On January 16, a people’s tribunal was held by civil society organisations in Delhi to examine reports of police brutality in Uttar Pradesh. Listening to the testimonies of the state’s residents who faced police violence during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December, former justice of the Supreme Court of India, Sudarshan Reddy, observed that Uttar Pradesh had seen a complete breakdown of order. “Beyond just an economic recession, what we are witnessing today is in fact a democratic recession,” he said.

Nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which undermines the country’s secular foundations, have been largely peaceful and creative. But in Uttar Pradesh, they were met with a brutal crackdown. Between December 19-21, the state police used tear gas, batons and bullets on the streets in as many as 15 districts, resulting in the deaths of 24 Muslim men. More than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were arrested. Many were detained illegally. Several, including minors, reported custodial torture.

The state has pushed a narrative that paints the protestors as violent rioters who damaged public property and caused massive losses to the public exchequer. Chief Minister Adityanath publicly promised to take revenge against the protestors. As a result, nearly 400 people across Uttar Pradesh have been served notices requiring them to compensate the government for damage to public property. The police have demanded that a claims commissioner be formed to estimate the value of damage to property during the protests and also “investigate liability”.

The state narrative has been amplified by Hindi mainstream media, becoming conventional wisdom in Uttar Pradesh. But how accurate are the claims that members of the Muslim community carried out unprovoked violence?

Over the past one month, several democratic rights organisations came together to conduct a series of fact-finding visits across Uttar Pradesh. I was part of a team that visited Muzaffarnagar along with members of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, an organisation that works on combating hate and building social harmony. What we, and the other fact finding teams, found on the ground was a more nuanced and complicated picture than the narrative pushed by the state.

Were miscreants planted in the so-called rioting mobs?

While it is difficult to investigate every instance of rioting, in some places, we found evidence pointing to this.

Sadaf Jafar, an activist from Lucknow who was beaten and jailed for more than a fortnight, told me in an interview that while a peaceful gathering was underway in the city’s Parivartan Chowk on December 19, a number of rioters suddenly congregated. All of them were wearing distinctive skull caps and kafiyas, almost like a uniform.

Their emergence was surprising, she said, given that Lucknow’s Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods of Nadwa, Tilewali masjid, Daliganj, Khadra, Muftiganj and Thakurganj are not close to Parivartan Chowk. With police pickets everywhere, mobility was limited in the city that day. The men threw stones and burnt vehicles. In the middle of the chaos, they began to suddenly offer namaz, she recalled, even though it was not the time for prayers.

Jafar said she had urged the police to catch the miscreants but the men in uniform seemed reluctant. Those who were peacefully protesting managed to catch one of the rioting men and handed him over to police. But the police did not act against him, said Jafar, instead she was beaten up and taken into custody with Dalit activist Pavan Rao Ambedkar and others.

SR Darapuri, a former Inspector General of Uttar Pradesh police who was also arrested in Lucknow on December 19, told the tribunal that a few Hindutva supporters had been rounded up the same day. But they were let off the next day.

These accounts suggest cadres of the ruling regime had mingled with the protestors. In West Bengal, The Telegraph reported an incident in which stone pelters wearing lungis and skull caps were detained. One of them turned out to be a BJP worker named Abhishek Sarkar.

In Uttar Pradesh, Darapuri has demanded a probe into the identities of the mysterious miscreants who materialised from nowhere and orchestrated the violence.

Uttar Pradesh Police detain a protestor in the city of Meerut during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December. Photo: AFP

Was violence staged to provide cover to the police?

On December 20, police firing on protestors in Meerut were justified by the claim that the Islamabad police post had been ransacked and torched by protestors. Lawyer Akram Akhtar Chaudhary, a member of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, along with others, had visited the chowki on December 26. They found no signs of major vandalism – even the glass door and windows of the post was intact. Only some stationary and files seemed to have been burnt in a corner.

A lawyer who lives in Meerut, Kunwar Shafeeque, told the team he had found the police post in the same condition on December 20.

The exact sequence of events raises further questions: local residents told us that the arson had taken place late evening around 6 pm. By then, doctors confirmed Muslim men had already been brought dead. Many suspect the arson had been staged to provide cover to the police.

Was the violence unprovoked or instigated by the police?

As objective members of the civil society, we cannot deny that protestors had been violent in some places. But objectivity also entails that we provide the fullest extent of the picture. Evidence shows the violence on several occasions was instigated or provoked by the police.

We accessed a video recorded in Lucknow on December 20, in which a group of people are seen protesting peacefully, carrying placards and the national flag. The police suddenly unleashed a brutal lathi-charge, firing teargas shells into the retreating crowd. The one-sided violence continued for a while, till the protestors responded by raining bricks on the police.

In Meerut, a lawyer told the fact-finding team that only after the police beat up a young boy aged eight or nine, who emerged from a mosque in Jama Masjid area wearing a black arm band, did protestors respond with violence.

In Muzaffarnagar, 14-year-old Jameel said he was brutally beaten up in custody by the police after he was arrested in the middle of a lathi-charge. His uncle said even during the communal riots in nearby villages in 2013, the town had remained calm. Violence erupted this time, he said, because the police deliberately provoked the protestors: the inspector of the Civil Lines police station abused and threatened the crowd.

The uncle of 16-year-old Sohail, who was shot in his thigh while riding a cycle, corroborated this, saying that the inspector had made communal slurs against Muslims.

Was the state response disproportionate in UP?

Violence is common during mass unrests in India with public anguish over the damage to public property. In 2016, Jats in Haryana torched government buildings during a protest demanding reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. The estimated losses to the public exchequer were possibly as high as Rs 34,000 crores. Haryana’s BJP government told the High Court that the costs of the damage would be recovered from the members of the mob. But this statement was never followed up.

A similar agitation had been staged by the Patidars in Gujarat in 2015, which resulted in 660 government vehicles and 1,822 public buildings going up in flames in just three days. But there were few scathing Facebook posts, no screaming anchors on prime-time television, no villainisation of the protestors.

In November 2017, across northern and western India, especially Rajasthan, there was an uproar over the release of the movie Padmaavat, which Rajputs claimed was a slur on their community. The primary agitators, the Karni Sena, resorted to large-scale vandalism. And yet the state government never even calculated the losses it incurred.

What explains the zeal of the Uttar Pradesh government which is threatening to seize the property of protestors to make them pay up? It is hard to overlook the fact that its targets are Muslims.

The nine-member jury at the people’s tribunal included three former judges – Justice AP Shah, Justice Sudarshan Reddy, Justice Gopala Gowda. The jury expressed their deep dismay at the way the entire state machinery of Uttar Pradesh, led from the top, acted with grave prejudice against Muslims, using grossly disproportionate force against them.

Compiled with the support of Advocate Akram Akhtar Chaudhary, Keona Rosanne Johny and Varna Balakrishnan.