Apoorvanand is a professor of Hindi at Delhi University. As a public intellectual, not only does he write extensively on Indian politics, he frequently attends meetings and protest gatherings on a range of causes.
In July, Delhi Police summoned him 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 questioned in the case in which 15 people have been charged under a stringent anti-terror law so far.
Among those questioned, few have been willing to speak about their experience given the chilling effect the case has created. Fewer still are willing to be identified by name. Apoorvanand is one of them.
One afternoon in late September, he spoke to Scroll.in at length about why he felt the need to protest against the Citizenship Act, what he makes of the police’s riots conspiracy case, and why he is not afraid.
Can you recall how and when you became aware of the implications of the government’s citizenship law? What made you view it as a matter of concern?
The basic philosophy the ruling party professes is that of division and discrimination, a philosophy of Hindu domination in India by subjugating others – others means Muslims and Christians especially – by terming them as second-class citizens. My understanding of this politics is that all their policies and their decisions are driven by this.
That is how I started looking at NRC [National Register of Citizens] and then the announcement of CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act]. If you remember, NRC was treated as an Assam problem. This was something the Supreme Court was steering and it was keen that NRC is completed in a time-bound manner. Former Chief Justice [Ranjan] Gogoi was especially very keen, and I have said it earlier and still hold that he was driven by Asomiya chauvinism. The very exercise of NRC involved the principle of othering people.
Many of our friends held that we had to understand the insecurities of indigenous people of Assam but then the problem is that who is this first indigenous, how do you identify them, does this process of NRC help you in any way in defining who are the people who actually belong to Assam and who are the outsiders?
But even before that, a narrative of insider and outsider formed the bedrock of the politics of BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] because in 2013 and 2014, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and all others kept telling their constituents that once in power they will throw out all the infiltrators. Two words were used – ghuspethiye (infiltrators) and Bangladeshi – and they were used interchangeably. When it reached the ears of their constituents it automatically got translated into Muslims. And after that, the third word came, it was Rohingya. We know that the number of Rohingyas in India is only 40,000, so how is it that Rohingyas become such a big threat? Rohingyas, in fact, became a motif in the election campaign of BJP leaders.
The pattern was very clear. Since 2013, they had been raising what you would call in Hindi, darawana [spectre] of outsiders, infiltrators, intruders, Bangladeshis. Then, the NRC came [in Assam] and they started saying that we are identifying outsiders, we are identifying Bangladeshi infiltrators and we will throw them out.
But the promise of NRC to identify so-called Bangladeshis, who were supposed to be Muslims, and then deny them citizenship and throw them out was proven to be wrong, since lakhs of Bengali-speaking Hindus were left out of the NRC in Assam. So BJP said that well don’t worry we are now amending the citizenship law to bring you in. The cut off year for NRC was 1971 and the cut off year for the CAA is 2014 and they said people who came to India before 2014 from countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan would be given citizenship through this route. Only Muslims would be denied this, they said, since Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are Muslim countries so Muslims cannot be treated as persecuted minorities.
But the devil lies in the details because in the body of the text of the law nowhere do you find a mention of persecuted minorities. Second, they had to explain that if you want to give citizenship to lakhs of Bengali-speaking Hindus who had been left out of the NRC in Assam, they would need to prove that they had come from Bangladesh or Afghanistan or Pakistan so would need some papers. Where from would they bring those papers?
It was a sham. It was, I would say, treachery, deception. In my opinion, the CAA was addressed to Bengali-speaking Hindus in Assam but in Bengal as well. It was addressed to the Hindus of the Hindi-speaking areas because the ruling party wanted to tell its constituents in these areas that look we are going to tell Muslims that your Muslimness doesn’t have first claim over India.
This is how I reached the conclusion that CAA is not an innocent exercise. It is not driven by a noble intent to give citizenship to the poor, persecuted minorities of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan but it was a symbolic move, a symbolic violence I would say on the Muslims of India to tell them that well, we are creating a route to reach Indian citizenship on this path, all would walk on it but you. We now have the power to create pathways which won’t be open to you. So the discriminatory element and the violence inherent in it, the symbolic violence, was very clear to me.
When and how did your engagement with these protests start?
