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When UAPA is invoked against fact-finding efforts

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When UAPA is invoked against fact-finding efforts
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Two lawyers of the Supreme Court who visited the violence-hit Tripura for fact-finding were booked under UAPA by West Agartala police. The police notice asked to"delete fabricated and false statements/comments made/circulated by you in the social media." it gave no specifics regarding the content. Around 102 social media handles were booked for allegedly spreading rumours- 68 Twitter handles 32 Facebook IDs and two YouTube links.

They intend to cause harm to Tripura police and the Tripura government's reputation, in the presence of criminal conspiracy, alleges the Tripura police. 153 A, 153B, 469, 471,503, 504, 120B of the Indian Penal Code and Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act were invoked on them. There are journalists, students, activists, religious leaders and even Facebook pages of SIO, SDPI, PFI etc. The FIR is an open one. It categorized the accused as 'unknown miscreants'. The FIR was prepared on November 3.

The fact-finding team led by senior advocate Ehtesham Hashmi includes advocate Ansar Indori, Advocate Mukesh and Advocate Amit Srivastav. During a two-day fact-finding visit in Tripura, the team recorded for the public a clear description of the communal violence against the Muslim community by the Hindu militant organizations. The report is titled 'Humanity under attack in Tripura #MuslimLivesMatter'

The targeted violence on Muslims lasted for more than a week. It continued until the Tripura High Court took suo moto cognizance on October 28. Even when the arson and attacks subsided, intimidation of Muslims continues in the state according to reports. The attacks began after an incident of violence was reported against the minority community of Hindus in Bangladesh during Durga puja. According to various reports, VHP and Hindu Jagaran Manch organized rallies across the state of Tripura where the Muslim population is less than 10% of the state's population.

How Media Covered the Incident

The Quint gathered various social media posts by local Hindu leaders, which sent an alert to mobilize people to be sufficientlyHindu and protect the pride in the context of anti-minority violence in the neighbouring country Bangladesh. The report looks into various social media posts made for mobilization just after the violence in Bangladesh.

"On 21 October, a rally was organised at Dharmanagar in North Tripura district, under the initiative of Vishva Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal and people who assembled from different parts of the locality. Speakers from VHP and RSS at the rally called upon Hindus to unite, claiming that as "Hindus are fragmenting into Dass, Pals and Brahmins, Islam is using the opportunity."

"If Hindus in India unite, Muslims who constitute 15% of the population will not be able to survive for even 15 minutes," rally leaders told the crowd. Dharmanagar, the second-largest urban locality in Tripura, was shaken up by the war cries of "Jai Sri Ram" and "Jai Bhavani", a report narrated in Maktoob media.

Here is an excerpt from the fact-finding report that shows the intensity of violence; "Mohammad Yusuf used to run a grocery shop in the Rowa market when Amiruddin's shop was burnt down. He has been running his shop here for twenty years, but no incident of such kind ever happened here, now all of a sudden the situation turned worse, that he had to see his shop burning in front of his eyes. He says that he has suffered a loss of six lakh rupees due to arson. Though he knows the arsonists' name he is reluctant to name them due to apprehension of harm that might be inflicted upon him again."

"MD Amir Hussain, the a 34 years old shopkeeper, has been running his shop in this market for the last ten years. Adjacent to the backside of his shop was the house of a Hindu, Manik Debnath. When the rioters were trying to burn down the shop, he came in front of the Hindu rioters and said that his house is adjacent to the shop. "If it sets on fire, then my house will also burn." The rioters did not set fire to his shop but robbed the goods of his shop, which included laptops, water motors and other electronic items. The rioters broke the door of his shop, took out the printer, set it on fire, ransacked the Xerox machine, took out electrical and hardware items and burnt it. He told Adv Ehtesham Hashmi that he suffered a loss of about ten lakh rupees but the government has given him a compensation of only 26,800. The neighbouring Hindu family of Manik Debnath refused to tell the name of rioters and arsonists when inquired by Amir but he believes that they know the rioters' name. And if the investigating agencies interrogate Manik Debnath, he will tell the name of the rioters to the investigating agency."

Twelve Mosques in Tripura Attacked in violence: Fact-Finding Report

The fact-finding report documents two specific complaints made by victims of the violence in Panisagar police station, but no FIR had been registered since the team published the report.

The fact-finding report by Supreme Court lawyers listed 12 mosques that were attacked. Panisagar CRPF mosque is one among them. The report reads, "In October, a protest rally taken out by the VHP at Panisagar in North Tripura traversed different localities like Chamtilla, Jalebasha and Rowa Bazar. A section of the protesters allegedly vandalised a few houses and burnt some shops at Rowa Bazar. The rioters who took part in the rally damaged this mosque, the rioters threw stones at the doors and windows of the mosque, which broke the windows, damaged the stuff of the mosque and a tree was cut down in front of the mosque."

Mazihuzzama Ansari, a reporter of India Tomorrow revealed in his account of reporting the violence that for at least seven days the police didn't acknowledge the occurrence of violence, to his queries.

