At midnight on August 25, when 21-year-old Zakir Ali Tyagi was still awake watching the news, more than a dozen policemen showed up at his door. They asked him his name, and before he realised what was happening, they arrested him.
“They did not let me speak and did not answer my questions,” said Tyagi, a journalism student from Aminabad village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district. “One of them just said, ‘Tu wohi Yogi-Modi wala hai’ [You are the Yogi-Modi guy] and they dragged me away.”
For the past three years, Tyagi has grown accustomed to the “Yogi-Modi” tag. In 2017, as an 18-year-old living with his aunt in Muzaffarnagar, he was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police for two of his Facebook posts – one of them a joke about the criminal record of then newly appointed chief minister Adityanath, who uses the honorific “Yogi”. Tyagi was booked under the Information Technology Act and spent 42 days in jail.
But his latest arrest on August 25 had nothing to do with this social media case. Instead, officials from Meerut’s Qila Parikshitgarh police station had booked him for alleged cow slaughter, a crime that carries a sentence of 10 years in prison under the Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act.
The police filed a First Information Report against unknown persons on August 23, claiming a farmer in Aminabad alerted them to cow slaughter after he found the hide of a cow in his field. The FIR identified the farmer as Munneshwar. Scroll.in was unable to trace him.
Two days later, the police arrested Tyagi and another Muslim resident of Aminabad, Rauf Ahmad (name changed since his family claims he is a minor aged 17). Tyagi and Ahmad spent 16 days in jail before they were granted bail.
Since his release, Tyagi has emphatically denied the cow slaughter charge against him. “I have been targeted for my activism and my political views on social media,” said Tyagi, who is strongly critical of right-wing politics in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
“The police arrested me after some BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] workers protested outside the police station against the cow slaughter incident,” he said. “I was not named in the FIR [first information report] and the case against me is completely false.”
Ahmad’s father also claimed his son has been falsely accused. “My family has been targeted only because I left one of my old cows in the jungle after she stopped giving milk,” said the farmer who was not in the village on the night when Ahmad was arrested.
A junior official at the Qila Parikshitgarh police station told Scroll.in that Tyagi and Ahmad were arrested after their names came up during investigation. “They have been arrested on the basis of evidence, and our investigation is still going on,” said the official, who did not want to be named. When asked about the nature of the evidence, he said, “We cannot tell you what the evidence is.”
Since his release from jail, Tyagi has received support from several villagers who allege that his arrest is part of a larger conspiracy to target Muslims in Aminabad.
The conspiracy, they claim, involves a mystery caller who has falsely accused at least a dozen Muslim villagers of cow slaughter since Tyagi was released on bail. The police have been unable to trace the caller so far, according to the village chief. But the calls have left the village’s Muslims feeling vulnerable and afraid in a state where over 4,000 people have been arrested for alleged cow slaughter this year alone.
How the arrests took place
Located 25 km from Meerut city, Aminabad is a large village of 5,000 people, nearly half of whom are Muslim, said the village pradhan Mohammed Talib Hasan.
Zakir Ali Tyagi comes from a family of farmers, but wanted to become a journalist – a dream he briefly shelved when he was arrested for social media posts in 2017.
In the three years since he was released on bail, however, Tyagi enrolled himself in a distance-learning media course at Meerut’s Subharti University, while also attracting nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook, and 15,000 on Twitter. This year, he was also active in organising protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Local Hindi news reports about his latest arrest have described him as a “Shaheen Bagh activist”.
Tyagi alleged Meerut police arrested him without a warrant. “At least 15 policemen came to arrest me, and not all of them were in uniform,” he said. As they forced him out of his house and into the police van, Tyagi alleged some of the officials verbally abused the women in his family. “I was really scared because they refused to tell me what I was being arrested for. They just took me to the police station, beat me and put me in a lock-up.”
Scroll.in contacted senior officials at Qila Parikshitgarh police station on the phone to seek their responses to Tyagi’s allegations, but they did not respond to calls. Avinash Pandey, the superintendent of police for rural Meerut, was also unavailable on the phone.
While Tyagi claims his arrest was prompted by a protest by BJP workers, Amit Mohan, a BJP leader from Qila Parikshitgarh block, claimed no such protest took place.
“Whenever villagers tell us about dead cows being found, we respond by doing a dharna and demanding action, but in this case, a dharna was not necessary,” Mohan told Scroll.in. “These two people are guilty and the police arrested them quickly. There is a whole gang of them who are doing cow slaughter.”
On the morning after his arrest, Tyagi claims he was “forced to sign” on a bag of knives and axes that was brought before him. It was only later that the police informed him that he had been arrested for cow slaughter.
Accused arrested in criminal cases are required to be brought before a district magistrate who determines the merit of the case. “But when they took me to the district court, the police did not let me enter the magistrate’s chamber,” alleged Tyagi. “They went inside themselves with some documents and the weapons, and then took me for a Covid-19 test and sent me to jail.”