A slew of measures were taken by this government after it returned to power [in 2019]. The first thing it did was in the name of protecting Muslim women, it enacted the anti-Triple Talaq law, but it was clearly designed to humiliate Muslim men, not safeguard Muslim women. Secondly, this government induced the Supreme Court to give the land of the Babri mosque to build a temple and then it dismembered Jammu and Kashmir. All these moves had a common element: humiliate Muslims of India to tell them that this is what we can do to you and you cannot do anything. But Muslims kept quiet.
When the CAA-NRC combine came, the Home Minister made his intent very clear when he spoke about the chronology. The intent became very clear that this was about disenfranchising Muslims, turning them into doubtful voters, and then denying them any citizenship rights, effectively turning them into second-class citizens, which is the objective of the politics of this government. But our Opposition political parties failed to rise to this. If you look at how they responded in Parliament, it was very disappointing that there was no effective response from them.
We were feeling very perturbed because when you see an injustice happening before your eyes you would like people to rise and speak against it. But given the atmosphere in the country it seemed too much to expect that most Hindus would understand why Muslims were feeling humiliated. There has been a systematic attempt to fill them with hatred for Muslims which means they feel pleasure when Muslims are humiliated.
To expect a mass movement [against the Citizenship Amendment Bill] in which all sections of society could participate was too much. We [intellectuals] had started speaking about it the moment it was conceived, but we could not see any movement on the ground. But after the enactment of the [Citizenship Amendment Act], Muslims came out spontaneously on the streets of Uttar Pradesh, in Karnataka and elsewhere, and they were brutally suppressed. This was followed by the brutalisation of students at Jamia Millia Islamia, where police entered the library and beat them up. They did the same thing to the students of Aligarh Muslim University.
After that, a very unique thing started happening. The women of Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated area in Delhi, started coming out and occupying the road adjacent to where they live. In fact, it attracted my attention three to four days after they started their sit-in. We were first curious and second suspicious.
Why curious and suspicious?
Because we had not seen anything of this kind happening before. If you are enacting a sit-in, it is usually a sit-in for a definite period, at a common place like Jantar Mantar. But here were Muslims sitting in their own locality. Why were they doing it? Because when they had come out on the streets, they had been brutally attacked and no one had come to support them. Jamia Millia Islamia, after all, was a common space occupied by all faiths and all colours and all cultures, but their children were not safe there. By protesting in their own locality, they felt safe.
Also, these were mostly Muslim women, homemakers, traditional Muslim women. In popular imagination, traditional Muslim women are treated as backward who do not have an agency of their own, who do not have political consciousness, etc. I cannot say we were entirely free of all these biases.We were not very open to this experiment but after it started taking root, it attracted us. We went there and we tried to understand it. We felt that something of this kind should start in all localities, commonplaces and it should be multicultural and multifaith. Unfortunately, it was not. But again I will say, Muslims cannot be blamed for this because Muslims came out, the symbols they used were the tiranga [the national tricolour flag] and the Preamble of the Constitution and all the icons of the freedom struggle and they were mostly non-Muslims.
So it was a very honest, beautiful attempt through which they wanted to define their own Muslimness, which was an essential component of Indianness and in which they felt beholden to non-Muslim identities like that of Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule, or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, or Gandhi or Nehru or Bhagat Singh...figures like them. So it was very exciting to see something of this kind happening before your eyes, spreading to nearly 25 spots in Delhi and more than 200 spots in India.
I got an opportunity to visit other places in India as well.
Pune, Goa...but what saddened me was that Hindus were not joining Muslims in these protests. In Bihar, a month-long yatra was taken out. I used to ask my friends for a daily update: how many Hindus? How many non-Muslims? And it never exceeded 10% and even those were organised masses, people or cadre belonging to parties like CPI, CPM, or CPI-ML. So they were not really Hindu in that sense of the term. It remains a huge disappointment for me that Hindus didn’t try to sympathise or empathise with Muslims and didn’t try to have a dialogue with them and understand their anguish.
You said most Hindus did not feel empathy, rather experienced pleasure over the way Muslims were being humiliated. Is this sentiment new?
It has been building for the past few decades and the fact of the majoritarian politics taking the seat of power at the Centre emboldened it even more. The suppressed majoritarian instinct which wanted to see others beneath yourself, it felt that now it had all the opportunity, all the power and backing of the state to fulfil this desire.
