Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh): A day before he was shot dead during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, Noor Mohammad — a light motor vehicle driver — had bought some woollen clothes for his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and dry fruits for his wife who is six months pregnant. The next day, (Friday, December 20), he woke up late was there was no booking for his vehicle and got ready for the congregational prayer.
After the prayer at a nearby mosque, he joined a huge crowd that proceeded to Meenakshi Chowk to protest the law. The crowd — as planned — instead of dispersing from Meenakshi Chowk began moving towards the Collectorate via Mahavir Chowk.
The police and the protestors clashed near Mahavir Chowk, leading to some stone pelting. Subsequently, the security forces lathi-charged the crowd. The agitators were thrashed and pushed back to Meenakshi Chowk where a few bullets were fired. One of them hit Noor’s forehead and he fell on the ground. He was taken to the district hospital, which referred him to Meerut Medical College. He succumbed to his injuries while he was being taken there.
The police allegedly did not allow his body to be taken to Muzaffarnagar’s Khalapar locality, fearing a communal flare-up. “We were not even handed the body. When we demanded it, we were threatened with criminal cases in case of any law and order situation. We are illiterate and poor. The police first took the body to Sardhana — a town in Meerut district — for burial. But the administration did not agree. The body was then taken to Daurala — another town in Meerut district — where the last rites were performed,” Mohammad Umar, Noor’s elder brother, told Newsclick.
Asked if he had filed any police complaint, Mohammad Umar said he was not even given any medical report to establish his claims. “We don’t know the legal nitty-gritty. We are afraid of the consequences of going to the police. We might be arrested and put behind bars. Who will come to our rescue. We have already lost one bread winner. If I get arrested, who will take care of the family? Noor’s wife is expecting a baby, who will take care of her?” said his brother who cleans utensils in a local hotel.
Umar was also at the spot where his brother was shot down. He accused the supporters of Muzaffarnagar MP, Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, Union Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, for inciting violence.
“When the demonstrators reached Mahavir Chowk, Sanjiv Balyan, along with his supporters, also arrived. His presence led to the escalation of the stand-off. He ordered the police to chase away the crowd, which was marching peacefully. The police lathi-charged the crowd and all hell broke loose. People started running here and there. Some of them ran inside Sadat Hostel. The police barged into hostel and beat everyone black and blue. Those who ran back were chased to Meenakshi Chowk, where clashes took place between the police and the protestors. The police were joined by Balyan’s men who opened fire, threw stones at a mosque and vandalised the garage and several shops. After the firing, I spotted my brother lying on the road in a pool of blood. The police arranged a vehicle which carried me, my brother and three cops to Meerut. Once he was declared dead, I informed his wife and a few other relatives who later reached the hospital,” he said.
The district police has however refused to acknowledge any death. They said no protester was fired upon. Their version is that it was the protesters who opened fire. This has been the consistent claim of the police in every city of Uttar Pradesh where over 20 protesters have died and several others have suffered bullet injuries.
Umar’s statement was echoed by many who said there was no reason for the Union Minister to be there.
A local journalist, who did not want to be identified, held the police responsible. “The situation slipped out of control because the district administration was unprepared. Only 10 constables and a sub-inspector rank officer were deployed at the communally sensitive Fakkar Chowk where the protest rally was scheduled to cross. The same happened at Meenakshi Chowk. If the SSP (senior superintendent of police) and the DM (district magistrate) would have come to Meenakshi Chowk and received a memorandum, the protest would have ended and the violence could have been avoided. But it did not happen. Secondly, Balyan, who is known for his communal statements and inciting violence, should not have been allowed to lead a counter protest march. There is documented proof that Balyan’s men were accompanying police personnel. There are photographs, which show that they are involved in beating up protestors, pelting stones and vandalism,” he alleged.
