Ahmedabad: He is an MBA, a government contractor, was a police witness, helped shut illegal bootleggers and has written media commentaries on labour rights. But after he organised a protest against India’s new citizenship law, Kaleem Siddiqui finds himself served with an externment notice and facing criminal investigation.
Siddiqui, 39, appeared before an assistant commissioner of police (ACP) here in Ahmedabad on 30 June to make a case against his externment, alleging the action against him is part of a wider crackdown against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, protest organisers nationwide. The crackdown is unfolding even as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the state. On 6 August, Siddiqui approached the Gujarat High Court to stay these proceedings.
The externment notice, which alleges that he is a “habitual offender” and “a hot-headed person” with a penchant for violence and weapons, seeks to bar him from entering Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Kheda and Mehsana for two years. “This is a new tactic to harass peaceful dissenters in the state,” he told Article 14.
Recently, several civil society members signed a petition endorsing Siddiqui and his work, especially his role in shutting down illegal alcohol sales.
“Kaleem has actively exposed the nexus between police officials and bootleggers in Ahmedabad—a mockery of prohibition law in Gujarat. His activism put an end to corruption by some police officials in Ahmedabad. Instead of appreciating his efforts, Ahmedabad Police had registered an FIR to threaten Kaleem in 2018. However, Gujarat High Court has acquitted him from all charges in this FIR,” the statement reads, and was signed by several colleagues, including Vadagam MLA Jignesh Mevani, who worked with Siddiqui to shut liquor dens.
“If he is externed, he can come to Vadagam and live here,” Mevani told Article 14. “His role in getting alcohol dens shut is why this is being done. CAA and his presence at these protests is just an excuse.”
M A Patel, an assistant commissioner of police presiding over Siddiqui’s externment proceedings said two more complaints were registered against Siddiqui at Bapunagar Police Station.
“We don’t deal with these cases directly. Our job is to handle externment proceedings as the office in-charge. Since the complaints against him are of a sensitive nature, we cannot say more at this time,” said Patel, refusing to answer further questions. The notice, for now, shows only two FIRs and statements from 10 unnamed witnesses.
Siddiqui is not the only activist to receive an externment notice during the pandemic: Lakhan Musafir, 59, a tribal rights activist, received one in March for protesting the construction of the Statue of Unity during its inauguration in 2018.
Labelled “hot-headed” and an “anti-national”, the notice seeks to exile Musafir for two years from Narmada, Bharuch, Vadodara, Chhota Udepur and Tapi districts and, failing that, keep him “running in and out of the court house so that I stop working”, he claimed.
On 10 August, Musafir, who works with Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (Environmental Protection Committee), an advocacy, appeared before a sub-divisional magistrate in the south Gujarat town of Rajpipla to present evidence against his exile, his third appearance since June.
Murky Legal Instruments
Banishment or ‘externment’ proceedings are murky legal instruments. Externment falls under Part 2 of the Gujarat Police Act, 1951, that deals with the “dispersal of gangs and removal of persons convicted of certain offences”. Seen as part of the police’s preventive powers to stop crimes, and maintain peace and tranquillity, externments accomplish this by exiling people accused of serious and repeated offences from specific jurisdictions and its surrounding areas for a fixed duration.
However, the procedure as laid down in the Gujarat Police Act is opaque: from deciding on the merits of the complaints, to evaluating the defence of an externee, to passing the final order, all of it rests entirely in the hands of the police.
“Since it's neither detention nor an arrest, it evades the usual headers of crime statistics. Some numbers may be counted under specific state laws where multiple offences may lead to exile or detention like the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA), 1985, or may be counted under Tadipaar or both. So the numbers are scattered,” a police official told Article 14 on condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media. “At most, you can look at individual show cause notices and assess if they are bad in law.”
Causes And Actions
In his reply to the magistrate, Musafir denied the accusations in the show-cause notice. He said that the allegations of rioting and assaulting a public servant in the first FIR and provoking a breach of peace and criminal intimidation in the second FIR, among other penal offences, were entirely false. His phone was also seized for further investigation at the first appearance and remains with the police till date.
“They are treating me like a goonda, a career criminal, which I am not,” said Musafir. “Anyone who speaks on people’s issues, especially questions of land rights or livelihood is silenced using Tadipaar. Land is a treacherous issue for the government so they are using this new way to create an environment of fear.”
Siddiqui was part of a Dalit agitation in the aftermath of violence in 2016 in Una in Saurashtra region and remains an active member of the Dalit Muslim Ekta Manch. He contested the 2017 state elections from Vatva as the Socialist Party (India) candidate and is now the subject of a show-cause that claims he extorts the kind of people that he once wrote about.
An MBA from Aligarh Muslim University, Siddiqui also runs a small business as his day job. “I was granted a loan of Rs 350,000 by the Gujarat Minority Development Finance Corporation for it. “Why would they give me a loan if I am a career criminal? If this is true, it must represent a total breakdown of law and order in the state!”
Siddiqui said he earned the ire of the police only after he helped shut several illegal Ahmedabad alcohol dens that flouted the state’s tough prohibition laws.
Siddiqui and Musafir both claim that these cases were launched after months of silence. Past FIRs were dredged up, new ‘secret’ witnesses were found, and now, in the middle of a pandemic, they face a stilted process and a debilitating outcome that will indefinitely disrupt their lives.
