Reign of terror in Uttar Pradesh

Print edition : January 17, 2020

In Muzaffarnagar on December 20. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Hamid Hassan’s house at Jaswant Puri in Muzaffarnagar, which was ransacked by the police. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Aligarh Muslim University faculty members protesting against the CAA. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The pro-majoritarian bias in the police action across Uttar Pradesh indicates an agenda to fan tension rather than diffuse it.

“I have lived here for 40 years”.... “I have lived here for 40 years”.… Hamid Hassan is inconsolable and repeats these words in a wobbling voice as he moves about unsteadily from one room to another. His two-storeyed house, despite having a fresh coat of paint, looks like a dump yard of run-down goods. A lot of things are causing him anxiety: the relentless swish of the baton, images of women being shoved and beaten, and the horror of a midnight raid. Folding his quivering body tightly under a blanket, the 73-year-old Muzaffarnagar resident says he is numbed by the fact that the police did this because he is a Muslim.

Hamid Hassan’s words find resonance across the divided city of Muzaffarnagar. From his neighbours at the centrally located Jaswant Puri on Sarwat Road to the peripheries and beyond, the minority community is fretting. Muslims see the police vindictiveness as a manifestation of a howling campaign of hate that aims to create an intolerant atmosphere and lead to their ultimate expulsion.

Muslims across Uttar Pradesh said that Hindutva elements were carrying out “deliberate and targeted violence” with a vengeance, more often than not in connivance with and the active participation of the police. The affected people alleged police provocation in several instances.

Naseer Khan and Asif, who own Sameer Mobile Galaxy at South Civil Lines in Meerut, near Meenakshi Chowk, the epicentre of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, on December 20, gave a detailed account of how the police looked the other way while “tilak dharis” looted their shop in broad daylight. “In view of the prevailing situation, we closed the shop and went home early that day. At around 3:30 p.m., a well-wisher called us to inform us that some goon elements were ransacking the shop. When we rushed to the spot, we saw a mob had broken into our store and was looting mobile handsets and other electronic gadgets. They broke our laptops,” recalled an anguished Naseer Khan. He was in a state of shock at the police’s nonchalant approval of communally motivated attacks. His brother Asif said: “When I pleaded with the policemen to intervene, they beat me. They cooperated with the rioters.”

The brothers have been camping at the Civil Lines Police Station to have a first information report (FIR) registered against the miscreants, many of whom they have identified. The police have refused to entertain any complaint. “They told us that unless we omitted reference to Hindu right-wing groups and mentioned in our complaint that the attackers could not be identified, they would not register an FIR,” said Naseer Khan. He estimated his loss at around Rs.7 lakh.

The information gathered by Frontline from the areas affected by violence in Muzaffarnagar point to an interesting aspect: the violence intensified and spiralled out of control after the arrival at the spot of Union Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Sanjeev Balyan. Frontline is in possession of exclusive pictures that show Hindutva goons rejoicing at the site of Dena Bank where a fire had been set. These images give credence to the assertion by Muslim residents that while Hindutva elements carried out most of the arson attacks, Muslims were selectively, and often falsely, implicated. They feel that “there is an intent to provoke” as images of Muslim youths resorting to arson can be used as a handy tool to whip up majoritarian chain reactions and strengthen a campaign aimed at vilifying and delegitimising the nationwide anti-CAA protests. This strategy is a time-tested one. Neil Gregor, a professor of modern European history, who studied the role of propaganda in the success of fascist ideology, offered an interesting explanation on why the Nazis in Germany were able to gain widespread acceptance for their politics despite its inherently hateful and totalitarian character. According to Gregor, the Nazi propaganda, banking massively on its insistence on repetition, was directed at those who were not objects of persuasion but partners of the belief system. The objective of the Nazi propaganda, he pointed out, was “to absorb the individual into a mass of like-minded people... not to deceive but to articulate that which the crowd already believed”.

The historian Baruch Gitlis, remembering the days leading to the Holocaust, recalled: “Wherever the German turned, he met his most ‘dangerous enemy’, the Jew.... While he walked in the street, he encountered posters and slogans against the Jews at every square, on every wall and billboard. Even graffiti greeted the German at the entrance of his dwelling: ‘Wake up Germany, Judah must rot!’”

These narratives from history provide the preface to comprehend what is happening on the ground in Uttar Pradesh. By controlling the narrative of a large section of the media, especially television, and by selective dissemination of footage that shows Muslim protesters targeting and vandalising public property, a degree of acceptance for the use of brute force against them has been gained. This was corroborated by interactions with people belonging to the majority community, including members of the police fraternity, at communally sensitive neighbourhoods in Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Aligarh and Shamli. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s rabble-rousing call for badla (revenge), which his social media supporters defended by referring to some vague provisions in the law, indicated that the BJP’s well-oiled public relations machinery and some co-opted mediapersons had done their homework to create a synergy of far-Right sentiment and intent.

