After police crackdown in Kanpur, Muslim men remain arrested, their families in fear

Security personnel detain a protester during demonstrations against India’s new citizenship law in Kanpur on 20 December 2019. AFP / Getty Images

Mohammad Armaan, a 20-year-old, left from his house in Naubasta, in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district, at around 6 pm on 21 December. According to his parents Mohammad Hanif and Amina, even as the only Muslims in a Hindu-dominated locality, their family had lived peacefully in a semi-pucca house for thirty-five years until that day. Armaan, the sole breadwinner of his family, was heading to Mainpuri district to visit his ailing sister, when he stopped to eat aloo puri at Parade Chauraha, at least fifteen kilometres away from his home. He did not reach his sister’s home.

The next day, his parents found that Armaan was among the people—at least nine—that the Kanpur police had arrested that day in connection with the then ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the city. During one of their visits to Armaan in Kanpur Central Jail since then, he told them that the police personnel only arrested him after he disclosed his full name. When we met the parents on 24 January outside their house, Hanif kept breaking into tears. “Humara kya kasoor hai? Ki hum Musalman hain?”—What is our fault? That we are Muslims?—Hanif said.

On 20 December, the Kanpur Police arbitrarily used brute force to quell the anti-CAA protests in the city. According to multiple accounts, after a protest in their area, the police targeted the residents of Babu Purwa and Begum Purwa, contiguous neighbourhoods dominated by poor Dalit Muslims. As earlier reported by The Caravan, the police shot three people dead; barged into homes; detained 39 men; and tortured several of them in custody. The crackdown continued the next day, but received far less media attention—the police picked up Muslims who were bystanders or happened to be in the vicinity. As of 12 February, at least eight of the thirteen who were arrested over the two days were still in jail, on charges including rioting, possession of unlicensed firearms and attempted murder.

In the last two weeks of January 2019, we visited Kanpur and spoke to some of the detainees and the arrestees, their families as well as locals. The families said that their kin were not a part of the protests against the CAA. Our reporting revealed that the police had tortured the arrestees in police custody and that the Kanpur police was blatantly targeting Muslims because of their religious identity. Everyone we spoke to was of the opinion that there has been an organised effort to threaten and intimidate the Muslims of Kanpur since 20 December.

When we met Hanif and Amina, they looked exhausted, as if they had not slept in weeks. They told us Armaan studied till eighth standard and followed his father’s line of work, shearing animals like horses, goats and dogs. While arresting Armaan at Parade Chowk, the police had taken the money he was carrying, a total of Rs 3,600, but never gave it to his family. The police slapped multiple charges on him and delivered a notice to his family to pay Rs 2.5 lakh as compensation, alleging that he set a police vehicle on fire. The family does not have the means to fight the charges against him in court or pay the compensation.

At one point during our conversation, Hanif broke down while glancing at Armaan’s motorcycle, which was gathering dust outside the house. “Armaan has been crying, his eyes have turned red,” Hanif said. “He was saying ‘Papa, take me out of here’ ... Ever since our child has gone, we have not been able to eat.” On 23 February, Hanif told us that Armaan was still in jail and that his health is deteriorating.

On the night of 21 December, the police also arrested Mohammad Ehsaan, a 30-year-old, and his cousin Mohammad Mohsin, a 25-year-old. The brothers run a saree-alteration workshop in Kanpur’s Jajmau suburb. According to Ehsaan, on the night of 21 December, they were on their way to collect money from a business associate on a moped. A Hindu minor—a twelfth-standard student who lives and assists the cousins at the workshop—had accompanied them.

The manner in which the arrest was carried out reflected the police’s agenda against the Muslim community, according to the accounts of Ehsaan and the minor. Ehsaan told us that at 10 pm, a group of around forty police personnel, including officers wearing two or three stars, stopped them at Parade Chauraha. The personnel confiscated their phones and moped. Then, in groups of three or four, they beat up each individual with lathis. The police subsequently took the brothers and the minor to a police station, the Police Lines in the Civil Lines area, two and a half kilometres away from Parade Chauraha. “Mohsin has a full beard,” Ehsaan said, “and an officer said to him Tum daadhi waalon ka encounter karenge’”—We will kill you bearded ones in encounters. Ehsaan said that one officer beat Mohsin so brutally that his lathi broke.  

The experience of the Hindu minor who accompanied Ehsaan and Mohsin was markedly different. The minor characterised Ehsaan and Mohsin as his caregivers and corroborated the elder brother’s account of what had transpired on the night of 21 December. The police took him, too, to Police Lines, but when he showed the police his Aadhaar card the next day, the personnel saw that they had detained a Brahmin—the minor stressed on this detail in his account.  

The minor said that he overheard the police personnel say to each other, “Yeh ladka pandit hai, humari biradari ka hai, issey jaaney do”—This boy is a pandit, he is from our community, let him go. The police personnel let the minor use the toilet, while denying this right to the Muslim men in custody with him. The minor said he also heard the policemen express regret that he was not a Muslim. “They were comparing numbers with Lucknow and other cities of UP, wishing that they racked up the most number of arrests to secure promotions,” the minor said. “They said, ‘agar yeh ladka Musalman hota, toh humein apna target mil jaata’”—If this boy were a Muslim, we would have met our target.

