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.
December 2019 was a difficult month, the young creative entrepreneur recalled. The city he had grown up in was beset by protests. He wanted to go attend them. Not that he had a history of formal activism – “only active and vocal as an individual” – but he was just aghast at this new law that “clearly differentiated on the basis of religion”.
But he was stuck at a place far away from Delhi. What could he really do? Use the internet, of course. He started collecting “pictures of protests and police brutality from all over the country” and started sharing them on his Instagram.
“Whatever little you can do or say as an individual” to oppose injustice, he explained.
Then as the protests spread out to other parts of the country – except the North East where they had begun much before Delhi – he also started putting out protest calendars. “From the middle of December to end of January, I used to post a protest schedule everyday…of where the protests were nationwide,” he recalled.
It was largely crowdsourced information. “I would scan online, look for posters and because I had been engaging, people would send me information,” he explained. “I was just an individual collating information. It was just collate, collate, collate.”
By the end of January, as the winter waned, he was finally back in Delhi and attending two-three protests a day. “I would just go to observe and listen to whoever was talking,” he said.
Simultaneously, he also started helping with coordinating artiste visits to the protest site. “Since I had a lot of people following me and asking me how we can do things, I had put out a call saying that if you are an artiste of any sort and want to contribute to protest sites, let me know,” he said.
When he was called in for questioning in July, that turned out to be something that the police were particularly interested in.
‘They wanted me to name someone’
“Who asked you to send artistes?” the interrogator demanded to know.
“It was all me,” he replied.
But surely the protest calendars were collated on someone’s instructions, the interrogator asked.
“Once they knew I had no political background, they constantly wanted to know if I had this point-person, a handler, who was making me do things,” he recalled. “They constantly wanted me to name someone.”
Like several other people, he had been called in because he was part of a WhatsApp group that the police believe was at the centre of a purported conspiracy that led to the February communal riots. The fact that he was on the WhatsApp group, he recalled the police officer say, was enough for them to charge him: “By virtue of being in that group and engaging with it, you are part of the conspiracy. Now it’s our prerogative whether we let you go, accuse you, or make you a witness.”
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 idea was to kill the peripheral dissent’
In fact, the fear had set in even before he was summoned by the police – which he knew would happen sooner than later as several people he had come to know during the protests were being grilled, some even arrested, even as the country was under a lockdown to contain the coronavirus.
“Every time the bell rang – and that was rare at that time because nobody would really come to the house – my friend would be like they [the police] have come for you,” he remembered. “I went to bed everyday knowing fully that it could happen. There were days I couldn’t go to bed because of my anxiety.”
The interrogation itself was emotionally wringing. “It is just scary to be told by law enforcement that everything you believed in was wrong,” he explained. “There was a moment, I am not going to lie, when the DCP [Deputy Commissioner of Police] was talking to me, telling me that it was all a conspiracy, for a split second there was this weird feeling that how do I know it’s not a conspiracy.”
“I thought about feeling that later. It is like this weird seed they planted in my head,” he said.
He still puzzles over the fact that Delhi Police called him in, despite his privilege as an affluent, upper-caste Hindu. “I think the idea was to kill the peripheral dissent that exists – the people who are not at the centre of this, but making noise about this.”
“They wanted this tiredness and hopelessness,” he said. “This is what they always wanted but it did not happen then because a new protest would spring up every day.”
“But that level of mobilisation is not possible now,” he continued. “So much has happened. It has worn everyone down.”
Read the entire series here.