Tyagi and Ahmad were housed in the local Chhoturam College that has been converted into a makeshift jail since the Covid-19 lockdown. The experience, said Tyagi, was distinctly different from his 2017 stint in jail.
“It is easier to tell people when you are arrested for a political allegation. But when other Hindu prisoners found out I was a Muslim arrested for cow slaughter, they looked at me with hatred and did not want to associate with me,” he said.
Support from villagers
On September 9, Ahmad was bailed out by his family while Tyagi was bailed out by a group of villagers, including the current village pradhan and two former pradhans, all of whom vouched for Tyagi.
“I have known Zakir since he was a child, and he has never done anything violent,” said Soni Mal, a former pradhan. Soni Mal claims that on the morning after Tyagi and Ahmad were arrested, he was among 20 or 30 villagers who went to the Qila Parikshitgarh police station to vouch for Tyagi’s innocence. “It is true that he is politically aware and uses social media to talk about many things, but his name was not on the FIR and I am not sure on what basis the police arrested him.”
Tyagi has also been supported by a non-profit organisation called the Human Rights Defenders Alert, which registered a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission on September 8. The complaint alleged that Tyagi was detained illegally and targeted for “questioning government policies and taking part in peaceful protests”. The Commission has asked the senior superintendent of police in Meerut to submit a report on the case by November 2.
Another former village pradhan, Rajendra Kumar, said that he helped bail Tyagi out because of his good relations with Tyagi’s uncle. “Zakir has never caused trouble in the village before,” Kumar said. “The police knows best about the truth of the case, but I know that Ahmad’s father has been caught by the police before for cow theft and cow slaughter.”
Ahmad’s father denied the allegation. “No one in my family has been caught by the police for anything before,” he said.
The mystery caller
Mohammed Talib Hasan, the village’s sitting pradhan, defended both Tyagi and Ahmad. “The police has no evidence against either of them,” he said. “This is a clear conspiracy to target Muslims – they have not found knives or axes in anyone’s house.”
Talib Hasan claims his belief that this is a conspiracy has been strengthened in the past two weeks, after Tyagi and Ahmad were released on bail.
He claims he is one of at least 12 Muslim villagers who have been targets of false cow slaughter allegations by a mystery caller who has been making phone calls to the Qila Parikshitgarh police from an unknown mobile number.
“This person had been calling the police every few months from the same number for the past two years,” said Talib Hasan. “He would give the police my name, saying ‘main Talib pradhan bol raha hu’, and accuse different Muslims of starting fights with Hindus. The police would investigate and find nothing.”
In the past two weeks, Talib Hasan claims this caller has been calling the police almost every day, once again claiming to be the pradhan. “He keeps giving the police names of different Muslims and saying they have killed a cow in their house,” he said. “I have to keep clarifying to the police that I am not the one making these calls, and every time they call the number back, it is switched off.”
Among the Muslims accused of cow slaughter by the mystery caller is Asif Akbar, a 40-year-old farmer who was in his fields when the police showed up at his house on the afternoon of September 14. “My wife and children were at home when they inspected the house, and they did not find anything,” said Akbar.
Both Talib Hasan and Akbar say they have filed complaints with the police against the unknown caller, but claim that the police has not yet filed FIRs. “We have repeatedly asked the police to track the number and obtain call records, but nothing has been done yet,” said Talib Hasan.
Scroll.in sent questions through mobile text and Whatsapp messages to Avinash Pandey, the police superintendent of rural Meerut, asking him about the status of investigation in the cow slaughter and mystery caller cases, as well the claims that Ahmad was arrested despite being a minor. This report will be updated if he responds.
Cow slaughter cases on the rise
The events in Aminabad village are playing out against the backdrop of heightened politics over cow slaughter in Uttar Pradesh – and an increase in cases against Muslims. Over 4,000 people have been arrested in 1,716 cases registered under the Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act till August 26 this year, The Indian Express reported. The stringent National Security Act has been invoked against 79 of them.
Qila Parikshitgarh’s BJP leader, Amit Mohan, echoed the party’s claim that cow slaughter had come down in the state after the Adityanath came to power in 2017. “Cow slaughter is under control, only 10% of what it used to be,” he said.
On the other hand, Aminabad’s former pradhan Soni Mal believes cow slaughter has actually increased in recent years, after the Adityanath government’s stringent rules for all abattoirs and meat shops. “Earlier cow slaughter did not happen much because the Qureshis [Muslim butcher caste group] were providing meat. But after the crackdown on them, others in the Muslim community occasionally kill cattle to fulfill the demand for meat,” said Soni Mal. “I myself found the skin of a cow in my farm two years ago, but I did not do anything about it.”
Tyagi, however, said the allegations of cow slaughter were being used to target Muslims across UP and put them in a state of fear under the BJP government. Muslims who are influential or critical of the government are particularly targeted. This included him as well as Talib Hasan, the first Muslim pradhan in Aminabad in 35 years.
“In my village, all the Muslims targeted by the unknown caller are those who had stood with the pradhan outside the police station to defend me,” he said.