The detention of Dr. Kafeel Khan under the National Security Act (NSA), within days of his being granted bail, betrays the perverse zeal with which the Uttar Pradesh government is hounding the suspended government doctor. His arrest, at Mumbai airport, was in connection with an allegedly inflammatory speech he had made on the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Aligarh Muslim University in December 2019. The Special Task Force of the U.P. police accused him of promoting enmity through his speech. It was obvious that the flawed approach that treats criticism of government policy as though it is some anti-national activity was at work. Although he was granted bail, he was not immediately released. A few days later, the NSA was invoked against him, ostensibly to prevent him from acting in a manner prejudicial to public order. The paediatrician from Gorakhpur was sought to be blamed when oxygen shortage in the BRD Medical College Hospital led to nearly 60 children dying in 2017. After he had spent months in jail, an internal inquiry absolved him of the charges of negligence and corruption. However, the State government said he had not been given a clean chit. A fresh departmental inquiry was ordered against him for “spreading misinformation” about the probe report, and some alleged “anti-government” remarks during his suspension.
That the authorities invoked a stringent preventive detention law meant only for booking those whose activities constitute an imminent threat of violence shows that they are not content with prosecuting him. If they were under a bona fide belief that his speech was provocative, they could have filed a charge sheet and let the court decide if it attracted Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The resort to preventive detention as soon as a person is granted bail, with the perverse purpose of continuing his imprisonment, is not uncommon in the country, but the practice is condemnable. It normally indicates mala fide targeting by the administration concerned, and one does not need to look beyond the case of Dr. Kafeel himself to conclude that the latest instance of the resort to the NSA is aimed at inflicting disproportionate punishment on him for expressing political dissent on a supposedly forbidden subject. It is regrettable that the police and the bureaucracy appear to act in wanton disregard for basic rights. The relentless hounding of Dr. Khan is a blot on the country’s democratic credentials. Taking the cue from growing opinion, most recently articulated by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud of the Supreme Court, that protest and criticism directed at government policy do not amount to being anti-national, officials should pause before they are seen as enablers of the excesses of an authoritarian dispensation. To invoke the NSA in cases where sections of the IPC would suffice is to undermine its efficacy as a tool to protect national security.