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Home / India News / Fear and anger shroud west UP

Fear and anger shroud west UP

As locals struggle to move past the loss of kin, communal fault lines and rising trust deficit come to fore.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2019 01:24 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti and Shiv Sunny
Dhrubo Jyoti and Shiv Sunny
Hindustan Times, Muzaffarnagar/Meerut/Bijnor
Smoke rises from a burning vehicle during a protest against the CAA in Muzaffarnagar
Smoke rises from a burning vehicle during a protest against the CAA in Muzaffarnagar (PTI)

Nafisa Begum had just finished offering her prayers on Friday, December 20, when she heard a gunshot near her home. Panicked, she scrambled down the flight of stairs of her unfinished house, and reached the door when a local man informed her that her 28-year-old son, Mohsin Mohammad, was slumped lifeless on the narrow lane that led to her house in Meerut’s Muslim-dominated Bhumiya Ka Pul locality. It was 4pm.

Exactly a week later, thoughts of regret swirl in her mind as she sits down for her prayers. “When Mohsin came home after namaz that day, I noticed that the buffalo fodder was over, and sent him out to get some. Who knows he may have lived had I just waited,” she said, biting back her tears.

Mohsin, a scrap dealer, was one of five people in the western Uttar Pradesh city shot that day during violent protests against the new citizenship law that favours non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By 9pm on December 20, the family had been refused admission at four hospitals in the city. A fifth, the government medical college, declared him dead on arrival. Mohsin’s brother Imran said he had barely returned home when he got a call from the local police station saying a post-mortem examination was needed.

They went back to the station and it was 3.30am when the examination finished. By 4.30am, Mohsin had been buried at a spot 20km from his home with only four relatives present, allegedly under pressure from the police.

Family members still haven’t got their hands on the post-mortem report. “We also haven’t heard back on the complaint we had filed at the station that night, and don’t know what is happening,” said Imran.

In their low-income neighbourhood, young boys now sit around small bonfires every night to reassure older residents, but Begum says it doesn’t dispel the atmosphere of terror. “I fear for our family. We are poor people who are daily wage labourers. How will we take on the police if something happens?”

In interviews with at least 30 residents across Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bijnor, HT found a deepening of communal fault-lines and a growing trust deficit between Muslims and the law-enforcement authorities. In their initial investigations, the police have narrowed down on a proscribed organisation and outsiders fomenting the violence, but many locals like Begum say they firmly believe the police was behind the violence that rocked India’s most-populous state.

New Abode

A sleepy town of about 50,000 in Uttar Pradesh’s sugarcane belt, Nehtaur is not used to making headlines. Local legend says the “qasba” was established in the 13th century, literally means new abode (naya thaur), and roughly three-fourths of its population is Muslim. “We don’t hear of gun crimes here, and the local joke is that local criminals cannot graduate from the knife to the gun,” said Abbas, a local resident. The town’s only claim to fame is Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder, whose family hailed from here.

Suleiman Malik dreamt of getting out the town. For the past year, the 20-year-old has been preparing for the Union Public Service Commission,(UPSC) examinations. One side of his bedroom is stacked with guidebooks and question banks, and the other side, next to a wall of peeling pink paint, is a table with a meticulous daily time-table with fixed times for study, rest and namaz.

Malik never came back from his prayers on December 20. His family alleges he was shot dead by police and his body dumped about 500m from the house on the street. The police say he was swept up in violent protests that convulsed the town that day and died after he shot a constable. “He had fever that day, why would he join protests? Plus, the ulema had already warned against violent protests,” said Shoaib Malik, a farmer and Malik’s brother.

Malik was one of two people who died in the town that day – the other being Anas Hussain, 22. As outrage mounted, senior police officials visited his family and assured them that action will be taken quickly. “But very little has moved, except that my brilliant brother and his dreams have been snuffed out,” said Shoaib Malik. His uncle, Anwar Usmani, hinted that they were thinking of further action. “If nothing works, we will go to court.”

