Right to protest curbed in MP under guise of Covid

lathi charge

On August 18 as members of the Movement against Unemployment hit the streets of the Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal they were brutally caned by the police as they tried to move towards the Chief Minister’s residence in a bid to gherao it. Cases were also filed against many of the protestors, who were demanding jobs and the filling up of vacant government posts.

This incident was nothing very unusual on its own as peaceful protestors around India are routinely subject to violent suppression by those in power. Except that, in this case, the excuse for the crackdown  was Covid and the alleged violation of restrictions on public gatherings due to the pandemic.

The protestors were charged with flouting Section 144 imposed on the city, which prohibits groups of more than four persons congregating at any location. Cases were also filed under the colonial era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, which gives authorities draconian powers to suspend basic citizens’ rights in the name of disease control.

This was not the first instance the Covid pandemic has become an excuse for violation of constitutional freedoms or human rights abuses by the state government in  Madhya Pradesh. Between July 16 and August 5 this year similar cases were filed against more than 1500 government employees for participating in various non-violent protests around their legitimate demands.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe government and the police argue that Section 144 is applicable throughout the state. The Epidemic Diseases Act is also in force to curb spread of infections due to Covid and action is being taken against those who do not obey even after persuasion.

A glaring contrast in the government’s approach to protests though is to be found in the way it deals with election-related or other public rallies organised by the ruling party in the state. In the last one and a half years bye-elections to 29 assembly seats have been held with hundreds of thousands mobilised for rallies and with scant respect for social distancing, masking or other Covid prevention measures.

In most of these gatherings the Chief Minister himself, along with his ministers, MLAs or MPs have participated. Currently, several top BJP leaders, including Union Minister for Railways Jyotiraditya Scindia are doing an ‘Ashirwad Yatra’ around the state to seek ‘blessings’ from the public. No action has been taken against them or their supporters who have gathered in large numbers in public places.

“I was not born in an India bound by the chains of slavery, but I have heard from elders and read in books that before Independence the British used to do whatever came to their mind. The common man used to be scared. If they raised their voices they were flogged by the British police and dragged to jail. Various atrocities were committed”, says Sumer Singh showing  us the wounds on his left hand, inflicted by the MP police. He says that it was not expected that in independent India too, there would ever be barbarism like under  British colonial rule.

But the unthinkable did happen on 18 August when he, along with hundreds of other youth, had reached the Roshanpura intersection of Bhopal seeking employment.  They were chased and beaten brutally by the police personnel. Sumer Singh says they never expected the policemen of an elected government to behave in such a ruthless manner.  The police also registered cases against dozens of the protesting, unemployed youth under the sections of the Epidemic Diseases Act.

“We will continue to fight for our rights”, he says hoping the National Human Rights Commission will take suo moto cognizance of the use of force by the police on the protestors.

“Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan ji, you claim to consider all daughters of the state as your own nieces. It has been said from every platform that your nephews and nieces have nothing to worry as long as their maternal uncle Shivraj Singh Chauhan is around. You won’t let them get into trouble. You will bear the cost of their education yourself. After they graduate, you will also arrange for a job” recounts Shanti Dubey, who had reached in front of the state BJP office in Bhopal for another protest, also held on 18 August.

Along with her were hundreds of government school teachers selected for 32,000 teaching posts in government schools after getting through exams conducted by the MP Professional Examination Board three years ago. Till now none of them have been given any appointment letters.

She and other women teachers planned to tie a ‘rakhi’ to the Chief Minister and tell him about their problem, hoping to  return home with the appointment letter as a gift. She says while the Chief Minister did not come, dozens of police personnel did.

“ We were not expecting the police would scuffle with us, daughters of MP or use force on us. But that’s what happened” she says. The police, which had been trying to get them to disperse since noon, started attacking them around 7 pm. When she did not move, she was abused. They were called all kinds of names. The police even registered cases against many of the women teachers.

Another victim of police high-handedness is Narayan Kumar, whose only crime was to participate in a recent agitation of government employees.

“I am being treated like a criminal under the guise of the Covid pandemic. I have been put on the list of people barred from entering the district where I live. I have been banned from traveling to my own district. I have been running around for a week now. The police  is treating me like a goon’  he says.

Narayan, along with the employees of the Panchayat and Rural Development Department of MP, went on strike from July 19, 2021, demanding jobs on compassionate grounds for the family members of thousands of deceased Panchayat Secretaries. They were also asking for vacant posts in the departments be filled so that the work of the general public does not suffer.

“If the salary of secretaries and employment assistants increases, then their families will get out of economic depression. If the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee scheme regularizes thousands of contract workers then their future will be secure. This is what we are demanding”, says Narayan. According to him, in view of the Covid pandemic, the strike was organised at the district and panchayat level without mobilizing any crowds and following social distancing norms.

“The police, under the guise of the Epidemic Diseases Act, has registered cases against more than 800 assistant engineers, deputy engineers, clerks, secretaries of panchayats and employment assistants. 62 employees have been sacked, 500 employees have been suspended”, says Devi Singh of Panna, who has been working in the Panchayat and Rural Development Department on contract for years.

When he took part in the strike that began on 19 July this year for regularization and to meet other demands, he was dismissed straight away. He and many others like him had to hit the streets to fight for their jobs and prevent their families from starving to death.

“We have been falsely accused of violating Covid restrictions. The government is taking revenge against us for protesting in a democratic way” says Devi.

Akash Kapse is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal

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