But even then India remains a country with a history of co-living, despite our misgivings about each other. Thinkers have talked about it and Premchand wrote long back that this theory that Hindus and Muslims don’t have anything in common is wrong and it is hateful propaganda and we should not fall for it. This is what he wrote in the 30s. Mind you, Premchand is a Hindu, a Kayastha and his first language was Urdu and Persian. Hindi was his acquired language. He wrote his first short stories and novels in Urdu. Many of the top Urdu writers were Hindus. So the talk of composite culture is not a fantasy. It has been an Indian reality. You have many traditions in which Hindus and Muslims have tried to sing each others’ lives and cultures. A friend of mine sings this song in Bhojpuri which is about the birth of Mohammad. The birth of a child. This is a very old composite culture, not a fantasy. We see it in architecture, music, in our attire and cuisine.
To expect that Hindus have a memory of this composite culture is not extraordinary. That is why I expected Hindus to revive the proximity they have always had with Muslims. We have been a part of tazia processions [during Muharram]. There has been a tradition in our villages and small towns where Hindu women and mothers would wait for the tajias and they would pass their children under the tazias so it was considered auspicious. Even now, I see auto drivers slowing down their autos before a mazaar. There is a sense of shared sacredness where a mazaar is as sacred as a temple. You go to Ajmer Sharif and you find many Hindus offering chadars even now despite the hate campaign against Ajmer Sharif and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Even now Hindus go in large numbers and offer chadar. They want to feel that sacredness.
It was not something out of the world to expect Hindus to go to their Muslim neighbours and ask them what is troubling you and why is it that you find this Act to be wrong. I don’t think that it was wrong first to expect university teachers and others to try to understand this anguish and to educate their students that there was an inherent element of injustice in this law.
How would you describe the nature of the movement against the Citizenship Act?
I would say that after a very very long time, it was an expression of Muslim political aspiration and their urge or demand to be treated as equal and to be heard with respect. So apart from being a movement with a demand – to revoke or abolish CAA, or if not abolish it, then include Muslims in the law as well – it also became an expression of a sense of confidence among Muslims that they can speak in this country as Muslims and raise their political demand. They don’t need to feel shy or accept the argument that if they talk as Muslims then they are communal.
What were your observations on the protests taking place in Delhi? How were they structured and organised?
It was very innovative because it was an indefinite sit-in largely populated by women, and women who are in Indian parlance known as housewives. A protest where homely women are sitting, not the usual protesting types, with their children, grandmothers with granddaughters, mother-in-law with daughter-in-law, became an extension of home. It lost that bitterness which is usually associated with protests. It acquired a very unique kind of humanness. The large presence of Muslim housewives in traditional attire gave a very different hue to the protesting sites. It was very inviting, very colourful. The mood was very festive. Children running here and there, mothers trying to calm them and then people constantly trooping in especially young women from universities.
I remember while coming down from the metro station on the way to Shaheen Bagh, I saw many youngsters. It was a very heartening thing to see these youngsters getting drawn to these sites and trying to be a part of it. It was very joyous. At the same time I would also say there was a sense that the people sitting there were also bewildered because they didn’t know how they were being perceived outside and they didn’t know how the state would respond to them and how long they would have to continue with this. You could see an anxiety among the protestors as well. Determination, perseverance, but also anxiety.
While these protests were going on, a group was created on WhatsApp called the Delhi Protest Support Group. Could you please tell us how you came to be involved in it?
I am a teacher, a writer. I write on literary and cultural issues but I also write on contemporary political and social issues. I feel it is my duty to be a part of people’s expressions, and expression is not only in the form of articles, protests are also a form of expression.
For example, when safai karamcharis or Valmikis get together to protest, we go there. We are not safai karamcharis, we do not belong to their caste, but we feel that we have a responsibility to them as co-citizens. When Dalits protested two years ago after the Supreme Court judgement diluted the Atrocities Act, we became a part of their protests.
When [journalist P] Sainath started this campaign for the farmers of India, we got together as teachers, students and academics to be a part of that. When Premchand writes a novel like Godhaan, a teacher who teaches Godhaan cannot say that if farmers are protesting in Delhi then I will keep myself aloof and teach Godhaan because kisaan is not only an academic matter. It is also a living reality.
So this is our history [of engagement with protests] and that is how we became a part of this movement [against the Citizenship Act].
