On September 23, 2020, as I was working as usual in the office for human rights law at the Karwan e Mohabbat group that campaigns for communal harmony, my senior said that a family wanted to meet us. That’s how I came to hear 20-year-old Abid Iqbal (name changed to protect his identity) tell his story.

On December 13, 2019, violence had occurred in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university. Even a year after the incident, the Delhi Police was still arresting and harassing students. On December 20, Iqbal, a distance school student at the institution, had been detained while he was at a bicycle repair shop in the Batla House area.

Two policemen in plainclothes grabbed him. They took him to a backroom at the New Friends Colony police station. Six other police persons, all without badges, came in and started raining blows on his legs with lathis while crushing his genitals with their shoes, Iqbal said.

All the while, they taunted and abused Iqbal, he said. “Tum katwo ko azadi chahiye hum denge azadi,” the said. If you circumcised Muslims want freedom, we will give you freedom. They used obscenities to refer to Iqbal’s mother, sister and fiance. They kept pressing him to sign blank papers and reveal names of people who had participated in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act last winter.

Despite the assault he was facing, Iqbal refused.

The police warned that if he did not sign and tell them who had participated in the protests, they would implicate him in an offence so severe, it would would be impossible for him to get bail.

Failing to get anything out of him, they forced him to strip naked, Iqbal said. One of the policemen had two stars on his uniform. He looked at Iqbal and told the other policemen, “How smooth his skin is.” He started touching Iqbal’s chest. He told the men that all of them would have sex with Iqbal that night, the young man alleged.

But at 10.30 that night, one of the policemen came into the room and told Iqbal that he could leave. However, they withheld his phone and his ID cards. Whenever they summoned him, he would have to present himself, Iqbal said.

When Iqbal got home, he told his father what had happened. Struck with fear, they did not even go to a doctor to get examined and get a medical certificate describing Iqbal’s injuries.

After the violence in Delhi. Credit: Prakash Singh/ AFP

Many questions

Iqbal came to us as lawyers he could trust. He had many questions. “Is this how an investigation is supposed to be held?” he asked.

We too had questions. The police keep on harassing the citizens like Iqbal who were merely exercising their constitutional rights by peacefully protesting at the Shaheen Bagh protest site in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, which they said discriminated against Muslims. Was there still place left in the chargesheet related to the violence in Jamia and the Delhi riots of February 2020?

Worried that Iqbal would be arrested, his father approached the trial court for anticipatory bail. The public prosecutor on behalf of the police claimed that Iqbal had been brought in to the police station for an investigation into a case of chain snatching.

Some days after Iqbal was detained, the police went to the home of Iqbal’s relatives in Shaheen Bagh. For three hours, they threatened the family, demanding that they call Iqbal and his father there. When they did not come, they picked up one of his relatives at Madangir Police station and released him only at 11 pm after forcing him to sign blank papers.

On one hand, the police had informed the court that there was no FIR against Iqbal. But on the other, the police were harassing him and his family by visiting their home every now and then.

Abandoning procedure

We are haunted by the big question Iqbal had asked us: is this how an investigation is supposed to be conducted by the police?

In the landmark judgment of Dilip K Basu v. State of West Bengal in 1997, the Supreme Court of India clearly stated that if the police detains someone for interrogation, the family or a close friend of the detenue should be informed. But even on repeated and sometimes desperate requests by Iqbal to the police to call his family, they did not listen to him. Nobody was officially informed about his detention – neither his family nor the courts.

According to the DK Basu verdict, the police are also required to make an entry in their official records about the details of detenue and a list of persons who have been informed about his detention. But in Iqbal’s case, they never made any of these entries.

Should this not be considered contempt of court?

A supporter of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Credit: AFP

Who do they serve?

In 2012, when the Delhi Police moved swiftly to arrest the accused in the horrific gang rape case, they had played a commendable role. What has happened to that same police force now? Have they lost all sense of responsibility, and their commitment to the Constitution, the law and the directives of the Supreme Court? In the recent past, the very process of investigation has repeatedly come under question. Who do they serve – the people of India or the government, even when it issues illegal, unjust orders?

Does the absolutely wrongful persecution of an Indian bother them – an Indian who was just a regular Muslim student?

Increasingly, Muslims are being arrested for merely protesting – a completely constitutional way of expressing disagreement with the government in this democracy. What does this do the voices of conscience in the Muslim community in the country? How will they ever raise their voices? Who is listening to them?

Iqbal was not the only case of this sort I saw. The police have illegally detained many people and acted in the same manner. But they have been too afraid to tell their stories.

Now, the police are alleging he is complicit in a dacoity.

As a Muslim, it pains me to see an India like this. I grew up reading Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar. This is not the path they set for us.

Today, I realise that being a Muslim, I may have no option but to to live with this new reality, this distorted democracy, this crushed republic. But I have heard that where nothing else survives, God does.

Adil Amaan is a human rights lawyer with the Karwan e Mohabbat.

Read the other articles in the series here.