Seventy two year-old lawyer, Mohammed Shoaib, head of the civil liberties group Rihai Manch, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in Lucknow on the night of December 19.

Along with several other activists, including former inspector general of police SR Darapauri, Shoaib has been charged by the police for incitement of violence, intent to murder, damage to public property during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Lucknow earlier that day. Ironically, Shoaib was already under house arrest at the time of the protests.

As soon as he was released on bail on January 17, he, along with his wife Mallka Bi, went straight from Lucknow district jail to the city’s iconic Ghantaghar to support the women who have been protesting there against the CAA.

Shortly after, speaking to, he said the Rihai Manch is being targeted by the police and the government for the work it has been doing among Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. But the protests have taken the shape of a people’s movement and the government will find them hard to control. “The police has been doing everything possible in the most brutal way to prevent people from protesting, to weaken organisations,” he said, “but the people – the women – are giving them an answer.”

Excerpts from the interview.

Mohammed Shoaib with his wife Malka Bi and other supporters outside the jail. Photo: Rihai Manch

Were you expecting the Uttar Pradesh police to arrest you on December 19?
I simply did not imagine the UP police would arrest me as I was already under house arrest. I did not even realise they were arresting me. At around 11.30 pm on December 19, I had just got into bed, when 10 minutes later, the police came to the house asking me to come with them as the local police officer wanted to see me. Hurriedly, I got dressed and left without my glasses or my phone thinking it was just going to be a conversation but instead I was taken to Hazratganj Kotwali. Of course, in the High Court while hearing my habeas corpus petition the police claimed they arrested me on December 20, which is rubbish.

How did they treat you after your arrest?
The police kept questioning me on where Rajeev Yadav and other members of the Rihai Manch were. I told them I had no idea as I was under house arrest. When I couldn’t answer I was abused and threatened. The Circle Officer of the Kotwali who wanted to meet me said he would set my entire family right and put them behind bars. Ma ki gali di thi. He verbally abused me.

After that I was taken to the office where the FIR is filed and made to sit on the floor. We were given no blankets, nothing to keep ourselves warm. All night we were kept there, given no food or water when it is actually the duty of the thana to ask those they arrest if they would like to eat and arrange some food but nothing was done.

Around 4 pm on January 20, they sent me to jail without producing me in front of any magistrate. It was only after 23 hours, around 10 pm the next night, that we were given something to eat and drink.

Did you meet others who had been arrested while in jail?
In jail, I saw some of the others. Robin Verma, also associated with the Rihai Manch, was beaten badly, I was not. Deepak Kabir and Pawan Rao Ambedkar also had bruises and wounds. I saw their wounds.

We were in jail together but in different circles. We were put with convicted criminals. Darapuri Sahab was with me.

Also read: Uttar Pradesh human rights defenders – one Muslim, the other Dalit – arrested for protesting CAA

What were the charges filed against you?
The same charges that have been applied on everyone, serious ones, incitement, intent to murder, damage to property. The charges were intended to intimidate and weaken us.

In fact on the December 18, the ADM City [Additional District Magistrate] and the CO Hazratganj [Circle Officer] had called to say don’t go ahead with the planned protests. I told them that this is our constitutional right to protest peacefully.

You, Robin and many others associated with the Rihai Manch were picked up. Why do you think that was the case?
The work of the Rihai Manch has always troubled the government and the police because we have consistently raised our voices against the wrong policies of any government, whether it was the Congress or the BJP or any other state government. We have done what the Opposition should have been doing.

We got acquittals for Muslim youth falsely accused of being terrorists way back in 2008 when the Congress was in power in the country. We have worked on cases of atrocities against Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. We have worked on the numerous police encounters that UP has witnessed under this government. Even on economic issues we have spoken out about how the government’s policies help the rich while pushing the larger mass of society into poverty.

It is not surprising that the government would try to repress the Rihai Manch even though we have never broken the law. Upholding social justice is not a crime, targeting innocent people is.

What was your experience in jail?
In jail, it is the jail authorities who are in charge so there was no real problem as such. But we were not treated as political prisoners, we were placed with those convicted of crimes. We were not beaten or abused by the jail authorities, this was done only by the police and that too the CO [Circle Officer].

How did you spend your time in jail?
I ended up reading two of Premchand’s novels – Godaan and Nirmala – as well as some short stories. The reading helped me bide my time. Some of the time would be spent talking to the others there.

Darapuri Sahab was with me throughout. We were kept together and our beds were also put next to each other.

Was this the first time you have been in jail?
No, I had been detained during my student years for leading a student protest but the last time I was in jail was during the Emergency. I spent two months then, I was much younger. This time though has been worse than the Emergency simply because it seems to have been prompted by badle ki bhavna – an intent to take revenge.

What have you done since your release?
My wife and other supporters came to pick me up from jail and we went right away to the women staging a dharna at Lucknow’s Ghantagar. I had told them that they will send the men to jail to try and puncture all protests and that the women will have to take up the challenge. That’s exactly what has happened. I wanted to congratulate them. I am now catching up on the details of the women who are protesting in Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere.

Do you think of these protests are having an impact?
There will be an impact because this is not a protest led by the Rihai Manch or any other organisation, it is a jan andolan [people’s movement]. And that is much harder to control. The police has been doing everything possible in the most brutal way to prevent people from protesting, to weaken organisations, but the people – the women – are giving them an answer.

You cannot have divisive policies like the CAA which target a community. Of course, the government is saying that the CAA is not against any community but this is a lie and this government is used to lying. Take the NRC, NPR [National Register of Citizens, National Population Register].

[Editor’s note: Read more about CAA-NRC-NPR and why they are controversial here].

With such policies in place, they expect people not to protest. They have tried to limit the space for protests but despite the crackdowns and the intimidation, look at what’s happening.

The fact that the women are out protesting in Lucknow and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh is amazing as the repression and the crackdown was the worst here.

The extent to which the police violated all human rights, treated humans worse than animals, has shocked everyone.

What will be the Rihai Manch’s role in the forthcoming days?
This has already become a jan andolan [people’s movement] but the Rihai Manch will do all that is needed to support righteous struggles. We will also fight our cases as well as the cases of many of those who have been jailed and need legal help. Over 200 people are still under arrest. Members of Rihai Manch haven’t been cowed down as the police wanted or expected, instead they are now all the more determined.