Sustained reportage by dogged and principled journalists and investigation by citizens’ groups have gradually begun to illuminate the terrible darkness around anti CAA protests in UP over December 2019. Every single one of these has exploded the narrative fostered by the UP government, police and compliant local media, of violent mobs destroying public property and attacking police.
We have all noted that massive marches against the CAA have taken place all over the country, but have “turned violent” only in BJP ruled states. The various reports that are now emerging, reveal the extent to which the UP police either acted as a violent mob itself, or used police informers or local RSS organizations to start stone pelting and other such acts to disrupt non-violent marches, and to provide an excuse for violent police action.
A public hearing on state action in UP will be held in Delhi on January 16th, 2020, bringing together all the information collected by different groups of people who have visited different parts of the state.
Here we present the report on Sambhal.
A team went to Sambhal from Karwan-e-Mohabbat on 2 January, 2020, consisting of Ayesha Kidwai, Farida Khan, Navsharan Singh, Nivedita Menon, Sandeep Yadav, Sumit Gupta, Tanika Sarkar and Varna Balakrishnan.
The team met – a) The head and some members of the ZSS – Mr Mushir Khan (owner of the Cold Storage), Mr Moazzem Khan (retired police officer) Dr.Nazim (Ayurveda doctor)
- b) families of the two men (Bilal and Shehroz) who were killed by bullets
- c) family of one of the arrested students, Aehtsham
- d) Qamar Husain, Advocate.
Sambhal town dates back at least to Lodhi rule, and has a large Muslim majority, nearly 78% of the town’s population. There are about twenty to thirty prosperous and locally prominent Muslim families who have contributed significantly to town life. A rich farmer’s wife runs a school for poor and Dalit children, one is a well-known Ayurvedic/Unani doctor, one an allopathic doctor with a degree from UK, who treats poorer patients free of charge.
Zillah Sangharsh Samiti (ZSS) had been set up in 2011 when the longstanding demand for Sambhal District was met, but district headquarters was set up in Bahjoi, some 26 km from Sambhal. ZSS campaigned to make Sambhal town the headquarters of the district but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless the ZSS has continued since then to be active in charitable and educational work, environmental activities and it was also active in the District Administration’s Sotnadi Punarjeevan Evam Vikas Samiti in a private-public partnership to develop the banks of the Sot Nadi. They work together with the local SDM and the Circle Officer in municipal and welfare activities. The ZSS has active participation from some of the most prominent Muslims of Sambhal, who have also financially contributed substantially to government programmes.
There is a significant RSS-VHP presence in Sambhal and the town has a history of communal violence from the late 1970s. Most recently, in November 2019, there was an incident when a local mosque under construction was declared illegal by the police upon the intervention of a VHP leader, and its construction was stopped. Local women marched to the mosque and occupied it. At that time the Muslim members of the ZSS had played a crucial role in mediating between the community and the police, and getting the women to evacuate the mosque. This was a difficult and delicate task, our informants said, as a temple continued to be constructed nearby, and the sense of betrayal over the Ayodhya judgement was still fresh.
The mosque was eventually not permitted to be completed.
Events of December 19 and 20, 2019
On 19th December, two protests were planned. One by the Samajwadi Party MLA and MP, and one by the ZSS. The administration initially granted permission to the ZSS to hold the protest in the Al Tareen ITI college, which is run by Mushir Tareen Khan, whom we met, who heads the ZSS. However by the night of 18 December, the administration withdrew the permission, and filled the grounds of the college with water to ensure no gathering could take place there. The residents of Sambhal learnt that Section 144 was imposed in the town. The leading members of ZSS were asked to sign an undertaking not to participate in any public or private protest, which they did.
That night FIRs were filed against them under Section 116 among others. On 19th morning, the police put Khan under house arrest. Some of the key members of ZSS collected in the campus of the home and cold storage unit of Mr Khan and effectively remained nazarband there till the evening of the next day, 20th, which was a Friday.
On the 19th the Samajwadi Party protest met with water cannon, lathi charge, tear gas and police firing in the air. Two buses were stoned and set ablaze, and police were pelted with stones, according to media reports.
Our informants told us that on 20th, although no organization or group made any formal call, after Friday namaz, people started gathering spontaneously in large numbers and soon the gathering took the form of a procession which started moving towards Chandausi Chowk. There was no leader of the procession, nor did they have any memorandum to be given to the administration – it was a spontaneous outpouring against the unjust CAA.
The procession was met by a heavy police force led by the SP City, at the Chandausi Chowk, blocking the slogan-shouting but peaceful procession. Police began to lathi-charge, there was a stampede, teargas shells were lobbed. As thick smoke engulfed the area, gunshots were heard and two young Muslim men – Bilal in early 30s and Sharoz, 20s – sustained bullet injuries. They later died. Police initially denied firing bullets but later admitted to firing “in self defence.” We were told by several informants that people also saw a local VHP/RSS man, identified as Santosh Kumar, firing, and we were shown a video of this man firing a gun.
