Congress leader Pawan Khera
Congress leader Pawan Khera was stopped by the Delhi police from boarding a plane following a request from the Assam Police to stop him, in New Delhi on Thursday, Feb 23, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

The dramatic arrest of Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera in India last week marks a new low in the bitter politics of our times. And once again, the Assam police which reports to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, was at the forefront.

Khera was arrested after a case or an FIR was filed against him by a BJP worker in Assam for his comments on the Prime Minister at a press conference earlier this month.

The Assam police swooped down on the national capital to arrest Khera from the airport tarmac, after he was deboarded from a flight to Raipur. The sections invoked in the FIR include promoting enmity on the grounds of religion and the intent to provoke breach of peace.

You can agree or disagree about what Khera said, but there is no way his comments amounted to any of this.

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Khera’s lawyer, Abhishek Singhvi told the Supreme Court that Khera had apologised and that the remarks were a “slip of tongue”. The Supreme Court gave Khera bail, while also commenting about the level of political discourse.

Harassing political opponents

Chief Minister Sarma has justified the police action saying no one is above the law but the trend of arresting and harassing political opponents or those critical of a regime or a leader, is worrying.

Also worrying is how the police and law enforcement agencies are being used across the board to settle political scores. Assam, in particular, has emerged as a favourite destination for FIRs.

Last year, the Assam police went all the way to Gujarat to arrest lawmaker Jignesh Mevani for a series of tweets criticising the BJP leadership. This was a complete overreach and to make things worse, when Mevani got bail a few days later, he was arrested again by the Assam police in a new case. He got bail again a few days later.

At around the same time Mevani faced arrest, the Maharashtra government ruled by the opposition Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress combine, arrested independent MP Navneet Rana and her MLA husband Ravi Rana after they threatened to sing the Hanuman chalisa outside the home of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. They faced sedition charges.

While giving Pawan Khera interim bail, the Supreme Court pointed out how it had clubbed a series of FIRs filed against news anchor Arnab Goswami, who is staunchly pro-BJP.

Police and political over reach

In yet another case of police and political over reach, Arnab was arrested in 2020 in an abetment to suicide case by the police that reported to then Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

Last tear, the Punjab police, which reports to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the state, landed up at the door of BJP spokesman Tejinder Bagga in Delhi and arrested him for his tweets against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Bagga too was charged with making provocative statements on social media and promoting religious enmity.

In the cases involving Mevani and Bagga, all norms for inter states arrests were flouted. The guidelines issued by the courts clearly say that the local police station must be informed, that the arrested person must get a chance to consult a lawyer before being taken out of state among other things. None of these were adhered to.

Previously many governments have put pressure on agencies and the police. But the BJP government has taken to a whole new level, with data showing how most cases pursued by central agencies have been against opposition leaders and other critics since 2014.

This is not healthy for a country’s political discourse and must stop now.