Aided by a pliant police, BJP workers turned Sambhal’s CAA protests into communal stone pelting

The scene outside the Raysatti police chowki in Sambhal’s Chaudhary Sarai area on 19 December 2019. That day, around one and a half kilometres away from Chaudhary Sarai, at the Palika Maidan, Sambhal police used brute force against anti-CAA protestors. The next day, anti-CAA protests in the town descended into Hindus and Muslims pelting stones at each other. Pramod Adhikari
10 January, 2020

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.

On 25 December, Yamuna Prasad, the superintendent of police, told the media, “55 persons have been identified and posters are being released for the identification of other 150 people who were involved in violence during the protests against the Amended Citizenship Act.” While that day Prasad said the police has “arrested 48 persons so far,” he told me five days later that 43 had been arrested.

But Qamar Husain, one of the lawyers representing the accused in these cases, told me 55 people were arrested as of 8 January. The lawyer said of these, 19 were minors and the youngest child arrested is just 11 years old. According to Husain, instead of being remanded in juvenile homes, the minors were housed with convicted and serial offenders in the Bareilly jail.  

The police crackdown in Sambhal, where Muslims form a majority, was similar to that in other parts of the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh. The police and the local media seemed to be working in tandem with each other, terming the protestors as “insurrectionists,” and justifying the police’s excesses as “self defence.” Accounts of locals on the ground contradict this narrative. But a crucial aspect makes the situation in Sambhal graver than that in most other parts of the entire country—it seems to be the first district to see the anti-CAA protests descend into Hindus and Muslims pelting stones at each other.

There were two main protests against the CAA scheduled in Sambhal for 19 December, a local senior journalist who works with a national daily told me. The Samajwadi Party’s district committee had given a call for a protest at Palika Maidaan, a large ground in central Sambhal. The protest was to entail submitting a memorandum addressed to the president against the CAA to the local officials of the district. The Samajwadi Party leaders Shafiqur Rahman Barq and Iqbal Mehmood—who represent Sambhal in the Lok Sabha and the state assembly, respectively—had both called for their followers to join the protest. During my reporting, several people, a journalist and a human-rights activist among them, told me that that Barq and Mehmood are political competitors and that the locals saw their calls of protest as attempts to show that they command a larger share of followers than the other person.

The Sambhal Zilla Sangharsh Samiti, a group which advocates for local governance and deals with administrative issues in the town, also sought permission to hold a protest on 19 December. The senior journalist told me that the administration granted conditional permission to the samiti. The administration said that the protest could be held in an enclosed and private venue—at the Al Tareen ITI college, which is run by Mushir Tareen Khan, a social activist who heads the samiti—and it was to be wrapped up by 12.30 pm. But, the senior journalist said, by the night of 18 December, the administration withdrew the permission. The next morning, the police put Khan under house arrest. On 16 December, the police had posted on Twitter that Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure had already been enforced in Sambhal, preventing an assembly of five or more persons.

But the move did not deter people from protesting against the CAA on the cold morning of 19 December. The senior journalist and other locals in Sambhal told me how the protests played out. People still responded to Khan’s call for the protest. At around 10 am, a crowd was making its way from Sheikh Sarai Tareen—a locality around two kilometers away from Sambhal town—where Khan is well known, to the Al Tareen ITI College. With the other protest materialising as well, the crowd changed its course to make its way to Palika Maidaan instead, converging with those who had responded to the Samajwadi Party’s call for a demonstration. On the way, people joined the protests in large numbers.

According to the senior journalist, the local administration had not anticipated that such a huge crowd would head to the Palika Maidan and was in a fix. The police attempted to stall the crowd at Choudhary Sarai, an area a little over one and a half kilometre before Palika Maidan. The senior journalist, who was present at the scene, told me that the police failed to stop the crowd from moving forward. Panic spread in the surrounding market areas where many people soon shut down their shops.

Around 11.30 am, the protestors reached Palika Maidan. There, the police used water cannons on the protestors. The crowd was dispersed just for some time, only to soon reassemble again. A few leaders delivered some speeches against the CAA and the demonstration wrapped up between 1 and 1.30 pm. The police and administration then asked Barq and Feroz Khan—a leader of the Samajwadi Party’s unit in Sambhal district—to step in and help disperse the crowd. Both the leaders complied. Most of the local protestors then returned back to their homes, while those from Sheikh Sarai Tareen started their walk back home.

