In recent years, when police brutality or arbitrary detentions have been reported in Uttar Pradesh, advocate Mohammed Shoib and retired Indian Police Service officer SR Darapuri have been among the first to challenge the legality of such acts. But last fortnight, as the Uttar Pradesh police went on the rampage against the state’s Muslims amidst protests against the citizenship law, the two were silent.
Perhaps to forestall the possibility of them filing complaints and petitions, both men, one a Muslim, the other a Dalit, known for fighting for the constitutional rights of fellow citizens, were placed under house arrest on the evening of December 18. The next night, they were taken into custody by the police under cover of darkness. For the past week, they been in Lucknow’s Gosaiganj jail.
“Mohammed Shoaib is an easy target for the police not because he has done anything wrong but since he is simply a thorn in their side,” said Zaid Farooqui, an advocate and friend of Shoaib, who is among the founders of a civil rights organisation called the Rihai Mach. “He has used the right of law to ensure the acquittal of over a dozen innocent men, falsely accused of terror charges.”
Farooqui added, “The government is trying to paint Mohammed Shoaib and the Rihai Manch as dangerous people in an attempt to puncture their work.”
On December 16, two days before Shoaib was placed under house arrest in Lucknow, members of the Rihai Manch had organised a rally in the city to condemn the brutal police action against students at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University. The students had been protesting the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslims, and plans for a National Register of Citizens. Many fear that these initiatives, used in tandem, could result in Muslims losing their citizenship.
Anger against the new law has sparked hundreds of protests across India, most of them peaceful. However, violence has accompanied demonstrations mainly in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. At least 26 people have died in the protests – 19 of them in Uttar Pradesh.
Bomb blast cases
Mohammed Shoaib’s work started gathering attention more than a decade ago. In November 2007, in the aftermath of serial bomb blasts in Faizabad, Lucknow and Varanasi, he took up cases of several Muslim youth who had been picked up by the police. In a communally charged atmosphere, the bar associations in these towns had prohibited lawyers from defending suspects. Shoaib was undeterred and went ahead to represent several young men without charging them a fee.
For this, he was even thrashed at the Lucknow High Court ten years ago by fellow lawyers, angry that he had defied their injunction. But it seemed clear to Shoaib that many of those arrested were facing trumped up cases. He eventually secured the release of over a dozen suspects.
His work led to the formation of the Rihai Manch. This small but effective group began to offer legal and paralegal help not just to Muslims but people of all communities who were unable to fend for themselves.
“Some of the key members of Rihai Manch are young idealistic Hindu men,” a supporter of the group told Scroll.in. “It is absurd to see the Manch either as a political front, an Islamist group or driven by any extreme ideology. All it can be charged with is idealism, and a belief in justice.”
Since then, the Rihai Manch has been active on the ground, speaking out against discriminatory actions of the state, doing rights-based work among poor, marginalised communities and has collated evidence of a dramatic, alarming rise in false encounters under Chief Minister Adityanath’s regime. For journalists, Rihai Manch members have often been the first stop for information and case studies on human rights violations, their stories resting on the ground work done by the Manch members.
This reporter, for instance, last met Mohmammed Shoaib in 2017 while working on a report on the impact of the government’s ban on slaughter houses on Lucknow’s butcher community. She was but one among many. A Google search for Mohammed Shoaib’s name throws up many reports by prominent journalists who have interviewed him in the past few years.
This work came with evident risks. “When I first married Shoaib sahib, I used to get very worried about risks he took in doing his work but my anxiety would only raise his blood pressure, so I have learnt to keep calm,” said his wife Malka Bi. “But when I saw him jail, I couldn’t help it. The tears just came out.”
Barely able to hide her deep concern for her husband’s health, she added, “He’s 72 now, getting old, has high blood pressure, a thyroid problem. Couldn’t the police just keep in house arrest if they had to?”
On the evening of December 18, when Mohammed Shoaib was placed under house arrest, he had spoken out against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, but had not attended the protests. On December 19, the police came to his home at 11.45 pm and told him that an officer was waiting to talk to him at Nazirabad. Shoaib left with them. Hours later, he had still not returned. For Malka Bi, this “was the worst night as we had no idea where the police had taken him”.
Unable to trace Shoaib, Shoaib’s junior AB Solomon filed a case of habeas corpus, asking that the authorities be ordered to present before the lawyer before the court. In response, the state government’s lawyer claimed that Shoaib had been taken into custody from Clark Hotel on December 20. The police later charged him under the sections of the Indian Penal Code that it has generically used against several recently arrested activists, these include rioting with arms, damaging property and even attempted murder.
On December 21, Shoaib’s family and friends learned that he had been taken to the Hazratganj thana and then to jail.
