Saghir Ahmed’s grandmother is in shock. “He was so excited on Friday, running about,” she said, staring vacantly. “He then went to read the Jumma namaaz. We didn’t know that’s that last time we would see our baby.”
Saghir Ahmed, 11, was crushed to death in a stampede on Friday in the Bajardiha neighbourhood of Varanasi. The stampede was set off by the police assaulting a group that was people protesting the Modi’s government’s new legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s repeated announcements that it will institute a National Register of Citizens. They fear that the authorities could use these two initiatives in tandem to harass Indian Muslims.
Scroll.in has viewed a video of the events that showed that the crowd, mostly consisting of teenage boys, was peaceful. The police assault that led to the death of the child was unprovoked and unnecessary, bystanders say.
As lakhs of Indian hit the streets to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens last week, they were met with brutal force in many Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states. The worst of these is Uttar Pradesh. Of the 24 people dead across India, as many as 17 dead are from the northern state. In many parts of Uttar Pradesh, the police made mass arrests, forcibly entered Muslim homes and ransacked them, residents say.
Much of the police action in Uttar Pradesh went unreported because of sudden internet blockades. But now the story is slowly emerging across the state of police excesses against protestors – and also generally on Muslims, seemingly as collective punishment for protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
Friday was a day of protest. The spark: the Modi government’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament on December 11, a legislation that provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim undocumented immigrants from three countries. If this law is combined with the National Register of Citizens that the BJP has promised, many Indian Muslims are afraid that they could be rendered stateless.
Like in many other places, the protest in Varanasi’s Bajardiha neighbourhood occurred spontaneously, residents say. Knowledge of the CAA-NRC spiked after the police violence in Jamia University on December 15. “We heard what Modi’s police had done to students, beaten them,” said Salahuddin, a resident of the area. “Passions were running high here in Bajardiha.”
The NRC is a constant topic of discussion in Bajardiha. Conversations about Saghir Ahmed’s death often digressed into questions such as, “What kind papers are enough to prove citizenship under the the NRC?”
As a result, after the congregation prayer on Friday, a protest coalesced, mainly by teenagers and young men. “They started with only a few hundreds but once they went around, the crowd had swelled to a few thousand,” recounted Irshad Ahmed, a distant relative of the boy who died.
Ahmed emphasised that while the crowd was boisterous, it was not violent. “They were shouting slogans like, ‘Take back CAB-NRC’, but that’s it,” he said. “They didn’t do anything or even leave their own neighbourhood.”
A day before, Section 144 – the law that bans public assembly – had been implemented for the entire state, an unprecedented occurrence. In Bajardihia, the police used it to try and stop the protest.
By around 3.50 pm, the police had called for reinforcements. They had also surrounded the protesters. They first asked protestors to sit down – an order that many of the teenagers in the protest heeded. But it was just a ruse. Immediately after, the police started to assault the protestors, bystanders say.
Not only was this sudden assault unusual, the fact that it happened in the narrow lanes of Bajardiha made it lethal. In panic, the protesters started to run. Eleven-year-old Saghir Ahmed was caught in the pell-mell. “He was not even part of the protest,” said his father Wakil Ahmed, who works as a cook. “He was just standing in the wrong place. He was a child, how would he know?”
Sixteen-year-old Muzammil Ahmed, who was being treated at the Banaras Hindu University hospital on Monday, reiterated that the protests were peaceful. “Some people have blamed us for throwing stones but that is untrue,” Ahmed told Scroll.in. “We were only shouting slogans asking for the NRC to be removed.”
Scroll.in has accessed video footage that confirms eye-witness accounts from Bajardhia. The protestors were peaceful and the assault in the narrow lanes of Bajardiha seems unprovoked.
After Sagheer Ahmed died, the police worked hard to try to stop his passing blowing up as a political issue. “They forced us to quickly bury our child,” said said his grand mother, Shehnaz Akhtar. “They didn’t even let is call our relatives, tell them our boy has been killed.”
Two days later, on Monday, there was still no respite for the area. Bajardiha was bristling with policemen posted at key intersections. The arrests continued – even though there was no violence. “They want to crush us,” said one resident who did not want to be named for fear of inviting police action. “They are looking to frame someone as the ringleader. The BJP think that if they do this, Muslims will not protest the NRC anymore.”
He continued: “That’s why the police itself wants clashes to happen. That is why they are beating peaceful protesters.”
The belligerence of the administration was reflected in the fact that the District Magistrate of Varanasi mocked the death of Sagheer Ahmed during the police assault. “These sort of things keep happening in the city,” Kaushal Raj Sharma told Scroll.in at the collectorate on Monday. “Why don’t you go and help the family?”