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.
Raised in a family and milieu deeply influenced by the communist ideology, he set up a small organisation in North East Delhi to mobilise people of his neighbourhood on grassroot civic concerns – better roads, schools, jobs.
When protests erupted against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, the middle-aged activist saw them as a natural extension of these concerns. “We decided that the CAA is an anti-poor law,” he said. “We would also oppose it.”
On the death anniversary of Ashfaqulla Khan, a revolutionary freedom fighter who opposed the British by, among other things, carrying out a train heist called the Kakori Conspiracy in 1925, the activist distributed a pamphlet opposing the Citizenship Act. Around the same time, violence erupted in the nearby Seelampur area as police and protestors clashed.
The police immediately phoned him and asked him to present himself for questioning, the activist recalled. His lawyer went to the police station to ask for details of the case against him. When the police did not respond, the lawyer filed an application in court, accusing them of harassing his client. The police eventually backed out, the activist said.
Unfazed by the intimidation, the activist continued to engage with the wider movement against the Citizenship Act, visiting Shaheen Bagh in South East Delhi, and exchanging notes with other activists.
In mid-January, he became involved in setting up a protest site in a neighbourhood of North East Delhi, not far from where he lived. Police officials came to the site, met his office landlord and left him with a warning: “Police said that if any violence happens at the place then they would catch me.”
‘Riots were done to finish the protests’
The site was run by donations collected from the residents of the predominantly Muslim colony, the activist recalled. But he simultaneously led an outreach in nearby Hindu areas. Going door-to-door, he would introduce himself by name to underline his Hindu identity, before outlining the problems with the law. “We wanted to try to make sure that people understood that this was against all religions and not just Muslims,” he said.
But he faced hostility from his own Hindu neighbours. “An aunt in my neighbourhood asked me if I went to Shaheen Bagh...she would say do not go there,” he recalled. “The anti-Shaheen Bagh publicity through TV and media sat with people.”
When communal violence erupted in North East Delhi in the last week of February, many protest sites were vandalised. But the site the activist was associated with remained safe since it was ensconced inside a Muslim neighbourhood. A few days later, however, the protestors themselves decided to wind it up. “People felt as if the riots were done to finish the protests and beat the protestors, and if one [protest] was still left then it would come into the limelight,” he said.
‘We will beat him up with the baton’
In April, while Delhi was under a strict lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus, policemen landed up at his office, said the activist. Without serving him notice, they took him to the Lodhi Road police station of the Special Cell. He was strip-searched, he alleged. “You are calling someone for interrogation and treating them like a criminal.”
During the interrogation, he said a police officer told him: “Haan bhai tu CAA NRC ka bahut virodh kar raha tha, bada halla macha raha tha…” (You were opposing the CAA NRC and creating a ruckus.)
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 police wanted to know who had funded and supported the protest site, who came to give speeches there. “I told them that 90% was [video] recorded by the police station so they had everything,” the activist said.
The police specifically asked him about his association with activists Khalid Saifi and Safoora Zargar, and former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain. All three have been arrested and charged in the riots conspiracy case. “I told them that he [Hussain] is the councillor in a nearby constituency so I knew him…for that matter, I also know Kejriwal…”
Strikingly, the police asked him about his ideological moorings. “They wanted to know if I was from some Maoist group. They asked that if I am from the Left then which section was I with.”
That night, he was released around 2 am, but asked to come back the next day. Once again, he was strip-searched before the interrogation, he alleged. Once again, the police accused him of not revealing much and threatened to put him in jail.
Scroll.in has emailed questions to Delhi Police about these allegations but they are yet to respond.
‘Nothing wrong with blocking roads’
The activist was called to the Special Cell for the third time in August. He went there assuming he would be arrested, or forced to sign a false statement implicating others. “I decided that no matter how much they hit me, I would say that according to me they [Pinjra Tod] cannot be the rioters, jamming roads cannot cause riots, which is the truth,” he said.
By then, the police had arrested two activists of the feminist group Pinjra Tod, accusing them of instigating women to occupy the road outside Jafrabad metro station on the eve of the visit of the United States President Donald Trump. The road blockade, the police claim, was done as part of a pre-planned conspiracy to spark communal violence and defame the Narendra Modi government internationally. The police have cited internal disagreements between activists on a WhatsApp group on the Jafrabad road blockade as evidence that some were part of the conspiracy.
“It is lies,” said the activist. “Blocking roads has always been a part of protests. There is nothing wrong with it.” He said disagreements on tactics did not make anyone a rioter. “They [the government and the police] are trying to threaten anyone who fights against the system, so that there is no such movement again.”
That day in August, when the police let him off, he sat in an autorickshaw without having any money to pay the driver. Convinced he was going to get arrested, he had come to the police station with empty pockets. He eventually paid the driver once he got home.
Read the entire series here.