“Orders have come from higher ups”: How the police detained a bus of anti-CAA protestors

On 19 December, the police detained hundreds of protestors who had assembled for anti-CAA demonstrations. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
20 December, 2019

On 19 December 2019, civil-society groups, student organisations, and the left-wing parties organised two major marches in Delhi to protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Scheduled to begin at the Red Fort and Mandi House respectively, these marches were part of the anti-CAA protests happening across the country the same day. Ahead of the protests, the Delhi police imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in an attempt to prevent people from gathering in large numbers. Section 144 prohibits the assembly of more than four people in any given area. At least seventeen metro stations were also temporarily shut down, and the internet was suspended in parts of the capital.

When protestors continued to gather for the marches, the police detained more than a thousand people and forcibly put them on buses that were then taken to different locations in the capital, including the Surajmal Stadium in West Delhi’s Nangloi area and the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in the Bawana area in North West Delhi. In light of these detentions, the remaining protestors from both the marches decided to converge at Jantar Mantar. As part of the crackdown, the police also detained a bus of protestors traveling from the Jawahar Lal Nehru University to the protest site at Jantar Mantar.

One of the marches in Delhi was originally scheduled to start at Mandi House and conclude at Parliament Street, around three kilometres away. Several students from the JNU Students Union had arranged private buses to pick up people gathered at their university—which included students and other people—and take them to the protest venue. Traditionally, buses are allowed to go inside the campus. But that day, “the buses were not allowed inside campus, and we had to get to the gate,” Bishnupriya Chakrabarti, a 23-year-old JNU student told me. Police personnel were also present at the university. “The police did not let us go for quite sometime. After some negotiation, they let this bus leave,” she said, referring to the bus she was on. “Just before we boarded, we got news that a lot of people were detained at Mandi House, so we redirected the bus to go to Jantar Mantar as there was a joint protest happening over there.”

The bus left JNU a little after noon, carrying over fifteen people, the majority of whom were students. The passengers told me that as the bus moved past Mandi House, a little over two kilometres away from Jantar Mantar, two policemen slowed it down and came aboard. They then tried to pressurise the driver to manoeuvre the bus as far away from the protest site as possible. As the police directed the driver, the students on the bus raised slogans such as “Delhi Police, down down.” The students eventually negotiated with the police, and got the bus to slow down and come to a halt at a location near the Lady Irwin College.

At around 1.30 pm, as I headed toward Mandi House, I noticed the bus standing still and a significant police presence surrounding it. When I reached the bus, the passengers told me that they had been detained for over forty minutes. They were chanting, “Delhi Police, go back,” and demanding that the police release them, and allow them to join the protests. Aishe Ghosh, the JNUSU president, was also present in the bus and was trying to negotiate with the police on where they could be dropped. Notably, the bus that was detained was a private one, and not a police or a government bus that could be directed to comply with the authorities.

Referring to the police action, Hari Govind, a second year student from Hyderabad Central University who was also on the bus, told me, “It was hijacked. They moved into the bus.” After the bus was halted, two police vans and a truck carrying policemen reached its location. The police stood at the gates of the bus blocking it—three policemen stood outside both doors. The students were told that they cannot leave the bus. Such police mobilisation around a bus of protestors—primarily students—was a glimpse into the government’s push to quell peaceful protests against the CAA.

The Delhi Police were resolute in not letting those in the bus reach Jantar Mantar. “Tell me anything that’s legal about this,” Govind said. “This is very arbitrary and the police are doing whatever they want. How can you detain passengers in a bus, can you please explain it to me? We are in a fascist state.”

The students continued singing and chanting slogans inside the bus. “We haven’t had any water or anything to eat since the morning. We’ve been asking the police for something and they’ve been refusing to give it,” Tariq Anwar, a passenger, told me.

Initially, I asked the police to let me into the bus, so that I could interview passengers. The police refused. They said I was a part of the media and would not let me on board. I then spoke to the passengers through the windows. Around 1.45 pm, a police jeep carrying Sanjay Sharma, the station house officer of the Vasant Kunj Police station, pulled up next to the bus. I tried to record his statements on video as he spoke with the JNUSU president.

In that moment, the police seemingly forgot that I was part of the media. They grabbed my hair and tried to push me into the bus. As the police was about to take me into the bus, some of the students pointed out that I was from the media. I had managed to pull out my press card while recording the ordeal. The police then let me go. Sharma refused to answer my questions. The police also asked me to stop recording. Meanwhile, chants of “Delhi Police murdabaad”—Down with Delhi Police—and “Shame” rang from the bus

After I was let go, the students again tried to persuade the Sharma to send them to Jantar Mantar, where protestors had gathered, but he refused. At first, the students and Sharma were speaking cordially. When the students asked Sharma on what legal grounds they were detained, he simply said that Section 144 had been imposed. He added, “Upar se order aaya hai,”—Orders have come from higher ups. He explained to them that they would have to wait to know what would happen next.

After another ten minutes, Sharma declared that the bus could only go to one of two places—the Rajiv Gandhi stadium, where other protestors had been detained, or back to JNU. “Sir, please tell us under what provision of Section 144 you have detained us?” a student on the bus then asked him. “If you want to know and get proper paperwork, you can come with us to the thana we will give you all the proper paperwork there,” Sharma said. While the police refused to let the bus proceed to Jantar Mantar, they allowed the protestors to leave the bus a little after 2 pm. Many of the students then found their own way to the protest venue.

I spoke to the driver of the bus, who wished to remain anonymous. He was trembling, nervous and perplexed that his bus was the centre of a confrontation. He said he was merely following the police’s instructions after they boarded the bus. Referring to the passengers, he said, “Yeh toh bacche hai, kya kar lenge,”—These are children, what can they do?

On 19 December, in addition to the detentions outside Red Fort and Mandi House, the Delhi-Gurgaon highway was also shut down creating massive traffic jams across the city. The police effectively curbed the march that was scheduled to begin at the Red Fort by reportedly detaining hundreds of protestors and moving them to locations more than fifteen kilometres away from the protest. This made it significantly harder for them to return and participate in the march. Protestors were also detained outside Mandi House and held for over two hours. Despite the police’s attempts to curtail the protests, they eventually continued successfully, with massive crowds present at Jantar Mantar.

“Is this any form of democracy?” Tehzeeb Rehman, a 25-year-old passenger on the bus, told me, referring to the CAA. Rehman is a student at the Al-Falah University, located in Haryana’s Faridabad district. “We have to stand up now or else I think that this country will go beyond recognition,” he said. “If we don’t show up now, we will have let down the spirit of the constitution. I hope this doesn’t end now, and that our resistance is worth something.”