On 22 December, the police released the minor from custody. A few days later, they allowed him to retrieve the moped, when they realised that it belonged to him and not the Muslim cousins. The minor went to the police again, two or three days after his release, and tried to plead his friends’ case by leveraging his religion and caste. The police personnel told him that if he ever made such an attempt again, they would throw him in jail too.

On 7 January, the police released three of the arrestees, including Ehsaan and Mohsin, on bail. According to Ehsaan, the police had assaulted the cousins so brutally that their arms and legs ached for days afterwards. Ehsaan’s digestive system was so adversely affected that he was “vomiting a lot.” Mohsin, who is the father of an infant, has been exhibiting symptoms of depression and is unable to resume work. Due to the money spent to bail them out, the family’s business has suffered losses.

The targeted nature of the police’s aggression was borne out by various videos that have been circulating in Kanpur, though we were not able to independently verify the veracity and the sources of these clips. In one of the videos, which the locals claimed was shot at Babu Purwa on 20 December, police personnel can be seen shouting expletives at the protesters, using  words such as “katua,” which translates to circumcised, and is used as slur against Muslims. 

The experience of those whom the police had picked up on 20 December was similar. The police released 35 of the 39 men it had detained the next day itself. That day, Shaheen and Afroz, mothers of two of the detainees—Mohammad Adil, a 19-year-old, and Mustaqeem, a 22-year-old, in late January, respectively— said that when they tried to plead with the police to release their sons, they were verbally abused by them. Four days later, they spent hours at the Babu Purwa police station, where their sons were locked up at the time, submitting their children’s identity proofs, expecting the police to release them as well. But at 11.30 pm the police informed them that their sons, along with two others, would be transferred to the Kanpur District Jail instead. “They didn’t show any official documents—an arrest warrant, FIR et cetera—and charged them as they liked,” Afroz told us.

Shaheen said that Adil had been tortured in jail—the police had set fire to his beard, a marker of his Muslim identity. Ansar Ahmad, the imam of the Mehmoodiya Mosque in Begum Purwa who has been regularly meeting the arrestees, too, confirmed that the police had set fire to Adil’s beard. Ahmad said, on 24 January, that his face “still has some burns.” Afroz said, “Mustaqeem’s hand was swollen from the police’s beating … They didn’t treat him either, we took an ointment from home to give him.” We emailed the Kanpur Police on the address listed on their website for a response about the allegations against them. This report will be updated if and when they respond. A first-information report for the violence in Kanpur on 20 December names seven people as the accused, along with four–five thousand unknown persons. Of the four who were arrested, Pervez Alam and Sarfaraz Alam, aged 55 and 40 respectively, were released on bail on 12 February. The Kanpur District Court has rejected Adil and Mustaqeem’s bail pleas and the matter is now with the Allahabad High Court.

According to Nasir Khan, one of the lawyers representing Adil, Mustaqeem and Pervez, the cases are flimsy. He showed us a letter from Pervez’s employer—he worked at a factory in Jajmau, around six and a half kilometres away from Babu Purwa. The letter states that Pervez left the factory at 2.45 pm. According to Shaheen, Pervez was travelling via a cycle which broke down near her house in Begum Purwa, causing a minor injury. She said Adil and Mustaqeem helped him up and took him inside Adil’s house. Soon after, at about 4 pm, the police barged in and picked them up. But the FIR claims that they were involved in the crimes during the CAA protest between 2.30 pm and 4.30 pm. The FIR for the violence that occurred the next day names nine people, including Armaan, Ehsaan and Mohsin. Armaan’s neighbours—119 Hindus, predominantly from upper-caste communities—have signed a document attesting to his good character.

Khan gave an example of how the Kanpur police has been using intimidation tactics and threats to ensure that the cases against the CAA protesters do not get easily resolved. Tiwari, the district magistrate, had allowed people to depose before him in the 20 December case until 25 January. According to Khan, once, during this time, the police personnel stationed outside the office had created a hostile environment for the witnesses. The personnel were physically pushing the witnesses and asking them to go back, he said. “It wasn’t until I, with my influence, went with them that entry was even possible,” Khan added.

Both Ahmad and Mohammad Arif, a lawyer from Babu Purwa, told us that for days after 20 December, the residents of Babu Purwa would shut down the lights in their homes after dark, fearing that the police would come to terrorise them. Some of the boys, whom the police had detained and beaten up, have been quietly sent away from the locality. When we visited the area in end January, we could see the bullet holes on the shutters of various shops. Ahmad said that the police personnel from Babu Purwa police station still telephoned him and other prominent members of the community late at night, asking them to come for unwarranted meetings about the anti-CAA protests. “Without a doubt, they are trying to instil a fear in the minds” of Muslims, Arif said.

Kamayani Sharma is a writer and researcher on visual culture, media studies and philosophy. Her work has appeared in ArtforumThe White ReviewART IndiaScroll.inThe Wire and Firstpost, among others. She tweets at @SharmaKamayani.
Shalmoli Halder is a development sector professional working on land rights, access to justice and governance. She has written for India Development Review, the Indian Express, Arre, among others. She is available at @shalmolih.