The police claimed no masjid was damaged or burnt 'during yesterday's protest rally' in Panisagar. "The only falsehood regarding the attacks is that the mosque in Rowa was in fact not set on fire, but the surrounding houses and shops were burnt. There are many masjids in Panisagar and other masjids in the area which have been attacked and vandalized" journalist Ansari told The Citizen. When the police said the images of damage and destruction are fake and 'not from Tripura', the fact-finding team and journalists has photos and other evidence from the place.

How the State Govt Dealt With Violence

The disabling of Twitter handles and slapping of UAPA on the users anyway found worthy to be news in the popular media."In publishing these news items/posts, the persons/organizations have been found using photographs/videos of some other incidents, fabricated statements/commentary for promoting enmity between religious groups/communities in presence of a criminal conspiracy. The posts have potential to flare up communal tension in Tripura State between people of different religious communities, which may result in communal riots," The West Tripura police wrote to Twitter on November 7th.

The fact-finding report recorded attacks on nine shops owned by Muslims and three houses of Muslims, one of which was adjacent to a gated mosque. In November, elections in Tripura of local bodies are upcoming. The division between Hindus and Muslims will be created after the violence is done to take political advantage. The fact-finding team found out that such incidents could have been prevented had the police and administration handled the situation strictly.

Four days before this incident, the Muslim organisation Jamaat-E-Ulema (Hind) met with the Chief Minister, Biplab Kumar Dev, and informed him that such incidents could take place and there is a danger to the peace between Hindus and Muslims. Despite this, the absence of any action by the government is tantamount to sponsoring this violence. There is an atmosphere of fear regarding the attacks on religious places, houses, and shops of Muslims, which is a new thing for the northeastern states.

Bangladesh has investigated the case and the people who were involved in the violence there were questioned. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, met people of the Hindu community right after the violence. The government also arrested many people and ministers of the government met with the victims of the Hindu community as well. But the BJP government of Tripura did not take any such steps" the fact-finding report stated in conclusion.

These are the demands of the team:

-make an inquiry committee headed by a retired high court judge to get the whole incident investigated.

-file separate FIRs on the complaint of the victims and immediate compensations should be provided to the innocents who lost their livelihood in the violence.

-the government must rebuild the religious places damaged in arson and sabotage.

-the police officer who ignored the possibility of violence should be removed.

-take action against those who raised slogans insulting Prophet Muhammad in the rally so that the cordial atmosphere in the state won't be spoiled again.

-strict legal action should be taken against the people who create false and provocative messages and make them viral on social media, and against all the people and organizations who repeatedly incite people and create a ruckus for the rally.

Advocate Ansar Indori says post-2014, the BJP's aim has been to stabilize their ideology in the North-Eastern states and for that, they try to scare the Muslim community in the region.

"This is shocking for us," advocate Indori told English Madhyamam. ''We didn't make any comments or didn't work against the law or the system. This is a fabricated case. As this news was out, many journalists contacted us from The Wire, Scroll.in, NDTV etc. Mainstream media covered this issue when UAPA came in. UAPA has become the state's practice, the BJP state's practice is to stop and suppress the voices, just like the Bhima Koregaon case- everyone knows they are innocent but they remain behind the bars," he added.

"We want to change the politics of violence in Tripura to politics of development. In Tripura, birth anniversaries of Stalin & Lenin are celebrated but not of Tagore & Vivekanand. Bring BJP govt in the state and within five years we will make it a model state" Amit Shah had said in Tripura on 11 February 2018.

Advocate Mukesh says that the approximately 48-hrs stay in Tripura was only meant for knowing the truth, providing legal advice and conveying a message of peace. "During my visit to Tripura from 30th Oct to 1st Nov, I did nothing wrong that will invite any charges against me. I thoroughly checked my social media content and found nothing objectionable. As a law-abiding citizen I am open to clarifying my stance with authorities in Tripura," he said.

"They don't want us to expose the corrupt government. We stand by the fact-finding report. We have videos, audio and photographs as evidence. We will file an affidavit'' said advocate Ehtesham Hashmi who led the fact-finding team. "The government is using UAPA to snatch away our right to freedom of expression. A team of lawyers is ready to handle the case of those Twitter users who are charged with UAPA. Since this is an open FIR they can add any name to it. We haven't found any illegal content in the social media handles that are booked. The government does not want any voice of dissent to speak. I hope the Supreme Court of India will give relief to those of us who are affected by this anti-national law," Ehtesham Hashmi said.

On 10th November, advocates Mukesh and Ansar Indori and journalist Shyam Meera Singh filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging UAPA against lawyers and journalists. In the writ petition, the criminalization of civil society including lawyers and journalists is cited as a means "to monopolize the flow of information from areas affected by the violence by criminalizing the very act of 'fact-finding and 'reporting' that creates a 'chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression. The court ensured an urgent listing of the petition.

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