There is no consensus on how violence ensued that day. According to multiple people, it began when a policeman either misbehaved or heckled at a protester who was heading back to Sheikh Sarai Tareen. The accounts vary slightly with respect to the number of police personnel who misbehaved and the number of protestors at the receiving end. The police lathi charged and beat up the protestors, and the crowd retaliated by pelting stones. According to the journalist, the police lobbed tear gas shells at the crowd and also fired multiple rounds in the air. The crowd eventually dispersed. By around 2 pm, two buses had been set ablaze.

Later, the police booked Barq and Feroze Khan, alongside 15 other people, in connection to the violence that happened that day. On Thursday evening itself, the administration suspended internet services in Sambhal. Still, the town was abuzz with stories of what had transpired in the day.

The senior journalist was of the opinion that Barq and Mehmood had exploited the CAA protests for their own political purposes. “At first you send the crowd, then you are asked to calm them down,” the senior journalist said. “And now that innocent people have landed in trouble, you are nowhere to be seen. Where is the honesty in that?”

The senior journalist told me that people were angry that prominent politicians and activists of the Muslim community had been booked for destruction of public property. The police crackdown against what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration robbed the legitimacy of the Muslim community’s right to protest, the senior journalist said.

There did not seem to be an official call for a protest by any political party or religious outfit for the next day. But after the afternoon namaz that Friday, protestors in small groups spontaneously began heading in small groups towards Sambhal’s Chandausi Chowk area. The senior journalist emphasised that the procession was leaderless and populated by young men.

He told me that the police attempted to quell the march. Police personnel used megaphones to discourage the men from participating in the protest and asked them to return home. However, as wave upon wave of men gathered at the Government Hospital Chauraha, around 500 metres away from Chandausi Chauraha, the police’s failure in predicting the scale of the protest became apparent.

The police put up barricades at the Government Hospital Chauraha to stop the protestors from going forward. From the other side of the barricades, the senior administrative and police officials attempted to negotiate with the protesters. The authorities asked the protesters to state their demands and submit a memorandum, if any, to the local government. However, since it was a leaderless crowd, it did not engage with the police at all. As the tail of the protest grew larger and larger, the police had no option but to remove the barricades.

Between 2.30 pm and 3 pm, as the crowd neared Chandausi Chauraha, the police started warning the protesters that action would be taken against them if they do not step back. The senior journalist was around three hundred meters away from the crowd at that time. Around two or three people approached him and told him that some people in the protesting crowd had attacked a local journalist. The local journalist was apparently clicking pictures of the crowd and some members of the protesting crowd mistook him for a man deployed by the police, looking to capture faces of those who were participating the protest.

The senior journalist said that people told him that this gave way for the police to begin a lathi charge at the crowd. The police, again, lobbed tear gas shells and used a water cannon against the protestors. Police even took to firing, and later admitted to this as well. This triggered a stampede—the police arrested those who had been injured and were unable to get away from the scene.

Much like in other districts in Uttar Pradesh, those who were picked up were Muslims from poor families. I met Muslim women in Mehboob Khan Sarai whose kin had been arrested.

One of them was Nafeesa, who is 80 years old. Her 19-year-old grandson, Salman, worked as a daily wage labourer. Salman is the sole bread earner of his family comprising his parents, a grandmother and three sisters. Since he went missing, people from the chawl have been giving the family money to meet their expenses, but it is not enough for their sustenance.

The family kept calling Salman when he did not return home on 20 December. People of the chawl set out to look for his body at a drain near Shankar Chauraha, in case he died during the police crackdown that day. They had no idea where Salman was for four days. Then, the police informed them that Salman was locked up in the Bareilly jail.

Salman’s mother, Ashkara, visited him in jail on 29 December. She told me he “kept crying, kept begging to get him out of jail.” With tears streaking down her face, she said, his hands and legs were swollen as the police personnel had beat him up.