Mr Khan and the 4 others who were under arrest at his home on the 20th, were contacted repeatedly by the District administration to come and help to disperse the crowds, as they have intervened on earlier such occasions. But they refused to leave Mr Khan’s home. There they were under police surveillance. If they left the place, they feared they would be arrested for breaking order and perhaps accused of inciting the people out on the roads. Around 4 in the afternoon, Mr Khan heard that his brother was in a Delhi hospital, and he left immediately for Delhi. In his absence, charges of rioting were brought against him and five other ZSS members (including a former policeman) though at no time had any of them been anywhere near the site of violence as CCTV cameras and police stationed at the house could testify.
Despite this, all of them are among those who have been served recovery notices for compensation for public property, to the tune of several lakhs. They intend to challenge this in courts, but are aware how time consuming and expensive the process will be, with no guarantee of justice.
Such fines on individuals for destruction of public property by unidentified people during mob situations, are unprecedented, and there is no legal backing for this move. This is the kind of strategy used by conquering armies to quell populations they conquer, not the act of a supposedly democratically elected government.
While talking to us, the men broke down several times. They were among the wealthy and eminent citizens of Sambhal, and in a state of shock, unable to make sense of the cases against them. They were also painfully aware that they were being targeted as Muslims, and one of them said “Where are we to go? This is our country, isn’t it?”
Stone pelting, bus burning
There were two narratives from our informants regarding this for the two days.
- The local police keep some men on its rolls as police informers. They are used by the police to intimidate petty criminals or ordinary citizens as the need arises. According to people who spoke to us, the stone pelting at Chandousi on the 19th was begun by these men. One of these men was spotted in a video footage by his neighbour who spoke to us.
They also pointed out that while there are videos of as yet unidentified young men stoning a bus, there are no videos showing who set the bus on fire.
2. That the local Valmiki community (our informants called them “bhangi”) is mobilized by the BJP and the police against local Muslims on various occasions. In one locality, around Shankar Chauraha, Dalits live on one side of the road and Muslims on another. On the 20th from here young Valmiki men gathered to pelt stones on the protesters and the latter pelted stones back at them.
Our informants said these Valmiki men had the full support of the police in that they were not stopped or hindered in any way. There are videos showing some men pelting stones while police walk near them, taking no action.
The fact is that the origins of the “eruption of violence” in Sambhal are not clear at all, though the local media seems to be hand in glove with the police in reporting all police action as necessitated by self defence in the face of a violent mob protesting the CAA.
Detentions and Arrests
Police made large scale arrests over both days, including in one case, of a boy going home after tuition, or of people picked up off the streets. According to Qamar Husain, Advocate, whom we met, they knew of at least 50 people who had been arrested. (By January 8th they knew for sure about 55 arrests as he told the Caravan reporter). These included minors. Many who did not return home were found later to have been arrested. The information about arrests trickles in slowly by word of mouth of others in jail, or as and when families contacted by the arrested spread the word.
This is an important aspect of mass arrests in such incidents. No concrete information is made available by the police for considerable lengths of time, and thus many languish in jail with no legal assistance, as their arrest is not even known to their families.
Many of them were taken to Bareilly Jail, and minors too were housed with other adult prisoners.
Thousands were detained, and full information is not available yet of how many have returned home.
All of them have been beaten brutally during the protests, after arrest as well as in prison. One of those arrested, Aehtesham, a student of Jamia Milia in Delhi, had gone home to Sambhal when Jamia closed after the protests and police violence there. He was picked up by the police, and when his Jamia identity card was found in his pocket, others arrested with him said to their visitors that he was singled out for a particularly brutal assault by police, abusing him for being from Jamia. The police narrative, they said, is that students of AMU and Jamia incited and led the protests against the CAA.
We met his family, who had no idea about where he was for two days, he simply went missing. Finally when they were all produced in court, a lawyer called his family. His sister who travelled two to three hours to Bareilly Jail (about 130 kms away) to meet him, said she saw marks of beating on him, and “he would not meet her eyes.” She also told us there was a very young boy there about ten years old, who was crying inconsolably for his mother.
The people of Sambhal in general are so terrified that they do not speak to the media and most do not want their names to be reported. It took some time for them to start speaking. A young man who introduced himself as being from AMU joined us at one point, but before we had the opportunity to talk to him, he left. We learnt that his father had ordered him to go home immediately and not to speak to any outsiders.
There were two deaths due to bullet injuries.
