One of the areas of studies and analysis at an international level that emerged in the Covid pandemic and lockdown is the trend of governmental authoritiarianism, taking advantage of the favourable situation of Covid pandemic-induced restrictions. Regimes with a penchant for autocratic acts see the Covid times as an opportunity to suppress their own people and to muzzle dissenting voices with a stress greater than what they give to defeating the virus. The sangh parivar-led government of India also sees the Covid curbs as a golden opportunity to push its agenda. On several occasions recently, this column has dealt with the central government's autocratic and repressive moves under the cover of Covid prevention. However, in spite of the strong protests from advocates of democracy, the BJP government has not turned back from such moves, as indicated by the most recent reports.
One of the major crisis faced by the Modi government was the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests that erupted at the end of last year. That was the time when students came out in protest all over the country spontaneously even without mobilisation or leadership of any particular organisation. The resulting agitation, which caught instant international attention, was enough to dent the image assiduously promoted before the world by Narendra Modi. I t was when the protest was intensifying and gathering creative momentum by each day that the Covid pandemic brought the country to a halt. The protest gatherings which refused to cow down before the repressive tactics of the Modi-Amit Shah duo, however had to retrace because of the Covid situation, which would not let such a popular agitation move forward. Even as the virus was shaking the entire country in general and the national capital in particular, the central government was busy hunting down the students who either were in the forefront of, or participated in the anti-CAA strikes. Many of the student leaders of Delhi's Jamia Millia university were arrested. The arrest of pregnant Safoora Zargar hit international news.
It is in the same sequence that Sharjeel Usmani, a front-line leader of the protest, student in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and national secretary of Fraternity Movement, was arrested at Azamgarh on 8th July. A five-member team who arrived at his house in Azamgarh on Wednesday 8th July captured and took Sharjeel away. The team who arrived in mufti was not prepared to either show their identity card or tell where and for what he was being taken. They seized his books and personal effects including his laptop and refused to speak to the family on any such matters. It was only much later that the officials in charge told the mediapersons - who had been chasing the matter - that Sharjeel was arrested in a case registered in Aligarh in connecton with the anti-CAA agitation.
The charge against Sharjeel which the police shared with the media was in a sense correct. AMU, like Jamia, was a hotspot of anti-CAA protests. Sharjeel was in the lead in mobilising students in that campus. During the days when the citizenship strike was in the limelight, he had visited many places including Kerala and given speeches. Therefore, it was only natural that such a student leader who was instrumental in stirring this strike countrywide, would incur the wrath of the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh; and it falls in line with its method to view popular agitations as criminal offence and take action against them. And there is no point either in expecting them to observe the rules and procedures while arresting any one. They are a class, who even while the Covid had brought the capital to a standstill and the government was flummoxed, rounded up a pregnant woman and put her behind bars.
Sharjeel's arrest has served to bring once again into focus the anti-CAA movement. Democratic student activists were the driving force of that epic struggle of a kind never before witnessed by independent India. It has become the modus operandi of BJP governments to aim at its front leaders and arrest them. But it is only a remote expectation that it will enervate the protest, and it the anti-CAA stir is certain to come back once the lockdown goes. Such arrests will only help in reminding the protesters that the protests have to be resumed. Viewed so, the arrest of Sharjeel Usmani will, far from weaking the stir, give it renewed energy.