But, the anti-CAA protests have seen robust participation from members of the majority community as well. In Varanasi, social activists have been at the forefront of peaceful demonstrations against the government’s new legislation; 69 activists were arrested, including a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology Varanasi, Divakar Singh. In the wake of the arrests, 51 Benaras Hindu University professors carried out a signature drive against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

As the anti-CAA protests spread to Gorakhpur and Lucknow, the seats of political importance, the administration increased its repressive measures. In Lucknow, the Internet remained suspended for six days until the night of December 25; in Gorakhpur, 27 people were arrested and more than 1,000 booked on various charges.

The pattern of the police action across Uttar Pradesh indicates an agenda to fan tension rather than diffuse it. This point of view is mirrored by the people in violence-hit areas who feel that the Uttar Pradesh Police are fine-tuning their actions to suit “regime intention”. Nothing else explains the hasty crackdown on people retreating from neighbourhood mosques on December 20.

In the heart of Feroze Nagar in Meerut, in the chock-a-block Ghante Wali Gali, flanked by dilapidated houses and overflowing drains, Mohammad Rashid and Imran narrate what it means to be a “Muslim in Yogi regime”.

Imran said: “That day as a mark of peaceful protest, people tied black bands around their wrists as they came out of Kasai Wali Masjid near Lisari Gate. The police jumped into action unprovoked and dragged an elderly man to the Kotwali police station.” Agitated youths interrupted by asking: “Is it unlawful to tie a black band in protest?” According to them, it was after the police’s unwarranted crackdown that the youths became uncontrollable. Imran and Rashid are the brothers-in-law of 33-year-old Mohammad Asif, who was killed on the day of the protests.

In nearby Shakoor Nagar, Mohammad Iqbal attributed the explosion of public outrage to police brutality. “When Section 144 is imposed, markets are closed and the Internet is suspended, it is natural that people will assemble outside their homes to while away the time. Why should the police pounce on them?” asked Iqbal. In a dialect shared widely by first-hand witnesses and victims of police crackdown across the State, he sighed: “Maara aisa ki koi insaniyat na ho. It was monstrous cruelty.”

The terror spread to Rampur, where one person, 22-year-old Faiz Khan, died of a firearm wound while the police arrested 33 people, including Farooq Rahmani of the Ittehad Naujawan Committee, on charges of rioting and causing damage to public property. An FIR was registered against 150 people. The police claimed that property worth Rs.25 lakh was damaged in CAA-related protests and issued notices to 28 people to compensate for the loss. The police action came after protesters allegedly damaged the barricades and threw stones at the police. The local people, however, claimed that they were denied permission to hold a peaceful protest.

In Aligarh, the noted human rights activist Harsh Mander’s fact-finding report made shocking revelations. According to him, the students were “subjected to stun grenade attacks by the police, stripped naked, whipped, and evicted from hostels in the dead of night”. Incidentally, like a lynch mob, the police used provocative slogans and targeted students. Says Mander: “The police used slogans like Jai Shri Ram besides communal slurs while entering the hostels.”

The Uttar Pradesh Police appears to be alienating members of the minority community who can play a constructive role as mediators. Their treatment of Asif Rahi, whose Paigham-e-Insaniyat, a non-governmental organisation that works towards fostering communal harmony, is a case in point. Rahi said that on December 20, he, at the behest of senior Indian Police Service officers, reached out to the dissenters at different venues, including Baghowali village, Sherpur village and Madina Chowk, Bakra Market and Meenakshi Chowk in Muzaffarnagar. “At around 12:30 p.m., I met the City Magistrate, Atul Kumar, and the Superintendent of Police, Satpal Antil, at the Civil Lines Police Station. They sought my help in pacifying the crowd at Bakra Market. Earlier in the day, the Additional District Magistrate (Administration), Amit Singh, had asked me to talk to the protesters at Baghowali village,” Rahi recounted. But he was baffled when “they named me as one of the rioters”. As per the State police’s data released on December 23, as many as 5,558 people were detained and 213 FIRs were filed. The Yogi Adityanath government, until December 27, notified 498 people for causing damage to public property.

There is a general consensus among independent observers that renewed efforts are being made to incite emotions with the aim of concealing constant political failures. The journalist Rashid Ali, who divided his time between Lucknow and Muzaffarnagar and is the owner-editor of Khoji News, an Urdu magazine, is convinced that the Yogi Adityanath regime is unpopular on the ground and may not return to power if people voted on non-emotive issues.