But again as I was telling you earlier, these protests were largely initiated by Muslims. They were the organisers. They were deciding the form, how it would continue. We could not just walk in and say that well, we are also a part of it. All we could do was to express a kind of solidarity and not rob them of the role of leadership. This is something Dalits keep complaining about: when so-called upper caste liberals join them, they occupy all the space because their faces are visible, they have friends in the media, their voices get heard and they become leaders. So one has to be very careful you do not rob them off their leadership role when they themselves are crafting the movement.
But then this act of solidarity is a very necessary act. And that is why people like me have been active in these capacities for a very long time, like our friend [documentary filmmaker] Rahul Roy or others who were active in 1984 when Sikhs were being attacked, thought that we should offer something as proof of our solidarity [with those protesting against the Citizenship Act].
So what could we do? These were 24x7 protests and many of our students were also there as organisers or friends. They wanted people to come talk to them from different walks of life. And not only on the topic of CAA, because Muslims knew what CAA was, so you did not have to go and educate them on how wrong or unjust it was. They knew it well that is why they were sitting there. They wanted you to talk on other issues and wanted other forms of solidarity.
So some of our friends got together and formed a Whatsapp group called DPSG which used to maintain contact with different protest sites and cater to their requests for speakers, performers or singers, workshops on Right to Education, Right to Information, on MNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act].
It was a very loose WhatsApp group. The nature of such groups is that people keep getting added. The level of activity of all the members of the WhatsApp group or everyone associated with it is not of the same level. Some come occasionally, some were active after some time.
I do not exactly know of its origin because I was not there in the first meeting but I was added to the group but it was fine with me because I knew the people.
What do you recall of the atmosphere in Delhi in the days preceding the violence?
We were observing with concern the rising hatred, the way the BJP people had campaigned [against the Citizenship Act protestors] taking advantage of the assembly election. Tempers were rising and so was frustration and desperation.
Personally, I was not in constant contact with the protest sites, so I do not know what was going on there. But as observers we could feel and sense that these sit-in protests have made their point. Muslims have registered their sense of anguish and their sense of displeasure and anger. Now we felt it was the time that this whole movement moved to a different level. We called it jan jagran or mass awareness because Hindus had been misled by BJP, they had been fed propaganda that these protestors are anti-Hindu. There was propaganda that these protestors are against giving citizenship to persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh or Pakistan, which was not true. The protestors never said don’t give citizenship to anyone, they said please don’t deny citizenship to persecuted Muslims or Muslims. Don’t keep the word Muslim out [of the law].
But the scale of propaganda was humongous. Mainstream media also joined the ruling party leaders in spreading this propaganda and taking it to the drawing room of Hindus. We were were cognisant of this level of disinformation, this level of viciousness which was gripping the minds of Hindus and we were very concerned because if it were to remain what it was as Muslim protests then it won’t succeed.
And we could see that mainstream political parties were maintaining a safe political distance from this movement even the party which won with the support of Muslims. Muslims voted for the Aam Aadmi Party despite its pronounced indifference from the movement. Even Arvind Kejriwal said, “Agar mere paas police hoti toh main do ghante mein khali kara deta.”[If the police reported to me, I would have vacated the protest sites in two hours].
This was the level of hostility which was building up against the protests, and it concerned us. Therefore, we started talking of withdrawal of protests and moving to the next phase of mass awareness programme, door-to-door campaign to make people aware of how lethal the combination of NRC and CAA and NPR is going to be not only for Muslims but for other sections of society as well. Prior to the date of violence, this is what we were feeling.
Then, there was the road blockade. I remember the call by [Dalit rights group] Bhim Army for a Bharat Bandh. Again Bhim Army does not have much of strength but its leader Chandrashekhar Ravana tried to become a leader by espousing the cause of anti-CAA protestors. He occasionally emerged at Jama Masjid and other places. When his call came, the protestors responded to that call. My understanding is, because I have not spoken to the people who moved from their protest sites to the roads to do a road blockade, my understanding is that they felt that they would be joined by Dalits and it would become a universal kind of moment. You should also keep in mind that they were sitting for more than two months and the situation was getting desperate for them. How long were they going to sit? They felt they had to do something, which would pressurise the government to at least hear them out, talk to them.
Road blockade is a method that has been used by protestors in India umpteen number of times. People have done road blockades and then administration has come and given them a hearing. So it was very natural for protestors to adopt a method to put extra pressure on the authorities and make them listen to them. Unfortunately, they didn’t realise that these authorities did not consider them as their people. They treated them as non-people or anti-Indian.
