Our movement against CAA-NRC remains alive: Asif Iqbal Tanha on activism, faith, and Tihar

Asif Iqbal Tanha after he was released from Delhi's Tihar Jail, on 17 June 2021. Tanha, a student activist, spent over a year in prison, charged under a case related to an alleged conspiracy behind the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020. XAVIER GALIANA / AFP / Getty Images
28 June, 2021

Asif Iqbal Tanha, a 25-year-old student activist, was arrested in May 2020, in connection to violence that broke out at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university during protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act a few months earlier. Tanha, a student of Persian at the university, actively participated in protests against the CAA. The Delhi Police met the protests at Jamia with a brutal police crackdown on students, including tear gas and lathi charges. Later, it registered first-information reports accusing student protestors of violence. Tanha was named and arrested under one such FIR.

He was subsequently arrested in relation to the communal violence that swept northeast Delhi in February 2020. Tanha was named in the FIR 59, a case investigated by the Delhi Police special cell that accuses student activists of conspiring to orchestrate the violence. Alongside various other activists and civil-society members, Tanha was accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a draconian legislation that enforces a high standard for bail and is often used by the state against its dissidents. A sessions court eventually granted Tanha bail in the Jamia case, but he remained incarcerated under FIR 59, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

On 15 June 2021, a division bench of the Delhi High Court granted Tanha bail in the UAPA case, alongside two Pinjra Tod activists, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, who were also arrested in FIR 59. The court noted in the order that the chargesheet contained no specific allegations other than “those sought to be spun by mere grandiloquence.” Tanha was released on 17 June, after spending more than a year in prison. The next day, Nabeela Paniyath, a multimedia editor at The Caravan, met Tanha. They discussed his early days as a student activist, his year in prison, and his resolve to continue his fight against the CAA.

Nabeela Paniyath: What was your year in prison like?
Asif Iqbal Tanha: First, I want to explore why I went to jail, why I was put there, why I was imprisoned there for one year.

When the government brings out laws like the CAA, NRC, NPR, we at Jamia always oppose such measures. We ask the government why they are perpetuating discrimination. When the country’s Constitution hopes to create a culture of equality among all people, then why are you differentiating one community in terms of giving them citizenship? [Referring to the CAA, which protects individuals of six religious communities—excluding Muslims—from being categorised as an illegal immigrant, effectively facilitating easier citizenship for them.]

When we started asking these questions, people from across the nation began asking as to why these unconstitutional black laws were being made. About ninety or one hundred days after this, COVID arrived and the protests ended. The protests didn’t exactly end—we said that there should be no crowds and maybe one or two people can be there, but the posters and everything shouldn’t be removed. But the government made a concerted effort to remove all of us who were organising at Jamia and Shaheen Bagh—the posters were removed, all the graffiti from the walls was whitewashed.

When all of this was happening, when the protests were going on, riots erupted in northeast Delhi. Who triggered the riots? Why did the riots happen? Who gave incendiary speeches which kickstarted the riots? Many videos answering these questions went viral at that time. Even a judge asked questions based on these viral videos—he said that there should be an FIR filed against Kapil Mishra. Overnight, the judge gets transferred.

Then, they come after us, those who were protesting, those who were on the frontline—whether they were in Jamia, or they were social activists. They started arresting us under allegations that it was because of our incendiary, volatile speeches that riots had started in Northeast Delhi. A lot of our friends such as [the activists] Khalid Saifi, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider were first arrested. Then, my turn arrived.

First, they [Delhi Police] tried to involve me in the investigation and I cooperated all throughout. Then suddenly, a month and a half later, they arrested me. After getting arrested, I get picked up by the special cell and they took me away on the pretext of asking a few questions. They kept me there the whole night and the next morning, they handed me over to the crime branch. You might remember that when protests started in Jamia, at that time, police brutality was high—the library was destroyed and students were beaten [by the police]. At that time, two FIRs had been filed. Of those, there was a Jamia Nagar FIR and I was arrested under that FIR. The Chanakyapuri crime branch was looking into that FIR.

This is how I got arrested. But if the special cell was interrogating me through the whole night then the special cell should have arrested me. In morning at 8 am, they handed me over to the crime branch and the crime branch arrested me in the Jamia violence case. Two to three days later, after I arrived in jail, the kind of things that they started doing to me—the comments they made, the physical and mental torture that I was put through—cannot be described. I don’t want to utter or explain whatever happened during those days.

The special cell then arrested me again [two days later], with regards to the [FIR] 59, the Delhi riots case. I learned that a lot of people had already been arrested in this case: Safoora, Meeran Haider and Khalid Saifi. I was arrested and declared an accused. If someone is in judicial custody like I was, if you wish to do anything with them—formal arresting, enquiry—you are supposed to inform the advocate, but nothing like that was done here.

