Uttar Pradesh was no exception to the protests that erupted across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) in December 2019. From the State capital Lucknow to cities such as Kanpur and Allahabad to Deoband, the headquarters of the world-renowned Islamic seminary Darul Uloom, to smaller towns such as Sambal, Muzaffarnagar, Rampur and Moradabad, the State saw a series of democratic agitations against the CAA-NRC-NPR, with Muslim women leading the protests at most places. In response to these protests, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath talked of “ badla ” (revenge). To be a protestor is to be a dissenter in Uttar Pradesh. And to be a dissenter is akin to being a traitor.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came down hard on the peaceful protests everywhere. In Lucknow, women who sat on a round-the-clock dharna at the iconic Clock Tower were lathi-charged, with the State police taunting them on their slogans of “azadi” (freedom). Their tents were reduced to shreds, their blankets and biscuits were confiscated. In the indiscriminate attack, nobody was spared.
The veteran human rights activist Mohammed Shoaib, who is also the president of the rights body Rihai Manch, was first placed under house arrest on December 18, then arrested the next day. He was accused of leading a protest that allegedly turned violent, even though he had already been arrested by then. While he was released on bail a few weeks later, his predicament summed up the plight of Muslims in the State. Neither secular accomplishments nor a lifelong commitment to justice for all were enough to protect oneself from police excesses. Later, in an interview with Frontline , Mohammed Shoaib pledged: “We have to keep fighting hard.”
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The activist Sadaf Jafar shares this sentiment. She, too, had been arrested while returning from an anti-CAA protest. She told this correspondent: “They stripped men in front of me. We were so dehumanised, I was too numb to react. I was beaten. I was beaten by a male cop as well. Because of my name, they kept calling me Pakistani.” She was released in early January, but her troubles did not end there. Sadaf Jafar had the mortification of seeing her photographs and address put up on hoardings across the city. In February, the State government issued notices to the 28 persons featured in the hoardings, including Sadaf Jafar, Mohammed Shoaib, retired police officer S.R. Darapuri and the poet Deepak Kabir. The government sought payment of more than Rs.63 lakh from them for allegedly damaging public property within 30 days. As the activists contested the allegations, the government decided to put the movable property of three activists up for auction in July, having already sealed their immovable assets. The attachments were done under the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Ordinance, 2020.
Killers in uniform
From December 2019 to March this year, Muslims bore the brunt of this badla . They were targeted in Lucknow, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, even Bahraich. Meerut reported tragic cases of poor Muslim men, who had no idea about the CAA or protests against it, being indiscriminately fired at by the police. Three lanes in the Ahmednagar area of the town reported four killings. On a visit to the violence-hit township, this correspondent spoke to the father of Aleem, one of the victims. Aleem was a young man who earned his livelihood making bread at a streetside restaurant. His brother is physically challenged, and his father is bedridden. On the fateful day in December, he went to work as usual, only to find the restaurant ordered closed by the police. Happy to get a day off, he decided to pick some fish for the family on the way back home. It was, the family claimed, a fatal mistake, as he was allegedly picked up by the police and shot in the head from point-blank range. His body was not handed over to the family for the last rites.
A couple of lanes away, Asim met the same fate. Across the road, Zaheer, who was employed at a workshop, also met with a tragic end, leaving behind his five-month-pregnant wife. Even two weeks after the alleged atrocities, the neighbours lived under a spell of fear, and took turns to keep vigil over their homes at night. They were afraid, not of the Hindu neighbours with whom they had shared a wall and a meal for decades, but of the policemen who picked up boys at random. The mother of one of the men killed in the violence told this correspondent: “Every evening after a meal, I send my boys to a workshop for the night. One is not sure when the policemen might just jump in here.” Although the police denied the allegation, it was a claim repeated by many local residents who added that local hospitals and even private nursing homes were not allowed to treat victims of violence. This correspondent came across an electric rickshaw driver who had had a bullet removed from his body by a private doctor who visited him “stealthily before Fajr (the dawn prayer)” to avoid being seen by the police. For further assistance, he had to wait for two weeks to be able to find a nursing home ready to admit him.
