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.
When protests began against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, Dinesh Abrol was just glad that young people were not “all about their careers and not concerned about society”.
“That was what many people in our generation involved in the people’s movements had come to believe,” said the 67-year-old science professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is part of the Delhi Science Forum. In the 1970s, as a young PhD student at JNU, he had fought the Congress-imposed Emergency, and has since been involved in social movements.
“It was very heartening to see young people across the board react sharply strongly to the very discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act people,” he said. “Young people from IITs, IIMs, they all came out to defend the Indian Constitution.”
Abrol said his contemporaries saw the student protests as “an opportunity for us to talk to the young people about this country” and how it can “achieve well-being for all without discriminating, without creating others”.
The student protests were followed by Muslim women, young and old, coming out on the streets to protest. “There was insinuation they were coming out for money and all,” recalled Abrol. “But when I talked to them, I realised that was not the case – they had come out voluntarily.”
That again, Abrol said, was an extremely heady feeling – “the fact that a secular India is possible.” “These were very secular, peaceful, democratic expressions,” he said. “We thought we should build on them.”
The cause sat perfectly with the objectives of the people’s science movement that he is part of. “At the Delhi Science Forum, we believe in the Indian Constitution,” he explained. “We believe in the ability to create a composite culture…Ek desh jisme sab rang shamil ho sake [a country where all colours can mingle].” The forum’s wider philosophy is that progress in science and mathematics can only emerge from an open cultural exchange in the world. “Plurality and democracy are the only ways to keep Indian democracy and integrity alive,” he said.
‘Our role was only to provide support’
On December 28, Abrol joined the Delhi Protest Support Group created on WhatsApp by film makers Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, who are also peace activists. Abrol was one of the first few people to be added to the group that the Delhi Police now claims was at heart of the “conspiracy” that led to the riots.
But Abrol, who even attended physical meetings of the group, dismisses these charges. “People were organising these protests by themselves. Our role was only to provide support,” he said of the group’s rationale. “Say this person would speak at this protest site, someone else somewhere else. Just suggestions and help since we are older people and have our networks.”
In January, the atmosphere in Delhi grew charged. With assembly elections approaching, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party began to make provocative speeches against the protestors. A few, stray incidents of violence were directed at the protesters. This caused worry among the veterans of the DPSG group, Abrol said.
“I know that there was a genuine desire among the DPSG members to keep the democratic spirit of the protests alive… to calm things down,” he said. “DPSG was not a conspiracy. If there was something called a conspiracy, it was on the other side,” he added, referring to BJP supporters.
‘You should have stopped the blockade’
In July, like many other members of the DPSG group, Abrol was called in for questioning by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, which was investigating the conspiracy case. 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,” he 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?’”
Many others questioned by the police say they were subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation in several rounds of questioning that went on for hours. But Abrol said he was let off after barely 45 minutes.
“You can pressurise a person who is either weak or guilty,” he said. “We are neither weak nor guilty. We are strong minded people willing to pay a price for our convictions.”
The police, he said, let the riots happen to “delegitimise the protest”. “Now they are criminalising it,” he added. “Dissent is being criminalised.”
But unlike most others who spoke to Scroll.in, Abrol was more sanguine about the future. “I don’t think they [the government and the police] can crush this dissent because people who came out are thinking people,” he said. “They are manufacturing fear and thinking people will see through it.”
Read the entire series here.