In March 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party decisively won the Uttar Pradesh elections after its leaders openly pitted Muslims against Hindus, with no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi insinuating that the majority community was not getting a fair deal. “If you create kabristaan [graveyard for Muslims] in a village, then a shamshaan [cremation ground for Hindus] should be created, he declared at one rally.
India’s ruling party had not fielded a single Muslim candidate. The new assembly, dominated by the BJP, had fewer Muslims than any time in its history. This was bad enough – for anyone who believes India’s most populous state cannot afford to politically marginalise one-fifth of its 200 million people.
Then, one evening, the news broke: Adityanath had been chosen by BJP to become the chief minister of the state.
To say it was a shock would be an understatement.
Here was a firebrand monk whose entire politics revolved around fuelling hostility towards Muslims. A five-time member of Parliament, he had criminal cases against him for leading violence against Muslims. He had brazenly justified this violence on national television. Listen to this clip from 17.00.
One of the first decisions Adityanath took as chief minister was to order raids on slaughter-houses and butcher shops. This was done ostensibly to enforce regulations. But the state could not explain why its concern for health and hygiene was limited to a single industry. Muslims, as the largest producers and consumers of meat in the state, were not fooled: they saw this as an attack on their livelihoods and food habits.
Over the next year, the attacks became physical: the Uttar Pradesh police gunned down nearly 50 people, mostly Muslim and Dalit, in “encounters” that investigations later suggested were nothing short of extrajudicial killings. The police also looked away as Hindu mobs lynched Muslim men accusing them of smuggling cows or eating beef. One of the accused boasted on hidden camera: “The police is on our side because of the government.”
In one instance, when a police officer tried to intervene against a Hindu mob, he was gunned down. Before filing a case against the Hindu men for the policeman’s killing, the police first booked Muslim men on charges of cow slaughter.
As chief minister, Adityanath sanctioned hefty public expenditure for lavish Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya – not an anomaly in India where state spending on religious events is normal. What was abnormal was a chief minister declaring he was proud that he was Hindu and did not celebrate Eid.
Earlier this year, Adityanath travelled across India with his anti-Muslim rhetoric, campaigning for the BJP – possibly its most prolific campaigner after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who was party president at the time. Adityanath’s most widely-reported campaign line – Bajrang Bali is enough to defeat Ali – was mild compared to some of his other statements, which you can read here. The Election Commission banned him from campaigning for 72 hours.
Should it come as a surprise then that the maximum casualties in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that is a blatant expression of the BJP’s anti-Muslim politics, have taken place in Uttar Pradesh? Nineteen people have been killed in the state – all of them Muslim.
The Adityanath government has sought to blame Muslims for the violence. It has gone to the extent of sending notices to more than 500 Muslims, seeking to recover damages for the loss of public property from them.
But here are eight questions that clear the fog around what happened in Uttar Pradesh.
First, some background for those still catching up.
What is the Citizenship Amendment Act and why are Indians protesting against it?
The amendment, for the first time ever, introduces a religious test for Indian citizenship – it fast-tracks citizenship for migrants from three Muslim-majority countries as long as they are not Muslim. The significance of this discriminatory provision has not been lost on lakhs of Indians. Cutting across religious communities, they have come out on the streets to protest, holding banners that call the law an assault on India’s secular Constitution.
Indian Muslims, in particular, fear the law will be used in combination with the National Register of Citizens that Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly promised that the government will prepare. He has asserted that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Parsis need not worry about it, implying only Muslims do. Put simply: the message is that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who fail to find a place in the NRC would be considered refugees under the new citizenship law and get to stay in India, but Muslims in the same position would not.
This has sparked a primordial fear among Muslims, who see the government’s meddling with citizenship laws as nothing short of an existential threat. Instead of allaying their fears, the Prime Minister’s initial response was to stoke further divisions: on December 15, he said violent protestors can be identified by their clothes, an allusion to Muslims.
The same evening, the police stormed Jamia University in Delhi, firing tear gas inside the library and beating up students. In Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh that evening, the police went one step further: it lobbed stun grenades, which are used in war.
As the scenes of police violence travelled over social media, protests erupted in more than 60 university campuses in India. The protests spread, became larger and more broad-based. Several non-BJP ruled states saw massive demonstrations, but BJP governments clamped down on them, none as harshly as Uttar Pradesh.
1. Why did the Uttar Pradesh government outlaw peaceful protest?
The Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh did the unthinkable: it used a colonial-era law meant for localised order-keeping to impose a ban on public meetings across the state in one sweep.
