A six-year-old child asks: “Mujhe abbu ki bahut yaad aati hai, abbu kab aayenge?” I miss my father. When will he come back?

She last saw him behind a glass partition in Delhi’s Mandoli jail on October 6. “When she met him, she kept crying and saying that she will take him back home,” said the girl’s mother, whose name has been withheld on request.

The six-year-old’s father, Tasleem Ahmad, is among the 21 people arrested in the infamous Delhi riots conspiracy case. The Delhi Police have alleged the communal violence that left 53 dead in February was a conspiracy hatched and orchestrated by those protesting against the amended Citizenship Act.

In the case, widely described as a witch-hunt against protestors, the police have invoked the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against the accused. They also stand charged for murder, sedition, promoting communal enmity, and offence under the Arms Act.

Most of the accused are residents of North East Delhi, barring Umar Khalid, the former student leader of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal of Pinjra Tod, a feminist activist group, and current and former students of the Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Ahmad is neither a student, nor an activist. The 36-year-old education consultant lived with his family in South Delhi, 20 km from the areas that witnessed the communal violence.

In its 17,000-page chargesheet filed in September, however, Delhi Police claims Ahmad was part of a small, core group that set up a protest site in Seelampur in North East Delhi, which later became a flashpoint and trigger for the February violence.

But his lawyer, Mehmood Pracha, dismissed the allegations and said Ahmad was just an ordinary citizen protesting against the Citizenship Act. “Millions of people were on the road,” said Pracha. “Millions of people were coming from South Delhi, North Delhi to protest sites and not just Muslims.”

Ahmad’s family say they did not even know about his participation in the protests.

‘Kept to himself’

Ahmad’s family hails from Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh. They came to Delhi in search of work when Ahmad was just around two years old, said his father, a 58-year-old who worked in the accounts department at a security firm till he retired in August. He requested anonymity.

The family lives together at their residence in South Delhi. Ahmad is the third of six siblings and worked as an education consultant, his father said. “He would get the students to fill the forms of an open school, give the exams, and arrange for the exam centres for students,” he said. Ahmad had himself graduated from an open school, he said.

But there was not much the family claimed to know about Ahmad’s interest in the protests. “In our family, no one went for a protest,” his father said. “We would see it on TV and that is how we knew [about the protests in the city].”

Neither did the family know if Ahmad attended any of the protests. “He kept to himself,” the father said. “If he went for a protest we would not know. He would not speak about it at home.”

The family was taken by surprise when the police arrived at their doorstep to arrest him on the evening of April 8. “They [police] did not tell us anything...they took him to Jafrabad police station,” the father said.

Jafrabad is the neighbourhood in North East Delhi where supporters of local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra clashed with Citizenship Act protestors on February 23, hours after they occupied the main road outside a metro station.

Ahmad was arrested in a case triggered by First Information Report 48/2020 which alleges the protestors defied the police to occupy the road in Jafrabad on the night of February 22. The crimes listed in the FIR include rioting, obstructing a public servant, use of assault to deter a public servant from discharging their duties and punishment for wrongful restraint among others. The police are yet to file the chargesheet in this case.

On June 10, Ahmad was granted bail in the case. The magistrate noted that Ahmad’s custody period for interrogation had expired and that only one of the eight offences made out against him was non-bailable.

Ahmad stayed with his family for nearly a month, before the police asked him to appear for further interrogation, first on June 22 and for the second time on June 24.

On June 22, Ahmad left his home in the morning riding his scooter and returned at night, his father said. He said he did not know what the police asked his son during the interrogation except that the questioning revolved around the riots. The chargesheet shows that Ahmad’s phone was seized that day.

When he was called again on June 24 to the Special Cell, the family assumed he would be back in the evening but instead they got a call. “He [Ahmad] called me to say that the Special Cell had arrested him and asked me to pick up the scooter,” his father said.

This came as a shock to Ahmad’s 52-year-old mother.

“When we got the call it felt like a current. What could we do?” she said. “He was not able to take anything from here, he was in the same clothes for nearly a month.”

