaving is shut since March 25 and now weavers have to hunt for jobs in other fields, leaving their talent behind. Neither the state nor the Central government made any arrangement for weavers. If this goes on, the heritage industry will perish. For example, the Benarasi saree is given the tag of luxury goods, due to which the government is not ready to extend any discounts to the weavers. A Benarasi saree only becomes a luxury good when it reaches the middlemen and sells at exorbitant prices. The government doesn’t see how much the weaver gets out of this. Even today, a weaver hardly makes Rs. 300 per day. This is the price of a weaver’s talent. Now the corporates want to take over this heritage industry and push weavers into slavery and bonded labour.”
He also added that weavers learnt their craft through generations. Their kids are being stopped for working in the handloom industry, he said, even though it is not bonded labour by the passing down of the craft in the family. Just like Benarasi sarees, zardosi work is also very renowned in UP and weavers have famously sold their items to people all over the world. However, even this industry is fearing being taken over by corporates. Weavers have been left out of the fold of education and it is up to us to make sure that they receive this and that their rights are preserved, Ansari concluded.
Dissenters must not be scared
Arshad Jamal, Ex-Chairman Mau Nagarpalika speaking about the minorities in the area said that Mau has a population of around 22 lakh, out of which more than 5 lakh are Muslims and there are at least 4 lakh weavers in the region.
He said, “In 2019, the UP government called off the flat rate first provided to weavers. Now adding taxes to the Rs. 7.35 per unit, the price goes up to Rs. 11 per unit. Weavers have to now pay exorbitant bills and not only this, if they can’t afford it, their connections are being stopped. Coming to the minorities, when the CAA, NRC protests were on, even youngsters from Mau joined the protests. Though the protests were peaceful, the police lathi charged at the protestors. As a result, 252 people were booked. There were as many as 6 FIRs filed with at least 24 sections of offences in each. I got to know that even I was one of the accused in one of the complaints. Another FIR was filed against me for spreading communalism for a simple message I posted that if one news channel could stand against sectarian news media, why couldn’t the Muslim community agitate for their rights in a democracy? During the lockdown another case was filed against me for not making public the names of those who attended a funeral of a particular person. This is the situation. In March, when I helped people who had come to Mau in two buses had been treated as criminals and sent to quarantine centers without facilities, my car was seized. In the 6 – 7 cases that were filed during this time, 22 people, most youngsters have been booked under the Gangsters Act. Around 152 people who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat were arrested after a raid and booked under Sections 269 and 270 of the IPC. Out of these 42 people were booked under Section 307 (attempt to murder) and were sent to jail. Even those in quarantine were not let out till at least 50 days after bringing them in. I’ve found that at least 2 of those apprehended were juveniles. When we highlighted the plight of the facilities, we were again booked in a case. The point is that we have to raise our voice. They scare us, but we have to remove the fear of prison from the citizens. We have to encourage people to fight. Now they want councilors to ensure the law and order in hotspots. However, that is the job of the government officials. When I raised my voice, there was a case filed by me. There has been a problem with testing for infections too. In comparison with Delhi, UP is only conducting only 1 percent of tests. The elderly aren’t being tested as they know if they do, the numbers will increase. Whatever problems are coming up, we have to fight and support the people to get their rights.”
Genuine journalists attacked
Ramji Yadav, a journalist and activist from Benaras, expressed sadness at the suffering of the people saying that during the coronavirus the government completely sidetracked the needs of the common man and instead went after dissenters. He said that the atmosphere of fear was such that the people didn’t take to the streets to demand the rights of the marginalized and the minorities. Speaking about the news published in most newspapers he said, “I observe newspapers to see how news changes. 10 days ago there was news that said that the government has tested 10 lakh people, another day the UP CM said that it had tested 90 lakh people. How can this number be true given the testing facilities in the state (UP)? In the same way PM Modi said that the government would give wheat and chana to 80 crore people and at another time he said it would be given to 81 crore people. There has been constant fudging of numbers. We’ve been put in a defensive mode, left to protect our needs. We need to come together at a community level and unite all causes.”
“With regards to journalism, most of the corporate media works as the BJP IT cell, putting forth the fascist ideologies of the regime. However, those genuine journalists working on the ground level like Susheel Manav who conduct fact finding reports are being threatened and attacked. In one incident, children of the Musahar community were seen eating grass and we published that news to show the conditions the people were living in. The next day, in a bid to discredit this claim, a member of the government came to do a photo-op and a case was filed against the journalist. In Sonbhadra, we found that children were fed salt and chapatti in the name of midday meals and when it was reported, the journalist was caught and sent to jail. I’ve seen that journalists who are not in the corporate news media, have been constantly attacked,” Ramji Yadav concluded adding that the government which is pushing people further into poverty and unemployment is scared of the ground reality coming to the fore which is why it incites fear among dissenters and journalists by putting them behind bars.
Fight for women’s rights
Rana Khatoon from Mau, ex-Nagarpalika chairman, a women’s rights activist and gender justice activist shared her experience of the struggles women faced during the lockdown. She said, “During the lockdown, women had to face complex issues, especially those from the middle class and lower sections of the society. Their economic status has been badly hit. Those who worked outside or who had small businesses at home, have been robbed of their income. Women, some who were pregnant, had to walk thousands of kilometers while returning home. Women suffering from ailments or even who were pregnant faced a lot of problems due to hospitals being shut. Due to the lockdown, women had to work from home and this led to an increase in sexual harassment, domestic violence. Women who are working as sex workers have completely been forgotten. They don’t even have ration cards and are completely at the mercy of the public. Women have been badly affected in all ways and it is necessary that women rights organizations should come together to protest and demand rights of women.”