The city is now struggling to put this violent incident in the past. “There is an atmosphere of fear and we are trying to restore communal amity based on the police assurances. Here, Hindus and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, we will try to not let that break,” said Raja Ansari, the local council chairman.

At Hussain’s house, the mood is grimmer. The youngest of five siblings, Hussain had accompanied his father to the local mosque and was shot in his left eye while fetching milk. His neighbourhood remembers him as the young boy who loved taking and uploading photographs of him in the newest clothes, mostly borrowed from his friends because the impoverished family could barely afford food.

“We are getting threats to not file an FIR {first information report}, and have no faith left in the authorities,” said his father Arshad Hussain.

At the house of the third gunshot victim – farmer Om Raj Saini – there is relief. Saini was on his way back from the fields when a bullet hit him, and he is recuperating in hospital, but his family said they don’t think he was targeted because of his faith.

“I don’t think it was a personal attack. Rioting was on…the Muslims here have no tension with the Hindus. Their fight was against the administration. We have never felt frightened by Muslims,” said Rajvir Singh, his brother.

The family was wary of renewed disturbances this Friday but the heavy police cover reassured them. “We have lived in this town for many years without any incident or problem, and hope to continue.”

Flashpoint

The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act erupted first in Assam, where five protesters died during violent clashes. But UP became its biggest flashpoint on December 20; at least 19 people have died in violence that rocked the entire span of the state – from Muzaffarnagar in the west to Varanasi in the east.

How did this happen?

The state police argues that none of the protests in UP were spontaneous and were instead sponsored and coordinated by outside elements – specifically members of the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamic organisation active across north India, including at least 15 of the 75 districts of UP. A top official also pointed out on condition of anonymity that PFI activists were also accused of fomenting violence and arrested in Assam.

In Meerut, which saw the maximum violence and deaths, the police have arrested two members of the PFI.

“How did the crowd suddenly come? How was there so much firing? Someone must have instigated them. With the PFI in the picture, we have found out a lot. They distributed pamphlets and provoked people with slogans,” said Meerut (City) superintendent of police AN Singh.

Singh said the arrested PFI members were low-level operatives but added that police was working to unearth their sources of funding and plans. “We will reveal their entire game plan shortly,” he added.

In city after city, the police have pointed the finger at outsiders for provoking the crowd, and blamed protesters for resorting to firing and forcing security personnel to respond in self-defence.

In Bijnor, SP Sanjeev Tyagi said violent protests began simultaneously at eight spots in the district and insisted that it couldn’t have been spontaneous. “There were 10,000-15,000 protesters at each of these places. It had to be a coordinated event,” said Tyagi, who was the first police officer to admit that the forces fired bullets.

The SP said that the violence was turning communal in many places. “They were targeting civilians from other communities as well. They were beating up whoever they were getting hold of. In Nehtaur, the mob snatched an inspector’s service revolver and escaped,” he said.

A majority of the arrested men were Muslims, but not all, said the SP. “In Nazibabad, for example, we arrested three Hindu men and booked them for posting provocative content on social media,” he said.

On allegations of children being detained and beaten up in police stations, the SP insisted that they were untrue. “Is there any video of children being detained in police stations and being beaten up? Is there any medico-legal case (MLC) pertaining to their injuries?” he said.

Until last count, 25 PFI members have been arrested and director general of police OP Singh said “incriminating evidence” such as pamphets and phone messages recovered. The organisation has denied all charges and alleged that the police were trying to divert attention. “The police are trying to cover up its failure,” said Anas Ansari, PFI in-charge of North Zone.

Disproportionate force?

Many community leaders, activists and experts dispute the police’s version of events and say the authorities might have used disproportionate force to quell the protests.

There are clear guidelines for use of force, said former UP director general of police Vikram Singh. The rule is that minimum and proportionate use of force should be used until there is a grave threat to life and property.

Second, there is a mandatory requirement that any unnatural death – police firing or cross firing – has to be registered as a murder case and magisterial inquiry ordered. “Every incident where the police uses force requires a mandatory magisterial inquiry. If this inquiry determines excessive force, it can recommend departmental action,” he said.

