Sharjeel Usmani on the ‘defeat of the state’ and the government’s witch hunt against ‘bright students’

The student activist recounts his arrest and interrogation, his time in jail, and questions the ‘bright student’ theory on which he was granted bail.

ByNidhi Suresh
Sharjeel Usmani on the ‘defeat of the state’ and the government’s witch hunt against ‘bright students’
Anubhooti Gupta
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On a late winter morning in February, during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens at Aligarh Muslim University, a student of political science stood in front of the crowd, two mikes in hand.

“I am a 23-year-old student, and what should my mother be praying for? That I study well, get a good job, and lead a good life,” he said. “But no, today, my mother prays that I remain alive, that I don’t end up living in prison. And this is what they [the government] want.”

The student was activist Sharjeel Usmani. Five months later, his mother’s worst nightmare came true.

On July 8, Usmani was arrested for his alleged role in the violence at Aligarh Muslim University on December 15, 2019, and the subsequent citizenship law protests. Four cases were filed against him and charges included rioting and attempt to murder.

After two months in jail, Usmani was granted bail on September 2. The hearing in a fifth case against him — charged under the Goonda Act for allegedly causing hurt to a police officer — will take place today.

While granting him bail, an Aligarh court cited Usmani’s excellent academic records and called him a “bright student”, saying the case “is fit and proper to grant bail”.

But Usmani doesn’t see his release as a victory.

“First, they charge me with false charges like ‘attempt to murder’,” he said. “Second, they sent the anti-terrorism squad to question me like a terrorist. And then, they release me by calling me a ‘bright student’. This is a huge defeat for the state. The state is misusing power to arrest dissenting students.”

Though he’s back home now, Usmani predicts that he may spend more time in jail. On September 17, the Delhi police’s special cell will file a chargesheet in connection with the Delhi riots under the infamous FIR 59/2020, which also invokes anti-terror laws under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, apart from charges like attempt to murder.

Fourteen people have already been arrested under this FIR, including student activists and friends of Usmani, like Meeran Haider, Gulfisha Fatima, Aasif Iqbal Tanha and Safoora Zargar.

During his interrogation, Usmani was questioned on the Delhi riots. So, he believes he’s headed for jail again soon.

The arrest

Usmani had been staying with his uncle’s family in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh. On the afternoon of July 8, he stepped out for tea with a friend and saw five men approaching him.

“They blindfolded me and put me in a car. I did not resist. I knew my time had come,” he said.

But while Usmani was anticipating being arrested, he did not expect to be arrested by the anti-terror squad — a special police force that investigates terrorism plots.

“I am a student, protesting and peacefully executing my fundamental rights,” he said. “Why did they send the ATS to arrest me? What message are they trying to give?”

The first thing he asked the police officials, he said, was whether his family had been informed. They said yes, and he was taken to Lucknow, sitting blindfolded between two policemen, their pistols pressing into his thighs on either side.

Later, his brother told him that the police had raided their house and confiscated his phone, laptop and books. Even though there were three women in the house, there were no female officers with the team. Since the ATS were in plainclothes, his family was not even sure if the men were with the police or not.

On the way to Lucknow, Usmani said, he asked the police why he was being arrested, but received no response. One of the officers cited a Firstpost article Usmani had written about the Uttar Pradesh police and said: “We are not that bad. Today, we will show you how good you are.”

They reached the ATS office in Lucknow that night, and Usmani’s blindfold was finally removed.

The interrogation

Usmani was ostensibly arrested for his involvement in the violence that took place during the citizenship law protests in December at Aligarh Muslim University. However, he told Newslaundry that the ATS’s line of questioning tried to establish whether he was a terrorist.

“They asked me random questions about different terrorists and whether I had connections with them,” he said. “They enlarged a photo of my friend’s father — an old Muslim man with a long beard and dressed in religious attire — and asked why I talk to this ‘maulana’ every day. My friend, whom I spoke to regularly, was using his father’s SIM card, and his father was living in a Gulf country.”

Usmani was also asked whether he follows Rafa Yadain, a religious practice of prayer. Usmani told Newslaundry that Rafa Yadain is mostly practised by Wahabis, “ a strictly orthodox sect of Sunni Muslims who they link to terrorism”. Usmani replied that he did not have much to do during the lockdown and since it was Ramadan, he read prayers often.

“I realised that in order to be safe, I had to prove to them that I was not a devout Muslim, because the more religious I appear the more they would pin me down as a terrorist,” he said. He was also asked a few questions regarding his connection with the February violence in Delhi.

Usmani claimed the officers interrogating him were drunk. He stayed silent when this correspondent asked him about custodial torture. “There are things I don’t want to talk about because if I do, students might get scared of going to prison and might stop protesting altogether,” he said. “Maybe I will write about it one day.”

After a full night of questioning, a different officer came to question him the following morning. The officer asked if he had been handcuffed, blindfolded or abused. Usmani said he “lied” and said no.

That afternoon, he was handed over to the Aligarh police who first took him to a district hospital for a medical examination. Yet Usmani said the doctor didn’t conduct an examination; he was merely asked if he had any “difficulties”, to which he said no. He was then produced before a magistrate and sentenced to 14 days’ judicial custody.