They came, arrested me and produced me in court. After producing [me], they took a seven-day PC [police custody] and went on a PC remand. Questioning was done and after the questioning, when I came back after remand, I was kept in quarantine for 14 days. The question you had asked me regarding my experience in jail, it starts from here.

NP: How did you spend your time in prison after that?
AIT: For 14 days I did nothing, and was in Jail 2 [in Tihar]. After 14 days, I was shifted to Jail 4. When I arrived at Jail 4, I got a chance to heal from the mental trauma that they had put me though. The things that I had read helped me a lot—many of our elders, our freedom fighters, had been kept in jail and they never gave up. If we are here fighting for rights and justice of other people, we have to keep ourselves strong and not give up. I did my best to hold myself together. I told myself that it will take time and it is fine—I had actually mentally prepared myself that I may have to spend four or five more years in jail. I knew that I had to find something to occupy my time and energy.

The first thing I did was spend some time studying the UAPA. I was indicted under the UAPA so I decided to know what this UAPA was—I only knew that this was a kind of law that is used to regulate illegal, anti-national and terrorist activity. I began asking myself what exactly I had done that I deserved to be arrested under this law. I had only protested on the streets, and was only asking the government why it was doing what it was doing. We live in a democratic system in which we can ask questions to anybody. [The socialist leader and freedom fighter] Ram Manohar Lohiya had said that when the citizens become mute spectators, the government and the state goes rogue.

I had always been interested in activism. The rights that we get outside are unavailable to us inside the jail. Even the rights that are provided in the jail manual are not guaranteed. When you ask them [jail authorities] to tell you your rights, they respond that these rights are withheld from you to ensure your safety and security—they have a very intricate excuse in place. Prison is a difficult place to live in. There are strict schedules for everything. Right now, it is 11.30 am and I am giving this interview to you, but at this time I used to be in lock-up. They would open the lock-up at 3 pm, and then put us back in again at 6 pm. You would be locked up the whole night, and they would release you at 6 am in the morning, until 11.30 am. Never will you get a chance to talk openly. Sometimes, when you have a meeting with an advocate or a video call with your family—which happened only once a week—you would get some more time outside lockup.

COVID has proven to be an unprecedented challenge not only for the whole country but for the whole world. The facilities that should have been made available to us in prison were not given to us. When people were falling ill, they were not being tested for COVID. They were distributed cetirizine [an antihistamine drug] and paracetamol, which were stocked in bulk quantities. They would ask, “Are you sick? Here you go”—and they would throw the tablets from a distance.

Social distancing is not there in jail at all. People sleep in very cramped spaces. I would sometimes measure the length of the tiles in my cell through my hands. I calculated that I got around three tiles worth of space to sleep.

Even two percent of the prison population has not been vaccinated yet. I have not been vaccinated. The only time I was tested for COVID in the whole year was when I went out on custody parole for an exam—getting vaccinated is a whole different story. I want that all the people who are in prison are protected from this disease at all costs. If the news of a possible third wave is anything to go by, I pray dearly to Allah that nothing happens to my friends in prison.

Prison was an expansive experience for me—I got a chance to read and learn new things, write, understand more about myself, to mature. There are a lot of intellectual people there also. To read articles by intellectual and respectable people such as [the professor] Apoorvanand and [the politician] Yogendra [Yadav] raised a feeling of elation within me—to see that they were fighting for me meant a lot.

Jail is like society’s dustbin but sometimes when you’re putting out the garbage, you accidentally throw out some nice things. I saw myself as that nice thing that was put in jail and I told myself that I had to clean the conscience and the spirit of other inmates. I wanted to work for them, explain to them—if they had not done any wrong and were wrongfully convicted then how they could assert themselves; if they had committed the crime, to ensure that they understood what was wrong about what they did. I would explain to them that, “When you go out of jail don’t remain a lawbreaker, but stick to the values of our constitution and become lawmakers.”

NP: Did the interrogation and prison time impact you mentally? You are a young person who spent a year of his life in jail, for speaking out against the state. How do you feel about this?
AIT: The mental suffering on the first night after my arrest was unbearable. Before that, when they had called me [for questioning] in April, I had left my phone behind in my room. When they asked me for it, I told them that I did not have it with me. They asked who had the key to my room, so I told them that a friend had it. They asked me where my friend was to which I replied that he was close by. The longer it took to find the phone, the longer they took to interrogate all my friends one by one, the more difficult it was for me to hold myself together, because they were constantly torturing me. The kind of things that they were telling me are of such nature that I cannot repeat those words in front of you. This torture was not that physical, but mentally it was crippling.

