Interview: Asif Iqbal Tanha

Asif Iqbal Tanha: ‘I will continue to work on CAA/NRC’

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Asif Iqbal Tanha. Photo: XAVIER GALIANA / AFP

Interview with Asif Iqbal Tanha, student activist.

In May 2020, 25-year-old Asif Iqbal Tanha, a third-year student of Jamia Milia Islamia, was arrested by the Delhi Police in connection with the December 2019 violence at the university. He had been actively involved in the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, and the police also charged him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), making him a co-accused in the conspiracy that led to the violence in north-east Delhi following the protests against the CAA in February 2020.

Asif walked out of Tihar Jail on June 17, but told Frontline that it would take a while before Tihar leaves him. The physical and mental torture he suffered in jail may have left him shaken but has not curbed his spirit, as was evident from the “No CAA” painted on the mask he wore as he walked out of prison. Excerpts from the interview:

You come from a small town in Ramgarh district of Jharkhand. Elsewhere, you have spoken about the struggle your mother Jahan Ara had to undergo while raising you. Please tell us a little about that.

Both my parents are teachers. My father taught in a local school till he had to quit when he developed chronic heart trouble, and my mother started teaching students at home to keep our family of four afloat. I have an elder sister who has completed her Master’s degree in Urdu. My primary education was in a madrasa, after which I wished to study further at Jamia in Delhi. I knew it would not be easy. Since the financial situation at home was already tight, I decided not to take money from home and did odd jobs. I worked in a BPO, started a restaurant with friends and even worked as a travel agent in a Delhi bus depot on a commission basis. It more than provided for my needs and I was beginning to think I could fulfil my dreams as well.

Your activism began in Jamia as a member of Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), the students wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, but you had good relations with all campus organisations.

In the school in Azamgarh, from where I studied from Class 10 to 12, SIO was the only organisation that led the students’ union. So, in a sense, I have been its member since childhood. After coming to Delhi, I was not very active in the organisation but one day as I was sipping tea in Jamia, a senior activist came and spoke to me about reviving the SIO in Jamia. After I agreed to join, there were only two members of SIO in Jamia—me and a boy from Bengal. It was when I gave a speech for the students’ union that others from campus took note and invited me to join their organisations. But since I had already made a commitment to SIO, I declined but remained on good terms with them.

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I was involved in regular campus activism, working on students’ issues. My activism outside Jamia began from the Najeeb movement. I developed an emotional attachment with his mother and became very active in that movement. I also did a lot of campaigning against mob lynching, protesting outside Jharkhand Bhavan, submitting memorandums and so on. And then came CAA/NRC.

You have spoken about the pathetic conditions in jail. Were there other co-accused with you? How did you cope?

I was in Jail No.4. None of the other co-accused were there. Much later, Ather, a co-accused, who is from the North-east, was brought in. For the last two months, we were together.

When I was first arrested, I was lodged in Jail No. 2, which was converted to an isolation centre due to COVID. It is a jail for convicts. That place was different. In the initial days, physical torture, mental torture and abusive comments were rampant. Not only me, they used to beat everyone and do all kinds of things. It was normalised. I was depressed and traumatised. Please let’s not talk about it. I am still traumatised. I can’t talk about it. Maybe someday, some months later, I will find the courage to speak about it, but today it is difficult.

I can understand. Was it only the police or did the convicts also indulge in such behaviour?

The convicts are given jobs to do inside prison and become part of the jail staff. So they are in cahoots with jail authorities, who inflict a lot of physical and mental torture, keeping people locked up and abusing at every little thing….

I am sorry to hear that you had to go through this. I hope you can find the strength to talk about it because it is important for us to hear about this.

I will tell you. When people are sick they are not given medicines. They are not allowed to come out of the ward and go to the OPD inside prison. When COVID was at its peak, and people were getting fever and cold, they were giving 4-5 medicines like Cetirizine and Brufen in bulk. COVID tests were not done at all. Till date, less than 2 per cent of the population in prison has been vaccinated.

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Is there favouritism, hierarchy or discrimination inside jail?

The undertrial inmates are fine. They don’t create problems. But the convicts, along with the jail staff, are another story. I was sick with migraine and they would only give me a painkiller. Thanks to my legal team, who were very active, they moved applications for my treatment. About 15 days before release, I had made an application and no reply had come till release.

There are plenty of problems in jail. The food is not as per the jail manual, does not have the specified amount of protein. I am not asking for anything extra. But the food that you yourself have specified in the manual is not provided. No rule from the jail manual is followed. Weekly calls are not allowed. Often a month passes by without someone being able to make a call. Bail orders have come but the inmate cannot make a simple call to his family to fill up the bail bond and they continue to languish there for two or three months despite having received bail. Because of COVID this was aggravated, as physical meetings had stopped.

The jail we see on television is a sanitised version of the harsh reality. It is only after going there that one finds out. The one plus point for me was the support of inmates. I could spend some good time with them. I got the opportunity to teach them, do namaz, share stories, help them make art. One year passed this way. But the moment I came out of the ward, the abusive comments of jail staff would start.

In jail, there are surprise searches by convicts for items that are banned, such as phone, blade, cigarette or tobacco, during which they throw all our stuff around. We used to make paneer by curdling hot milk with old water or lemon to mix it with the food they provided to make it edible. This water we used to store in bottles. One day, during a search, they threw all the paneer water on our beds. When I went to complain to the Assistant Superintendent of jail, a warden came up and slapped me. On camera. I told the Assistant Superintendent that if they could do this in front of him, then imagine what they must be doing behind his back. I told them I would go to court against this behaviour, and that I would not keep quiet about it. They said that if I did, they would lay the charge of misbehaviour on me. They threatened to report me and said I would never get bail and never be able to get out. They intimidated me into silence and I did not say anything to my lawyers after that. They scared me.

Despite having suffered so much in jail, you came out brimming with confidence and a “No CAA/NRC” mask indicating that you will continue the movement. Where do you get the strength from?

For the first three months in jail, I had absolutely no contact with my family. The first time I was allowed to make a call, it was for three minutes. I was very troubled. I spoke to my parents. My mother was very strong and my father encouraged me. He said, you have not done anything wrong; you will succeed. He reminded me of all the sacrifices our freedom fighters had made for India’s Independence. He even told me that if I have to stay in jail for long, I should continue studying. There were a lot of people, friends, organisations and civil society, who were standing with them. And I was getting the benefit of that inside. Those daily few minutes [of speaking to my family] gave me a lot of moral support and helped me survive behind bars.

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Inside prison, they have created a mindset that for UAPA cases, one will have to spend four to five years in prison, after which one must plead guilty, get convicted for five or six years and then get out. But I said I will not do that. I will go for trial and also try for bail but will never plead guilty for something I have not done. And truly, the creator had other plans for me. I will continue to work on CAA/NRC or any other injustice. But first I have to work on vaccination and for the release of my co-accused inside.

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