That day, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police arrested Ahmad in the riots conspiracy case number 59/2020, said his lawyer Mehmood Pracha.

Pracha alleged that the police had arrested Ahmad because he refused to implicate others and testify as a witness in front of the magistrate. “They [police] wanted him to testify to their lies,” Pracha claimed. “This has not only happened with him. This has been their copy book method that if you do not become a witness then you will become an accused.”

Other Citizenship Act protestors interviewed by Scroll.in, who were questioned by the police in the riots conspiracy case, have alleged they were intimidated, threatened, even coerced into giving statements against the accused. Read the interviews here.

Pracha alleged: “Police told [Ahmad] to become a witness because obviously they do not have any other evidence against anyone.”

What the chargesheet says

The bulky chargesheet filed by Delhi Police on September 16 includes a purported disclosure statement by Ahmad and screenshots of his personal WhatsApp chats.

Disclosure statements made to the police are inadmissible as evidence in court since they are likely to have been made under duress.

Ahmad’s purported disclosure statement is dated June 24, the day he was arrested by the Special Cell. It states that he met Gulfisha Khatoon, a 28-year-old management student who lived in Seelampur, at a demonstration against the Citizenship Act outside the police headquarters in December 2019, after which the two exchanged their mobile phone numbers. In January, she called him and asked for his help in starting a protest site in Seelampur.

During this time, Gulfisha introduced him to Narwal, Kalita, and other members of the Pinjra Tod collective, according to the purported statement. The protest then started on January 15. “Advocate Mehboob Pracha” instigated people at the protest, the statement claims. This is presumably Mehmood Pracha, Ahmad’s lawyer.

Pracha dismissed the statement. “My ‘bhadkau bhashan’ [inflammatory speech] was that the Constitution is the most important thing and we have to save it at every cost,” he said. “This is why they are not putting out my speech, which is in the public domain...that will demolish the entire case.”

WhatsApp chats

The chargesheet includes purported screenshots from a WhatsApp group called “Warriors” that the police claim was created by Gulfisha on December 26, 2019, and which included Ahmad, Kalita and Narwal as members. The chats from this group were retrieved from Ahmad’s phone, the chargesheet states.

The police have cited the discussions on the group as evidence of a “pre-planned conspiracy” by Ahmad, along with Kalita, Narwal and Gulfisha, to start a protest site at Madina Masjid, Seelampur on January 15, after two unsuccessful attempts initially.

A screenshot of the chargesheet showing the WhatsApp group "Warriors".

The police allege that Gulfisha, Kalita, Narwal and Ahmad held a secret meeting on the intervening night of January 23 and 24 in New Seelampur with Umar Khalid.

“In this meeting, Umar Khalid directed that protest should ultimately escalate to riots and should result in spilling of blood of policemen and others,” the chargesheet claims. Khalid is alleged to have directed those in the meeting to stockpile knives, bottles, acid, stones, chilli powder to be used “in rioting as part of conspiracy”.

Pictures from the alleged meeting, as shown in the chargesheet. Ahmad is on Umar Khalid's immediate right, while Gulfisha is on the left.

Another secret meeting was allegedly held on the night of February 16 and 17, the chargesheet claims, which was attended by the organisers of protest sites in Chand Bagh, Mustafabad, Kardampuri and Jafrabad. In this meeting, it was decided that a chakka jam or road block would be organised during the visit of US President Donald Trump. “After chakka jam, all protest site members will instigate and resort to violence and riots,” the chargesheet claims.

The police allege the accused including Ahmad then mobilised women from the Seelampur protest site to occupy the road under the Jafrabad metro station. The chargesheet cites a message purportedly sent by Ahmad on the Warriors chat group at 11.32 pm on February 22: “Aaj rat 10 baje Jafrabad me road block kar diya gaya hai sabi womens se appeal ha ki jyada support me jald hi pahuche…” At 10 pm tonight, the Jafrabad road was blocked. An appeal to all women to reach soon in support.

The message Ahmad sent on the group, according to the chargesheet.

