Security personnel stand guard near a neighbourhood vandalised by rioters during clashes between those against and those supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in north east Delhi, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. | PTI
A neighbourhood vandalised in northeast Delhi during the 2020 riots (representational image) | PTI
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In his paper, “Can a Muslim be an Indian?” historian Gyanendra Pandey puts forth, very succinctly, the most internalized and widely accepted facet of Indian citizenship. The assertion of patriotism and loyalty to the country is a burden that inevitably falls on the shoulders of hyphenated identities such as the “Indian-Muslim”, never quite on the “real, obvious and naturally axiomatic citizen” like the Hindu (Pandey, 1999). The anti C.A.A. protests were in many ways a celebration of this hyphenated identity, but also, in some other ways, submission to this burden to spell out the Indian-Muslim’s undying love.

The most overwhelming display of patriotism by a besieged community, Muslim protestors gathered at Jama Masjid in January 2020 at the peak of the anti-C.A.A. protests to sing the national anthem. Armed with just candles in their hands, the message was clear – we are Muslim and we are here to stay (Business Today, 2020). 

Activist Umar Khalid, who was one of the most fierce and forceful voices of the protests, had at the time told me that he does not find the invocation of the national symbols by Muslims an unwitting submission to wear patriotism on our sleeves, but “an attempt to redefine nationalism as we know it today”.

The anti-CAA protests were in many ways a celebration of this hyphenated identity, but also, in some other ways, submission to this burden to spell out the Indian-Muslim’s undying love.

Shaheen Bagh too saw the most ostensible and visible deployment of the national flag, Gandhi, the constitution, evocative songs like Saare Jahan Se Acha. The air was filled with a mix of defiance and reverence for symbols of the past in equal measure.

Activist Umar Khalid, who was one of the most fierce and forceful voices of the protests, had at the time told me that he does not find the invocation of the national symbols by Muslims an unwitting submission to wear patriotism on our sleeves, but “an attempt to redefine nationalism as we know it today”.

Khalid had said, “Muslims were actively employing the national symbols and the constitution precisely because it is Muslims whom the C.A.A. seeks to exclude” (Khan, 2020). This was January 2020. 

Three months later in April, Khalid was charged with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (U.A.P.A.) in connection with the Delhi riots, and was arrested in September. Khalid has been languishing in jail ever since, as have several other students, student leaders, and ordinary men and women whose only crime was their name.

Arrests, the burden to prove innocence on Muslim identity, liberal hypocrisy, and Jamia Millia Islamia became the hub of student arrests – all of whom were at the forefront of the anti-C.A.A. protests.

Arrests, the burden to prove innocence on Muslim identity, liberal hypocrisy, and Jamia Millia Islamia became the hub of student arrests – all of whom were at the forefront of the anti-C.A.A. protests. Jamia students Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal Tanha, and alumni president of the university Shifa Ur Rehman, were all arrested between April and May 2020 and charged with the stringent U.A.P.A. in connection with the Delhi riots (P.T.I., 2020).

Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita too were arrested in May and booked under the U.A.P.A. as was 28-year-old M.B.A. student Gulfisha Fatima, all in connection with the Jafrabad sit-in protests. The fact-finding group United Against Hate (U.A.H.), of which Umar Khalid was a member, featured prominently in the postriot investigations.

Activist Khalid Saifi, also part of U.A.H., was picked up on 26 February 2020 from the Khureji Khas anti-C.A.A. protest site in the national capital. He was subsequently named by the Delhi Police in a charge sheet, saying the February riots were part of a “deep- rooted conspiracy” that had links with U.A.H. and its members Saifi and Umar Khalid.

But nearly three months before the charge sheet, Union Home Minister Amit Shah too had named U.A.H. in his speech in the Lok Sabha on the Delhi riots. “United Against Hate – the name sounds so pious but look what they advocated. They said, ‘(Donald) Trump is about to come, we should block the streets’,” Shah had said (Menon, 2020).

A deep-dive into the group’s history revealed that far from conspiring to create violence and havoc, the group described itself as an initiative to show solidarity against hate – of all colors (Khan, 2020).

From helping provide legal aid to U.P. inspector Subodh Kumar Singh who was killed by a mob in Bulandshahr in 2018 when he tried to restore calm after violence broke out over cow carcasses, to protesting the killing of Ankit Saxena, the 23-year-old Delhi resident who was stabbed to death by the family of his Muslim girlfriend in 2018 – the group largely entailed itself in initiatives to maintain the secular fabric of the country. It also led fact-finding missions across the country – from investigating Assam’s foreign tribunals involved in the N.R.C. process to violence in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj in 2018. 