There is also a clear distinction between countrymade bullets (usually used by protesters) and police bullets -- police bullets pierce are likely to pierce the body and there would be an entry and exit wound. In the other case, the countrymade bullet is likely to be lodged in the body. “So this can be an indication of whether someone died in police firing,” he said.

The anti-riot drill is clear that non-lethal action should be taken first, and if the police feels it is not being effective, switch first to rubber bullets, Singh added.

The other plank of police attention should be on community outreach, forming local committees with respected members of society, to bridge the trust deficit. “Police functions on the basis of trust. Credibility is lost by insensitive action and operations,” he added.

Former additional director general of police Vibhuti Narain Rai said police should have shown more restraint, but added that the incident was not communal in nature – because many demonstrations were joined by Hindus and Muslims. “But it seems that police may not have reacted so sharply had the protesters not been mostly Muslims.”

Other experts pointed out that police excesses in Uttar Pradesh had a long history and was systemic – the most prominent being the 1987 Hashimpura massacre where 42 young Muslim men were shot dead by security personnel. “The 2018 Delhi high court judgment said this was the deliberate targeting of a community,” said Devika Prasad of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

“Firing has to be the last resort. All this needs to be independently inquired into: did the police use proportionate force? Did they give clear warning before using any force – water cannon, lathi charge or anything else? These are the rules in the UP police manual,” she added, calling for more training on proportionate use of force, and more diversity in the police. In the recently released India Justice Report, UP placed at the bottom of all states on policing and the diversity of police force.

The violence and ensuing fear might further destabilize a region that has seen numerous communal flare-ups from the early 1980s. But some experts point out that unlike earlier riots, this time there were no clashes between Hindus and Muslims and the violence only occurred when the police got involved.

“There is fear and tension because many Muslims are feeling like second-class citizens. The police have to understand that we are equal citizens and not the enemy,” said Zainus Siddiqi, former professor at Aligarh Muslim University.

Others pointed out that the toll of such violence is always borne by the poorest and lowest castes among the Muslims – the Pasmanda community. “One reason is obviously class and the second is space, because Pasmanda people live huddled in slums and ghettos,” said Khalid Anis Ansari, a professor at Glocal University.

In the current protests, he argued, there were two lines of mobilisation: one around the Constitution, and another by the Muslim elite around the religious binary. “Friday protests outside mosques will not be multicultural. Why would you give a call when the most vulnerable people are exposed? The leadership has to be more sensitive.”

The aftermath

In Meerut’s crowded Kotwali area, simmering anger runs at the surface. Many Hindu bystanders and shopkeepers complain the clashes hurt their business and usual life because of the suspension of internet services.

“Our relations with Muslims have been bad for a long time, and we feel scared every time it is Friday. These people have destroyed the peace of the city,” said Sanjay Kumar Jain, but admitted that the anti-CAA protests were not communal.

In Muzaffarnagar’s Meenakshi Chowk area, local resident Kapil Kumar felt that the rioters needed to be punished. “If they break property and set fire to things, why shouldn’t they be jailed,” he asked.

Some prominent Muslim residents say the violence was aimed at striking terror into the community. Mohammad Irfan, whose house in Muzaffarnagar was ransacked allegedly by police personnel, said that he was being pressurized to file an FIR against “unknown” people if he wants any compensation. “It is a tactic to scare us,” he said. Police have denied the charges.

In Muzaffarnagar, around 60 shops have been sealed, and the 1,200 people arrested and 5,500 detained across the state face the prospect of welcoming the New Year in jail because their bail applications are pending before the court, which opens on January 2. “I hope he will be released soon,” said the father of a detainee on condition of anonymity.

For the families of the victims, however, there is little to look forward to in the New Year. Gloom hangs like a cloud in Aleem Ansari’s neighbourhood of Ahmed Nagar. Ansari, 24, was killed on his way back from the dhaba where he baked rotis.

“The entire mohalla would ask him for sheermal, and he wouldn’t turn anyone back. They all will remember him like that. The man is gone, but these memories are with us,” said his brother Mohammad Salauddin.

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