Bengaluru: At 1.30 am on 13 August, policemen entered the basement of an apartment in Shampura in northeastern Bengaluru and spotted four men playing carrom. Three of the men were escorted outside, while the fourth, a Hindu watchman in a predominantly Muslim apartment block, was asked to stay behind.
As Sanaa (we have changed her name to protect her identity), a fast-talking homemaker who shifts with ease between Kannada, Urdu and English, described the police action, the three men—her 29-year-old husband, a garment-store owner, her brother-in-law and her neighbour—had buried her aunt and carrom helped relieve their stress.
In the moment after, groups of policemen entered the building and broke into houses on the ground and first floor. In the neighbouring building, they went up to the fourth-floor terrace, grabbing young men—most between 18 and 45—by their collars and forcing them out. In these two buildings, 16 people, most asleep, were taken into custody.
For more than a week, Sanaa anxiously awaited news about her husband. She had only been told that he was arrested for his involvement with a night or rioting at the nearby neighbourhoods of Devarajeevanahalli (D J Halli) and Kadugondanahalli (K G Halli).
On the night of 11 August, a mob resorted to arson after a relative of the local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Akhanda Srinivas Murthy posted a derogatory image about Prophet Mohammad. Two police stations were attacked, houses were burnt and scores of vehicles burnt. Nine people were injured, three died in police firing and one succumbed to injuries days later.
Ten days after his arrest, Sanaa got a call from her husband, now in Bengaluru’s Central Jail. “He told me to find CCTV footage proving that he was at the apartment complex during the riots,” she said. “That would prove his innocence and he’d be granted bail.”
By then, the charges against him and several others had grown in severity. Sections of the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, had been applied in two cases, which named 163 Muslim men, including Sanaa’s husband.
These represent the largest number of people ever charged under the UAPA for a single act of violence in Karnataka. By 23 September, the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Sanaa did find the CCTV video of her husband entering the lane into her apartment hours before the riots began. But her lawyers have told her this can only be admitted when the case enters the evidence stage of the trial, which could be months, or years, given how UAPA cases unfold.
“We can’t wait for the chargesheet to be filed. Instead, we will try to file an application summoning location evidence—asking the police to prove the presence of the arrested, and we can show our evidence,” said Anee Ali Khan, a lawyer representing over 150 people, including Sanaa’s husband. “It is difficult, but it is something we have to try.”
As lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 in April 2020, the provisions of the UAPA are “criminally overbroad and excessively vague” and those charged under it must “suffer the punishments of the process to get [their] day in court and prove the lack of any intent”.
Conspiracies And Theories
The Bengaluru city police claimed the nature of the riots could be considered an act of terrorism.
The destruction of police property and targeting of political representatives (particularly MLA Akhanda Srinivas Murthy, whose nephew P Naveen Kumar posted the derogatory image) represented crimes against the state, the police said. At the core of this “conspiracy” are members of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a self-proclaimed Islamic social service organization, and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI).
This is in line with the opinion of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, whose fact-finding committee claimed that the SDPI instigated the riots. The police had invoked UAPA a day after the BJP committee told reporters that the SDPI should be banned.
Neither the SDPI nor PFI have been named as terrorist organisations under the UAPA. The SDPI had an elected councillor in Bengaluru’s recently dissolved corporation council and had fielded candidates in the recent Lok Sabha elections and Assembly elections. They have had negligible electoral influence in the city.
Kumar’s Facebook post, since taken down, was on social media around 4 pm on 11 August. By 7.30 pm, a group of people arrived at D J Halli police station and a couple of hours later, the congregation turned violent. The state government, police and the NIA said SDPI leaders delivered inflammatory speeches.
Soon after taking over the case, NIA claimed it found “incriminatory” materials of the PFI and the SDPI at 30 locations that were raided at the end of September. “The State Secretary of SDPI, Muzamil Pasha had earlier called a meeting and directed the members of PFI/SDPI to instigate the mob and incite violence,” said an NIA press release.