The call for revenge

Individuals and families affected by the violence concur with this. They feel that widespread communal passion is being constructed via images and sound bites that aim at suspending conscience, throwing out reason and securing a mandate to act against a “common enemy”. They see Yogi Adityanath’s call for “badla”, the Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s vilification of anti-CAA protesters, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s theory that rioters can be identified by their clothes in this context and hold these responsible for the sense of impunity in the Uttar Pradesh Police.

Hamid Hassan’s experience can be described as a literal translation of the call for badla. At around 11 p.m., on December 20, Hamid woke up to loud, incessant banging of the front door. No sooner had he opened it and spotted multiple police vans than he was felled to the ground by a violent blow administered by a policeman. Then a battery of policemen rushed into the house, as his wife and daughter-in-law cried woefully.

“They punched me, and did not spare the women in the family who rushed to shield me. They beat my son Sajid so hard that he began to bleed profusely. They then dragged him in that condition along with his son, 13-year-old Mohammad Ahmad, to the road, jostled them into the van and disappeared,” he said.

“When Ahmad was returned at around 2 a.m., he was benumbed. He didn’t tell us anything. But seeing him limp, we removed his trousers, then his shirt. There were dark blue patches all over,” Hamid said about the atrocities in broken sentences. His house had been renovated in preparation for the weddings of his two granddaughters—Rukhaiyya and Mubassira Parveen—on February 4. Not only was the house damaged but all the expensive home appliances and furniture that they had purchased to gift to the bridegrooms were destroyed. “The police stole each and every piece of gold jewellery,” the family told Frontline. Rukhaiyaa was hit on her forehead and needed stitches.

Not far away from Hamid’s place, at Gullar Wali Gali, the police reportedly vandalised Abdul Karim Mosque. Near Khala Park, the car of a shoe merchant, Haji Anwar, was smashed while a government servant, Farooq, fled along with his family after being named a rioter.

Frontine’s interactions with people in different pockets of the State revealed that extrajudicial elements allegedly accompanied the police in several instances. At Gali no. 3 in Shakoor Nagar, Meerut, Shahid, a relative of Zaheer, 45, who was killed on December 20, said that the assassin, as described by eyewitnesses, was not even five feet tall. “Obviously, he can’t be from the police,” Shahid argued. The local people in Meerut’s Muslim-dominated Feroze Nagar, Rashid Nagar, Tarapuri, Chaman Colony and Eidgah Colony were unanimous that a “sizeable number of masked men helped the police unleash violence on them on the day of the protest”. The fact that Zaheer was shot 200 metres off the main road, inside a lane, corroborates the local people’s conclusion that the shooting was targeted. Mohammad Asif was shot from behind while he was driving a scooter. His brother-in-law, Imran, told this reporter that “those who were present at the spot had seen a civilian take aim at Asif”.

There is a clear perception that ever since Yogi Adityanath assumed power in the State in March 2017, the police have acted in a partisan manner, often communicating with the members of the minority community in language not different from the rhetorical lexicon that some BJP leaders use at the time of electioneering. The litany of complaints include forcibly closing poultry shops in Muslim neighbourhoods days ahead of Hindu festivals; giving a free-run to Hindu right-wing groups such as the Bajrang Dal; and demanding kickbacks for renewal of licences of Muslim traders.

Mohamad Dilshad Saifi, a lawyer in Shamli, shared this anecdote. “On Bakrid, in August 2019, some Bajrang Dal members were playing cards with local Muslim youths at the Thathera locality. There was a scuffle between them over some issue, but the police’s reaction was disproportionate. They ordered forcible closure of shops. The neighbourhood is predominantly Muslim and it was clear that the police wanted to translate a private scuffle into something big. Massive surveillance continued for the next eight days until the residents there put up placards outside their houses that read, ‘We are forced to flee due to police coercion.’ At that point, the Superintendent of Police intervened.”

This reporter, during his interactions with several lower- and middle-rung police officers in Aligarh and Muzaffarnagar, found that a pro-majoritarian bias is deeply entrenched in their psyche. Although none of them would admit it openly, their views and reflections on some of the key ingredients of the BJP’s politics—inflammatory rhetoric against “illegal immigrants”, otherisation of Muslims, and an implicit “Hindu first” narrative—suggested tacit approval. In Aligarh, at Senior Superintendent of Police Aakash Kulhari’s office, a couple of policemen expressed support to the Chief Minister’s controversial decision to seize the properties of rioters, although the SSP has won praise for sensibly handling the street protests in the aftermath of the police excesses against Aligarh Muslim University students.

A fallout of these developments is ghettoisation of Muslims in the State, their inability to have an open line of communication with the police and the administration, the erosion of trust in the justice system, and a steady accumulation of rage among Muslim youths, particularly those who come from impoverished backgrounds. There is apprehension that this could translate into “dangerous reactions”. If that happens, the BJP’s creation of a “common enemy” will be complete.

With inputs from Ziya Us Salam.

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