I would like to say that protests were perfectly legitimate, they are Constitutionally recognised and if the administration felt that the protests were unlawful assembly or violation of traffic rules, because when you block a road you violate traffic rules, you have a protocol to deal with such a situation and you can resort to that and deal with the situation. I do not think that merely road blockade can be treated as an act of conspiracy.
How and when did you sense that police would treat you as a suspect or interrogate you at the very least?
In April, a friend of mine called because she had read a report in a newspaper that said that an unnamed professor was on the [police] radar. I don’t remember which newspaper. It was perhaps the Indian Express. She was very concerned that “they are targeting you”. I said that this unnamed professor could be anyone but she said she did not doubt that it is me because among the professors I was vocal about minority rights and who are seen as aligned to the protests, my support was pronounced. But the matter ended there.
On May 22, I again got a call at 10 or 11 at night, again a friend from civil society, and she sounded very agitated. She said they were targeting me. She said that Times Now had done a primetime on you without naming you but all the hints dropped showed it was me. I did not feel inclined to go and look, but somehow my daughter got that link, and she shared it with me. It was bizarre. It was a story they were building that an unnamed Delhi University professor who writes against this government and is a part of Lutyens club [laughs]...I don’t know which club allows me [entry].
After that alarm bells started ringing. My colleagues came home next morning and they were concerned. They said I should not take it lightly. I started getting calls that I need to do something, I cannot treat it as [just] a news item as it has real implications. This is definitely something the police has leaked and this is what they were trying to build.
By May 22, many arrests had taken place [in the riots conspiracy case]: Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Devangana, Natasha, Gulfisha. And it was in the air that DPSG was being probed and DPSG was being seen as the conspirator mind. We were also aware of the so-called fact finding report which was submitted to the Home Minister in March by [the pro-BJP] GIA – Group of Intellectuals and Academics is what it is called. In that report, they had built this theory that “left liberal radical coterie” – and this is exactly what Times Now was using – that it had planned and conspired to instigate the riots, because it was so obsessively anti-Modi that it used the occasion of Trump’s visit to embarrass this government in international eyes and it used the gullible innocent Muslims to do this. They also roped in the names of many organisations in the report.
They had this theory that it had been planned by Left liberals, because how can Muslims have a mind of their own. How can they think? They are innocent gullible Muslims, so they [the Left liberals] are thinking, guiding and provoking them that this Act is anti-Muslim, and bringing them on the road. This theory was very much there. It was all floating. In fact, it was given credence by the Home Minister himself because he made a statement on the floor of the House and he blamed [former student leader] Umar Khalid, he took his name, he referred to his speech, he took the name of United Against Hate.
So it was very clear that the theory of conspiracy, a template was being prepared in which the main actors were these organisations, which had been working against communalism, against mob lynching, against hatred, who have been writing and speaking against it. They were being treated as the kingpin or masterminds and then violence being blamed on them that it had been crafted by them and it was an anti-Hindu violence. This was something which had been there since March. We could connect the dots and the suspicion gained ground that they were after people from the community of intellectuals.
How and when did the police contact you first? What was your reaction like?
Since all of this was in the air, so I won’t say that I felt as if what had happened. Because people who worked with us were being called by the police so we knew that if this is the theory and they want to look credible then they have to have actors then they will at some point reach us. So when the notice came to me…
Did it come physically?
Yes. But I was not here. It came around July 30. They called me the next day. I spoke to them, I was not free and I went to the police station on August 3. I reached 2 pm but I was made to wait for two hours so it started at 4 pm or 3.45 pm. It lasted for three and a half hours. I came out at around 7.30 pm.
What kind of questions did police ask you?
I could see the theory that was floating in the air that it was DPSG that was the root of the problems. From the questions, you couldn’t really understand what they were trying to get at. But you could see a pattern. And I spoke about it in my statement I issued after the interrogation that the theory was that the protestors were responsible for the violence because the police held that the road blockade was responsible. Why was road blockade done? Road blockade was a part of the conspiracy, the road blockade provoked the other side and they were forced to do violence.