As this piece explains, Section 144 is a serious restriction on the fundamental rights to expression, assembly and association and is expected to be invoked only in circumstances where concrete evidence is available of threats to public order.
The Uttar Pradesh orders violate guidelines placed by the Supreme Court in several judgments on using the law.
2. Why was riot police deployed in Muslim areas without any protest call?
When crowds in the state led by students and civil society activists gathered peacefully, defying the ban, they were disrupted by the police, resulting in large-scale detentions and arrests in Lucknow and Varanasi on December 19.
The next day was Friday – when Muslims gather for prayers. Protests had been announced in some towns of Uttar Pradesh, but in many places, there was no formal protest call. Despite this, police forces were positioned in Muslim neighbourhoods.
In the Muslim-majority town of Nehtaur in Bijnor, for instance, video footage shows riot police standing outside a mosque. The residents say they had merely gathered in the area for Friday prayers, not for a protest. They accuse the police of initiating a lathi-charge on worshippers emerging from a mosque, which provoked Muslim youth into throwing stones at them. The police claim it was the other way around: the stones came first, the lathis and tear-gas later.
3. Why did the police conceal it had used guns?
Initially, the director general of police OP Singh claimed the police had not used bullets against the protestors. In fact, the police sought to blame protestors for all bullet injuries, saying several policemen had sustained gunshot wounds.
However, the police superintendent of Bijnor district later admitted one of the two Muslim men killed in Nehtaur had died of a police bullet. (Belatedly, the police filed a case against six policemen for the killing.)
Not just Bijnor, video footage from across the state shows policemen wielding guns.
4. Why did the police assault Muslims and vandalise their properties?
Not only did the police employ excessive force against Muslims during the street clashes, they denied medical aid to those who were injured, some of whom were not even protestors.
Worse, policemen entered and ransacked Muslim homes, looted cash, beat up women and the elderly, broke the windows of cars.
Video footage has piled up from across the state showing a police rampage in Muslim neighbourhoods. Here is a sample: Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor.
5. Why did the police torture minors?
Even minors from the community have not been spared, as multiple reports of police arrests and detentions show. The most horrifying account of police violence has been reported from Nageena town in Bijnor, where minors told reporters that they were beaten, deprived of sleep, subjected to torture by policemen. One of them said at the time of his release, a policeman said, “Don’t dare to protest again.”
6. Who were the civilians who beat up Muslims along with the police?
Muslim residents in multiple towns have told reporters that the riot police were accompanied by men in civilian clothes. They suspect the men were Hindutva activists roped in by the Adityanath government as “police mitra” – literally, friends of police – under a community policing scheme. Video footage shows these men in mufti baton-charging Muslims.
7. Why have senior officials enabled such violence against Muslims?
Even without the infusion of Hindutva activists, the police itself appear to have acted on the basis of anti-Muslim sentiments. Video footage shows a senior police officer in Meerut asking Muslim men to “go to Pakistan”.
It is not just the police that has been callous towards Muslims. In Varanasi, when asked about the death of an 11-year-old in a stampede caused by unprovoked police lathicharge, the district magistrate said: “These things keep happening”.
8. Why is the state criminalising the Muslim community?
Since the violence erupted, 1,113 people had been arrested and 5,558 detained across the state, the government said on December 27. Among them are long-time social activists, human rights defenders and students, who have been held for violent rioting, although video footage and eyewitness accounts show the protests were peaceful.
Those arrested and detained, however, are overwhelmingly working-class Muslims. Aiming to widen the scope of arrests, the police have published reward posters with photographs of men, some of whom can be seen throwing stones or indulging in arson, but many merely standing on the street.
In villages outside Lucknow, even Muslim men who have not taken part in any protest have been made to furnish bonds against breach of peace. They fear this could amount to a criminal record which interferes in their future employment prospects.
A vengeful leader
As the evidence piles up, it is clear that over the last ten days, Uttar Pradesh has seen one of the worst episodes of large-scale state violence against a community anywhere in India.
Yet, Chief Minister Adityanath remains unmoved. Even before any demonstrations had been staged, he had declared there was no reason for anyone to protest against the Citizenship Act. On December 19, when protestors and policemen first clashed in Lucknow, he angrily denounced the protestors and said the state would take “badla” or revenge on them.
On Friday, as police brutality on Muslims in Uttar Pradesh made global headlines, his office posted a series of congratulatory tweets: “Every violent protestor will cry now because there is a Yogi government in Uttar Pradesh.”
India’s most populous state, home to 200 million people, is hostage to the recklessness of a Muslim-hating chief minister. His regime is treating Muslims as the enemy, not as citizens.