Bilal (aged 31) of Shahbazpura, was killed near Chandausi Chowk. Bilal’s father told the team that on 20th Bilal, a wage labourer, father of three, left home to go to Muradabad for some work at around 1 pm after jumme ki namaz. His friend was with him. Near the Chowk, they encountered a big slogan shouting crowd. There was also police on the other side of the road and suddenly a bullet hit him on his face. He fell, his friend lost contact with him in the crowd. But it seems some people took him to a private hospital but he died on the way.
His family got a call some time later from the friend to say that he was shot and had been taken to hospital, but he had no definite information and they kept getting conflicting information of his whereabouts. Finally they traced him to the Fazal Nursing Home and when his father and cousins reached there he was dead.
His father said that the bullet hit him right under the lower lip, it pierced through and was stuck near the back of the neck. This was shown in the X-Ray which was done before the post mortem in the local government hospital in Bahjoi. The family was not given the X-Ray or the Post Mortem report, but they showed us pictures of his body where the bullet entry wound is clearly visible. The body was returned to the family in the night and he was buried the same night, at 1 a.m.
The family registered a complaint in the police station on the 20th evening stating that Bilal who was on his way to Moradabad for work, was killed by a bullet fired by the police with the intention to kill. The family has a stamped copy of the complaint received by the police. Later, the same day, the police filed an FIR, it mentions that Bilal died of an injury (chot lagne se maut ho gayi). The FIR doesn’t mention how Bilal was hurt.
We met the family on January 2nd 2020, and the family had still not received a copy of the Post Mortem report. (According to the Caravan journalist they had not got it even on January 7th). They said they had been pursuing it but every time they go to the police, they are told, ‘it will take time.’ The family also said that local police officer came to see them on Jan 1. The officer wanted to know if the family wanted to pursue anything specific in relation to the case. Bilal’s father told him that he would get back after consulting with the members of his community.
Shehroz (aged 22). His family told us that on the 19th, he left home at 3 pm. He was a driver, the only educated person in his family of unskilled labourers, he had learnt driving, got himself a driving license and a job with a local taxi service. When he reported for duty, the taxi owner asked him to go back home as the town appeared tense. At 4:20 pm someone called the family from his mobile that he had got a bullet in the stomach and taken to SEWA hospital in Sambhal who referred him to Asian hospital in Moradabad, more than 50 km away. At the Asian hospital they were asked to go to TMU hospital, about an hour away. By the time they reached the third hospital, he had lost a lot of blood and succumbed to his injury. His body was brought back to Sambhal Government Hospital and Post Mortem was performed there the next morning. But the report was not given to the family.
Shehroz’s family filed a complaint in the police station mentioning specifically that he was hit by a bullet. But the FIR states that he died in the stampede.
Shehroz’s family was visited by Crime Branch officers on Jan 1 and asked to identify in a photograph, two young men on a bike carrying Shehroz’s body. His father said he could not identify them.
This visit is intimidatory, as rather than inquiring into the circumstances of his death, the police seemed more keen to find the names of those who helped him. Given the role of the police in Sambhal, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that those young men could be held responsible for the shooting.
This seems even more likely in the light of the story later uncovered by the Caravan reporter. We were not given any more information than detailed above, but according to the Caravan report, the body of Shehroz was found exactly where the RSS man Santosh Kumar is firing from. The police have all this information, but are evidently not keen to follow up the case, which has been registered under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The families and neighbours of both Bilal and Shehroz are distraught and angry. Bilal was a son, husband and father, leaving behind small children and his widow, his grieving mother and father, his sister.
His sister, carrying her infant nephew, hit her fist against the wall – “yeh hamara ghar hai, kaise ye log hamein nikaal sakte hain?”
Shehroz was saving up to send his parents to Mecca. He was active on Facebook and very upset about the CAA. His father told us that his last post says, “Deen mera Islam hai, Watan mera Hindostan hai, na kabhi deen chod sakta hoon, na watan chod sakta hoon.”(My faith is Islam, my country is Hindostan, I can never give up my faith, nor can I leave my country).
No policeman had been seriously injured in the clashes (although the police in a later press conference at which the Caravan reporter was present, claimed 50 of their men were injured in the stone pelting), and at most a couple of public vehicles had been burnt. The scale of repression is clearly and vastly disproportionate to the nature of offences, even if we grant that the charges are true.
An air of total incomprehension, anger and dejection hangs over the local Muslims, rich and poor. They have a strong sense of belonging to Sambhal, of local pride and patriotism. The CAA and the impending NPR and NRC challenge all that, and the merciless repression on 19th and 20th December and all that has followed, has induced a tragic identity crisis among them.
It feels like the Muslim population of Sambhal (and in UP as a whole given the reports that we have seen by journalists and citizens’ groups), are held hostage by a criminal mafia of government, police and Hindu right-wing organizations.