Now I see in the latest statement by police that it has been further refined that it was not only road blockade but actually violence under the garb of road blockade which was being planned. But then [when the police questioned him] the theory stopped there: the act of road blockade in itself was unacceptable and why was it allowed to happen, why didn’t people from civil society who were helping these protestors, prevent it from happening?
Did they say or do anything to intimidate you?
No. It was courteous. It was polite. At times it was a discussion.
The Delhi Police has claimed the anti-Citizenship Act movement was a facade for a sinister conspiracy to overthrow the government. Did you see any shades of a conspiracy during your involvement with the protests?
The protests were very open and transparent. The demand was very clear. And the women of Shaheen Bagh were constantly asking the Home Minister and Prime Minister to talk to them. If you remember, they were making appeals, they said they were ready to march to your place or you come over and talk to us. So they were not even saying they do not recognise this government, leave alone the talk of overthrowing the government.
To seek the removal of the government which I see as unjust is not unlawful. We often say, “Humari mange puri kar do nahi toh gaddi chodh do.” [Fulfill our demand, or leave the chair]. I am well within my Constitutional limits when I create disaffection against the government which I feel is unjust and harmful for the country. I can do that otherwise how would movements happen? How would India Against Corruption [the protest movement against the Congress government in 2012] happen? How would the Jayprakash movement [against the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s] happen? How would other movements take place? They were anti-government movements and that is my right otherwise what is the meaning of democracy.
But in this movement, if we stick to facts and facts alone, this movement didn’t seek removal of this government. It sought a revision of this Act or a revocation of this Act. Never dethroning the government. The main slogan, the main demand of the movement, of Shaheen bagh, was to revoke CAA, take back CAA, take back NRC, take back NPR. No one was delegitimising this government.
What is the larger significance of the Delhi riots probe in our national life? Do you think there is a larger significance beyond just Delhi and if so, what?
Each act of violence has to be seen in two ways. Each act of violence is local, even the mob lynching of Afrazul, of Pehlu Khan is a local affair but it doesn’t remain local because it travels across. And what is the message travels, the message is two-fold and the addressees are two different people, one is Muslims and other is Hindus. When you lynch Pehlu Khan, the message given to Muslims across India is that you are insecure, individually you are insecure. And what happened to Pehlu Khan or Akhlaq, he was dragged out of his house and killed and his fridge opened and checked if it had beef or not. It could happen to any Muslim in India. This is the message that goes to Muslims in India.
Second, to Hindus, it gives them a pleasure of violence. Without soiling their hands, without bloodying their hands, they get the pleasure of this violence, they become participants when they see that video of violence, they relish it. The violence becomes national violence and they become participants of this violence.
This is how the message of each localised violence spreads. What did Gujarat do [in 2002]? What did the  Muzaffarnagar violence do ? They were localised. Muzaffarnagar violence did not spread to other parts of Uttar Pradesh, but its impact was national but it made Muslims feel more insecure even in Delhi, even in Bihar and elsewhere. It made them cautious while travelling in trains, buses, they became very cautious, they went silent. A killing of a person, a young boy like Junaid, a 15-year-old, it was a local thing, an isolated thing it doesn’t happen everyday but it did something to Muslim travellers. This is what happens to each act of violence.
When violence like this is planned, it is not only to teach minorities or Muslims a lesson in that locality, it is to send a message across to all Muslims in India. That it can happen anywhere and we can do it and nothing will happen to us. We will kill you and blame it on you. It is violence in continuum. First you enact a law which is symbolic violence. Then you do this hate campaign, which is violence in speech. Then you enact an actual physical act of violence, which was done in those three days. So it is a continuum of violence and it continues further when you start arresting people and disproportionately people from among the victims themselves. So you are made more and more helpless because the violence continues. Your disempowerment continues. Your helplessness increases. You just don’t know because you had participated in a protest. Now a notice has reached your parents that turn in your daughter or son in a non-bailable warrant and UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] will be slapped on him or her.
So this continuum of violence is something which was again a feature of the Delhi violence. Delhi violence was only a part of this continuum. It continues in the form of [First Information Report numbers] 59/20, 50/20, in the form of arrest of 21 young Muslim men and women, and hundreds of Muslim men or women and harassment of Muslims.
In FIR 59/2020, they have chargesheeted 15 of the 21 arrested. Thirteen of the 15 are Muslim. What do you think of that?
