The Supreme Court has been petitioned to cancel Delhi Police FIRs against those accused of putting up posters criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government over the handling of the Covid pandemic and the national vaccination policy.
The petition, filed by a Pradeep Kumar, cites the right to freedom of speech and expression, and asks that Delhi Police be directed not to register FIRs (first information report) or act against those who allegedly put up the posters across the national capital over the past few days.
Twenty-four people have been arrested so far and as many FIRs have been registered.
The posters – spotted across the city – have messages like: “Modi ji, aapne humare bacchon ki vaccine videsh kyu bhej diya?” (Modi ji, why did you send vaccines meant for our children abroad?).
With states scrambling to find the lakhs of vaccine doses needed to inoculate India’s massive population, the opposition, civil society and experts have questioned the government’s decision to allow large quantities of the drug to be exported, or sold, to other countries.
On Thursday six people were arrested in East Delhi’s Kalyanpuri after police received input the posters were being pasted. Over 800 posters and banners were recovered.
The arrests were made by four different divisions of Delhi Police – which is controlled by the central government. The divisions involved were Eastern Range, East, Central and Northeast, suggesting a coordinated operation on the officials’ part.
“More FIRs are likely to be registered if further complaints are received in this regard. As of now, investigation is underway to ascertain on whose behalf these posters were being put up and accordingly further action will be taken,” a senior police officer told news agency PTI on Sunday.
Late Sunday evening the police said a member of Delhi’s ruling AAP was behind the posters. The accused, identified as Arvind Gautam, is now on the run, the police added.
Action against the posters has sparked political backlash, with the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra among the most vocal. Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra has also tweeted. The opposition leaders said they stood by the questions and dared the authorities to “arrest me too”.
Delhi has been one of the worst-hit territories in the second wave of the pandemic, with nearly 30,000 new cases per day and a positivity rate of 35 per cent at the peak. On Sunday the city reported fewer than 6,500 new cases in 24 hours and a positivity rate of 10.4 per cent.
Restrictions on movement have been extended to ensure the chain of transmission is broken.
At the peak of the second wave Delhi witnessed horrific scenes – traumatised doctors dying by suicide, overwhelmed hospitals, and patients dying because of the lack of medical oxygen.
Prime Minister Modi’s government has been sharply criticised – by the opposition and international media – for appearing more intent on addressing bad publicity than solving the COVID-19 crisis.
Among the points of criticism are its vaccination policy, which international medical journal The Lancet this month called “botched” and “falling apart” at the central level.