All Roads Lead To Exile
After notice is issued, the externee has the option to present their case before a ruling is handed down by a designated commissioner in case of commissionerates or sub-divisional magistrates in case of districts—both of which are administrative bodies.
“Basically, the authority that alleges the threat, is the authority to whom you must make your case,” said Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer and activist based in Ahmedabad who has appeared in several such cases. “It gives the police quasi-judicial powers.”
There is also no way to know who has received such notices unless individual externees come forward or resultant orders are challenged in the High Court, keeping the process out of the public eye until the damage is done. Crime statistics on the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner website, have not been updated since August 2018.
“But even if these numbers were available, there is no way to tell the cause of action behind externments, or how many notices are served, or how long people are externed for, making the discerning of a pattern nearly impossible,” a police official said requesting anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to the press.
According to Tadipaar requirements listed on the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner website, being “hot headed”, “headstrong”, are examples of dangerous behaviour as specified in section 56(b) of the Gujarat Police Act, which defines who can be externed and thus makes witness statements and their perception of the level of danger critical to the process.
Unnamed Witnesses, Anonymous Complainants
Titled “Issues to take care of when seeking externment against a person” the Tadipaar guidelines detail specific expectations from the police when submitting an application to exile someone. For instance: They state that externment can be sought on the basis of anonymised witness statements to protect complainants.
Siddiqui, for example, has been accused of extortion by 10 unnamed witnesses claiming that they are afraid to file a formal complaint for fear of their safety. In Musafir’s case, he has been accused of provoking people against the government and inciting them to assault government officials, again, by unnamed witnesses.
Both show-cause notices claim that the externees have been threatening locals near their residence, are often violent towards them and have even used weapons. These notices are vague— often the exact time or place of an incident or names of witnesses or complainants has been withheld.
“How can I defend myself against allegations when I have no details of the claims made against me? I have no idea who is making these allegations or what incidents they are referring to,” Siddiqui said terming these incidents entirely concocted.
In Siddiqui’s case, besides the anonymous statements, the police are relying on two ongoing police cases against him. The first is from 2018, when he was booked for causing damage to property and behaving obscenely. Siddiqui claims that the complaint arose as a result of an altercation he had with a bootlegger in his area.
The judgment in the case, a copy of which is with Article 14, shows that the court found that there was insufficient evidence to show Siddiqui participated in any destruction of property. “They did not even appeal the verdict or bother to check if the case is still ongoing,” he said.
“There is definite political interference in processes like externment,” said R B Sreekumar, a former additional Director General of Police of Gujarat. “If the police force is politicised, how can the use of Tadipaar not be?”
In Gujarat, exile notices were often issued against those who are booked under PASA. “Bootlegging, gambling, and other organised crime, cannot happen without police aid—this is true world over—but especially in Gujarat that has a draconian prohibition law,” said Sreekumar. “It has created a financial nexus between the police, bootleggers and local politicians, where those who threaten to expose this or don’t cough up their hafta, are harassed. “Tadipaar is one such tool to do this,” he said.
CAA Protests And The Spectre Of Section 144
The second case against Siddiqui is from December 2019 when civil society groups issued a city-wide bandh call to protest the CAA. A large crowd gathered in Rakhiyal area of Ahmedabad and an FIR was lodged against 500 unidentified persons for violating section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973, which prohibits assembly in public places and allows for preventive detention. Siddiqui, who lives in the area was present at the gathering. He was arrested on 6 February and immediately released on bail.
“How can they [the police] use such a minor case to issue an externment notice? They want to take away my Constitutional rights based on a frivolous case,” Siddiqui said. “The punishment is minor and there is absolutely no need for this [banishment].”
Pathan, who represents other accused from the same FIR said that none of his clients have been served such a notice and he’s surprised Siddiqui is being banished over such a minor issue. As the guidelines on the commissioner of police website show, a person cannot be removed for merely disturbing law and order or peace because seeking banishment is a “serious issue and cannot be done as a matter of routine practice”.
This case signals the use of restrictive orders under section 144, renewed as a matter of habit for years but hardly ever notified to the public-at-large, who, therefore, may unwittingly end up breaking the law. Since people assembling often do not know section 144 is in force, they are unaware they are breaking the law, leaving the discretion to enforce prohibitory orders entirely up to the police, bypassing requirements of magisterial oversight.
This was also argued in a petition filed in the Gujarat High Court at the height of the anti-CAA protests in December 2019 when protestors were repeatedly detained for violating section 144 orders or refused police permission to hold protests.
This is precisely what prompted Siddiqui to change tact when he began looking for a location to organise a sit-in protest against the CAA: He began to look for private land to hold the protest. By 14 January, Ahmedabad’s Shaheen Baug had a home at Ajit Mill and protection from the travesty of section 144, shielded from police action or the need for permission.
“Unless a specific complaint was made about the dharna, the police’s hands were tied. They could not book any of us for holding a protest where thousands came regularly,” Siddiqui said, recounting the two months of protest that wrapped up on 14 March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
“They couldn’t touch me there [for organising the sit-in at Ajit Mill] or due to my work on alcohol prohibition. So now it’s through the December protest,” said Siddiqui. “What else could it be?”
(Surabhi Vaya is a law student based in Delhi.)