‘I cannot pay even five rupees, forget 50,000. I’d rather go to jail’: Muslim families in UP’s Sambhal respond to notices for damages

Fifty nine families whose members are accused of damaging property during citizenship law protests have been told to pay over Rs 15 lakh.

‘I cannot pay even five rupees, forget 50,000. I’d rather go to jail’: Muslim families in UP’s Sambhal respond to notices for damages
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In Sambhal, as in Rampur, the Uttar Pradesh police are reversing a famous Biblical saying: they are visiting the sins of the children upon their families. Only the children’s sins haven’t been proven yet and the families don’t have the means to serve their punishments.

On December 19, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens broke out in the town of Sambhal in western Uttar Pradesh. The protesters torched a bus and two of them were subsequently killed. In its FIR, the Sambhal police admitted that it had fired, but only in self-defense.

That day, Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, popular as Adityanath, declared that his government would take “revenge” on those protesters who damaged public property. “There was violence in Lucknow and Sambhal and we will deal with it strictly. All properties of those involved in damaging public assets will be seized and auctioned to compensate for the losses,” Bisht said.

Records accessed by Newslaundry show 59 families in Sambhal have been sent notices by the district administration to cough up Rs 15.35 lakh in damages. All the families are Muslim.

“Below are the names of those who violated Section 144 in Sambhal on December 19 and took out a procession where public servants were stone-pelted…and public property was torched and damaged, causing loss to public resources,” states a document listing the names, dated December 24. It notes that the processions were organised in “opposition to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act” and that the listed names are related to “public property compensation and its recovery”.  

Newslaundry met the families of six people named in the Sambhal administration’s list.

Kasim, 32

On December 28, the police arrived at Rubina’s house in Sambhal’s Miyan Sarai neighbourhood. They produced a paper and asked her to sign it. Rubina, who is illiterate, signed. Then she was handed a notice, which, when read out to her by some neighbours, sent her into consternation. 

The notice talks about the recovery of losses to public property incurred during the protests in Sambhal on December 19 and 20. The police claim her husband, Kasim, was involved in the protests.

                                                                Rubina, 24, at her home in Sambhal.

“The photo released by the police carries my husband’s name but the picture is of someone else. My husband and I went to Sirsi that day, 12 km from Sambhal. Our niece is hospitalised there. We returned late at night, and he was not involved in the protests. His name has been inserted by someone else,” Rubina said.

                                             An alleged photo of Kasim released by the Sambhal police.

                                                                    The notice sent to Kasim’s family.

Kasim is a labourer and earns his livelihood by renting an e-rickshaw or carrying goods in Sambhal’s vegetable markets. Either way, he earns between Rs 200 and Rs 300 a day. He has three children, none older than nine. They are not in school.

Kasim’s family, without land or a house of their own, live in his elder brother’s home. The brother too is a labourer, earning a daily wage of Rs 400 to Rs 500.

“I can’t pay even five rupees to anyone, forget fifty thousand. I’d rather go to jail. The world always oppresses the poor,” Rubina said, sobbing.

Kasim was not in Sambhal when we met his family. “We sent him away when his photo became public,” his neighbours told Newslaundry.

Junaid, 15

Junaid was called to Sambhal from Delhi on the night of December 15. His mother, Bhoori, 35, had heard about the capital witnessing violence during citizenship law protests and asked her son to be in Sambhal for the week. “His father died of a heart attack when he was 11,” said Bhoori.

Four days later, when crowds of young men from Miyan Sarai began heading towards the town’s Chandausi Chowk, Junaid joined in. Inside her crumbling house, Bhoori told us, “He went to the city with them. But once he returned and we learnt of what happened, we sent him away. The police might arrest my son. He’s only a boy.”

According to Junaid’s neighbours, nearly 10,000 people were on the streets of Sambhal on December 20. “The protest was peaceful, but the police and some anti-social elements, who were from the police side, sabotaged it,” said Asad, a neighbour. 

                                                     Junaid’s photo released by the Sambhal police.

Junaid and his brother Javed, 16, both work as labourers in Delhi. The family has no land or a house of their own. Junaid, who learnt sewing, earns about Rs 200 to Rs 300 per day. Javed too had started learning it, and would accompany Junaid to the workshop before the protests broke out. The brothers never went to school. 

The house Bhoori lives in has 11 residents. The others, including six toddlers, depend on the daily wages of her brother-in-law, an e-rickshaw driver with a damaged leg, who earns no more than Junaid. 

Bhoori’s notice, like Rubina’s, details alleged damage to public and private property during the protests on December 20. Signed by Additional District Magistrate Kamlesh Kumar Awasthi, it totals to Rs 2,45,000.

                                                                  Bhoori shows the notice sent to her.

Adil, 16, and Azam, 17

Mohammad Ali’s is the only family in Sambhal with two members named in the government list. A police officer visited their home and told them they had been summoned to the ADM’s court on January 9.

Ali, 50, lives in a corner of Kotla mohalla in Sambhal’s Saraitareen. While he is away for the afternoon namaz, his wife feeds chickpeas to a rented goat within the warm courtyard. “Once they are reared well, we can sell them for slaughter,” she said. 