Marguf, a 25-year-old resident of the chawl, used to sell eggs. He, too, was the sole bread earner of his family which comprises his grandmother, his mother and his widowed sister. He was on his way to get the medicines for his 85-year-old grandmother, Mishkin, when the police arrested him.

Mishkin was distraught when I met her on 30 December. “He has no father and I am a widow. He used to sell eggs, used to run a cart selling eggs. The eggs have gone bad since then,” Mishkin told me. “Now, tell me, where should I get my food from, where should I get my medicines from? Who is going to foot my expenses in this day and age?”

Mishkin was not able to go and meet Marguf in Bareilly jail. Her neighbours from Mehboob Khan Sarai who did meet Marguf told her that the police had badly thrashed him in jail.

During the protest, Mohammad Bilal, a 31-year-old farm labourer, died from a firearm injury. Bilal had been married for five years. He has a wife and three daughters—aged four, two and ten months. When I visited Bilal’s home in the Shahbajpur Kheda area, the eldest daughter was playing in the two-room house, breaking the sombre silence. According to family members, at around 3 pm time on 20 December, Bilal left for Moradabad to pay off the instalments for a car he had recently purchased.

Bilal’s cousin Hilal Pasha, who also resides in Sambhal, told me that he received a call from his friend between 3.30 pm and 4 pm saying that Bilal has been shot. But the friend did not know where Bilal was. Pasha’s friend called back again in a few minutes telling him that some boys at the Hind Inter college—around 300 meters away from the Chandausi Chouraha—had taken Bilal to a nearby nursing home called Fazal and Anand Hospital. Bilal was declared dead on arrival. Pasha then informed his family members about Bilal’s death.

In the next hour, Pasha told me, some boys from Bilal’s neighbourhood brought his dead body home. On the way, they had to encounter many check posts that the police had erected on every prominent road in the town. Around midnight, once the commotion had subsided and a tensed peace prevailed in the town, the police took Bilal’s body and sent it for a post-mortem examination. It only gave the body back to Bilal’s family the next day, around twenty-four hours later. At least till 7 January, the family had not received the post-mortem report.

Bilal’s family registered a complaint with the police regarding the matter. The complaint, dated 20 December, states that Bilal’s death occurred when a policeman shot a bullet at a crowd walking by the Hind Inter college with an intention to kill. According to the complaint, Bilal was hit by the bullet because of which he died. The complaint asked the police to investigate the matter.

But the FIR that the police has registered regarding Bilal’s death significantly dilutes the contents of the complaint. It does not state that Bilal died because of a bullet fired by a police officer. Rather, according to the FIR, around 3 pm Bilal along with his friend was travelling through the Chandausi Chowk area where he was hit on a part of his face and he consequently died.

Bilal’s family members are livid because of the FIR. Khursheed Alam, Bilal’s brother-in-laws, told me that the FIR is an absolute lie. “Bilal bhai was shot dead by a police bullet, and now they are trying to get away with it by saying that he died because of an injury he sustained,” he said.

There was one more casualty that day. As one trickle of the crowd headed towards Chandausi Chouraha that day, another started pushing towards the Shankar Chauraha. The senior journalist, a young man associated with an autonomous research and advocacy group, two lawyers, residents of Mehmood Khan Sarai and various people on the ground in Sambhal, recounted how Hindus and Muslims pelted stones at each other at Shankar Chauraha.

Dalit-dominated residential colonies exist on one side of the Shankar Chouraha, and the other side has Muslim-dominated colonies which are more spread out. The BJP has been trying to woo the Valmikis and seems to have succeeded to an extent.

Men, mostly Valmikis, from the Dalit-dominated colonies—Durga Colony, Maaliyon Waala Aalam Sarai, Hallu Sarai, Valmiki Aalam Sarai—poured out on the streets and started pelting stones towards the Muslims protestors on the other side. Accounts differ over which community began the stone pelting—the Valmikis or the Muslims.

A senior BJP leader in Sambhal confirmed to me on the condition of anonymity that “sixty–seventy” men from the Hindu side had taken to the streets to counter stone pelting from the Muslim protestors. He told me that even the Hindu cadre—largely of Yadav and Jatav communities—within Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party faced harassment within these parties. According to the BJP leader, since their interests are being sidelined, they have now joined the “mainframe of the Hindutva.”