What made the matter worse, he said, was a notice served to civil society members, threatening them not to participate in the protest. “As you are aware that any kind of protest is prohibited in the wake of imposition of Section 144 (of Cr.PC.) in the district. It has come to our notice that you and others are organising a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Keeping imposition of Section 144 and sensitivity of the situation in mind, you are being directed not to go ahead with the protest plan. Following receipt of this notice, if you and others organise the protest, people are instigated and if it results into communal tension, legal actions would be initiated against you. You will be held responsible for it,” reads the notice accessed by Newsclick.
The journalist said that due to the threatening notice, the civil society members, who are well-known, did not step out. “This led to a leaderless crowd. Had they been present in the protest, they would have controlled the agitators and situation would not have gone out of control,” he added.
However, he said, a few community leaders were immediately asked to intervene and find out a way to de-escalate tensions, but it was too late.
An eyewitness, who was present at the spot but was not part of the demonstration, said it was a peaceful protest and the organisers were in contact with officials. Following charged sloganeering, he said, the agitators had even began dispersing after 4 pm. “Suddenly, we witnessed stone pelting and no one even knows who started it. That is when the situation went out of hand,” he added.
Salman Saeed, a Congress politician, two of whose vehicles were set ablaze allegedly by those who were vandalising property along with the police, said the situation took an entirely different turn after the police lathi-charged the crowd near Mahavir Chowk.
“The police action led to the protestors running in different directions. Some stopped at different points and threw stones. Some ran into Sadat Hostel near Mahavir Chowk. Students from under-privileged backgrounds stay in the hostel, which is managed and run by a non-profit educational society — Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Taleem Sadat Bahra. Hundreds of policemen barged into the hostel, destroying property and bashing up whoever was in sight. Maulana Asad Raza Hussaini, the 65-year-old hostel caretaker, was brutally thrashed. All the students who were staying in the hostel were also dragged out, beaten up and taken into custody along with Maulana Asad. Though the maulana and some of the hostel residents were released, 10 of them were arrested and sent to jail after around 40 hours of illegal detention. All of them are within the age group of 14-19,” he said.
When this correspondent approached Maulana Hussaini, he refused to talk as he was bedridden with multiple injuries.
The police said they entered the campus as they suspected that the protesters were hiding there.
This did not stop here. “As the clashes between the police and the protesters were going on, some men — purportedly associated with the BJP and its fringe groups — vandalised and looted Muslim property in different localities. They fired at the main gate of my garage, broke it and set ablaze four vehicles, two of which were mine,” said Saeed.
An FIR filed at Civil Lines Police Station — a copy of which was accessed by Newsclick — mentions the incidents of vandalism. Nasser Khan’s mobile shop, which is on the premises of a mosque (which was also attacked) on GT Road, was one such establishment.
“The police and a crowd of around 200 people led by Amit Bobby — a ward member affiliated with the BJP — were running towards Meenakshi Chowk, where my shop is situated, around 3:30 pm on Friday. I immediately pulled down the shutter and left. They pelted stones at the shutter, broke the lock and looted mobile handsets, cash and a laptop. They shattered the entire furniture in my shop, causing me a loss of around Rs 10 lakh,” said Khan.
An adjoining flower shop was set on fire, allegedly by the crowd associated with right-wing groups.
CCTV footage accessed by Newsclick corroborates the allegation. Notably, those who have been named in the FIR for being involved in the vandalism and looting were not arrested as of the filing of this report. On the other hand, of the around 150 Muslims named in the FIR as perpetrators of the violence that took place after the protest march, 49 have been arrested and police raids are on to nab the rest of them. A total of 258 people have been named in a series of FIRs. The FIR also mentions 6,000 people who are yet to be identified.
The police — in CCTV footage accessed by The Quint — is seen hitting CCTV cameras with sticks to destroy them outside a masjid in Khana.
Several residents of Khalapar alleged that the police, on the pretext of nabbing culprits, barged into their houses late on Friday night and took their relatives into custody, vandalised property and looted ornaments and cash.
