On Tuesday, markets in Bijnor’s Nehtaur town opened after four days. Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act had broken out on December 20, with hundreds of people pouring out into the streets after the Friday prayers. The Uttar Pradesh police had used lathicharge and firearms to quell the protest, and arrested at least 10 people.
The protests and the police action left two young men dead in Nehtaur, Mohammad Suleman and Anas Hussain, both 20. The Bijnor police initially claimed that Suleman was shot dead by a personnel of its Special Operations Group in “self-defense”, whereas Anas was shot from within the crowd.
But not only has this story changed over the last couple of days, the Bijnor police have now learnt of a case that could add communal overtones to the Nehtaur protests.
Speaking to the media at the Nehtaur police station Tuesday evening, Bijnor Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Tyagi said the police had intelligence that the December 20 protests might be “sensitive”. “People were expected to peacefully return to their homes after the Friday prayers. Instead, there was destruction of property in different qasbas. It was a surprise, but it was stopped before it took a communal angle. We were mentally prepared,” Tyagi said.
Bijnor SP Sanjeev Tyagi in Nehtaur on Tuesday.
Questioned about this “communal angle”, given that there had been no known Hindu-Muslim disturbances during the protests, Tyagi replied, “A Hindu has been shot.”
He was referring to Om Raj Singh, 42, a resident of Nehtaur who was allegedly shot during the December 20 protests. A police officer standing nearby added that an FIR had been filed in connection with the matter on December 22, two days after the incident.
Tyagi claimed Om Raj had told them in his statement that he was wounded “because of communal intent”. “The gathering could have become communal, but we did not let it happen. We arrested those who could have turned it so,” the SP added.
Newslaundry then met Singh’s family.
‘Communal intent and FIR’
At Om Raj’s freshly cemented home in Nehtaur, family members sat on the dimly-lit verandah. Singh was away recovering in a Meerut hospital, but his brother, Rajvir Singh, 32, his wife, and other relatives were home.
“My brother was returning from the jungle after collecting vegetables on December 20,” Rajvir said. “There were disturbances in Nehtaur, and I heard there was firing. The crowd was chiefly composed of Muslims, and they had clashed with the police. When he reached a nearby flour mill, he was shot. We don’t know who shot him, but others tell us that he was caught between the Muslim side and the police. I have heard that my brother might have been shot by someone on the Muslim side.”
“He did not have enmity with anyone,” a female member of Om Raj’s family added. Rajvir concurred: “Maybe there was an old enemy, who knows. But we didn’t know of any enmity he had with anyone in recent times.”
Police stand guard near a mosque in Nehtaur town four days after the protests.
The family said relations between Nehtaur’s Hindus and Muslims were good. “We go to their house and they visit ours,” Rajvir said, assuredly.
Could his brother have been harmed out of communal malice? “No, not really. It is possible he had personal enmity with someone, though I can’t confirm it,” Rajvir said, reiterating that the clash was between the town’s Muslims and the police, not Hindu and Muslims.
Rajvir, who earns his living as a labourer, said he returned from Meerut after visiting his brother in hospital on December 22. “The doctor told us he needed to be operated upon,” said Rajvir.
This raises an important question: if Om Raj was in a Meerut hospital on December 22, who registered the FIR that Tyagi and other police officers talked about?
Singh’s family told Newslaundry they weren’t aware of any FIR in the matter. “My family and I did not register an FIR. We didn’t go to the police station and the police did not meet us,” said Rajvir. “If they have indeed registered an FIR, then they would have taken someone in custody in connection with the case.”
After meeting Om Raj’s family, the search for the purported FIR led us back to the Nehtaur police station.
‘No records found’
There, several police officers sat around a small bonfire. Upon our request, the senior sub inspector readily directed his colleagues to hand us a copy of Om Raj’s FIR, numbered 453. As one of the officers tailed off to the station’s IT room to procure the document, one of us followed him inside.
The Nehtaur police station in Bijnor.
About 30 seconds had passed when one of the other officers told the SSI that “we can’t give them the FIR”. He walked up to one of us and asked us to leave the IT room.
“We can’t give you the FIR right now,” said the officer. “The computer has hung, and it’ll take us an hour to fix it.” No problem, we said, we can look for it on the UP COP app, a digital database of all FIRs in Uttar Pradesh.