But the common thread in most accounts was that the police turned a blind eye to the men pelting stones from the Dalit colonies. The senior BJP leader also confirmed that the Hindu side had the “support” of the police as well. People in Sambhal showed me videos of the police ambling around while men pelted stones in front of them. Various videos are being circulated on WhatsApp in Sambhal of the stone-pelting between the two communities—I was not able to independently verify the veracity and the sources of these clips.

One such video shows stone pelting between two different groups, being recorded from the side of the Muslim group. In it, a man, whose face is not very clearly visible, can be seen shooting at the side from which the video is being recorded. I spoke to some people in Sambhal who had seen this video. They identified the man in the video as one Santosh Kumar and said one of the bullets he fired hit Mohammad Shehroz, a truck driver, who subsequently lost his life. Shehroz had turned 22 years old that day.

Everyone I spoke to in the course of my reporting believed that Kumar, who runs a sweet shop in Sambhal, had killed Shehroz. Locals told me that the Kumar is active in local politics and is affiliated with the local BJP unit. Kumar is currently “underground,” according to the young man associated with an autonomous research and advocacy group. Many people named a BJP leader, Rajesh Singhal, as the man who asked people from the Hindu colonies to pelt stones. When I approached Singhal for a comment, he refused to comment on the issue.

I visited Shehroz’s home in Sambhal. According to Mohammad Yameen, his father, Shehroz was planning to leave Sambhal for work on 20 December, after the Friday namaz. He had lunch somewhere in his neighbourhood and then went to his workplace. His employer told him to set out on the next day instead given the crisis-ridden situation in Sambhal. He was shot dead while returning home, according to Yameen.

At around 4 pm on 20 December, someone called the family from Shehroz’s mobile number. “The person on the other end of the call told us that Shehroz had been taken to the Sewa Hospital,” Yameen said. Sewa Hospital is around one and a half kilometer away from Shankar Chauraha. “We do not know who brought him to Sewa hospital. Shehroz’s mother and my nephew, along with some people from the mohalla, rushed to Sewa hospital, where the hospital authorities told us that handling Shehroz was beyond their capacity,” he added. The hospital staff suggested the family take Shehroz to the Asian Haseena Begum Hospital, more than fifty kilometers away. “There they told us that he has lost a lot of blood and asked us to take him to TMU hospital in Moradabad,” Yameen said. The TMU hospital is around an hour away from Asian Haseena Begum. “They admitted him in emergency ward and declared him dead,” he told me.

From there, the family brought him back to the Government Hospital in Sambhal. Police personnel turned up at the hospital. After completing some paper work, the police took Shehroz’s body for post-mortem by 9 pm. Just as it was in Bilal’s case, the police took a little over twenty-four hours to return the body—till around 11 pm the next day. The family buried Shehroz’s body by 1.30 am in a nearby graveyard.

“Police has not shot my son. It is a private man who shot my son,” Yameen said. I asked if he thought it was Kumar who shot Shehroz as well. “No, I have not said that even in the FIR. I do not know what is the case and neither was I present at the site,” he replied. Yameen was reluctant to answer questions about who he thought shot Shehroz. Later in the conversation, he said, “My child has been hit by a bullet. Now, I do not know if the bullet was police’s or a private man’s.”

A little confused by his responses, I stepped out of Shehroz’s house. As I walked ahead, I met Aadil, Shehroz’s cousin brother, who spoke far more openly. Aadil told me that the police had the post-mortem report but was withholding it because it could disrupt communal harmony. He added that in the videos from the protest, the faces of people from the Hindu side were clearly visible and that the police knew exactly who they are.

“We went to meet the district magistrate sahib and met the SP sahib as well,” Aadil told me, referring to Avinash Krishan Singh and Yamuna Prasad, the superintendent of police. The family showed the police personnel the WhatsApp video which people say shows Santosh Kumar firing at the crowd. “We showed them the video and said that it doesn’t seem to be the case as we understood it—that he died in clashes with the police. Nothing like that seems to be in the video. You can see that he is directly shooting, this man who is in the video. And that is exactly where we found Shehroz’s body where the man is shooting in the video. He is shooting at a distance of twenty to twenty-five meters from the front,” Aadil told me.  

