At around 3.30 pm on 20 December, a 15-year-old teenager set out from his home in the Sambhal town of western Uttar Pradesh to attend a one-hour-long tuition class. The teenager lived with his parents in a chawl named Mehmood Khan Sarai and had to go to Shankar Chauraha, just around one kilometre away. That day, in the afternoon, Muslim men had led a procession near Shankar Chauraha to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The Uttar Pradesh police used brute force to quell the protests—with tear gas, lathis and even open firing—as it had in other districts as well. Two Muslims were killed during the protests that day.
When the teenager did not return home by 5 pm, his mother became anxious. “I went and met the tuition teacher who told me that he had attended tuition and had set out for home from here,” she said. “Now, tell me, what was wrong in sending my child for tuitions?”
By then, news had spread about what had transpired in Sambhal that day. The chawl was rife with fear and paranoia. It seemed unsafe to step out into the streets. Still, at around 9 pm, four women in the chawl whose kin had not returned home on time that day went to the Kotwali police station nearby. The police personnel there shooed the women away and called them “patharmaar aurtein”—women who pelt stones.
The women found that their sons had been arrested. For the next three days, the police refused to tell them in which jail their sons were lodged. The mother of the 15-year-old told me, “Couldn’t they see that he had a copy, one or two books? … Does the police and administration not have kids? Even if for an hour their child was to go missing, they would know the restlessness one feels.” As she narrated her ordeal, she was both breaking into sobs and expressing impassioned anger. “If only we were the SHO”—station-house officer—“or a politician, our kids would have walked away free. Tell me, why were only our kids arrested?”
As the police and the administration kept mum, speculations mixed with gossip in the chawl, as well as the rest of Sambhal. Sometimes the boys were said to be in a jail in Moradabad district, sometimes in Sambhal itself—in Dhanari jail or in Bahjoi jail.