India’s Narendra Modi government is targeting student leaders and female activists in the shadow of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, observers told Anadolu Agency.

The government is using the pandemic as a pretext to crush dissenting voices and anyone who is taking an anti-establishment stance is being made to face the consequences, said observers.

Amnesty International India Executive Director Avinash Kumar in a statement last month when the government began arresting activists.

Activists, student leaders and others have been arrested in the last two months for protesting against a new citizenship law which critics say is discriminatory against the minority Muslim community.

According to some New Delhi-based activists, more than 800 people have been arrested in connection with violence, including students and activists. But the exact figures have not been provided by officials.

Most are Muslim students or activists who were arrested for allegedly organizing protests.

Human rights activist Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association said a lot of student activists have been arrested and many have been intimidated and threatened with arrest.

“It is extremely shocking that those who are actually involved in openly instigating such riots and indulged in hate speech — they are untouched,” Krishnan told Anadolu Agency.

“The motive is to punish, penalize all the voices who were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA),” she added.

Recently, two women, Natasha Narwal, 30, and Devangana Kalita, 32, were arrested at their homes May 23. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are part of the Pinjra Tod women’s collective that works for the rights of female college students.

New Delhi police made the arrests because they allegedly took part in anti-CAA protests that led to communal riots in North-East Delhi in February.

They were granted bail 24 May.

But within minutes of the bail order, they were re-arrested when the New Delhi Police Crime Branch furnished another complaint, which carried charges under the Arms Act as well as a charge of murder.

The same pattern of filing additional more serious charges was witnessed in previous arrests connected to the New Delhi violence, such as that of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) student Safoora Zargar.

A number of student activists now have been booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, making bail more difficult.

Safoora Zargar, a Jamia student, was picked up April 13 although, at the time of the arrest, she was three months pregnant.

Police claimed she was among those who organized anti-CAA protest and road blockade under the Jafrabad Metro station Feb. 22 – 23.

Along with Zargar, police arrested Meeran Haider, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, and Asif Iqbal Tanha — all from Jamia University.

In a joint May 26 online news conference, student leaders and leftist leaders said the government was attacking and arresting university students and activists while the country and the world was battling coronavirus pandemic.

“The arrests are being made when people cannot go out, and there is no judicial help available due to lockdown,” said AISA national president N. Sai Balaji at the conference.

Balaji said the government was shielding the real culprits and instigators of riots while the victims were being targeted.

Many of those arrested were victims of communal riots and violence, he said.

President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union Aishe Ghosh said since the lockdown, “the Delhi crime branch has been systematically engaged in arresting anti CAA activists, conducting intimidating interrogation sessions and seizing phones of students. It is clear that the police are using the lockdown instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as a shield against dissent.”

Earlier this month, 1,100 women social workers across the country demanded from the government that “activists and students opposing CAA and NRC should not be targeted during the lockdown.”

Police, however, claimed investigations into Jamia and Northeast Delhi riot cases have been conducted sincerely and impartially.

“All the arrests made have been based on analysis of scientific and forensic evidence, including video footage, technical and other footprints,” said police in a statement.

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