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In Meerut, it was largely the working-class localities that suffered. In contrast, in neighbouring Muzaffarnagar, well-heeled Muslim families were targeted. One such family claimed to have been attacked by the men in uniform who “tore apart everything. They looted cash from the almirah, smashed the fridge and TV, and went away with the jewellery kept ready for (our) daughter’s wedding in less than two months”.
Fact-finding teams’ reports
A fact-finding team, comprising Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) leader Kavita Krishnan, human rights activist Harsh Mander of Karwan-e-Mohabbat and Nadeem Khan of United against Hate, came back from a tour of the affected areas in end December 2019 to report: “For the last one week, Uttar Pradesh is under a reign of terror”.
“The Uttar Pradesh government is employing unlawful and lethal tactics to harass and intimidate the citizens protesting against the CAA and NRC,” said Yogendra Yadav, adding that the police were “brazenly targeting” Muslims, the goal being “not just to suppress all dissent against CAA or NRC in Uttar Pradesh, but to send a signal to anyone who may dare to raise a voice against anything.”
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In February 2020, an article by Nayanika Mathur in The Wire stated: “It is by now amply clear that an unprecedented level of violence against anti-CAA and anti-NRC) protesters—primarily Muslims—was unleashed in Uttar Pradesh in December 2019-January 2020. A number of fact-finding missions, reports, and even a people’s tribunal have established some basic facts: at least 23 people have been murdered by the state, hundreds of others—including minors—have been tortured and imprisoned on fabricated charges, and there is a continuing and widespread suppression of fundamental rights in the state, particularly with respect to freedom of speech and expression.”
In her new book Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, Arundhati Roy has written: “The violence in Uttar Pradesh has not yet approached anything like the violence of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 under its Chief Minister at the time, Narendra Modi. Adityanath is still a prime minister-in-waiting. The 2012 election campaign that delivered him to power in Uttar Pradesh came to be known as the Kabristan versus Shamshan (the Graveyard versus the Cremation Ground) campaign.”
Another fact-finding mission, comprising representatives from the Quill Foundation, Citizens Against Hate and Haq: Centre for Child Rights, reported that the State police used extreme torture, including physical violence and sleep deprivation, on anti-CAA protestors. They claimed that 41 minors were detained and tortured in custody in the days after the anti-CAA protests took place in Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar and Firozabad.
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This correspondent spoke to one of the students of the Sadat madrasa who had been detained by the police in Muzaffarnagar. The student, on condition of anonymity, said: “We were all upstairs when the police came here without provocation. Some students were learning. Others had got some time off. The police thrashed all students, and did not spare even the headmaster who is around 65. They asked us to go to Pakistan or say Jai Sri Ram.” Some students even alleged rectal bleeding due to police brutality.
This allegation was rubbished by the police, who claimed that some anti-CAA protesters had taken shelter inside the madrasa, forcing them to enter the premises. The students displayed their injuries as proof and asked, “Even if we were to believe the police version, is it a crime to protest against the government?”
Tablighi Jamaat meet as pretext
If the anti-CAA protests were sought to be tamed with an unprecedented ferocity, things did not get any better during the COVID-19 pandemic The Tablighi Jamaat’s conference in New Delhi during the lockdown gave an easy handle to the state to equate the Muslim community with the Jamaat, and hold it responsible for the spread of COVID-19. The State police filed cases against 83 pilgrims. Meanwhile, reports were circulated of members of the Jamaat misbehaving with doctors and nurses in Saharanpur and demanding to be fed biryani. They were soon to be proven fake, but by then the damage had been done.
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A couple of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators even advocated the social and economic boycott of Muslims with impunity. BJP MLA Suresh Tiwari was seen in a video asking for a boycott of the Muslim community, saying, “There is no need to buy anything from miyans (Muslims).” Meanwhile, the Charkhari MLA Brijbhushan Rajput was seen harassing a vegetable vendor, asking him to reveal his identity and later warning him to leave the colony.
In another instance of Islamophobia, a mosque was attacked in the Chief Minister’s town of Gorakhpur as the muezzin gave the call of azaan during lockdown. His pleas that the azaan was essential for a prayer despite the mosque being closed, went unheeded. Significantly, it failed to evoke condemnation from the government until Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped in to say, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour of caste...Our response should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.”
It was a message long overdue in the crime-infested terrain of Uttar Pradesh.