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. Below is an account by one of them.
He smiled and his voice became dreamy as he spoke about the Mumbai trip in December 2019, his first ever to the megapolis. He and his friends had done all the touristy things. “Colaba, Gateway, Elephanta,” he listed out with child-like enthusiasm.
“I was a child only then,” he added, almost reflexively, his voice suddenly becoming more serious, as if to signal a return to the present. In the last ten months, the young man, barely out of his teens, had grown by several years.
It began on the train ride back from Mumbai where he read about the growing furore over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which became a law by the time he reached Delhi. He had heard about the bill before – as a civil services aspirant, he was a voracious reader of “news and current affairs”. But the importance of the impending changes sunk in only on the train journey, he said.
Back in Delhi, he started attending the protests that were coalescing on the streets. Initially, at Jantar Mantar where he would meet activists and journalists he was starry-eyed about. Then, in Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi, where a round-the-clock sit-in by Muslim women had become a magnet for a new, pulsating protest energy.
“I started spending my nights there,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t come back home for two-three days at a stretch. It was cold so I could go without a change for that long. My parents were furious but I told them please don’t stop me. I had to protest – it was so unlawful.”
Soon, he turned into an organiser from an attendee, organising candlelight marches with his childhood friends in their neighbourhood – the old quarters of Delhi. “We sang the national anthem on the stairs of the Jama Masjid,” he said. “The idea was to challenge the notion that Muslims don’t sing the national anthem.”
He often ran into trouble with the police, but kept at it – till the February riots convulsed the city and the pandemic brought all mobilisations to a grinding halt.
‘Where did the biryani come from?’
Even as the protests ended, the Delhi Police’s riots investigations picked up. As many of his fellow protesters – whom he had become friends with over the course of the winter – were rounded up, questioned and charged, he was called in for interrogation too. His number was found in their mobile call records and he was asked to explain why he had called or received calls from them.
The police asked: why did he go to Shaheen Bagh at all? He was not a resident of the locality, after all. “I told them the environment was very nice. People would talk to me without asking me about my identity,” he recalled.
The questioning spilled into many days, once over nine hours at a stretch. The police were relentless in their intimidation – though it was, on occasions, punctuated by some green tea, and once, even an omelette. “They threatened that they would send me to remand,” he said.
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?”
But it was more than just anti-Muslim dog-whistles. Once, he recalled, the police derided a well-known Hindu public intellectual who had opposed the Act. “The amount of poison the police had is unbelievable,” he said. “And it’s not just against Muslims. They resent all secular people. They said, ‘Yeh humare jo log hai yehi sabse bade harami hai. Our people [the Hindus] are the worst of the lot.’”
Scroll.in has emailed questions to Delhi Police about these allegations but they are yet to respond.
‘Muslims are scared’
As the civil services aspirant refused to implicate anyone, he claims his father was also summoned. The police asked him, gently, to get his son to name someone. In return, they would give him a new identity and provide the family “full security”, the young man recalled.
Finally, after many rounds of questioning spanning several days, the police gave up. “I did not give any statement. I did not put my sign on any paper,” he said.
The police interrogation, traumatising as it was, had taken a load off his head, he said. “Pehle bas wohi police ka darr tha, but abhi woh bhi ho gaya hai. I would be scared of the police earlier, but now I have had a brush with them too.”
But he admits it is unlikely he will take part in a protest gathering anytime soon. “There is great fear everywhere,” he said. “The police are keeping an eye on us. They will swoop in on us if we hit the streets again. Musalman dara hua hai. Musims are scared.”
Read the entire series here.