As a result of that mental torture, after they let me go, , I didn’t speak to anyone for three or four days. I kept to myself and would lock myself in my room. I used to have tea and talk to no one else.

They say that Quran is the ultimate support for all of us. I used to spend my time reading the verses from Quran and that gave me the strength to heal. But that, I believe, was the most difficult time for me. Once I persevered through that time, my fear dissipated. I had nothing to be scared of anymore.

It was a month and a half later that I got arrested. The fear that I had regarding the investigation subsided after the initial trauma of the interrogation. There was none left when they came to arrest me.

NP: Did you face any discrimination inside jail for being a Muslim? Did people inside jail know the reason for which you had been imprisoned?
AIT: Yes, people knew everything since there was a media trial [against the accused in FIR 59] and the newspapers covered the story widely. We used to get newspapers in jail, although we never got news broadcasts. Sometimes my photo came in the paper, sometimes my name appeared. The prisoners used to ask me who I was, what I had done and why I was getting so much coverage. I used to tell them that I was a student at Jamia and I was protesting, due to which I had gotten arrested.

Regarding Islamophobic discrimination—I believe that there are good people and bad people everywhere. And the good people always outnumber the bad people. There were some people who used to use language referring to me as a terrorist. They would read in the paper that I was arrested under an “anti-terror” law—they simply saw the word “terror” and quickly drew their conclusions about me. They used to see me as anti-national, jihadi, terrorist and they used to refer to me by those names in jail.

I told myself that it is fine, since circumstances make people think in certain ways and there was nothing I could do about it. Once I started living amongst them, I grew more empathetic. God has made every person in the same way, I merely needed to explain to them in a way they could understand. We had to eat together, live together. So, whatever issues were there were only there for the first few days. Soon they began to reach out to me for help. They knew that I was an educated young person so they request me to write applications for them, or to explain some information about their cases. Sometimes an inmate would get a bail order but they wouldn’t be able to understand how much surety must be filled, how much bond must be paid. So, I would explain [these things] to them.

I tried my best to perform my religious duties in prison in timely manner. We [as a society] have this innate respect for those who read the namaz and we assign a saintlike status to them. So, when I read the namaz in jail, they [the inmates] would say that this person is knowledgeable and religious—he is a pandit. That somehow made them respect me more.

To begin with, there were very few people who were Islamophobic or were particularly discriminatory towards me—hardly one percent. And I believe I was able to change the perception and mindset of 50 percent among them, through my words and my actions.

I got a lot of love from all of these people. I never expected that I would get so much love in jail. When I was coming out, I felt as if I was leaving something behind. There were tears in my eyes. I prayed at that time for everybody, that Allah will have good things in store for each of them, and they will all come out as the reformed, good men that they are.

NP: You were put in prison for raising certain slogans opposing the government and opposing the CAA and the NRC. But as soon as you came out of prison, you raised those slogans again. Was this a message to the government?
AIT: This battle against CAA-NRC is a battle for our rights and our very identity. This country’s constitution does not allow the government to make laws that divide its population on religious bases. When Babasaheb Ambedkar made this constitution, he tried to ensure that the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb [a phrase referring to secular belief] that underlies the cultural ethos of India is never disrespected.

The current government has tried to attack this ethos. They fought the elections in Assam on the sole issue of CAA-NRC. They tried to create an impression in Bengal though this. The news that I was getting in prison made me realise that the government was actively working in this direction.

But our movement wasn’t over [when the pandemic began]. We had never actually decided to give up our protests in Shaheen Bagh or Jamia. So, when the government says something, we have to say something back too. I designed a mask while sitting in jail—I came out wearing this mask. It has “No CAA, No NRC” written on it. I wanted to send a message to the government when I got out that our movement remains alive. The government can put me in jail for one or two more years, labelling me a plant, a radical, kattar [hardcore], but they can never change the way I feel about this country, about its constitution, and its unity and un-divisiveness.

NP: How did your activism journey begin? How did you become a part of the struggle against the CAA and the NRC?
AIT: When I joined Jamia, I learnt that no [student-union] elections had taken place in the university for 12–13 years. Some of my friends were [working on holding elections]. One day, while I was having tea, a friend came up and asked me if I would be interested in giving a speech. He said it was for the union. So I asked him what a student union was. I got to learn that day what the union was, how there were unions like this in AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] also and what the struggle was.

