When policemen showed up at his door in a crowded Delhi locality in June, the young man was bathing the body of a dead neighbour. “It’s a ritual,” he said. “You wash the body before burying it.”

But the policemen were impatient. They were carrying a notice – they wanted him to appear before the Special Cell within two hours.

At the Lodhi Road police station, the police wasted no time on niceties. “They put my phone records in front of me,” recalled the young man who is preparing for the civil services exam. Among the phone numbers listed in the records were those belonging to student activists, some of whom have been arrested on charges of conspiring to spark violence in Delhi to overthrow the Narendra Modi government.

“They asked me why I had called them,” he said. “I said sir, normally meri baat hui thi. We would speak about regular things. He replied: ‘Bhosdike chutiya samajh ke rakha hai kya humein? Do you think we are idiots?’”

For nine hours that day, and several more over subsequent days, the policemen kept going at him, employing a good cop-bad cop technique – sometimes threatening him, and at other times, plying him with green tea, and once, an omelette.

The policemen wanted him to implicate the student activists by furnishing a false statement against them, he said. “They would say that they would slap UAPA against me and my house would be sealed.” The UAPA is India’s draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows the police to incarcerate an accused person for up to six months without even a chargesheet. The law has been invoked by Delhi Police against the student activists and others arrested in the conspiracy case.

“They called my father in also and told him to get me to speak… to take a name,” the civil services aspirant recalled. “If I would do that, they would give me a new ID, provide me total protection and I would have to testify in an empty room in front of the judge and no one would ever know.”

A student. A food seller. A creative producer. A scientist. All they have in common is that they took part in the Citizenship Act protests last winter. Months later, the Delhi Police called them in for questioning in its controversial riots case, which blames the communal violence that took place in India’s capital in February on a conspiracy by Citizenship Act protestors to overthrow the Narendra Modi government. Over 70 protestors have been interrogated in the case. Here are the stories of seven of them.

A discriminatory law

The civil services aspirant was on a train from Mumbai in early December when he read about the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

Introduced by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government six months after it won a second term with an overwhelming majority, the Bill had sparked anxieties across the country. It sought to expedite citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries, introducing a religious test for Indian citizenship for the first time. Its remit was ostensibly limited to migrants, but there were fears that it was the start of a larger project to undermine the citizenship rights of Muslims.

Through the year, after all, home minister Amit Shah had repeatedly alluded to a “chronology” where amendments to the citizenship law would be followed by a nationwide exercise to isolate and weed out “infiltrators” by drawing up the National Register of Citizens. In this exercise, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians had nothing to worry about, he said, implying that Muslims did.

On December 9, minutes before the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Shah forcefully declared in the house: “Take it as a given: the NRC is going to come.”

A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Protests spread

As word spread that the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens could be used together to strip away their citizenship rights, Muslims poured out on the streets to protest. In Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, Muslim women sat down on a round-the-clock demonstration.

The protest site became a magnet for students and intellectuals who believed the Citizenship Act undermined India’s secular foundations.

Soon enough, several Shaheen Bagh-like gatherings sprang up across the city, and indeed the country, led largely by Muslim women.

Students from Delhi’s many universities also mobilised themselves – rallying around what they said was a fight to defend the Constitution, and triggered by the police high-handedness that was on display. Among other occasions, this was evident when policemen in riot gear barged into the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia university on December 15.

“They [police] were beating students up ruthlessly,” recalled a young student from the university. “There were audio messages flooding our [WhatsApp] groups. That there were women hiding in the bathroom...they said police are outside, please help us, the lights are off.”

The fires of dissent had been lit in the capital. Neighbourhood activists who worked on civic and social issues also jumped into the fray, bringing in more people from various walks of life with them. “We wanted to try to make sure that people understood that this was against all religions and not just Muslims,” said a middle-aged social activist from North East Delhi.

This broad coalition of support is what attracted the civil services aspirant to the protests. “All over India, all educated people, all intellectuals opposed [the law],” he said. “In fact, Muslims would have probably even made peace with it. Because you know the community is so used to being persecuted. What is one more instance? But when I saw non-Muslims also come out, I thought I should also go. Because you know it’s Muslims today, it will be Dalits tomorrow.”

It was nothing short of a coming-of-age moment for him. “This was the first time I had participated in a protest in my life,” he recalled.

‘Collate, collate, collate’

He was not alone. A young creative producer, a few years older than him, was far away from Delhi, in another part of the country, watching the upsurge closely. Hindu, upper caste, upper middle class, he had studied abroad and had no history of activism. But concerned at this apparent attack on India’s secular ethos, he started pitching in virtually. He would mine the internet to collate visuals of police brutality and put together country-wide daily protest calendars. “I was just an individual collating information,” he said. “It was just collate, collate, collate.”

