New Delhi, India – This week, a Muslim journalist in India will spend 150 days in prison after being arrested while preparing to report the death of a Dalit teenager who was allegedly gang raped.
Siddique Kappan, 41, was arrested in October while trying to reach Hathras, a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, about 200 km (124 miles) from the capital New Delhi.
On September 14, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was reportedly gang-raped in a field by four men from the Thakur community, an influential caste among Hindus.
The young woman suffered serious spinal cord injuries as a result of the assault and died two weeks later in a New Delhi hospital, sparking outrage and protests across the country.
Dalits, the former “untouchables” who fall to the bottom rung of the complex Hindu caste hierarchy, have been victims of systemic discrimination and violence for centuries.
To make matters worse, authorities in Hathras secretly cremated the young woman’s body around 2:30 a.m. on September 29, without the consent of her family, who claimed to have been locked in their home by police during the cremation.
The forced and covert cremation of the victim has escalated protests against gang rape, with many journalists rushing to Hathras to cover suspicious developments.
Kappan, who worked for the Malayalam-language news site Azhimukham, was one of them.
On October 5, he was picked up by Uttar Pradesh police as he and three other men were traveling in a car to Hathras.
Suspected PFI links
Police initially accused Kappan of intending to start a caste-based riot and create community disagreement. Later, sedition charges and provisions under the Draconian Illicit Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were added.
Four months later, the Indian Law Enforcement Branch (ED), which investigates financial crimes, also added money laundering charges against him.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, a senior Uttar Pradesh police official, who was initially in charge of the case, denied knowing that Kappan was a journalist at the time of his arrest.
“It wasn’t clear at the start. He didn’t say it and he didn’t have any ID with him, ”said Additional Police Superintendent Shrish Chandra. “Otherwise, why would we stop [Kappan] when all the other press journalists were going there?
Chandra said police found the four people in the car “lying about a few things” and found “PFI-related handwriting and documents” in the vehicle.
PFI, which stands for Popular Front of India, is a Muslim organization often accused by Indian authorities of links to “terrorist” groups, kidnappings, killings and violence.
The group has denied the allegations and said it is working to tackle “unequal treatment” of Indian Muslims.
Police said two of the three men arrested along with Kappan were members of the Campus Front of India, the student body of the PFI.
During a hearing before the Supreme Court of India on a petition filed by the Union of Labor Journalists of Kerala (KUWJ) challenging Kappan’s arrest, police said he was an “office secretary Of the PFI and used journalism only as a facade.
The KUWJ elected Kappan as secretary of their New Delhi branch in 2019.
‘False and frivolous statements’
Kappan’s attorney, Wills Mathews, told Al Jazeera that the case against his client was fraught with inconsistencies and that the police had made “false and frivolous statements” in court.
Mathews said police had no evidence to support their claim that Kappan was an “office secretary” of the PFI.
“At first glance, there is nothing against him. It was subsequently transformed into a larger problem after the arrest. Why were additional FIRs with serious infractions added later? ”He asked, referring to the first briefing report filed by the police following a complaint.
According to documents submitted to the court, Kappan was initially charged with release offenses, but more serious charges were added later to keep him in custody.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court granted him a five-day interim bail to visit his ailing mother in the district of Malappuram, Kerala state, with a horseman: that he would not speak to the media.
Kappan’s wife, Raihanath Kappan, told Al Jazeera that her husband was targeted because of his Muslim and Malayali identity. She also alleged that he was tortured by the police during interrogation.
“He was asked if he had eaten beef and how many times had he seen Dr Zakir Naik,” she said, referring to the controversial Muslim preacher who faces charges of hate speech and laundering and currently living in Malaysia to avoid arrest in India.
“He was also asked why Muslims show sympathy to Dalits,” Raihanath added.
She said the police gave Kappan the opportunity to nominate two Marxist parliamentarians from the Communist Party of India to secure his release. She said she was also asked about “her ties to Rahul Gandhi” – the leader of the opposition congressional party Raihanath had met to gain his support.
Officer Chandra, however, denied the torture allegations.
“It’s false because there was a medical examination [test] done immediately. There are no casualties. And when they (the four men) were detained, we didn’t even know that he (Kappan) was from Kerala, ”Chandra told Al Jazeera.
He was also asked why Muslims show sympathy to Dalits.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is ruled by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Led by Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clad Hindu monk, the state government has been accused by rights groups and activists of targeting the Muslim minority.
After nationwide protests broke out against the controversial Indian citizenship law in 2019, PFI has been accused of organizing and instigating protests that have led to brutal police crackdowns in many places, particularly in the ‘Uttar Pradesh.
Last year, the government of Uttar Pradesh wrote to the Federal Interior Ministry asking for the organization to be banned.
“UP police said PFI was the mastermind behind the protests. They even arrested members of our ad hoc committee and took them to the media with masks on and called them the brain. But they couldn’t prove anything in court, ”PFI general secretary Anis Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
Despite the allegations and continued investigations, the organization remains a legal entity in most Indian states.
Kappan moved to New Delhi about nine years ago after being transferred to the city office of a newspaper called Thejas, a Kerala-based Malayalam daily that is now an online news portal, also known as of PFI spokesperson.
Kappan lost his job when Thejas shut down his printing business in 2018 and started working with another Malayalam newspaper, Thalsamayam. He was elected secretary of the KUWJ in New Delhi a year later.
But Thalsamayam quickly closed due to financial constraints and he lost his job in November 2019. In January of last year, Kappan joined Azhimukham.
Allegations of Kappan’s PFI link date back to his association with Thejas.
PK Manikandhan, a New Delhi-based Malayalam journalist and former KUWJ secretary, said many journalists work for “spokespersons” for different parties but are not targeted.
“He (Kappan) even made a story against PFI in Azhimukham, writing about how PFI is a threat to the Muslim community. This means that he has no connection with this ideology, ”he said.
Manikandhan said he and his colleagues viewed Kappan as an impartial journalist whose writings did not reflect any political ideology.
Besides KUWJ, the Press Club of India, former Kappan editors and directors of Azhimukham and Thalsamayam have also submitted letters to the Supreme Court attesting to the credibility of his journalistic career.
Kappan’s attorney, Matthews, said the journalist’s work at Thejas was “by no means illegal and the organization itself is a legally registered entity.”
“Even if he leaves with a Popular Front [of India] people, what’s wrong? Even though it was a planned trip, what was wrong? Matthews asked. “Even though it is a banned organization, as a journalist he has the right to travel with them or speak to them.”
PFI’s Anis Ahmed also denied allegations that Kappan was a member of the Muslim group.
“What they wanted was to distract the public’s attention [from the Hathras gang-rape case] and, in those four people, they have a scapegoat, ”Ahmed said.
India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has witnessed a decline in press freedom as court cases and police intimidation against journalists escalates.
The country ranked 142nd in the Global Press Freedom Index 2020 – up from 136th in 2015 and 133rd in 2016.
In January, sedition cases were filed against several journalists and publishers in five states, all run by the BJP, for their allegedly “misleading” social media posts. months of farmer protests.
Among them was Mandeep Punia, who was arrested in New Delhi for his report exposing alleged links between the BJP and rioters targeting protesting farmers.
“The hardest thing is to report from Ground Zero and electricity has made it a difficult task in India today,” Punia told reporters after his release last month.
“Just like me, Siddique Kappan should also be released, who is also a journalist and all those who face state repression.”
Shaheen Abdulla contributed to this report from Malappuram District in Kerala, India.