The Rihai Manch has been a clear target of these arrests. On the list of those the police sought to arrest for the violence on December 19 are the names of two other Rihai Manch members. The list also includes Robin Verma, who while not a member has helped the Rihai Manch with its work. In his mid-thirties, Verma was a lecturer appointed on an ad-hoc basis at the Shia College in Lucknow, but has been suspended from his position after his arrest on December 20. He was picked up by the police along with Omar Rashid, a journalist with The Hindu.
In a first-person account about the incident, Rashid wrote that he had been detained by four men in plain clothes on December 20 as he, Verma and two other journalists, were “trying to grab a quick meal at a dhaba outside the Uttar Pradesh BJP office, waiting to hear about a press conference to be held by the UP government a few blocks away”. Verma and he were taken to the Hazratganj police station 1 km away.
“We were then escorted to a room – it looked like a cyber cell – where within seconds of entering, cops, already stationed there, started thrashing Robin with a thick leather belt and slapped him many times,” Rashid wrote.
Rashid was released after a few hours but Verma is still in jail, charged under the same sections that have been used against Shoaib. His family is scared to speak out. They see him as paying a price for his “goodness”.
Verma’s friends describe him as idealistic in his struggle against caste and communal divides. “He named himself Robin, though he is a Kurmi Hindu and when he had a daughter, he named her Elanor,” Rashid said. “Even the Verma part of his name has only come up because of his arrest, usually he doesn’t use this name.”
The concern and apprehension of his family finds an echo in both the homes of both Shoaib and Darapuri.
Said Shoaib’s wife Malki Bi, “When I met my husband in jail on the 22nd, he said he and Darapuri sahib are well for now, the authorities are taking care of them but he was worried about the others who had been arrested. I have put my faith about his well-being in the hands of God. He has always helped others and that’s not a crime.”
During the conversation she said she was busy gathering blankets and slippers that her husband had requested, not for himself but for other inmates who were cold and needed supplies allowed by the jail authorities. “People use the English word ‘activist’ for him but to tell you the truth, this is who he is,” she said. “Even before we were married, people tell me of his social work as a student in his native Gonda.”
At Darapuri’s home, his son Ved Kumar, while sharing Malika Bi’s anxiety, expressed a palpable disbelief that his father had been arrested by the very police that he had served, that had often consulted him in the past on how to better work with the people. The family is worried about his health as Darapuri is undergoing treatment for cancer.
“There was no question of my father being involved in anything violent,” said Kumar. “As a police officer and a staunch Ambedkarite, he strictly believes in both the letter of the law and the Constitution.”
Originally from Jalandhar, Darapuri is an IPS officer from the 1972 batch. He officer began his career with a posting in Saharanpur and settled in Lucknow after his retirement.
Darapuri has agitated for better working conditions for the police and even participated in a peaceful protest to demand the implementation of the mritak ashrit scheme under which the government gives employment to family members of policemen who have been killed in the line of duty. “I’m not saying he is innocent just because he is in the police but because he is and has only ever believed in abiding by the law,” said his son.
As a Dalit officer, Darapuri’s achievements made him a role model for many in his community. “Whether it was gender equality, Dalit rights, minimum wages, or a need for a Whistleblower Act, Darapuri ji has always raised his voice for any issue that strengthens democracy,” said Kumar.
Since his retirement in 2003, Darapuri has been part of fact-finding teams looking into almost all the major incidents of violence in the state. Last year, he was part of the group that gave a report on the communal violence in Kasganj, which raised questions about the police’s inability to control a riot-like situation.
“Arresting men like Mohammad Shoaib, SR Darapuri, Robin Verma and other respected activists is simply frightening,” said veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan. “It reveals the unthinkable extent to which the government will go to suppress dissent and throttle democracy.”
Among other prominent civil society members who have been arrested are Deepak Kabir, known for his vibrant work in organising cultural festivals in the city and actress Sadaf Jafar. Their families have alleged that they were badly beaten by the police.
Even some prominent citizens who went to the police station to seek information on the arrests were detained. According to Madhavi Kuckreja, a social entrepreneur and activist, “We had gone to get information on Deepak, Sadaf and others. Along with me was Arundhati Dhuru, Meera Sanghamitra and SR Darapuri’s son with medicines for his father. Instead of telling us where the men were, why they were arrested, the police detained us.”
Though they were released after two hours, the intention of the act was not lost on anyone. It was clear that consequences would follow for anyone who was vocal in condemning the actions of the police, organising protest rallies or in the chief minister’s words, trying to “shock the state into silence”.
For now, the brunt of this is being borne by the families of those arrested. Ironically, the only time Mohammed Shoaib had been jailed in the past is in the mid-seventies when he protested against the Emergency. He even has a pension card from the government for his battle for fundamental rights.
His wife’s quiet words, as she displayed the pension card, summed up the tragedy that the government is enacting. “For years my husband has gone to jail to meet those he is representing,” said Malki Bi. “Now I go to visit him. In my heart I know he will come back for he is innocent.”
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