According to police, the last post on the Warriors group was on February 24, “the objectives having been met”. However, the police contradict themselves by stating here that the group was formed by Pinjra Tod, as opposed to their earlier claim that it was created by Gulfisha.

The police's contradictory claim, the chargesheet shows.

The chargesheet claims that on February 23, conspirators from other protest sites in North East Delhi and other parts moved to “pre decided points on the important roads and blocked or attempted to block the traffic completely”.

“The intent was not to create traffic chaos but to ensure communal skirmish as is evident from movement from predominantly minority clusters where 24x7 sit-in dharna were being held to areas of mixed population for causing chakka jam,” it alleges.

It also includes screenshots of personal chats that Ahmad had with other accused: Ishrat Jahan, a former Congress councillor, Gulfisha, Umar Khalid and Khalid Saifi of the United Against Hate campaign, and Meeran Haider, a small-time politician associated with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The screenshots however do not point to anything specific to establish the alleged conspiracy or Ahmad’s role in it.

Strikingly, the screenshots show that Jahan asked Ahmad who he was in response to his initial messages.

The chat with Gulfisha on January 7 showed them speaking about gathering to meet to “speak about registering the warriors group”.

His chats with Saifi were limited to sharing media contacts and innocuous information like the number of people gathered at the Seelampur protest site. Khalid purportedly asked him: “Till when do you plan to sit?” To this, Ahmad responded: “Maybe at night as well. We are still talking about it.”

Umar Khalid did not respond to any of Ahmad’s messages, but according to the police it is “reporting by Taslim to Umar Khalid about progress of a women centric protest site in pursuance and furtherance of common conspiracy”.

Haider and him merely shared WhatsApp forwards, the chargesheet shows.

The annexure of the chargsheet shows that the chats of the “JCC_JMI” presumably Jamia Coordination Committee of Jamia Millia Islamia, were recovered from Ahmad’s phone. But there are no messages from Ahmad according to the transcripts shown in the chargesheet.

A screenshot of the annexure from the chargesheet.

Statements to the magistrate

Ahmad’s name finds mention in at least five statements made by protected witnesses to a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Protected witnesses are those whose actual identity is concealed while recording their statements for reasons of security.

Two witnesses merely attest to Ahmad’s presence, along with Gulfisha, Shahdab Ahmad, Kalita and Narwal at the Seelampur protest site, with a third witness attributing leadership roles to them in organising the protest.

A fourth witness, however, makes a more damning statement, claiming Ahmad was part of a meeting where Khalid said blood would have to be spilled. The witness does not specify any time or date of the meeting.

Finally, a fifth witness claims he saw Ahmad and others had started to gather stones, sticks and red chilli powder in January.

Unlike statements made to the police, these statements are admissible as evidence in court. But the integrity of the witnesses would be tested during cross-examination by the defence since it is possible for witnesses to give tutored statements even in front of magistrates.

In fact, at least two protected witnesses who have given statements in front of magistrates in the riots conspiracy case told Scroll.in that they have been threatened into doing so by the police.

‘My son is innocent’

On October 12, Pracha moved a bail application in the Karkardooma District Court under Section 167 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure where the accused has the right to be released on bail after 90 days in custody. The application also sought bail for Ahmad on the grounds that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the case. However, the court found no merit in the application and dismissed it on October 19.

Pracha said he would file an appeal in the Delhi High Court.

But for Ahmad’s family, the wait seems endless. Only one family member is allowed to meet him once a month, his father said. Every Sunday, Ahmad is allowed to call his family to speak with them on the phone for just about two minutes. “Earlier it was one minute,” he said. “We just ask haal-chaal.”

Even though the family lives far away from the epicentre of the February violence, the events have left them shaken. “In Seelampur and Jafrabad, and around it, you would have seen it, many mosques and Muslim homes were burnt and despite that Muslims have been arrested does it mean that Muslims themselves burnt their homes and mosques?” Ahmad’s father asked.

Ahmad’s mother, however, had only one thing to hold on to: “My son is innocent and is trapped.”