For many seasoned activists, the idea was to provide support to the protesters, many of them with very little prior experience of organising. “Our role was only to help some problem came up,” said Dinesh Abrol, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and veteran Left activist who is part of the Delhi Science Forum. “If, say, the police didn’t give permission, if a few of us seniors could help or if we could help with speakers at the protests since we have our networks.”

Still others who were too busy with the machinations of their daily life and work to join the protests, found other ways to help. A food seller from North East Delhi distributed food packets at two protest sites. “A lot of people were distributing food out of hamdardi [sympathy],” he said. “So, I also did it.”

Similarly, a young communications professional said he acted as bridge between protesters, who were facing trouble with the police, and lawyers and journalists. “I know a lot of lawyers, I have a lot of friends who are journalists, so people would reach out to me and I would connect both parties,” he said.

Indeed, everyone interviewed for this report said the protests were entirely organic. “If this was really planned, the protests wouldn’t have been that big,” said the young creative producer.

The Delhi Police beat students of Jamia Milia Islamia in December after a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Hate and violence

But the headiness of the protests ran into Delhi’s election season. With assembly polls due in February, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party began to make hateful accusations against Muslim protestors seemingly to polarise the electorate. A minister even suggested that “anti-nationals” be shot. The Election Commission was forced to bar him from election campaigning.

On January 30, in the clear view of Delhi police officials, a minor opened fire at students protesting in front of Jamia Millia Islamia.

The young student was present on the spot. “News channels were calling us traitors and he [Union minister Anurag Thakur] said shoot the traitors,” she said. “People made the correlation and we got shot.”

Once the elections were over, however, the social polarisation escalated: communal riots broke out in North East Delhi on February 23, on the eve of a two-day visit of the United States President Donald Trump. Four days of violence, the worst in the national capital in four decades, left 53 people dead, 38 of them Muslim.

In September, Delhi Police filed a 17,000 pages chargesheet in court claiming the riots were the culmination of a conspiracy by Citizenship Act protestors to destabilise India and overthrow the government. Trump’s visit was the moment chosen to activate the plan, the chargesheet claims. Read a summary of the chargesheet here.

The police have arrested 21 people in the case, most of whom are Muslims. Fifteen of them have been charged under 26 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including for murder, sedition, promoting communal enmity, two sections of the Arms Act, and four sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the dreaded anti-terror law.

The accused have denied the charges.

A series of interrogations

Beyond those arrested, however, are scores of others like the civil services aspirant, the young university student, the creative producer who have been interrogated, some for several days for hours on end. A rough count suggests more than 70 people who had participated in the Citizenship Act protests have been questioned by Delhi Police. These include students, professors, grassroots activists, union leaders, business professionals, creative people – and overwhelmingly, Muslim men from minority neighbourhoods across the city.

Most allege they were subjected to tremendous pressure by the police to implicate fellow protesters, and often threatened with dire consequences if they did not. “They would say ‘bacchna chahte ho to ismein statement dena padega.’ If you want to be free, you have to give a statement,” recalled the food seller.

The communications professional recounted a similar ordeal: “They told me, ‘Spill the truth or we will charge you under UAPA too.’”

The social activist said a police officer waved a baton at him during the interrogation while another boasted custodial torture in reality was four times worse than what was shown in films. “He said that they had the right to do it [torture] under the sections that they were interrogating me,” the activist recalled.

Some of those questioned, mostly Muslim men with little social capital, say they yielded to the police pressure and ended up giving tutored statements. “I said what they told me to – I had no choice,” the food seller said.

Scroll.in emailed questions to Delhi Police officials and followed up on phone with its public relations department. No responses have been received at the time of this article’s publication. The article will be updated if they respond.

A minor opens fire at protestors at Jamia Milia Islamia in January. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Interviews with a cross-section of those questioned by the police suggest the levels of intimidation varied, depending on social class and religious identity. But the overwhelming impact of the gruelling interrogation was the same: a pervasive sense of fear that seems to have invaded Delhi’s civil society and Muslim neighbourhoods at various levels.

Many say the police’s intent was to intimidate rather than investigate. “It was less like an interrogation and more like a schooling,” said the young university student who was questioned. The police allegedly told her: “Yeh sab Musalman milke tumhe pagal bana rahe hain. The Muslims are fooling you.”

As a civil society activist, who was questioned and whose phone was seized, put it: “Basically they want that civil society, human rights groups should not speak for Muslims. They are deeply uncomfortable that Hindus and Muslims got together for the protests.”

The communications professional seemed to draw a somewhat similar inference. He said, “From what I gathered from my questioning, the police’s focus is to trap the big guys who have broad networks.”

The Delhi Police’s alleged tactics seem to have already borne fruit. Such is the fear of police reprisal among those interrogated that few were willing to speak. Even seasoned social activists and academics who have had a long engagement with the public sphere declined requests for interviews.

“When you are in the police station being questioned, you realise the power of the state,” said the young creative producer, among the few who agreed to be interviewed. “If they didn’t let me leave the thana, I know I could have literally done nothing.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, barring two public intellectuals, the others who agreed to speak about their experiences did so only on the condition that their identities be protected.

