Sambhal: The big vessels outside Mehak Restaurant on a busy market street in Chaman Sarai of Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh, are empty. It is late afternoon and the evening rush will start in an hour. But Mohammad Tabish, 31, is not anticipating a busy night. On Sunday, his father Talib Hussain, 58, was arrested while he was sitting at the billing counter of the restaurant, which has now been taken over by Tabish.
At around 9 pm Sunday, a team of policemen reached Hussain’s eatery, accused him of hurting religious sentiments by selling chicken in newspapers that had images of Hindu deities, and arrested him, according to Tabish.
While some Hindu organisations, claiming to be vigilantes, say Hussain deliberately sold the chicken in newspapers carrying Hindu deities’ images, the restaurant owner’s family says the charges against him are false. They have also alleged that the Sambhal police are hand-in-glove with Hindu groups active in the region in attempts to give a communal angle to Hussain’s alleged mistake.
Hussain is now in police custody, and his lawyer Iqdadar Hussain Pasha will apply for bail Wednesday, though the stringent IPC sections added to the FIR lodged against him may make securing his release difficult. “When we went to arrest him, he swung a knife, about as big as a hand, at me. I moved back and my men held him,” Ajay Kumar Tyagi, senior sub-inspector, Sambhal Kotwali police station, told ThePrint.
Hussain has been booked under sections 295A (deliberate act intended to outrage religious feelings of any community), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race place of birth, residence), 307 (attempt to murder) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging their duties).
“In a crowded market, how can an old man openly attack the police? There are so many cameras in that lane, police will be proven wrong. Their allegation is baseless. They have not provided any evidence for this claim,” Pasha told ThePrint.
Hussain has been arrested at a time when the country is communally charged over the murder of an Udaipur tailor after he reportedly shared a social media post in support of former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma, and the controversy surrounding a poster of a new documentary film called ‘Kaali’, that shows a woman dressed as the Hindu goddess smoking a cigarette.
Two versions of what happened
Sambhal Kotwali police station is less than a kilometre away from Mehak Restaurant. The FIR, accessed by ThePrint, said that at 8.50 pm, the Sambhal Kotwali police received information through informants that an altercation had erupted at Mehak Restaurant between its Muslim owner and a group of Hindus. When they reached the spot and found the newspapers on the billing counter, they arrested Hussain, it added.
“A total of 90 full papers and 116 single sheets of newspapers from 2 April, 2022, were with Hussain which had images of goddess Mahagauri and Saraswati. Some people informed us that they saw meat being served on those papers,” said senior sub-inspector Tyagi.
According to him, while a crowd had gathered at the spot, no one came forward either as a complainant or as a witness. The FIR was lodged on the basis of a complaint filed by Tyagi himself.
Minutes before Tyagi was informed about the altercation, Himanshu Kashyap, district vice-president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bhartiya Janta Yuva Morcha (BJYM), tweeted a photo of Hussain smiling and hunching over the same bundle of newspapers, tagging the Sambhal police to take action.
संम्भल नगर में महक रेस्टोरेंट मंजर मेडिकल के बराबर में भगवान के फोटो वाले लगभग 100 अखबार के टुकड़े मिले मुर्गा पैक कर रहा है
प्रशासन इस पर कड़ी से कड़ी कार्यवाही करे @CMOfficeUP @PsSambhal @spsambhal38 @DmSambhal pic.twitter.com/xk4rxsD6MO
— himanshu kashyap (@himanshusbl2) July 3, 2022
The crowd at Mehak were foot soldiers belonging to Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Jagran Manch and BJYM, Kashyap told ThePrint.
“People who are connected with us had gone there and when they saw meat being wrapped in newspapers, they asked Hussain to stop, but he misbehaved with them. An hour later, when Hussain was still using those papers, our boys informed us and we called the police,” he added.
Kashyap said he then teamed up with the district president of the Hindu Jagran Manch, Kailash Gupta, and the Manch’s western UP regional president Kapil Devana to call the cops and gather at the shop, but none of them filed a police complaint.
Hussain, Kashyap claimed, was also warned four days before the day of his arrest, but he did not discard the newspapers with the photos of Hindu deities. “He had loose sheets of Hindu gods’ photos. But the newspapers bought for wrapping food from scrap shops come in a bundle. This implies that he had deliberately collected papers with such pictures.”
Since earlier this year, Kashyap had been posting on Twitter about the stench from meat shops in Sambhal. He had been urging the state government to raid and close meat factories in the region. But this push against Hussain, he said, is not motivated by any of these issues he writes about.
Since Hussain’s arrest, his restaurant, which is quite sought after in the area, has taken a hit. The footfall has reduced and a curious crowd collects outside the eatery every now and then.
“We have been running this place for years now. People from all over the place, belonging to all communities, come and eat here. We have never faced any issue. People know this restaurant not by Mehak’s, but by my father’s name,” said Tabish, rubbishing Kashyap’s claims and pulling out a pamphlet from his counter which says that the man behind the successful restaurant has 45 years of experience.
Chicken was never packed in a newspaper, Tabish told ThePrint, as he opened a fresh bundle of newspapers he’d bought for the day. “Old, unused newspapers are used by the restaurants in Sambhal city to wrap rotis, which are dry. Chicken, with or without gravy, is packed in plastic boxes which are stacked in the kitchen.”
According to Tabish, a man came to the restaurant posing as a customer and had rotis packed. Pretending to make an online payment, the man, Tabish claimed, took a photo — which is now circulating on Twitter — of Hussain where he is smiling, standing next to the bundle of newspapers with photos of Hindu deities.
The shop from where Hussain allegedly bought scrap newspapers, however, denies selling the loose newspaper sheets with deities’ images to him.
“Mehak Restaurant did not buy any stack from us. These packets come to us sealed. None of these packets have loose sheets,” Kapoor Sagar, a salesman at Ramkishan Bal Mukund’s grocery store at Ghantaghar market, told ThePrint.
‘We are feeling terrorised’
At Hussain’s residence, not far from the eatery, the situation is extremely tense. His family feels he has been made a victim of hate that has now reached their peaceful home.
“We are feeling terrorised. Our children have stopped going to school. We never imagined something like this could happen to us. My father-in-law is diabetic, he has an injury on his foot too. We are all worried for him,” Farha Naz, Hussain’s daughter-in-law, told ThePrint.
At her palatial house, Hussain’s wife Naima Begum’s anxiety is going through the roof. In between loud wails, she takes deep breaths to calm herself. Hussain’s daughters and other relatives have gathered at the house, but none of them know what will happen to him.
“The police have slapped a serious charge of attempt to murder on him. He did not attack anyone. Why would he keep a knife at the counter anyway?” asked Naz.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)