Over 30 men, mostly PFI supporters but also ordinary citizens, were arrested or their homes raided. Some were tortured and threatened with rape or murder.
More than 30 Muslim men, mostly affiliated with the Popular Front of India, were arrested, detained or visited by the Uttar Pradesh police in the days before and after the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5.
At least 17 men were arrested or detained in Bahraich, four each in Barabanki and Sitapur, three in Lucknow, and one in Varanasi. The police also raided the homes of at least 10 alleged PFI members in Shamli and eight in Muzaffarnagar on August 4.
Arrested for Facebook post
Sarwar Ali, 25, lives in Shamli town and runs a Unani pharmacy in Panipat, Haryana. On 8 August 2020, at around 2.45 am, Sarwar’s family were woken up by policemen jumping onto their roof from a neighbour’s.
Sarwar’s cousin recalled that the policemen made their way downstairs, dragged out Sarwar and abused his father, Abbas Ali, 50, when he tried to intervene. Sarwar was taken to the Kairana police station, where he was thrashed and his phone was taken away, the cousin added.
It wasn’t the first time the UP police had barged into Sarwar’s home. On 18 December last year, a day before protest marches against the new citizenship law were due to take place in different cities across India, Sarwar was detained. The next day, another of his cousins was taken away as well. They spent over three weeks in jail before being released on bail.
When Sarwar’s relatives went to the police station and asked why their sons had been detained, a policeman on duty allegedly said, “Your sons are terrorists. We will send them to a place where you would never be able to see them.”
This time, they only took away Sarwar. In an FIR registered at the Kairana police station on August 9, Sarwar is charged under penal provisions punishing “provocation with intent to cause riot”; “promotion of enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language”; “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. He is also charged under section 67 of the IT Act which punishes the publication or transmission of obscene material in electronic form.
The FIR is based on a complaint by one Sonu Kumar. Kumar claims that he was surfing Facebook and came across certain “incendiary messages” posted from Sarwar’s account. The posts amounted to contempt of the Supreme Court’s judgement on the Babri Masjid dispute, the FIR, states and appeared to be handiwork of groups such as the PFI, the Social Democratic Party of India, and the All India Imams Council.
The PFI is a sociopolitical organisation and the SDPI is its political arm, registered with the Election Commission. The Imams Council, which is also linked to the PFI, is an association of Muslim religious scholars, clerics and teachers.
The Adityanath regime has accused the PFI of orchestrating the violence that broke out during the citizenship law protests in UP last year. In January this year, his government sent a letter to the central home ministry seeking a ban on the PFI.
According to A Mohamed Yusuff, an advocate who is a member of the PFI’s legal team, around 40 PFI supporters have been arrested since December in connection with the anti-CAA protests in UP. They include four members of the group’s state leadership. Two of them got bail later while the other two are still jailed in Bijnor and Meerut.
Newslaundry contacted UP police’s additional director general for law and order, Prashant Kumar, for comment on the crackdown of PFI members around the turn of the year and this month. The report will be updated if a response is received.
Booked for ‘WhatsApp campaign’
An FIR registered at Lucknow’s Kakori police station on August 5 accuses Abdul Majeed, 20, of trying to break communal harmony through a campaign on WhatsApp and Twitter to protest against the Bhoomi Pujan. The campaign used hashtags such as “Return Babri land to Muslims” and “Restore Article 370”. He admitted to running the campaign after he was detained, the FIR claims, and insisted that he would do so in the future as well.
Majeed, according to the FIR, relocated from Shahdara in Delhi to Kakori, Lucknow, a year ago.
The FIR claims that Majeed ran the campaign on WhatsApp groups “Broadcast”, of which he was the admin, and “AIICUP”, presumably the abbreviation for All India Imams Council Uttar Pradesh.
He’s booked under provisions penalising “words uttered with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of a person”.
Asked whether such social media posts amounted to a penal offence, A Q Zaidi, a lawyer at the Allahabad High Court told Newslaundry, “Prima facie the tweets and the Facebook posts do not satisfy the requirements of sections invoked in the FIR. None of these posts contains anything provocative, inflammatory or calling for violence. Hence, no offence appears to be made out. Every person has the right to the freedom of speech and expression and in this case also these posts fall within the protection of constitutional safeguards.”
‘Encounter kar denge’
Qamaruddin, 34, owns a furniture shop in Jarwal, a town around 55 km from Bahraich city. On August 4, he had stepped out to purchase wood from a wholesaler when he got a call from his friend, Sahibe Alam. “Daaroga wants to see you,” Sahibe Alam, 28, who has a shop selling motor parts, told him, meaning a local police official. He, too, had been summoned.
Qamaruddin, who does not use a second name, and Sahibe Alam reached the Jarwal Road police station half past noon and waited for about three hours before being called in. “Which organisation do you work for?” the Circle Officer asked.
