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.
The young student of Jamia Millia Islamia University already had some experience of the headiness of a protest. When she was in school, she had travelled to the sprawling Ramlila Maidan, where thousands had gathered in 2011, including Delhi’s current chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, under the India Against Corruption banner. “That was my first experience with a water cannon,” said the young woman proudly. “I saw a water cannon being sprayed [on protestors] from a distance. I got some droplets on me.” She also took part in the street protests against the gangrape of a young woman in December 2012.
Her university was among the first places in India’s capital where protests erupted against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. Students marched on the roads outside the campus, facing a police lathicharge on December 13. Two days later, more violent clashes in the neighbourhood led to riot police storming the campus and brutally assaulting students reading inside a library.
The young student, who was not on campus at the time, remembers getting a barrage of panicked messages from friends that evening. “They [students] felt that they would be safer on the road than in the university,” she said. “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. They [police] were beating students up ruthlessly.”
Enraged with what was happening, the student grew actively involved in the protests. She visited protest sites across the city, where she represented Jamia students. As part of her work, she arranged for speakers, managed traffic, did other mundane tasks – anything to help the local organisers. “Our conversations were about how to clean garbage,” she said. “It was very cold. How would we arrange for tea and biscuits?”
On January 30, while students were protesting outside Jamia, an unknown teenager pulled out a pistol and fired on them. A student was shot in his hand. The young woman student witnessed the shooting. She said it did not surprise her – after all, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had been whipping up hate against the protestors as part of their campaign for the February assembly elections in Delhi.
“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.”
A fortnight after the elections, communal violence shook the capital. Shortly after, a nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Protest sites that were once filled with a sea of people became deserted. During the lockdown, however, the police investigation into the riots picked up and they started to probe into an alleged conspiracy behind the riots, claiming that they were planned by the people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act.
‘At the protests you were like lions, now you have been deflated’
An official from the Special Cell called the young woman for interrogation in July. The call did not come as a surprise, but she remembers being gripped by fear, even as she prepared for the questioning. “You have to be very specific with your answers,” she said. “They can make any meaning out of your sentences.”
Four policemen interviewed her and later a police woman joined in. Neither were wearing their uniform. They asked her about Safoora Zargar, what the Citizenship Amendment Act was about, and why she was protesting against it. “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.
Scroll.in has emailed questions to Delhi Police about these allegations but they are yet to respond.
The student said the police let her off, saying they were doing her a favour by not arresting her.
But the whole experience has left her feeling shaken and powerless. “For a short while, it made me question myself,” she said. “Am I still in a democracy? They made me question my harmless intentions.”
It felt like she had committed a thought crime. The interrogation “made me feel like my thoughts can be limited…Every liberating thought I had I never second guessed it but now I do.”
But even in her state of paranoia, she said she is clear about one thing: the police claim that the February riots were a conspiracy by the protestors is laughable. “We set up a library on the road. Is this a sign of conspiracy?” she asked. “Are a stage and a mike a sign of conspiracy? What motive would we have to organise riots?”
Read the entire series here.