The courtyard has a separate space for chicken. Ali’s family has 11 members, three of them working men. Like the other families we met, they are all daily wage workers who together earn about Rs 500 per day. The family has seen better days, but there’s been a crisis since Ali contracted a leg infection and became ill.

                             Mohammad Ali’s home in Sambhal’s Saraitareen neighbourhood.

Ali’s is also the only family we met in Sambhal which sent their children, three out of eight, to a private school. Ali showed us the fee bills. With meagre wages and no land, the family manage to pay Rs 24,750 a year to educate their children. “My sons, Adil and Azam, are away with Jamaat. How can they be a part of the protest?” Ali asked, referring to a trip sponsored by local madrassas to enable Muslim men to learn about their religion. “I am sure local mukhbars who envy us have given my sons’ names to the police. They’re innocent.”  

Mukhbars, or police informers, are like ghosts in Sambhal. Everyone thinks they exist, but no one has ever seen one. “They get paid by the police for every person they catch, so they are giving away names of people who are innocent,” said Ali, adding that his family could not prove that Adil and Azam were not in Sambhal on December 20. “But I’ll go to them on January 9, and I’ll have my children out of this.”

Anas, 15

Anas is Ali’s neighbour. He has both a smaller family and a smaller house. His grandfather Mohammad Shehzad, 85, is very worried that the government has named his grandson. “He is away with Jamaat. The Markaz mosque in Saraitareen has taken many young boys for it. They return after 40 days, sometimes months. I don’t understand how he could be at two places at the same time,” Shehzad grumbled.

                                                             Mohammad Shehzad at his home.

Two infants and two young girls peeped from a window as Shehzad spoke with us. The old man said there were three boys and four girls in their family. Anas, whose mother died when he was young, had to start doing daily wage labour at 12. Three of his siblings also work, each bringing home Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day.

                                      Anas’s picture in the posters circulated by the police. 

“We don’t have any land. Everything we have is inside this little house,” said Shehzad. “We eat two meals a day. Now, you tell me, how am I expected to pay that kind of money? I can’t even send my grandchildren to school.”

Kasim, 25 

Kasim grew up in Saraitareen’s Bhuda neighbourhood. After a family quarrel, his five brothers divided their home. Kasim, the youngest, did not get his share. Since the family did not own any land, he moved to Baroda, got married, and now has a three-year-old daughter. He never went to school but his daughter does. 

“After the plastic ban in Gujarat, he returned to Sambhal. He used to collect garbage in Baroda for a living and earned about Rs 300 a day,” said Nazeem, Kasim’s neighbour. Kasim, he added, had left for Baroda on December 28 after learning his name was on the compensation list.

                                             Kasim’s picture in posters circulated by the police.

Kasim’s neighbours told Newslaundry Sambhal’s police chief, Yamuna Prasad, arrived in their neighbourhood on December 18 to tell the residents to practice restraint given the mood in Uttar Pradesh that week. “He brought a photographer with him. He was clicking pictures. They used one of those pictures to indict Kasim and the two other boys in our locality. He was not part of the protest. It’s a travesty,” Nazeem alleged.

Kasim’s mother did not want to meet any media persons. “She has been ill and bedridden since he showed up on that list,” a neighbour told us. “Her husband also passed away years ago.”

Mounting troubles

Most of those who have been served damage recovery notices in Sambhal belong to working-class families. These families, miles away from economic security, are now being asked to shell out thousands because one of their members is accused of damaging public property. These families cannot pay that kind of money. And if the administration does make them pay, they will be set back by several years.

“Fifteen lakh rupees is not the final number. There will be more,” Assistant Superintendent of Police, Sambhal, Alok Kumar Jaiswal, told Newslaundry. “We have sent the notices and there are provisions on how to proceed with the recovery. It’s based on the Allahabad High Court order. The accused will be asked to prove their innocence.”

An article published by the news website Scroll argued that the process of recovery as enshrined in this order was “flawed”: “What is apparent in the High Court order is that the aspect of judicial oversight in the assessment of damages and recovery of compensation has been done away with…Many of the agitations and protests which turn violent are political in nature. This means there is every chance that the ruling party could go after its political opponents or others opposed to it to settle scores. The High Court order, by vesting powers in the government without judicial oversight, seems to have overlooked this concern.”

Another article in The Print argued that the high court’s order on the matter violates a 2009 Supreme Court judgement since it puts “the onus of recovering the damages on state authorities and not high courts”.

Taking a step back, there are multiple problems with this process of recovering damages. First of all, these young men have not been provided a fair trial yet. Going by the attitude the administration has taken towards the protesters, be it the chief minister’s “revenge” remarks, or the police’s confusing versions of the deaths or asking them to go to Pakistan, the trial might not be fair. 

Second, the Uttar Pradesh police too indulged in stone-pelting as many videos from Sambhal shot on December 20 reveal. The police can also be seen siding with men pelting stones at the protesters in the videos. (Jaiswal denied these claims.) The question is: who will investigate the investigators? 

The judiciary – which backed the idea of the recovery of damages – needs to consider how just would it be to extract hefty sums from the families of the juveniles who made it on to the police’s lists. Adil, Azam and Junaid are years from turning 18, and their families are in a precarious condition economically. They cannot pay the money demanded of them without sliding further down the ladder of impoverishment.

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