In Shampura, the families of nine people booked under the UAPA told Article 14 that they had not heard of the organisation until their kin were accused of being part of it. “We moved to this area six months ago, and my children have not been involved in politics at all,” says Syed*, whose three sons were arrested under the UAPA.
A fact-finding report by 24 civil society representatives, who interviewed residents, victims, political representatives and police, found no premeditated intent or a pre-planned conspiracy to arson. The mob, they note, appeared to be without a leader and reacted to the Facebook post.
“The government is trying all-out to construct a narrative that the unwarranted violence is a ‘terrorist act’ by invoking UAPA,” said the report. “This is totally unacceptable and epitomes the politicisation of this crime.”
“This highly arbitrary invocation of the UAPA in the present case showcases the government’s invidious political intent to further a communal narrative against the Muslim community, and target the SDPI, which to the government is an undesirable political organization,” said the report.
Lawyer Niyaz Moosa, Karnataka in-charge of the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (ACPR), who was part of the fact-finding committee and represents 53 people booked under UAPA, said the riot investigation should have been done under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, as has traditionally been the case.
“By claiming conspiracy by more than 100 people, the police itself is admitting to intelligence failure,” said Moosa. “Moreover, how does one conspire a terrorist attack in reaction to a post published just a few hours earlier?”
The UAPA ensures that agencies have 180 days to file a chargesheet, while bail is nearly impossible to obtain.
“These trials will stretch for years. It will take months to even provide the court proof of innocence,” said Moosa. “In the end, all this has done is to ensure an atmosphere of fear among Muslims.”
The ACPR is currently drafting a writ petition against the application of UAPA in the case.
Murthy, the Pulikeshi Nagar MLA whose house and political office were burnt by the mob, reportedly told the police that the riots were a conspiracy by members of his own party, the Congress.
When Article 14 met him on 9 October, he denied the claims. “I do not know who might have done it,” said Murthy. “I do not know if there is a conspiracy. All I demand is for a fair police investigation.”
While he refused to comment on the invoking of UAPA Act in the case, Murthy said he had received representation from many of his constituents claiming their kin had been falsely framed in the terror case.
“I’ve told the police that innocents cannot be arrested,” said Murthy. “But, there is little we can do until the investigation ends.”
Karnataka is no stranger to communal or political riots. Between 2014 and 2019, there have been 971 incidents of communally or politically motivated riots, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. Over the same period, there were 26 UAPA cases, none linked to rioting.
B.T. Venkatesh, former state public prosecutor, said the use of the UAPA sets “a dangerous precedent” for handling law and order in “sensitive” areas.
“Incidents like this are communal violence and mob fury,” said Venkatesh. “This is vastly different from a terrorist attack. Applying UAPA for incidents like this is a blatant misuse of the law. It will end up isolating communities and will breed genuine terror.”
Two months after the violence, a hollowed shell of a building marks Pavan Kumar’s house in Kaval Byrasandra. Kumar, a retired government official and father of Naveen, whose post reportedly catalysed the violence, escaped from the house just as a mob had gathered to burn it to the ground. His son has been in jail since the incident on charges of promoting enmity.
“This is an area where I had and still have good relations with everyone: Hindus, Muslims and Christians,” said Kumar. “But now, I have to move out as the house can’t be salvaged.”
Kumar believed the riots as the handiwork of a few seeking “quick political gain”.
“This is not a terrorist attack or a wide-spread conspiracy,” said Kumar. “It has been done out of political motive to divide the community here.”
A couple of kilometres away, in a small apartment in Shampura, Munira (name changed) waited for her 30-year-old husband’s weekly phone call from jail. He was a driver and the sole earning member of the family of three.
The lockdown had hit their savings, and with his arrest, the family has not paid the monthly rent of Rs. 7,000 for two months. “I’ve saved a little for bail, but people are saying he may be in jail for months now,” said Munira. “If he doesn’t come out soon, we will be evicted.”
(Mohit M Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.)