This is what I was trying to say. They are telling Muslims, don’t dare do this. You have no right to protest. If you go out then everything you do will be criminalised and you will be disabled for life. You will be ruined. This is the message they are trying to send to Muslim youth that we won’t allow you to have a political voice. You are not political subjects, you are not political agents in this country.
Are the targets intellectuals or Muslims or both?
Why are intellectuals also the targets? Because intellectuals are the only section of the society who have stood with the minorities. Not even political parties, not even those political parties who claim to be secular because they applauded the move of the dilution of 370 [the article of the Constitution that gave Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy], they applauded the move of the building of the Ram temple, they supported the move of the anti-Triple Talaq law.
Only some of these intellectuals have moral clarity and that is why these intellectuals are being targeted. If you remember, in 2015 when Akhlaq was lynched, the first protestors were writers: Nayantara Sehgal, Uday Prakash, Ashok Vajpayee, others, poets and writers who started returning their state awards. So they became a very powerful vehicle of protest and a powerful support for Muslims. That is why intellectuals are being targeted because they have been steadfast in their support for minority rights.
Does being a public figure provide you a measure of protection or make you more vulnerable?
I don’t know because what the police is doing is one thing, but when the media joins the state or police in vilifying individuals in doing primetime shows showing their pictures and photographs telling stories about them, then it does have an element of vulnerability in your life because then your face will be recognised and some patriot or some nationalist might think it is his duty to punish you. That is what they have done to Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya and to others. Umar Khalid was attacked in the heart of the city, a man travelled 60 kms to perform this nationalist duty to attack him because he trusted the television channel which told him that Umar Khalid wanted to break this nation.
How has this affected the way your neighbours interact with you? Are your university colleagues supportive? What is the cost of all this for you?
This is a difficult question. The cost is that people become concerned for their own well-being and to be fair to them, they have a right to do that. If I did not get calls from colleagues in my department then I do not feel bad because I know what it means and why would you like to be attached, but again I don’t know. They have not spoken to me so I don’t know what is in their mind. Maybe they are puzzled, maybe they themselves are scared. They don’t know what is in store for them if they talk or get in touch with someone who is on the radar. But it was very encouraging for me that many of my students did get in touch with me, on their platforms on social media, they expressed solidarity with me. So that gave me a lot of courage and solace.
When you frame someone, whether you arrest them or not, you introduce an element of uncertainty in their lives. It can be harassment of different kinds. For example, you are talking about it the whole day, it is not a normal day for you any longer. This is a form of mild harassment but there are other forms of harassment. You become vulnerable. The very act of framing is in a way depriving you of your right to life. Your right to life, as a friend put it aptly, is not only about the right not to be killed but it is right to live your life fully, free of anxiety, in its fullness. So when you are framed, you are deprived of this fullness. You stop doing certain things. You stop going to common places, your routine is interrupted.
If you move to the next level, what happened to Umar Khalid and these 21 people who have been framed under UAPA, is that you could be put in jail for an indefinite period of time. You could be acquitted maybe after two years, three years or 15 years. But you lose these years and therefore this act of framing is an assault on your fundamental right to life. And this whole process of investigation is actually this: framing.
Do you at times feel alone?
Truthfully, never have I felt alone and never have I felt scared. Firstly because, my wife and partner gave me a lot of courage. Had it not been for her, I would not have decided to issue a statement after my questioning. She insisted that I do it. And my daughter, she is not a political being but she understands what is fair and what is unfair. And my parents, I remember my father telling me that I should not be seen as leaving the ground. He is 87 years old and is a retired professor who taught in a small town in Siwan. But for an 87-year-old man to tell his son that don’t try to escape. He has been following my writing. We fight very often but he observes what I keep doing. It didn’t come to him as a shock. They never questioned me. And my friends in Delhi who stood like a rock, with me and behind me. There is a community and a family, beyond your family of blood.
It is very heartening to see that when I was at the police station there were 10 to 15 people waiting outside keeping a vigil there. This is the world we want to build, people who have nothing in common, nor professionally, nor identity wise but they feel that they are beholden to each other.
When I see a young man like Umar Khalid walk into the Lodhi Road police station and not try to hide or go underground and feel confident to offer himself to police and authorities. What is the confidence that he is walking with? What is it that makes him smile? When I heard that Natasha, Devnagana and Gulfisha...the fact that they wrote that they refused to sign [the statements the police attributed to them], tells you that young women like them have some strength.