Kusum Lata has been combing through the Delhi Police’s chargesheet on the Jahangirpuri violence. Her husband, 39-year-old Tabrez, is one of the main accused in the communal clashes that broke out in the locality on April 16. Lata exclaimed at every other line in the chargesheet.

“The police have called my husband fanatically communal,” said the 35-year-old law graduate. “If he was, why would he marry me, a Hindu, and never once ask me to change my religion or name?”

They had got married in 2016, she said, after a courtship that lasted many years.

According to the police chargesheet produced earlier this month, Tabrez and 48-year-old Ishrafil Sheikh are the “main perpetrators and conspirators” of the clashes that broke out on the afternoon of April 16, when a Hanuman Jayanti rally crossed a mosque in Jahangirpuri.

According to the police, the conspiracy may be traced back to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, which started in December 2019.

The chargesheet suggests the Jahangirpuri violence was “in continuation of the protests against CAA and NRC in Shaheen Bagh and the northeast Delhi riots of 2020.” To back this claim, it points out that Tabrez and Sheikh both participated in the anti-CAA protests.

“They are making it sound like participating in the anti-CAA protests was criminal,” said Sheikh’s brother, 38-year-old Aminun Sheikh, who works at a mobile phone repair shop. “That was a fight for our rights.”

While Sheikh, a waste collector who did construction work on the side, has evaded arrest so far, Tabrez has been in judicial custody since May 6. Before his arrest, he ran a coaching centre in Jahangirpuri.

His wife Lata said they had indeed spread the word about the citizenship protests at the coaching centre, where they both taught. “We were going to protest sites to speak about our rights,” she said.

The families of both men claim they are being targeted for their political connections. Sheikh wanted to contest on a Congress ticket for the impending municipal elections. Tabrez’s wife, Lata, eventually became the Congress candidate when it was found that the Jahangirpuri ward was reserved for Scheduled Castes.

Kusum Lata, Tabrez's wife, spends all her time thinking about getting her husband out of jail. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

Three rallies, two FIRs

The rally that turned violent on April 16 was the third Hanuman Jayanti procession that day.

Two earlier rallies had passed without incident – the members of the two communities had decided it would be better to avoid the road in front of the mosque as the loud music played by the processions would disrupt namaaz. The third rally, organised by members of the Bajrang Dal, insisted on taking the mosque road.

Muslim residents of Jahangirpuri said when the rally reached the mosque, some men tried to enter it and hoist saffron flags. These flags, printed with the slogan “Jai Sri Ram”, were later found in the compound of the mosque. Hindus residents claimed that Muslims attacked them with bricks after “allowing” the rally to take the mosque road – the police chargesheet echoes this claim.

Days after the violence, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led municipal corporation sent bulldozers to Jahangirpuri. They demolished mostly Muslim homes and shops as well as the entrance gate of the mosque, alleging they were encroachments. The incident was one of many across the country that followed the same pattern in April, when communal conflagrations broke out over religious rallies. In areas under BJP-ruled administrations, bulldozers were deployed to tear down Muslim homes and shops, which were suddenly deemed to be encroachments.

Two first information reports were filed in the aftermath of the violence that broke out over the rally at Jahangirpuri. The first was registered on April 16, booking Mohammad Ansar – a local resident – and “four-five companions” for rioting and attempt to murder. Ansar was arrested the same day.

Another FIR was filed on April 17, against the organisers of the third rally, which did not have police permission. In May, a Delhi court hauled up the police for accompanying the “illegal procession”. The court said that the issue “seems to have been simply brushed aside” by senior officers.

When Scroll.in spoke to Jahangirpuri Assistant Commissioner of Police Tilak Chand, he said the matter was still under investigation, no chargesheet had been submitted and no one had been arrested yet. Chand also refused to share a copy of the FIR, saying it was too “sensitive”.

The police seem to have focused on the April 16 FIR, which is the basis of the 2,000-word chargesheet filed in July. It expands the list of the accused – 31 Muslims and six Hindus are named. Along with rioting and attempt to murder, it adds charges of conspiracy and offences under the Arms Act; the accused had allegedly snatched police weapons during the incident.

Ansar is originally from West Bengal. Muslim residents of Jahangirpuri say he had indeed played a part in negotiating with the Hanuman Jayanti rally organisers, asking them to mute their loudspeakers and avoid the mosque road. But his efforts failed with the third rally. According to the chargesheet filed on the first FIR, these negotiations were in fact “arguments” and “altercations” which spun out of control.

As it built a case against Ansar, the Delhi Police asked the Enforcement Directorate to investigate financial irregularities in the purchase of his properties. Conflicting claims about Ansar’s political affiliations also emerged – he was linked to the Aam Aadmi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool Congress at the same time.

