The recent arrest of a 25-year-old Muslim woman at Mudhol in Bagalkot district of Karnataka for an innocuous message on Pakistan’s Republic Day is yet another instance of the perverse misuse of the law by authorities. If it was the provision relating to sedition that was invoked mindlessly in the past, including once for a play enacted by primary schoolchildren, the latest one involves an alleged attempt at creating enmity among different groups. Kuthma Sheikh was granted bail on the same day of her arrest, but the incident is no less disconcerting as it indicates the ease with which members of the minority community can be arrested without sufficient cause, often at the behest of overzealous activists with a disproportionate clout in the administration. In this case, the madrassa student had said, “May God bless every nation with peace, unity and harmony” on March 23, but a local Hindu activist complained to the police that she was creating enmity among communities by wishing people on Pakistan Day. With unsurprising promptitude, the police booked her under penal sections relating to promoting enmity between different groups. As to how her wishes would have attracted either Section 153A or 505(2) of the IPC is something only the police can explain. The district police have claimed that the arrest was aimed at preserving peace and maintaining order, but it is quite apparent that they acted in a cavalier manner without ascertaining whether there was any substance in the complaint.
Ever since a controversy broke out over girl students wearing the hijab, there seems to be a tendency among right-wing groups to foment trouble targeted at Muslims. These groups have called for a ban on Muslim traders and vendors doing business as part of temple fairs. Even though the State government is citing a law that prohibits non-Hindus from getting property in the vicinity of the temple on lease, it is doubtful whether the rules cover temporary stalls on special occasions. It is regrettable that the State government is not doing enough to stem the impression that its administration is hostile towards minorities. Unwarranted arrests, especially for trivial reasons and on communally motivated complaints, result in unfair incarceration, ruined lives and immensely delayed justice. For a regime that takes strong exception to strident criticism about its human rights and religious tolerance record, the Union government should be equally concerned about the possible damage that such incidents may cause to its global image. The Centre may not have anything to do with law and order, but it may have to advise certain States to restrain the police from perfunctory use of the power to arrest to please majoritarian groups and individuals.