Upon entering the FIR details provided by the police, the app returned a “no records found” error. The officer said since there was an internet shutdown in Bijnor between December 20 and December 23, the FIR might not have “synced” on the app.
When we asked the SSI to confirm the FIR number, he told us he did not remember it. What about the FIR date, could he confirm that? Again, he did not know. He had shouted the FIR number across the station only minutes before, and his SP had supplied us the date barely an hour ago.
Zahid Hussain, Suleman’s father, claimed that his son had gone to a nearby mosque for prayers on December 20. He was ill. The police took him away from outside the mosque and shot him about half a kilometer away, Zahid alleged. When the family found Suleman’s body, his shirt was missing. He had been shot in the chest.
Zahid Hussain shows his slain son’s books.
The Bijnor police have admitted that Suleman was shot by a service pistol, but it was in “self-defense”. The police’s description of this incident, however, is constantly changing.
On Tuesday, Tyagi arrived in Nehtaur with Additional Director General, Bareilly, Avinash Chandra. “A miscreant snatched a pistol of one of our officers and ran away,” Tyagi told the media. “When constable Mohit Kumar chased him, Suleman opened fire at him. Mohit fired at Suleman in self-defense and he died as a result. Mohit’s treatment is still going on in Meerut.”
However, on Tuesday evening, Chandra gave the media a conflicting version of Suleman’s death: “He aim-fired at SP saheb [Tyagi]. In fact, the constable came in the middle all of a sudden. That’s when he was shot and then he retaliated. The SP and the DM were present at the site when the pandemonium occurred. Our constable is still in the hospital in an injured state.”
It was the first time that the police had offered this version of the story. Tyagi had not provided this version to either the Indian Express or NDTV.
Importantly, it contradicted Tyagi on two counts. First, it was very different from the account he had given to the Indian Express on December 23. He had told the newspaper that when a mob in Nehtaur snatched a constable’s pistol, a few policemen chased the mob. “When Mohit got close to Suleman,” Tyagi was quoted as saying, “the latter opened fire with his country-made pistol. A bullet hit Mohit’s stomach. In reply, Mohit also fired from his service pistol and the bullet hit Suleman’s stomach.”
Second, the version Tyagi had given to the media, he told Newslaundry, was not his own, but obtained from eyewitnesses. This implies that he was not present when the shots were fired. But if Chandra is to be believed, Tyagi was Suleman’s target and, thus, present at the scene of the killing.
Tyagi had also told the Express that Mohit Kumar, the injured constable, was undergoing treatment in Bijnor. He told Newslaundry he was now admitted in a hospital in Meerut.
‘Sense of revenge’
Besides arresting 10 people, the Bijnor police have registered a case against 2,500 unknown people in Nehtaur. As a result, many people have left their homes.
A man who returned home four days after the protests said the police were acting “with a sense of revenge”. “It seems that they can also implicate the innocent. That is why I left my home and returned today,” he said.
Newslaundry found many homes in the neighbourhood locked. We were told they had gone away for fear of retribution from the police.
Asked about this, Tyagi said, “To end the fear among people, we have held street meetings with them. We have told everyone that no one needs to be afraid.”
As if Suleman’s killing was not tragic enough, his family claimed to have suffered humiliation at the hands of the Bijnor police. They hadn’t been allowed to file an FIR for Suleman’s death, they said, nor been given a copy of his postmortem report. The police did not give them permission even to bury Suleman in their graveyard in Nehtaur, citing “communal sensitivities” and the presence of “anti-social elements”.
“After the postmortem, we were bringing his body back home. We were walking and carrying him on our shoulders. The police stopped us in the middle of the road and did not let us proceed,” said Shoaib Malik, Suleman’s brother. “We had to bury him 20 kilometres away after much haggling.”
When Suleman’s uncle, Anwar Usmani, accompanied journalists to the police station Tuesday evening to demand his nephew’s postmortem report, Tyagi ordered his subordinates to give him a copy. When Tyagi left, constables told Usmani they would not be able to give him the report. “Come tomorrow,” they said. Usmani shrugged as if he had seen it coming.
Pradeep Sharma, a neighbour of Suleman’s family for 35 years, said Suleman was “a very promising boy”. “He has rarely had a fight with the people around him.”