‘Better to die than submit’: Muzaffarnagar residents allege police excess
The wedding of 24-year-old Humera Parveen is due to take place in March. Around 12.30 am on Saturday, she and her younger sister hurried to the terrace of their three-storey home in Muzaffarnagar’s Khala Paar neighbourhood and locked it from inside. Minutes later, they had said their prayers and prepared to jump.
“About 20 men in police uniforms and plainclothes brought down the terrace gate and pulled off my 65-year-old mother’s shawl. We sisters decided that it was better to die than submit to them,” said Parveen.
Fortunately for the sisters, one of the policemen asked the others not to touch the young women. The sisters were spared, but their house was vandalised. “The policemen rained lathis on my 75-year-old father and kept him at a police station for over 40 hours,” said Parveen, whose wedding plans have been thrown into uncertainty.
Parveen’s was not a singular account of alleged police excesses in Muzaffarnagar district, where a violent protest was staged on Friday by residents against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Dozens of residents and about 15 policemen were injured in the protest that was allegedly followed by policemen barging into several homes and vandalising them in the dead of the night. Many alleged custodial torture by the police.
At least one protester was killed in police firing and by various accounts, at least five others were shot and injured in the district. According to Satpal Antil, superintendent of police (Muzaffarnagar City), so far 74 people have been arrested and 31 cases registered against them. Many locals alleged that they were held in police stations for up to 48 hours, but the SP refused to call them “detentions”. “We let the innocent people leave after questioning,” he said.
The SP said the protests against CAA began on Friday afternoon after weekly prayers. “Thousands of people were protesting. They were coming from all four directions and all of them were headed towards the Meenakshi Chowk (where the protesters usually assemble). We tried to explain to them that prohibitory orders were imposed in the district and they weren’t allowed to assemble. We offered to take their memorandum to the right authorities, but they wouldn’t listen,” said the SP.
Soon, the crowd swelled to over 100,000, said the SP, adding that they turned violent and began pelting stones and shooting at the policemen besides engaging in arson.
The SP said the police responded with a lathi-charge and by bursting tear gas shells.
Noor Mohammad, a 26-year-old driver, was shot in his left temple during this protest and he died the same night. His wife, Sanno, who is seven months pregnant, said her husband had left home around 2.30 pm for namaaz at a local mosque. “He told me he would be joining the protesters after the namaaz,” said Sanno.
But Sanno insists that her husband was a “darpok” (timid man) who would never indulge in violence. “He would shiver of I ever screamed at him at home.”
Noor Mohammad was an orphan and now his wife and 18-month-old daughter are left to fend for themselves. “I don’t know, who killed my husband, but I have no one to care for me now,” said the 23-year-old woman.
Sanno said she hasn’t filed a police complaint yet. “They didn’t hand over my husband’s body to us for three days. We finally cremated them in Meerut (where he was taken to a hospital) on Monday. I don’t have any hopes from the police,” she said.
Sanno’s father, Mohammad Chand, said that he wouldn’t take “any step that will offend the government”. “My daughter is left with a little daughter. She will do as I say and I won’t take any step that will put her in any further trouble. Any decision to even seek police action will be taken only after consulting other members of my family,” said Chand. In the same neighbourhood, a 20-year-old painter, Mohammad Naushad, was shot in his right foot during the protest. “My son was returning home from work. He doesn’t care about these protests,” said his father, Abdul Wahab.
When Wahab went to check his injured son at a hospital, he was allegedly detained for three days during which the police hardly spoke to him. His son has been sent to jail. “We don’t even know the sections he has been booked under,” said Wahab.
The SP denied that the police had fired any shots and alleged that any gunshot wounds were caused by the firing by protesters themselves. “I myself was shot in my right leg. We have accounted for every bullet, none were fired,” said SP Antil.
But the officer did not outright dismiss allegations of ransacking and robbing of houses and vehicles that night. “We haven’t received any complaint so far. As and when we receive any such complaints, we’ll enquire and do the needful,” he said.
Much of the vandalism, allegedly by policemen who were accompanied by men in plainclothes, were there for all to see almost four days after the incident. In several neighbourhoods around Meenakshi Chowk, cars and motorcycles parked in the narrow streets were badly smashed. Iron doors were found broken and glass window panes of homes seen smashed.
A walk into these homes, and interaction with their occupants, seemed to suggest that the police had barged in allegedly with an intention to “send a message”.
Parveen said only her elderly parents and the two sisters were in their eight-room house when they heard loud sounds of hammers hitting their iron gate at around 12.15 am on Saturday. Her brothers were out of town at that time, she said.
“They used huge hammers to tear down one door. When they couldn’t break another door, they instead broke the window grills to enter the house. There were about 20 men who were carrying rods, lathis, guns and hammers,” alleged Parveen.
Her father, Haji Anwar Ilahi, who runs a footwear manufacturing business, said that the intruders began by smashing their car and brand new appliances like a refrigerator and an air-conditioner and sofa sets he had purchased for his daughter’s wedding. “One of them climbed the terrace to break the water pipes and switch on the water motor. Our house was flooded and new leather footwear worth lakhs of rupees destroyed,” Ilahi alleged. Inside the house, television sets were found smashed, ceiling fans twisted and turned, bathroom fittings and wash basins broken, almirahs overturned and mirrors broken. The family said they were too devastated by the destruction that they have made no efforts to clean the mess.
But what has left the family shocked is the alleged robbery of gold jewellery worth ~8 lakh and ~3.25 lakh cash that were kept in an almirah for Parveen’s wedding. On Tuesday, over a dozen red velvet jewellery boxes were found dumped in a corner of the house and a large tin box that contained the cash found beaten out of shape.
“We begged them to spare our belongings, but the policemen said that we would be thrown out of the house and they would live there. They were asking each other to spare the walls and the floor tiles, “ alleged Parveen.
While the police allegedly beat up and detained her father, the two sisters and their mother locked themselves on the terrace. It was then that the police allegedly brought down the terrace door and misbehaved with them. “Only the walls and the floors remain. This isn’t a home anymore. The police particularly chose the homes of well-off Muslim families to send a message that we would be left worthless,” said one of her brothers, who didn’t reveal his name.
Parveen’s brother said his family has neither filed a police complaint about the vandalism, nor do their intend to. “We are a business family and don’t want any further trouble. Only God will give us justice now,” said the brother who refused to identify himself.
About a kilometre away in Meenakshi Chowk, another house had been similarly vandalized. “Policemen wearing helmets barged into our house and destroyed everything. They said they were here to give us ‘azaadi’,” said 45-year-old Hajan Ruksana, standing amid colourful glass pieces from broken windows and mirrors. She said that the police dragged her 19-year-old nephew, who had come there as a guest a day earlier, through the staircase. “We cleaned the blood from the house today. But some blood still remains on the walls,” she said.
Local residents said that the police broke CCTV cameras fixed outside homes before barging in.
The detentions and arrests continued for over 24 hours after the violent protests. Mohammad Asad, a 52-year-old Arabic teacher, said he was picked up from Meenakshi Chowk on Saturday afternoon while he was walking to a mosque to offer prayers. “They picked me up and four policemen in uniform beat me with sticks inside the car. They then took me to a police station where I was beaten up with sticks. It fractured my right arm,” said Asad. He was finally released around 11.30pm on Sunday. He believes he hasn’t been booked by the police.
Mohammad Hussain, brother of Asad who suffered a fractured hand allegedly in custody, too, said that they had no plans to approach the police with a complaint. “We don’t want any further trouble,” said Hussain.
SP Antil maintained that the police had not received any complaints of custodial torture.