They were associated with the PFI, which, Qamaruddin and Sahibe Alam made sure to clarify, wasn’t a banned group. ‘There is AIMIM. Can’t you work with them?” the officer allegedly retorted.
Qamaruddin and Sahibe Alam were taken into custody, where they stayed for two days and were subjected to interrogation by four plainclothes men from the police’s Local Intelligence Unit. Two of them slapped Sahibe Alam while the other two hurled abuses at Qamaruddin, he recounted.
One of them allegedly also told Qamaruddin, “We will kill you in an encounter. Who do you think you are? This is the prime minister’s programme, what are you up to?” He was referring to the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony where Narendra Modi would be centre stage the next day.
In a press note issued on August 6, the police said they had arrested three men – Sahibe Alam, Qamaruddin and one Dr Aleem Ahmed – and booked them for spreading communally sensitive messages on Twitter and WhatsApp. They had all been arrested from Aleem’s clinic in Bahraich city, the police added.
Qamaruddin rejected the allegations, pointing out that he owned only a simple Lava keypad phone and not a smartphone. So, there was no question of him running a social media campaign.
‘Tortured in police custody’
Mohammad Nadeem, 28, was one of 16 PFI members arrested last December for allegedly orchestrating the violence that broke out during the anti-CAA protests in Lucknow. He was bailed out after about a month.
On August 4, the police again came looking for Nadeem at his home in Barabanki. He was out and they searched his house for an hour. At around 10 pm, Nadeem went to the local police station. He was told to hand over his mobile phone because the police wanted to look at his Facebook posts. Nadeem refused to do so, and was immediately arrested. The next day, the police went back to his home and confiscated his younger brother Faheem’s mobile and laptop. Faheem, who is pursuing a Master’s in Social Work, had been using the laptop to take online classes during the coronavirus pandemic. He has no way to attend classes now.
Faheem said when he went to meet Nadeem in the police station, he noticed rashes on his hand. “They were marks left from beating with a belt,” he claimed.
While he was visiting his brother, Faheem alleged that he was forced to sign a document stating that the police had arrested Nadeem from outside their village and found weapons on him.
Harassed by the police
Since completing his Master’s in Library Science in 2017, Atikur Rahman, 25, has been trying to secure a PhD position. He was preparing for an upcoming exam in the afternoon on August 4, when a group of about 10 policemen landed at his home at Riawali Nagla village in Budhana tehsil of Muzaffarnagar. They asked for Atikur Rahman and when he identified himself, the SHO told one of the constables to click his photo with the young man. An argument ensued when Atikur asked them why they had clicked his picture.
Atikur is the national treasurer of a student organisation called the Campus Front of India. According to the Hindu, its origin “could be traced” to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.
In December 2019, Atikur was in Delhi and participated in protests against the citizenship law there. Back in Muzaffarnagar, the police raided his home on December 19 and arrested his brother Mateen Chaudhary, 32. He was released the following day.
In February, Atikur learned from a friend employed with a local media organisation that the police were still looking for him. So, on February 9, he wrote to the district magistrate complaining about harassment by the police. The complaint was listed on Jan Sunwai Portal, an online platform meant to address public grievances, but subsequently disposed of without Atikur’s statement having been recorded.
Arrested, released, arrested again
Mohammad Iqbal, 37, a teacher, runs a high school at Riawali Nagla village. In the late afternoon on August 4, about a dozen policemen arrived at his house. “Are you putting up a poster of the Babri Masjid,” one of them asked Iqbal.
He claimed the policemen hurled abuses at him in front of his children and elderly family members. “Dehshat ho jati hai,” he recounted the experience. “We were terrorised.”
Iqbal’s was one of eight houses in Muzaffarnagar that were raided by the police the day before the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony. Unlike several other Muslim men who were arrested, detained or raided around that time, Iqbal said he was not even an PFI supporter, let alone a member. “I did not participate in anti-CAA protests either,” he added.
At the time of the protests, though, the police had detained Iqbal’s younger brother, Mohammad Shamshad, a B Pharma student, for 24 hours. Iqbal recalled that when he and some of his relatives went to find out why his brother had been detained, the Ratanpuri SHO told them, “Ghar wapsi kar lo.” He asked them to convert to Hinduism, that is.
On February 1, the police came again to their home, this time to arrest Iqbal. He was thrown behind bars and not allowed to meet his family, he said.
When Iqbal demanded to know why he had been arrested, a Local Intelligence Unit official slapped him and said, “You became Muslims in Aurangzeb’s time. Now, come back to the Hindu fold.”
Iqbal was told to sign on a paper without reading it and when he refused, the same official started beating him up with a cane and threatened to sodomise him with a baton. He was then booked under penal provisions related to rioting with a deadly weapon, unlawful assembly, voluntarily causing hurt, disobeying a public servant’s order, attempt to murder, and criminal conspiracy. He obtained bail from a magistrate’s court on February 19 and was released.
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