Zahir Ahmed, 45, spent Friday morning at the barber’s shop, getting his hair coloured for a wedding in the family.
“My nephew was getting married,” explained Ahmed’s wife, Shahjahan. She had moved to her brother’s house for the wedding preparations along with her daughter, Shahana. Her husband was to join them on Saturday.
But Friday evening, he fell to a bullet, ten steps from their home in the Lisadi Gate area in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut city, a sprawling maze of narrow lanes, home to thousands of working-class Muslim families.
Zahir Ahmed sold cattle fodder from a push-cart. After he came back from the barber, he stepped out around 4 pm to buy a bundle of beedis, said his sister, Nazma. “I told him not to go out since there was trouble in the area but he badly wanted a smoke,” she said.
Buying the beedi from the shop, Zahir Ahmed sat down on its ledge to light up, said his friend, Naseem Ahmed, a bangle-seller, who was standing across the lane. But before he could light the beedi, there was a burst of bullets from the corner, where the lane opens up to the main Lisadi Road, less than 100 metres away, Naseem Ahmed said. As he saw Zahir Ahmed fall, he ran to pick him up, but his eyes began to sting. The police had fired tear gas at the same time they had fired bullets, without warning, Naseem Ahmed said.
A first information report filed by the police states that security personnel had been deployed in the Lisadi Gate area since Friday morning in anticipation of protests over the Citizenship Act. A crowd of 1,000-2,000 protestors carrying sticks and weapons came marching down the road near Bhumiya ka Pul on Lisadi Road around 2.30 pm. As the crowd became violent, the authorities warned them that prohibitory orders were in place. Uttar Pradesh had controversially used Section 144 to ban public meetings across the entire state.
The FIR states the crowd began to shower sticks, stones and abuse on the police. When the crowd failed to disperse despite three warnings, the police were forced to fire tear gas shells and rubber bullets. Several policemen were injured, including station house officer Prashant Kapil, the FIR states.
Three days later, Kapil sat at the Lisadi Gate police station with no sign of any injuries.
He scoffed at the account provided by Zahir Ahmed’s family and friends of his last moments. “Would any shop be open on a day like that?” he said.
The FIR names 41 accused. Zahir Ahmed is one of them.
His father, Munshi Ahmed, sat expressionless in his son’s house. A relative said: “They killed him and now they have declared him a rioter.”
Naseem Ahmed said: “If he had been killed in another lane where we did not know what he was doing, we would have thought, who knows maybe he was provoked into rioting. Hum sabr kar lete. We would resigned ourselves to his death.”
“But I saw him die,” he said. “And I saw policemen fire at him.”
In addition to Ahmed, four other men in the Lisadi Gate area died in the Friday violence. Prashant Kapil, the station house officer, said four of them died of bullet injuries but denied the police had used any firearms. He said two policemen had sustained bullet injuries, a police vehicle was burnt, and petrol bombs were hurled at a police chowki.
Many residents of Lisadi Gate, however, echoed Naseem Ahmed’s claim. They said the policemen initiated the violence and people were forced to react. After clashing with the police on the main road, some protestors ran into the lanes and the police followed them. “They knelt down and fired in our lane,” said a man, who did not want to be identified.
On Monday, the district magistrate asked for notices to be served on the accused to recover damages for property loss from them. In some videos, however, police can be seen smashing the windows of homes and shops and the windshields of cars.
On the main road, an angry shopkeeper said he had deliberately left his broken windows unrepaired for journalists to come and document the damage caused by the police.
“The police claims people were throwing stones,” he said. “But these are fixed glass windows, they don’t open from inside. You can make out yourself who threw the stones at them.”
Among those who killed on Friday is Asif, a 32-year-old tyre mechanic, who died of a bullet wound in his back. His name also features in the police FIR as a rioter.
His mother-in-law, Shameen, dismissed the police claim that he died of bullets fired by protestors. “Why would our people shoot their own people?” she said, adding that Asif had gone to attend Friday prayers and was not part of any protest.
Asif’s wife, Imrana, did not want to meet anyone. Seven months pregnant, the mother of three sat inside a tiny room as older women stood on the balcony narrating how they have stayed awake all nights since the Friday violence, keeping vigil in the lanes.
“The police have been coming to the area, entering homes and taking people away,” said a woman, who did not want to be identified. “We will not allow them to do that.”
“The government wants Muslims to leave the country,” she continued, agitated. “Where will we go? We have given this country our sweat and blood. We won’t go anywhere. We will die here.”
In the two FIRs filed by the police in Lisadi Gate, 97 people have been named as accused, of whom nine have been arrested, said Prashant Kapil, the station house officer.
On Tuesday, the police published posters titled “Wanted Rioters” with photographs of men and boys who allegedly took part in the Friday violence. While some can be seen hurling stones in the photographs, others are merely standing and watching.
How can the police be sure they were violent, I asked.
“You can’t always capture people in the middle of action in still photography,” said Kapil. Defending the decision to publish the photographs, he said: “We will investigate them further before booking them,” he said.
But the posters have further deepened fears in the area. “Our people have been killed, yet our people are being arrested,” said Kallo Baaji, an elderly woman who was the only one other than Naseem Ahmad who was willing to speak on camera. All other residents Scroll.in spoke to declined to be even photographed, saying they feared police retribution.
Inside one of the lanes, a young woman, a Class 12 student, had been avidly following the news on the Citizenship Act protests. “I first began to read about protests happening far away,” she said, referring to Assam. She flagged the news to her mother: “Ammi, there is some trouble brewing over citizenship.”
Little did she know it would all come home.
On Monday, when she combed through the newspaper – as she did everyday – she saw her father’s name.
“Ammi, look, abbu has been named as a rioter,” she told her mother.
Her father left the house soon after she alerted him that he had been named in the police FIR.
She was outraged that the police would implicate him, given that he had spent most of Friday at a cattle market in Lawar village, 15 km away. As a transporter of cattle, he was busy at work that morning and came back home in the afternoon, she said. He was not part of any protest. He stepped out of home that evening only to help a neighbour who had been injured in the clashes, she added.
Despite his meagre income, he was paying for the education of his daughters – the young woman was the first person in the family to study upto Class 12. It was criminal for the police to go after innocent people and unsettle their families, she said. “I have board exams coming up, I have to pay Rs 400 as fees,” she said.
Most people in the neighbourhood did not know the difference between the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens. But not only did this 17-year-old know they were distinct, she had even heard of the National Population Register.
Her sharpness extended to her understanding of the anti-Muslim slant of local newspapers. She pointed to a headline in Amar Ujala that said: “Evidence found for the involvement of Kashmiris and Bangladeshis [in the Friday violence].”
She burst out laughing. “Do they have no other work that they would come to Meerut to create violence?” she asked.