It was December 31, and in Hyderabad, a city-based journalist was enroute to a poetry reading session themed, "Night of Resistance – Poetry, Dark Humour, Vocals and Chai Pani'. The event was being held at Murad Nagar, and invitations were shared mostly over social media. It was, by all means, a private affair. “But people were getting stopped by the police. There was a large number of police personnel deployed at the venue," says the reporter who attended the event in a personal capacity. The Hyderabad west zone police were turning away people who had come to attend the poetry reading session.
“It was New Year’s Eve and a lot of people were being stopped. The police were in two SUVs, and they were even snatching people's phones. It was just a poetry reading session, there was no discussion about Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR), National Register of Citizens (NRC)," says the journalist. However, the police claim the people attending the poetry session were stopped as it was an ‘anti-CAA event in disguise’.
“Welcome to people-friendly police, Telangana police,” the catchy caller tune of the Telangana police goes. But the ‘friendliness’ of the police seemingly disappears if you want to exercise your right to protest, guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, allege activists.
Since the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and eruption of protests across the country, the Telangana police have been keeping a keen eye on any press event, debate, discussion or public meeting in the city. As part of maintaining law and order, the police are empowered under the “reasonable restrictions” to frame their own rules when it comes to giving permissions. Supreme Court judgments on the topic say the reasons for denying permissions should not be unreasonable and should follow "a general pattern of reasonableness that is applicable to all cases". It seems however that the police in the state are testing the extent of the ambiguity of the term “reasonable restrictions” under Article 19(1)(g) of the Indian Constitution.
The restrictions on protests
The police have a well-oiled pre-existing standard operating procedure when it comes to knowing what events, protests, debates, discussions are happening across the city. Since the passing of the CAA, the police have instructed press clubs to inform all those who seek venues for anti-CAA events to obtain police permission, says M Parvez, one of the managing partners of media plus, a private press auditorium at ABIDS in Hyderabad.
All press clubs routinely send details of the daily press events to the police. If the police find something problematic they usually call the organiser before the event and ask them to make changes. It’s also normal for the police to be present at press events in plain clothes, adds Parvez. There have been over ten anti-CAA and related events at the media plus venue, and the police often call the organisers and seek clarity on what aspects of the CAA are being discussed. The intention, the venue managers are told, is to avoid controversy.
However, the police seem to be getting increasingly stingy when it comes to giving permissions for these events.
For instance, on December 24, a discussion on CAA protests and the Delhi police action against students of Jamia University by Ladeeda Farzana and Aysha Renna at Lamakaan, was asked to be stopped from being held by the Hyderabad police. The police had cited the threat from certain groups as a reason for attempting to stop the event. The police finally relented and the discussion was held after assurances from the management, and the event took place without incident.
But as protests intensified in January and February energised by the Shaheen Bagh protesters in Delhi, the Hyderabad police more often than not are denying permissions.
The permission for ‘Million March’, sought by the Joint Action Committee against CAA and NPR was denied three times before the police finally gave permission for 1,000 persons to assemble on January 4. The organisers were booked the following day for violating the unreasonable guideline for protesting at the march.
On January 15 prominent activists who went to the Hyderabad police commissionerate to question the reason for denying permission for an anti-CAA rally by Kanhaiya Kumar were detained. They were kept under preventive detention and let off later in the evening.
The flash protest resistance
To get around the denial of permissions, protesters have now begun organising flash protests in the city. They would just randomly decide a location in the city with perhaps 10 to 15 people showing up.
On January 13, hundreds of women protestors started a flash sit-in protest at Tolichowki. The numbers started increasing as those from the locality joined the protesters. And after 1 am, the police detained the protesting women and took them to the Goshamahal parade grounds.
On January 23 a group of 50 women began a flash sit-in protest at Khwaja ka Chilla in Moghalpura at around 11 pm. The protest went on till 4 am the next day. The police, once again, detained the women protesters.
Permission was also initially denied to AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi who wanted to hold a social gathering for a night of Urdu poetry reading, followed by flag hoisting on January 25. The Hyderabad MP had sought permission to hold the event at Charminar – but the permission was denied. The venue was shifted to Khilwat Ground and the hours provided to hold the event were also curtailed.
On January 26, the Hyderabad police denied permission for a 48-hour sit-in protest by women against the CAA. The location for the protest, Mir Alam Eidagh, was chosen by the Hyderabad police itself – but a day before the protest, permission was denied. As the permission was sought well in advance, the organisers by then had already spent considerable time making placards, taking care of logistics, safety, and arranging volunteers. They were left dejected when the permission was finally denied.
“All these times we the women never went ourselves to talk to the police commissioner for permission as we were busy organising and letting men do the talking. In the days coming forward we intend to do the talking also ourselves,” says Dr Asma Zohra, executive member, All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Activists in Hyderabad are collecting the rejections made by the Hyderabad police, and intend to file a case with the High Court. “The question is, why in a democratic country are protests being curtailed? In the wake of anti-CAA protests, several Joint Action Committees have been formed to organise protests, but no one in Hyderabad is able to protest,” says Dr Asma.
Protesting on a tightrope
The frequent denial of permissions for protest has also weakened the resolve of the protestors. Even people who have been organising are disheartened and have taken a step back. They have been booked in cases and every day, they get calls from the police.
Many of those organising the flash protests were booked under several penal sections – and some of those who have been booked are minors. A few allege that the police are now snooping on protest organisers.
Even a human chain to protest against CAA and NRC on January 30, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, was almost denied permission. The permission for the human chain at People’s Plaza was given with barely two hours to go for the scheduled event.
“The event organisers were expecting a crowd of over 1000 but due to the uncertainty about the protest being denied permission, many failed to show up. Then also a few hundred people did show up to form the human chain. Even if they are giving permission. it’s with such huge restrictions that the protest just becomes a formality,” says Dr Asma.
On February 21, over 600 people gathered at the Hari Dargah grounds in Barkas at a protest against CAA organised by flash protestors. The police detained over 200 women and cleared the grounds the same night.
The following day, the Hyderabad Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar at a press conference stated that Shaheen Bagh-like protests would not be allowed in Hyderabad. The commissioner, while responding to a query, said, "Nothing like Shaheen Bagh will be allowed in Hyderabad...impossible...Don't bring that. Hyderabad is the best city in India and will further improve. Don't compare Hyderabad with places where all these negative things are happening. We take pride in Hyderabad."
The commissioner on February 22 insisted that guidelines for denying protests are as per the guidelines of the High Court. It was only on February 19 that after the Telangana High Court told the principal secretary of state Home Department and the DGP to frame guidelines to grant police permission. It’s unclear what pre-existing guidelines the Hyderabad police commissioner was referring to. The court has asked to include the reason for the rejection of protest permission.
The commissioner also claimed that those who approach the High Courts over the lack of protest permissions by the police have vested interest. One of the petitioners who had filed a petition against the police for not granting permission is a retired IPS officer.
According to the police, the city has witnessed over 200 protests over CAA and admit that the protesters are peaceful. But, “Political protests are important but law and order is more important,” Anjani Kumar had remarked.