While Ansar is named in the chargesheet and remains in jail, the police seem to have shifted focus. As it outlines a conspiracy around the April 16 violence, the chargesheet suggests Ansar was acting on the directions of Tabrez and Sheikh.

Ishrafil Sheikh's brother Aminun runs a one-room mobile repair shop in Jahangirpuri. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

Flashback 2020

The police have said both Tabrez and Sheikh “instigated” people during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act – it is offered up as evidence that the two were involved in a long-running conspiracy to foment trouble in the national capital.

According to the chargesheet, they made inflammatory speeches and took women in buses from Jahangirpuri across the city to Shaheen Bagh in February 2020. The hub of the anti-CAA mobilisations in Delhi, the Shaheen Bagh protests were led by Muslim women.

The families of both men are frank about taking part in the protests but say the police have tried to criminalise this participation.

Lata was also candid about the fact that they had arranged buses to Shaheen Bagh on February 23, 2020. “Yes we went there, but we returned the same day,” she said. “The riots started a day later.”

Jahangirpuri, which is about 25 kilometres away from the North East Delhi neighbourhoods where violence broke out, remained peaceful.

However, the chargesheet goes on to say that after violence broke out in Northeast Delhi in February 2020, the two men exhorted Muslims to take “revenge”. At least 53 people were killed in the violence, 36 of them Muslim.

Aminun Sheikh said his brother was grilled for several hours by the Delhi Police in the aftermath of the violence. “If he was a criminal, they would have found something against him then,” he reasoned. “Would he not be in jail? But they let him go.”

Both families claim that as tensions ran high before Hanuman Jayanti this year, Tabrez and Sheikh were asked by police officials to help maintain peace. Lata shared a photo of Tabrez at a peace committee meeting held three days before the April 16 rallies. “You can see him on stage along with the police officers,” she pointed out.

WhatsApp chats

Apart from their links to the protests, the chargesheet cites messages from WhatsApp chats as evidence against Tabrez. According to the police, Tabrez is an administrator of a WhatsApp group called the “Kabutar Sell Group”, where “hate speech messages against other communities/religion” were shared.

The chargesheet refers to two messages, neither of which were sent by Tabrez.

One of the messages says, “the community which does not raise its voice against injustice only shoulders corpses”. The other message discusses how peace cannot be achieved only by Muslims; the other community must be willing to keep the peace as well. This message says that, during the pandemic, Muslims had opened up mosques and dargahs for patients of all religions, but now Hindus were attacking mosques chanting “Jai Sri Ram”.

Lata said she asked her husband about the group on one of the daily five-minute calls they were allowed while Tabrez was in custody. She claimed he told her he had no idea about the group. “He is in hundreds of groups and does not understand technology too well,” she said. “He must not have not even read [the chats]. Anyone can make you an admin of a group.”

She said her husband was interested in training and feeding pigeons – a common hobby in Delhi.

The chargesheet also mentions an audio note sent by Tabrez to the group. According to the chargesheet, he can be heard tutoring someone on “how to make a false complaint against the [April 16] procession” that led to violence.

“How can one say ‘false complaint’?” protested Lata. She felt there were genuine grounds for a complaint against the third rally. “There was evidence of saffron flags inside the mosque, right?”

The Idgah inside the bylanes of Jahangirpuri where Sheikh's family were organised the gathering to mourn their father's death. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The third day of mourning

April 16 was the teeja, or third day of mourning, for Sheikh’s father. “Our father had died of a heart attack and we were holding a dawat [feast] for the teeja, where 200-300 children are called and fed food at the Idgah,” explained Aminun Sheikh.

The idgah, or prayer grounds, is just behind the mosque where the violence erupted. While Sheikh was busy with the teeja, Tabrez was one of the mourners who attended it, their families said.

The chargesheet notes that, “coincidentally”, there was a teeja that day. “But, when Ishrafil came to know that [a] Hanuman Jayanti Shobha Yatra would come again, he along with Tabrez planned to gather maximum possible persons there so as to utilise them to attack upon the Yatra,” it said.

Aminun Sheikh was appalled that the mourning ceremony should have been implicated in the alleged conspiracy. “So you are saying we planned the violence on the third day of our father’s death?” he demanded. “What kind of people do you think we are?”

Sheikh’s wife, 45-year-old Jashiman Bibi, echoed him: “Why would any son want such chaos on a day when they were mourning their father?”

While the teeja was still going on, they said, tear gas shells fell inside the idgah compound and all the guests fled. Only the two brothers and the rest of the immediate family stayed behind to complete the rites.

Jashiman said they had struggled to make ends meet since Sheikh had gone on the run. “I have mortgaged jewellery worth Rs 1 lakh for expenses,” she said.

The family said they were going to move the Delhi High Court for anticipatory bail. “I will sell a plot of land if I have to,” said Aminun Sheikh.

Kusum was the Congress candidate for the 2022 municipal polls before they were pushed. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)