He explained different [political] ideologies. He asked me what ideology I followed, to which I responded that I was a follower of Islam. Islam itself is a unique way of looking at the world. I had been educated at a madrasa, where I had learnt public speaking. I knew that I could do that. I only asked him to give me some points to talk about. He told me to talk about the Jamia campus, why a union was required, and how that union could play a very important role in upholding the rights and liberties of the students studying in that campus. I made all those points and made the speech. After that, people from all the student organisations began reaching out to me, asking me to join their organisation.

I have been part of an organisation since my childhood—the Student Islamic Organisation. I knew that SIO was a national organisation. I did not plan to leave it. There were very few other students from SIO [in Jamia]. I began to represent SIO in the campus. If there ever was a joint struggle, or an issue or a discussion, I used to go there representing SIO. Just two to four of us worked for the SIO on campus initially.

Today, SIO has the biggest student organisation in Jamia, with the largest cadre. We take up issues of student welfare, whether it be helping freshers with administrative procedures or fighting for their rights or taking account of any issues that they are facing—we are not here only to protest. We take into account the basic struggles on campus—lack of chairs in library, lack of lightbulbs, lack of fans, any plumbing issue, arbitrary curfew timings, arbitrary entry and exit timings for libraries. Whenever fee hikes took place, we asserted that Jamia is a minority institute, that students from very poor backgrounds come to study here, so we fought for their right to exist in this university.

When Najeeb Ahmed disappeared from JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi], I used to go to every protest organised for him. I began meeting various kinds of people—from JNU, from Jamia, from different organisations and those from civil society. I wasn’t satisfied with the Triple Talaq bill that the government had brought out. The way the government was talking about and engaging with the issue of rights of Muslim women made me very uncomfortable. Mob lynchings [of Muslims] were taking place in Jharkhand, in Bihar and in UP, and they did nothing about that. When the Babri Masjid verdict came out, I was further disturbed.

When they brought in CAA, I felt that the water had gone above our heads. I felt that our rights, which are supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution, were being severely violated. Again and again, they [the government] were bringing in new bills, new policies targeting Muslims and creating divisions in society. So, I started protesting against the CAA. Soon, a huge movement began across the nation. They [the government] understood the major implications of the movement. They knew that they couldn’t kill that—the movement is still alive. And so, they started targeting me and people like me and started putting us in prison.

NP: Your mother has come to see you. You’re meeting her after a long time. How are you feeling?
AIT: I feel a bit emotional. The favours that I owe to her, the difficulties through which she has raised me, cannot be expressed in words. There’s that incredibly strong emotional attachment which is there. Maa to maa hoti hai [a mother is a mother, after all]. When I used to live in the hostel, I would get Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 rupees from home. Sometimes, I would call my mother and ask her to send me Rs 1,000 more. So my mother always—without my father, brother or sister knowing—used to send me money.

Ever since I came to Delhi in 2014–2015, there has not been a single night where I had not spoken to her on call. Sometimes I wouldn’t pick up the phone and she would keep calling constantly. I’d later ask her frustratedly why she called me so much. But she would not go to sleep without talking to me, even if it was only for a few minutes. So, she was very upset when I was unable to talk to her while in jail.

After I was arrested, there was a gap of two-and-a-half months before I spoke to my mother and my father, on Bakr Eid. My mother told me, “Allah is testing you, but I know you will persevere, I know you will not be scared.” My father read out verse from the Quran, [which meant that,] “Successful are those who have faith.” They told me that they were receiving calls every day from my friends, from my relatives, from important personalities who sympathised with me and with the movement—so I did not have to lose faith. With much difficulty, after four or five months, they were able to organise regular calls for me. So I used to talk every day, for five minutes.

The sadness and pain of separation from a mother is something that I experienced in jail. The court has ordered that I stay within the premises of Delhi. So today my mother has arrived [from Jharkhand]—I have so many things to talk to her about, I will lay my head on her shoulders and rest. My mother always used place her hand on my head and run her fingers through my hair until I fell asleep. I will be able to experience all of that today and for that, I am very excited.

NP: The farmers, who have been protesting for six months, came out in support of you and other political prisoners. How have you been impacted by the farmers’ protests?
AIT: The model of agitation that we followed in Shaheen Bagh and Jamia, which was based on Gandhiji’s teaching of ahimsa and non-violent struggle for freedom, has been successfully replicated in the farmers’ protests. When we were protesting, many farmers had come then also and arranged food services for us. Now, when the time has come to speak for our rights, and of all political prisoners, I am elated that they are with us.

They have been sitting there, persevering for an astounding six months. I would like to go to the border, sit down with them, and learn things from them. I want to learn from them what I may have unlearned or forgotten in the past one year. I want to join them. Their struggle is my struggle because from where I come from, most people are farmers and Adivasis. I want to match them step for step, and stand with them shoulder to shoulder.

This interview has been edited and condensed.