Apoorvanand, a renowned political scholar and professor at Delhi University, has worked closely with the U.A.H. He described the group as being “heterogeneous” but with a “pronounced Muslim agency”.


Also read: Delhi riots neither designed by Modi govt, nor Islamic conspiracy. It’s far more dangerous


In August 2020, months after Umar Khalid and Khalid Saifi’s arrest, Apoorvanand too was summoned by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell. He was questioned for five hours and his phone was seized (Manral and Shankar, 2020).

It was almost as if each arrest was used to build a narrative that would set the agenda going forward and put others in the spotlight. According to Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act (1872), “No confession made by any person whilst he is in the custody of a police officer unless it is made in the immediate presence of a Magistrate, shall be proved as against such person” (Indian Kanoon, n.d). 

Many media organizations and the common public at large, could not care less about this nuance. This is how police “leaks” often work to build the larger public narrative against an individual or multiple individuals.

Author Aakar Patel made a point during a talk at the Centre for Policy and Research in December 2020 that in the case of marginalized communities, the law has often been designed to invert the existing logic of burden of proof; it is the accused, more often than not a Muslim, who has to prove their innocence. For instance, under the U.A.P.A., the police can hold the accused in custody for however long they deem fit, with the accused having to prove that they did not, in fact, commit a seditious act. Then, in the case of the laws against cow slaughter across various states of the country, the burden of proof to show innocence lies on the accused, not the mob screaming murder (Human Rights Watch report, 2019).

Come to think of it, even in the case of the N.R.C., the burden to prove citizenship after you have been deemed “illegal” or “doubtful” lies on the Muslim whom this law was brought in to hurt. The Delhi Police said that Gulfisha Fatima, in her “disclosure statement” – something that is inadmissible in court – had allegedly named retired I.A.S. officer Harsh Mander, advocate Prashant Bhushan, activist and politician Yogendra Yadav, and Congress leader Salman Khurshid (Times of India, 2020).

Within days of this alleged disclosure statement coming to light, Mander and Bhushan addressed a press conference along with other activists where they called for the court to set up a committee to conduct an inquiry into the Delhi Police’s investigation of the riots just as was done to look into the police’s conduct after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots (Khan, 2020).

In an interview, subsequently, Mander said he is anticipating his arrest soon but that has not deterred him from speaking up. “I am not fearful. But I am very much anticipating my arrest […]. I am expecting that they will show up at my home or I will be called in by them and charged under [the] U.A.P.A. That is the trend we have seen […]. Contrary to the advice people may give, my resolve has been to not be quiet and to speak up against these arrests,” he had said. 


Also read: The Delhi pogrom 2020 is Amit Shah’s answer to an election defeat


Almost a month before the Delhi riots, activist Sharjeel Imam, an I.I.T.-graduate, was arrested on 28 January for allegedly delivering “inflammatory” speeches to “misguide” Muslims during the anti-C.A.A. protests. The police of five states – Delhi, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur – had at the time filed cases against him (P.T.I., 2020). 

Regardless of the pragmatism or the lack thereof in Imam’s politics, it is interesting to see the sheer difference in how large parts of the society including liberals react to a protest by Muslims and those by other communities or groups. Imam was jailed and subsequently demeaned for merely calling for a “chakka jaam”. 

Compare this to the fact that farmers actually blocked crucial portions of the national capital’s borders to protests against three farm laws for months to no end, without eliciting the same reaction. The contention? Imam’s clarion call for a “chakka jaam” blocking the roads as a means to cut off the chicken’s neck from India as part of anti-C.A.A. and N.R.C. protests. 

This is not to compare the plight of two oppressed groups but to show the double standards all too pervasive in our society. 

While, of course, this hypocrisy hurts individual Muslims all too gravely as it did in Imam’s case, it also sends out the wrong message at large. If you are a Muslim, you are only allowed to protest if you spend night and day hailing Gandhi and the constitution, not if you actually move to mobilize crowds, not if you want to shake up the system enough to actually make a difference.

On 25 August, Imam was booked under the U.A.P.A. for conspiring the riots in Delhi – which took place whilst Imam was behind bars. 

This ends up furthering the same good Muslim v. bad Muslim narrative, except it comes at the cost of actual lives and movements. 

The police, in its charge sheet against Imam, presented his M.Phil thesis and a book by political scientist Paul Brass which he read during his research as “evidence” (Sinha, 2020).