Haji Anwar Ilahi, a resident of Kanji House, Khalapar, said around 80-100 policemen broke into his house around 12:30 am (December 21). “They shone a torch and demanded that we open the main gate. Before we could understand anything, they broke a window and entered the ground floor of my house. As I came down, I was detained and bundled into a police van, which took me to Kotwali police station. I don’t know what happened back home,” said the 74-year-old.
His wife, Hajjan Fakhra, 65, said she was with her two daughters and daughter-in-laws when the police barged in. “As they reached the first floor where we were resting, they shone a torch on us and told their colleagues that I am the mother and the rest are daughters. They told us to keep quiet and not to worry. Our house was looted and vandalised. All the window pans, the glass fitted on the railing of the staircase, our kitchen, wash basin, sinks and even toilets were vandalised. All the religious books, including the holy Quran, were desecrated and thrown to the ground. When my younger daughter asked them why they were ransacking everything, they shouted, asking us to keep silent. We were scared and therefore, could not muster the courage to stop them,” she said.
The wedding of one of their daughters is scheduled for March 2020 and they had gathered a number of items for her dowry. But a visit to their house revealed that everything has been destroyed.
The family also alleged that the policemen took away gold and cash. “They looted 20 tolas of gold (200 gram) and Rs 3.25 lakh in cash. Some of the gold belonged to my daughter-in-laws and some of it had been purchased for the wedding,” she alleged.
Broken shards of glass littered the house. A car had been vandalised and there was broken furniture strewn everywhere.
Haji Anwar has four sons and two daughters. Two of his sons live separately with their families while the other two live with their parents. The police were searching for his youngest son, 30-year-old Ashiq Ilahi alias Bhaiya, who helps with the family’s footwear business. The family procures footwear from Agra and sells it to local retailers. The ground floor of Haji Anwar’s three-storied house serves as a godown.
“As I came down, they asked about the whereabouts of my youngest son, Bhaiya. I told them that he is not in the city. But they did not listen. I was taken into custody and the police vandalised my entire house,” said Haji Anwar
“Bhaiya generally lives in Agra as he is involved in procurement. He had left for Agra a day before the violence. None of my sons were part of the protest. We have an established business and therefore, we were targeted. If any of my sons was a suspect, they should have arrested him. Why did they vandalise the entire house? Wasn’t it sign of a communal bias to crush us economically?” he asked.
He also narrated what happened to him in police custody. “From Kotwali Police Station, I was taken to Civil Lines and kept in a big hall with other detainees. No questioning took place throughout the night. The next day, around 11 am, we were offered tea and a biscuit packet. Two policemen questioned me for some time. The only question which I can recall was related to my youngest son and his whereabouts. I saw men being thrashed before me. I was taken taken back to Kotwali from where I was released.”
Asked why they do not file a police complaint against the vandalism, one of his sons said they are scared of the police. “If I go to file a complaint, I might get arrested and booked under false charges,” he said.
Many people Newsclick spoke to complained that the police are not registering their FIRs. Salman Saeed, who has contested the Assembly elections thrice on a Congress ticket and whose father (Saeeduzzaman) was a Union Minister, said the cops are even not registering their FIR despite the fact that two of his vehicles were set aflame.
INTERNET SERVICE SUSPENDED, SHOPS SEALED
In Muzaffarnagar, the mobile network is not functional in many areas and there is a complete internet shutdown.
A majority of commercial establishments are shut in the Muslim-dominated Khalapar, where a virtual curfew seems to be in place. As many as 65 shops have been sealed. The district administration has announced that some of these properties will be auctioned to compensate the losses caused to public property during the protests. Locals say that except for three police jeeps, no public property has been damaged. But the police claim that several of their pickets have been burnt down. But there is no sign of this having happened.
It remains to be seen if in the coming days, the police will recover their ‘losses’ by auctioning and attaching individuals’ properties even before a court establishes the role of these people in the incidents of rioting.