Create a pressure group
Haji Ishtiyaq Ahmed, Secretary of the Sir Syed School and a resident of Varanasi expressed that it was time to hunt for solutions for the myriad of problems that stood before the people. He said, “What is happening is that, in the name of eradicating poverty, the government is eradicating the poor. Due to this, whichever agitations are taking place, all fingers being pointed at the government, are being cut in a bid to induce fear among the people so that no questions are asked. We’ve been seeing this since January and now even activists are somewhere scared to express dissent. We need to make a big pressure group and involve all secular IAS, IPS officers and judges and others who know the system to fight legal battles for the downtrodden who don’t have the legal knowledge and means to fight against the authorities and demand their rights. We have to take up all matters together whether it is of the weavers, farmers, minorities, small businessmen, daily-wagers and lead the agitation. The biggest problem now is that of hunger and people have not been given any help from the government during this time. This is why a pressure group is necessary, people are tired due to the harassment by the authorities and it is important that we stand with them and encourage them and take up their causes. This government is the enemy of humanity, not just one section of society. Hence, we have to do the government’s job and at least start with ensuring food security of the larger population.”
NSA, Goonda Act, Gangster Act ruining the lives of people in UP
Rajeev Yadav of the Rihai Manch highlighted the incarceration of people under the dreaded Gangster Act, National Security Act (NSA) and Goonda Act. Rajeev spoke about the Shabbirpur violence in UP’s Saharanpur in 2017 and the Bharat Bandh in 2018 where the NSA was invoked against the Dalits. “If one sees the pattern of the NSA being invoked, it will be seen that it has been invoked only against the Dalits and Muslims and only these two communities are seen as a threat to the country.” Speaking of the Gangster Act and Goonda Act, he said, “At least 18 people in Qaiserbagh, 15 in Hasanganj and 22 in Mau and 11 in Kanpur have been booked under Gangster Act. At least 68 people were booked under the Goonda Act in Lucknow. In Uttar Pradesh, anti-CAA protests took place in at least 29 areas, out of which 7 areas saw police violence. Now, during the lockdown and the Unlock, the police have started cracking down on protestors. The process which started with Shabbirpur has now reached anti-CAA protestors. Nobody talks much about these stringent acts which are as detrimental as the UAPA or sedition. For rural people, the NSA, Gangster Act and Goonda Act are as big a threat as the NSA.”
He added, “In UP in 2019, at least 16,000 people were booked under Gangster Act and 19,000 people were booked under Goonda Act. Regarding CAA protestors, a multitude of people have been booked under these Acts too. From March 23 to April 13, a PIL by Vikram Singh showed that there were 17,000 cases registered against 48,000 people. This is a huge number for one state. The language of the CM shows a sort of attitude that it is out to get people. In Azamgarh, an SP said that at least 86 people were booked under the Goonda Act and there were chargesheets filed against 200 people. The law and order situation and the encounter politics go to show that the Dalits, OBCs and Muslims are the targets of the government. It is necessary that this discourse reaches a bigger level. The Supreme Court had ordered that jails be decongested during the pandemic, even then Muslim youth are being arrested under false charges of selling cow meat and booked under the Gangster and Goonda Act. During this time, the Court is also not seen standing by the people by allowing recovery notices to anti-CAA protestors and saying that reservation isn’t a fundamental right. We must join law and order with the question of citizenship and take this agitation ahead.”
Ensure food security
Dr. Muniza Khan, researcher and social activist who has worked extensively for women’s rights and other causes like battling communalism said that hunger had emerged as the biggest problem during the lockdown. Conveying the plight of the underprivileged she said, “Recently there was a news which said that at Pachasi Ghat in Benaras, the people who lived at the ghats had nothing to sustain themselves. To survive, they swam to deeper deaths in the Ganga where dead bodies were immersed to gather some jewellery or money they may find on them. This is the level of hunger in the state. We spoke to members of the Dalit community who don’t have anything to eat. The ration that these people got was given to the livestock as they too had to be kept alive.”
She added, “We surveyed 100 homes and found that 30 of those didn’t have ration cards and they hadn’t received any food from the government. We kept speaking to the officials for them, but to no avail. It is sad to see that women from the lower sections of the society lost their jobs as domestic help and also robbed off some nutrition they received by eating meals that their employers gave. The children of these women also go hungry as no one gets regular food from the government. One Shahbaz told me that he had only eaten one meal a day for the past three months. People have had to sell their jewelry and take loans to sustain. Another man, Kamal, said that around 15% of weavers had left their work and started selling vegetables. People roam around looking for work for 2 to 3 days at a time, but to no avail. Rajesh, another associate who spoke of good days, now cries as he has nothing to sustain. Riyaz, a weaver said that due to industries being shut, industries are rotting. Who will pay for that once businesses restart? They all say that before coronavirus, hunger will kill them. I’ve seen instances of this before my own eyes. The situation is abominable. We now need to bring people forward and make a strong network or coordination committee to make this into an agitation for our legal and constitutional rights. This is a fight for human rights.”
The meeting ended with an oath to take this fight forward by incorporating activists fighting for different causes and fighting unitedly for social and economic justice. The activists pledged to make a forum and work towards a plan to document, report and fight legally for the rights of the citizens.
The full webinar may be viewed below.