For his thesis titled – “Exodus before Partition; The Attack on Muslims of Bihar in 1946” – Imam had read Brass’ seminal text “Forms of Collective Violence, Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India”. The police claimed Imam’s choice of literature contributed to his “radicalization.”

Kapil Mishra, whose speeches were accused of having triggered the riots, took to social media to comment on her pregnancy. “Please don’t connect her pregnancy with my speech. It doesn’t work that way,” he wrote. Following this, many tweets by the rightwing ecosystem questioning the nature of Zargar’s pregnancy and her marital status had begun doing the rounds (Khan,2020). Tahir Hussain, then an Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P.) councilor, was charged with the murder of Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) staffer Ankit Sharma in the Khajuri Khas region of north-east Delhi. On 28 February, A.A.P. suspended Hussain from the party and on Nearly all the students and activists arrested in connection with the riots were also subjected to active demonization, most prominently in the case of Safoora Zargar, a M.Phil student at Jamia who was arrested by the Delhi Police in April and booked under the U.A.P.A. Zargar. The then 27-year-old was 3-months pregnant when she was taken into custody. Safoora’s sister and husband had at the time said they are “appalled and disgusted” by the nature of the trolling and the lengths to which she is being slandered. Zargar was released on bail in June after spending over two months in jail during a pandemic (P.T.I., 2020).

After the Sachar committee report (2005) shed light on the despondent state of affairs of the Muslim community in terms of their socio-economic condition, it has often been argued that Muslims must “focus on their education” to claw their way out of marginalization (Sachar committee report, 2005).

As the slew of student arrests in the Delhi riots tell us, if you are a Muslim, education does not work as any sort of guaranteed protection against state persecution and a degree cannot be flashed as a “pass” card to avoid police harassment.

Political affiliations did not seem to help either.


Also read: Riots changed Hindu-Muslim dynamics in NE Delhi. For some, it’s ‘hateful beyond repair’ now


Tahir Hussain, then an Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P.) councilor, was charged with the murder of Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) staffer Ankit Sharma in the Khajuri Khas region of north-east Delhi. On 28 February, A.A.P. suspended Hussain from the party and on 5 March, he was arrested by the Delhi police. He was booked under the U.A.P.A. a month later. The people of Chand Bagh – who elected him as a councilor in 2017 largely refused to believe the charges levelled against Hussain. According to multiple videos that made the rounds during the riots, a mob could be seen pelting stones from Hussain’s terrace. The police later also claimed to have recovered a stash of Molotov cocktails, acid pouches, stones, and slingshots from the terrace.

Meanwhile, many in the locality at the time argued that Hussain acted in “self- defense” and even credited their being alive to the leader’s act of “fighting back.”

“The reason we are standing here, being able to talk to you is because of that mob. We would have been killed mercilessly if that mob did [not] fight back,” Qamrul Hasan, a 50- year-old businessman from Chand Bagh, said a day after Hussain’s arrest (Khan,2020)

“People ask how a mob could take over a prominent politician’s home. But if it could take over Ehsan Jafri’s home, it can take over anyone’s home,” Hasan added. Jafri was a Congress politician killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots when a mob attacked his home in Gulbarg society and lynched him. 

Nearly two decades later, Ishrat Jahan, a former municipal councilor with the Congress party and a lawyer, was arrested by the Delhi police on 26 February 2020. Both Khalid Saifi and Ishrat Jahan were arrested together and both alleged being tortured by the police inside the jail (Johari, 2020). On 30 May, Jahan, also a member of the advocates’ bar, was given a 10-day bail to get married (P.T.I., 2020). 

Both Ishrat and Farhan showed remarkable courage, resilience, and generosity of spirit by not letting systemic injustice, targeted persecution, and criminalization of their very identity get in the way of their love and their life. At the risk of romanticizing the hardships that Muslims have to go through in the country, there is something here to be said about living the best version of your life or attempting to in the face of soul crushing injustice. To not let that injustice numb you into forfeiting, love is truly a marvel. Every Muslim who continues to love and laugh in these tragic times is indeed a marvel. So is every Muslim who continues to hold on to the idea of their citizenship, even if it means clutching at straws. Ishrat and her husband Farhan Hashmi got to spend a grand total of eight days together before she returned to jail. What mattered for Farhan was “living in the moment”, being the best partner for those eight days, and then for a lifetime – despite the difference in circumstances (Iyer, 2020).

 

This excerpt from ‘Citizenship: Context and Challenges’ compiled by Amir Ullah Khan and Riyaaz F. Shaikh has been published with permission from Centre for Development Policy and Practice.

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