What follows in this series is an account of their lives since December, when they jumped into a movement that they believed was essential to preserving their idea of India, and, subsequently, how the Delhi Police have sought to criminalise their dissent, leaving many of them second guessing their democratic rights.

Read each of the portraits of those interrogated by the Delhi Police in this series:

The civil services aspirant: ‘Police abused me and threatened to send me to remand’

The police would constantly grill him about the other protesters he had spoken to over the phone, he said. “I said sir normally meri baat hui thi. He replied ‘Bhosdike chutiya samajh ke rakha hai kya humein?’” [I said we would speak about regular things. He replied: ‘Do you think we are idiots?’]

And there were, of course, jibes about his religion: “The problem with you Muslims is that you get instigated very easily; you turn to your jihad at the slightest of provocations. Where did the biryani at Shaheen Bagh come from? Did Allah drop it himself from the skies?”

The communications professional: ‘I thought blocking the roads was stupid, but not sinister’

“The police made me memorise a statement…what I had to say and all,” he continued. “Their argument was that since Rahul Roy was the one who created the group, he was the main conspirator. So, the line that they had written down for me was ‘yeh sab Rahul Roy ne karwaya tha’ – all of it was orchestrated by Rahul Roy.”

The interrogation, he said, was nerve-wracking. “While the police didn’t misbehave, or torture me, it was a time of great stress because I knew if the police wanted me to implicate me, they could have done in a thousand ways,” he said. They told me, ‘Spill the truth or we will charge you under UAPA too.’” The UAPA is the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, India’s draconian anti-terror law, which has been invoked against the accused in the riots conspiracy case.

The social activist: ‘Police said they had the right to torture me in the interrogation’

The policeman waved a baton at him, recalled the activist, saying: “Abhi iski dande se pitayi karenge.” We will beat him up with the baton. “Only then will you understand and reveal what you were doing there and why.”

A senior officer then walked into the room and told him custodial torture in reality was four times worse than what was shown in films, the activist alleged. “He said that they had the right to do it [torture] under the sections that they were interrogating me.”

The creative producer: ‘For me, a revolution is less romantic now. The consequences are more real’

He is not an accused so far. He wasn’t forced to be a witness either. The police officer eventually let him off, saying: “Aap jaise shareef log phans jaate ho in cheezon mein.” Decent people like you get stuck in these things.

Yet, he is not sure if he would ever do what he did last winter. “For me, a revolution is less romantic now,” he said. “The consequences are more real.”

“You feel powerful in front of the state when you’re with a crowd of people protesting – I would stare the police down at the protests site. But when you’re in the police station being questioned, that is very different,” he said. “That day if they didn’t let me go that evening, I could have literally done nothing.”

The food seller: ‘Police said your children will really suffer if you don’t speak up’

“I had no role at all,” he reportedly told them. “There were no riots in our area. All of us, Hindus and Muslims, prevented it. For days, we stood vigil and did not let any outsiders inside our locality. So, what role can I possibly have?”

But his interrogators would have none of it. “They would call me every third day and torture me, make me sit there all day. I went around eight-nine times.”

Finally, after several days of this ordeal, he said he agreed to be a witness and give a statement dictated by the police. “I said what they told me to – I had no choice,” he said. “There was no help available as everything was shut. Even the courts were shut for me to go there for help.”

The young student: ‘Am I still in a democracy? The police made me question my harmless intentions’

“This was less like an interrogation and more like a schooling,” she said.

“They asked me what if people started protesting outside your house? Is it right to block roads? How were the students benefiting? There is no point explaining to you students…” she recalled.

At one point, the police brought up her religious identity as a Hindu and questioned her support for the protests. A woman police officer allegedly told her: “Wahan pe bahut sher bante the, yahan hekdi nikal gayi?” At the protests you were like lions, now you have been deflated.

“It felt like they hated Jamia students,” the student said. And they harboured deep seated prejudice against Muslims. “Yeh sab Musalman milke tumhe pagal bana rahe hain,” she claimed the police said. These Muslims are all fooling you.

The scientist: ‘Police let riots happen to delegitimise the protest. Now they are criminalising it’

The police told him the DPSG group had conspired to create a chakka jam or road blockade in North East Delhi to spark violence. “I told them there was never any chakka jam planned,” Dinesh Abrol recounted. “We knew there was a blockade and we were in fact even worried about it.”

Abrol said he confronted the police: “You people were not there when you should have been.” But an officer shot back: “No, no, you should have stopped [the blockade].” The scientist claims he responded by saying: “You have bigwigs including ministers who are planning and doing, can we stop them? We can only have a dialogue and talk. Were they having a dialogue, were you having a dialogue?’”

The police, he said, let the riots happen to “delegitimise the protest”. “Now they are criminalising it,” he added. “Dissent is being criminalised.”