After being sent to judicial custody, more than 24 hours after his arrest, Usmani was given his first meal: watery dal and roti.

All this time, Usmani was not told why he was being arrested, the charges against him, or allowed access to legal aid or a phone call — a clear violation of his rights guaranteed under Article 22(1) of the Indian Constitution and Section 41D of the Criminal Procedure Code.

The imprisonment

After the magistrate’s sentencing, Usmani was taken to a quarantine jail in Aligarh, a college converted into a jail. He spent 17 days here and was then shifted to a quarantine facility at the Aligarh jail, where he shared a cell with 60 inmates.

The Aligarh jail is mostly run by senior inmates, most of whom are serving time for rape, while its daily functioning is overseen by officers. According to Usmani, one of these senior inmate, who has spent 10 years in jail for rape, was the “jail monitor”.

Usmani said the jail monitor would beat up other inmates. Usmani himself was kicked in the face once.

After a few days, Usmani was shifted to Barrack 12, which has space for 45 inmates but housed 135.

“It was so crowded. It felt like we each had one coffin space for ourselves,” he said.

It was here that he finally got a chance to make his first phone call to his family, 40 days after he had been arrested.

He also spent time watching the news on TV. “It was so bizarre. The state was filling its jails with students and activists while TV news only spoke of Sushant Singh Rajput’s case,” he said, referring to the media circus after the actor’s death in June. “I would watch the news for two hours every day and learn nothing new.”

Meanwhile, he hadn’t revealed to fellow inmates his involvement in the citizenship law protests; the jail was “Hindu-dominated”, he said. However, some inmates read a short article about him in the newspaper and discovered who he was. From then on, he said, he was referred to as the “terrorist from Shaheen Bagh”.

On the morning of September 2, after spending eight weeks in prison, Usmani was abruptly told to pack his things and leave. He had been granted bail on the condition that he be present before the court whenever asked and pay an amount of Rs 50,000.

This is why Usmani was unimpressed with the Aligarh court’s pronouncement of him as a “bright student”: he had spent two months being interrogated, then jailed, and treated like a “terrorist”, he said. He also pointed out that despite the court’s mention of his academic record, the ATS still hasn’t returned his laptop, phone and books.

How other ‘bright students’ are targeted

Usmani isn’t the only “bright student” to have been picked up by the police.

When the lockdown began, many students who had participated in the citizenship law protests returned to their hometowns. Soon, however, some of them started receiving notices from the crime branch’s Lodhi Road office in Delhi. The notices arrived on WhatsApp and demanded that the students present themselves for questioning under FIR 59/2020.

Lawyer Tamanna Pankaj told Newslaundry that at least 50 students received these notices. She represents 15 of the students, and said it’s a “bizarre witch hunt”, stating that the Delhi police is focused on targeting students from the Jamia Coordination Committee and holding them responsible for the Jamia violence, the Shaheen Bagh protests, and the Delhi riots.

Importantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kapil Mishra has still not been questioned, despite delivering an incendiary speech that precipitated the Delhi riots. In fact, earlier this week, the Delhi police said in this context: “A narrative is being created that pro-CAA/NRC people were involved in it, but it has not come into the investigation yet.”

As Pankaj said: “They won’t convict all the students, but they will make sure they are scared enough to never protest or speak against the state ever again.”

Nazir* is one of them. A student at a university, he received a notice from the police which was followed by a phone call from an unknown number. The caller identified himself as a police officer.

Nazir was terrified. Having left Delhi for his hometown after the lockdown, he asked the police officer if he could have a video interrogation since it would be difficult for him to travel. However, the office said he would call him back — and never did.

A similar story took place with Nazir’s friend Rehan*, who also asked for a video interrogation.

Both Nazir and Rehan had participated peacefully in the citizenship law protests at their university. They denied having any link to the Delhi riots, and were confused about being called for questioning. Rehan, who wants to apply for a masters programme abroad, said, “I don’t know if I can even dare to dream of a future right now.”

Nazir said that he and his family have been living in fear since he received the notice.

Not all of us enjoy the media attention that some other students have,” he said. “Nobody will even know if they arrest us. There will be no one to demand our release. My family will not be able to afford a good lawyer or pay for my bail. What will happen to us?”

Similarly, Ishan*, a student, received a notice from the police. Unlike Nazir and Rehan, he presented himself for questioning. The interrogation lasted over eight hours, he said, and he was shocked that the police had transcripts of his WhatsApp and Facebook conversations.

After his questioning, Ishan hasn’t heard back from the police since. “Every day, I wonder when my time will come,” he said.

He added that Covid protocols were not followed during his interrogation, and he was not allowed a lawyer — despite this being permitted in cases with UAPA charges.

It’s something that Usmani spoke about to this correspondent too.

He said: “It is not my incarceration that is shocking, it is the process of my imprisonment, the line of interrogation, and the narrative they are building, which reveals the mindset of this state.”

*Names changed to protect identities.

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