“We have told the police that you should investigate this matter. We do not know who these people are specifically,” Aadil said. He told me he had visited Shankar Chouraha after Shehroz’s death to speak to the people there and find out what had transpired there. “People told us that those who pelted stones at protesters and where the firing took place are from the same mohalla—from the colonies from behind Shankar College and from Sarthal Chowki,” he said. Sarthal Chowki is an area populated with Hindus. Locals had told the family that the Hindus who were pelting stones “also had an RSS team,” Adil added. “None of them have been arrested. When we told the police about them, they said that they will take action against them, once the situation in Sambhal improves,” he told me.

The police seemed reluctant to conduct a fair investigation into the Shehroz’s death. In the FIR that the Sambhal police registered in the matter, it claimed that Shehroz’s death occurred due to injuries sustained during the violence at Chandausi Chouraha. The FIR does not mention firing from a particular individual or the police. Additionally, the case was registered under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

“Our brother is no more but the goons who fired at him should be brought to justice,” Aadil said. “Today, they have fired at my brother, tomorrow their strength could increase.”

On 30 December at I met Singh and Prasad at the Chaudhary Sarai police station in Sambhal. I waited outside the station with a few other reporters, including one from the news agency Asian News International and one from the Hindi news channel Republic Bharat. When we went inside, reporters lined up to take a straightforward byte from Singh about the notices that Sambhal police has issued to seek reimbursement of damages to public property during the protests. These notices asked 59 insurrectionists to pay up a total of Rs 15.35 lakhs, Singh told them.  

Singh and the media persons present there seemed to have an amiable relationship. Singh said that the police was able to identify the people involved in the violence using footage obtained from CCTVs and the media. Prasad said that they took this footage from Dharmendra, an ANI journalist who was present at the police station at the time.

The police personnel showed appreciation for the media. Singh said, to no one in particular, that in the last few years, Indian media has being looked at as “responsible.” He said, “It is for the first time that the Indian media has shown such a spirit of responsibility towards matters of social and national benefit. This is very good news for media also.”

Since the police crackdown against the anti-CAA protests began in Uttar Pradesh, a number of Hindi newspapers and sections of the English media have repeatedly played up the police and local administration’s version of events. The media has consistently sidelined stories of those who have been killed and arrested in this period. They have reported very few stories, if any, from the point of view of the families of the aggrieved. Instead, the seems to be further alienating a minority community in its coverage—cheering on the police for its crackdown against the Muslim “insurrections and miscreants” to protect the common citizenry.

I asked Singh and Prasad about Kumar’s alleged involvement in killing Shehroz and the current status of investigation in the case. Prasad said, “Investigation is currently being conducted in the case.”

I asked them questions about minors being lodged with convicted offenders in Bareilly jai. “If a 15-year-old kid charges at you with a pistol, with a stone, what would you say? ... What will you do? Leave him?” Prasad said. He added that no minors have been identified out of the arrested people. Singh said, “They have all been arrested from the site and there will be determination of age in the jail. For us, they are insurrectionists arrested from the site. If they are minor, they will be tried in juvenile court—do not think that they will be released. Only the courts will be different, in case they are minors.”

I told Singh that from my conversations with the locals it seemed that the police was targeting Muslims. Singh replied, “The ground reality is that some anti-national elements with an intention to disturb the peace in the country have sponsored the protests. … Simultaneously in many cities, these anti-national elements have worked together to perpetuate this violence in the state.” He added, “You should know this. In fact, you should know about this much better than us.”

 When I tried to cross question them, Singh said, “Talk about the 50 policemen who have suffered injuries. Talk about that as well. You cannot see that?” At one point during the conversation, Prasad looked at Singh and said, “He has come from Delhi, he has come from Jamia, his paper will only talk about this.” Prasad was referring to the Jamia Millia Islamia university in the national capital—the Delhi police used brute force against the students of Jamia after they protested against the CAA in December 2019. Later, the Singh asked me if I was carrying a brief on “behalf” of the “insurrectionists.”