- NL Sena
While covering the protests against the clean chit to CJI Ranjan Gogoi, I was loaded into a jeep and sent to the police station for ‘verification’—despite twice showing my press ID to the cops.
When the Supreme Court’s in-house committee gave a clean chit to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Monday in regards with allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by a former SC staffer, everyone knew there would be pushback. After all, the committee investigating the case was not only constituted by the CJI himself but had also denied the complainant to be accompanied by someone in court, given that she has a hearing disability. Women’s rights activists from various walks of life put out the word for a protest to be organised at 10.30 am the next day—Tuesday, May 7—at the car park opposite the entrance to the Supreme Court.
I was there too, to cover the protest. There were a lot of specifics we, the press, didn’t know: Who was spearheading this protest? Which women’s groups were involved? What were their demands? To be honest, I didn’t even know what the size and scale of the protest would be. But as I reached the Supreme Court at around 10.20 am, I was greeted by the sight of nothing less than a face-off.
Outside the gates of the highest institution that is entrusted with upholding the greater good, at least 50 police officers and about 10 officers of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) stood on one side—all of them stationed in uniform. They were looking across the road at the opposite side, where around 30-40 protesters—all women—were haphazardly assembling on the main road outside the car park. On the divider between the road stood the ever-present TV news cameramen, shooting their usual dose of B-roll.
The police outside the Supreme Court premises.
I walked up to a group of women protesters and asked whether they belonged to any particular women’s group. I was told that those who were assembling here today for the protest came from all walks of life: there were advocates, activists, and even some students. By 10.35 am, the number of protesters had swelled a bit, and when TV reporters came to get their bytes, the women asked for about 5-10 minutes to simply get organised. They formed a straight line, facing the Supreme Court, took out their placards and posters, and began shouting slogans of “Supreme Court nyayi dilao”.
Within 10 minutes, women police officers from the opposite side of the road crossed over and began requesting the protesters to move into the car park space instead of protesting on the road. The protesters told the cops that they would stand in single file on the side of the road, but there were cars that were parked there, which is why they had to stand on the road. They asked the cops to remove the cars after which they would stand on the side.
However, one thing led to another and within a flash, the protesters were grabbed and loaded into a nearby police van. Chaos ensued: the women began chanting their slogans even louder than before, all the while being dragged away by women police personnel. The male police officers stood a little further away, on the same side of the road, and set up a rope on the side of the main road to cordon it off. The first police van, now loaded with protesters, left the area, leaving behind fewer of protesters than before. They kept chanting slogans till a second police van was brought around. The second group was dragged by their arms and pushed into the vehicle.
The protesters being bundled into a police van.
I was surprised at how quickly things escalated, let alone by the sheer force used by the authorities to displace the protesters. This wasn’t a random protest held against fracking; it was a protest against the Chief Justice of India, in connection with the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. It was a protest organised by the women, for women’s rights, and was taking place right in front of the Supreme Court. To deploy force—let alone in such large numbers—towards women protesters who have come together to express a common cause of dissent seems uncalled for in a modern-day democracy.
When the protesters were being taken away and bundled into police vans, I thought the authorities didn’t have any ground on which to detain and remove protesters from the spot. However, it turns out they do.
The police enjoy extraordinary discretionary powers to invoke Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure—thereby disallowing more than five persons from congregating in a place—in areas of Central Delhi such as Jantar Mantar, Parliament House and, of course, the Supreme Court. What this effectively does is stifle any sort of democratic protests in Lutyens’ Delhi, the seat of all power in the country. According to Bar and Bench, Delhi Police DCP Madhur Verma confirmed that Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure had not been invoked specifically for these protests. He clarified that Section 144 was already in place in areas of Central Delhi, as it is invoked every three months or so.
Things got ugly when the third round of protesters were being taken away. Gautam Mody, one of the few male protesters outside the Supreme Court, was blocking women police officers from dragging away protester Nandini Rao. He stood between the senior female police inspector and Rao. That’s when the male police officers standing nearby got involved. “Usko idhar kheenchke leke aao,” a senior male police officer was heard telling his subordinate—there is a video of this—to which his junior, along with two other constables, dragged Mody from behind the car where he was standing, and took him away.
The protesters, the police and the media.
There were now only a handful of protesters left behind on the main road opposite the Supreme Court. Some were talking to large groups of the press—whose numbers had increased considerably once word of the action got out—while others stood on the sidewalk, engaged in conversation with one or two solitary reporters.
One such person belonging to the latter category was Esthapan S—whose name I hope I got right. Esthapan stood under a tree, draped in a saree, speaking to a reporter about the law and order situation that was transpiring in real-time. I walked up and began video recording. Esthapan wasn’t seen earlier near any of the organised action, and I was keen to know an individual protester’s thoughts about what had just gone down.
My video had barely crossed the one-minute mark when Esthapan was approached by three police officers—one lady police officer and two males. “Chalo, bhaiya,” said one of the male police officers.
“I’m not protesting … I’m not a protester and I am not protesting … I am simply talking to the media,” said Esthapan. “On what basis are you taking me away?”
As they walked away, I was in front of them, walking backwards while shooting my video. I asked Esthapan two questions: “Do you know why you’re being taken away?” “No.” “Are you a protester?” “No.”
As Esthapan was being put into the back of a police jeep, a senior male officer standing nearby told his junior counterpart, “Isko bhi andar daalo.” It took me a second or two to realise that he meant me. I told the officer that I was from the press and was here covering the protest. He asked me to show him my ID card, which I did. He took one look at it, and asked me: “Kaun se news se ho?” Newslaundry, I told him, and began putting my ID card back into my pocket—only to have him demand to see it again. I obliged.
This time, he took a closer look at it and said: “Tumhara verification karna padega.” He sent two junior constables my way, who put me in the back of the same jeep, sat along with the two of us, and told us that we were being taken to Mandir Marg Police Station.
On the way, I asked one of them: “Aap press ko bhi detain kar rahe ho?” to which the response came that they were simply following orders.
In all honesty, the two junior constables were as clueless as us as to why we were being taken away. However, once we reached Mandir Marg Police Station, we were escorted inside. My name was written down at a desk at the entrance, and I was then taken to a courtyard-like opening at the back of the police station where the protesters who had been previously taken away in vans were gathered.
Once inside, it came to light that there were three or four other journalists too who had been brought here. Funnily enough, none of them, including me, were from traditional legacy media outlets. We all represented independent media outlets, which seemed like a strange coincidence to me. Perhaps it was the lack of a fancy tripod and camera setup that led to me being detained. Or maybe it was my hair (as rightfully pointed out by my editor once I was released and returned to my newsroom) and the accessories on my hand—I don’t know. What I do know is that when I asked Senior Inspector Vikramjit Singh as to why was I brought here, he calmly told me he would get back to me in a bit.
Meanwhile, the women protesters detained in the space at the back of the police station remained as undeterred, unnerved, and electrifying as ever. They formed a circle in the open space: clapping, singing songs of freedom, chanting slogans. Their energy made the walls of the police station reverberate every time they chorused and clapped in unison. On one side of the courtyard, police officers looked on at the ongoing spectacle, waiting for instructions from their higher-ups as to how to deal with the situation. Mody, the man seen being dragged in one of the videos, was here too.
In half an hour, Senior Inspector Vikramjit Singh returned with a blank piece of paper and asked the handful of journalists to write their names down. “Can I also have your phone number?” he asked me, to which I politely said no, but agreed to give him my work email ID. I repeatedly asked him why had I been brought here in spite of telling the authorities that I was a journalist, but was unable to get a straight and coherent response.
Singh then told us we could now leave “agar aap chaahte hai toh”. I asked him about the so-called verification that I was told I would have to undergo. No answer yet again. After leaving the courtyard, I was told that if i wanted any sort of an official response as to why I was detained, I would have to approach the DCP or the official spokesperson.
Even though the press were allowed to leave, the women protesters remained detained.
As I walked out of the police station, wondering what had just gone down in the past hour, I became aware of a folded document pressed against the back pocket of my jeans. I had completely forgotten about it: it was the document handed out by the protesters outside the Supreme Court, moments before they were taken away by the police. Titled Open Letter to Retired Judges From Women’s Rights Groups and Activists To Speak Up On The Side of Justice in the matter of allegations of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of India, the seven-page statement contains 350 signatures of different people, groups and organisations who had come together to issue it.
In the context of the three-panel committee constituted to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment against CJI Ranjan Gogoi, it read: “We are aware that this is an extraordinary case that calls for extraordinary measures to be put in place, as this is a matter pertaining to the highest judicial authority under the constitution. However, extraordinary measures cannot and ought not to overlook, fundamental priceless of natural justice and fair hearing.”
It concluded: “If the highest judicial authority does not follow its own procedures and stand up in support of the less powerful, it will send a message of disquiet to all those keeping faith in the system. What is at stake is not only the rights of women, but also credibility of the Supreme Court. It is to protect this system that has been painstakingly created by the diligence of many members of the judiciary that we ask you to speak.”
It also must be pointed out that the protesters didn’t have prior permission to conduct their protest outside the Supreme Court. However, does that warrant the use of brute force, intimidation and manhandling? Does it warrant detaining journalists who are simply there doing their job? According to Vani Subramaniam of Saheli, she—along with the other protesters—were allowed to leave Mandir Marg Police Station a little after 3.30 pm. “They asked us to give them in writing that we would go straight home,” she said, adding that they didn’t oblige. “We didn’t tell them, or give them any assurances. They didn’t give us any reasons as to why we were being detained, beyond saying that Section 144 had been imposed. Clearly, the message was to keep us out of the way till the court rose for the day. Dissent seems to be what they want to contain and control these days.”
In light of today’s events, I find it ironic that we actually celebrated World Press Freedom Day just three days ago. Is this what constitutes freedom of the press is in India, the world’s so-called fastest developing nation? No wonder we’re located at a shameful 140th position out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. In fact, we dropped two places lower to reach this spot as recently as April 18, 2019. The index finds “an increased sense of hostility towards journalists across the world, with violent attacks in India leading to at least six Indian journalists being killed in the line of their work last year.”
The simple tactic of knowingly stifling media coverage toward an ongoing protest—irrespective of how little water the protest might hold or not—and without any reason is nothing short of disgraceful. If this can occur in the national capital of India, there is very little for us to be hopeful about the police’s conduct in smaller towns and cities.