Quietly defiant, Kanpur’s Muslims persist in the face of police brutality and state apathy

07 January 2020
On 20 December, the Kanpur Police opened fire on demonstrators who had gathered for a peaceful protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in the city's Babu Purwa locality. At least twelve people were shot that day, of whom four died.
STR/AFP / Getty Images
On 20 December, the Kanpur Police opened fire on demonstrators who had gathered for a peaceful protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in the city's Babu Purwa locality. At least twelve people were shot that day, of whom four died.
STR/AFP / Getty Images

Aftab Alam, a 23-year-old mason, was a resident of Munshi Purwa, a Muslim-majority locality of Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh. On 20 December, sometime between 2 pm and 4 pm, the Kanpur Police shot Alam as he crossed a demonstration against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Alam had just left the Badi Masjid, which is located inside the Eidgah Maidan—a historic park in the city which houses a mosque, a cemetery and expansive grounds. He had come to offer the Friday prayers and then intended to head to Babu Purwa, a locality between the maidan and his house. He was a college graduate, but after the death of his father five years ago, Alam had started working alongside his education to support a household of six. That day, after the namaz, he was on his way to collect the previous day’s wages from a construction site in Babu Purwa. The police bullet hit him in the chest, in the lane outside the maidan, and according to his family, he died later that evening.

Raees Khan, a 30-year-old papad seller, was a resident of Begum Purwa, another Muslim-majority locality, adjacent to Babu Purwa and bordering the maidan. That day, he, too, was at the Eidgah Maidan—he had taken up a job as a waiter for a wedding to be held in the maidan that evening. He was inside a tent set up for the wedding when he first heard a ruckus outside the maidan. That Friday, all the shops in the Muslim neighbourhoods in the area had been closed in protest against the CAA. Since the morning, police personnel had been deployed around the Eidgah as well as the exit of every locality in the neighbourhood. After the afternoon namaz, an informal gathering of sorts had coalesced in and around the maidan, in protest against the CAA. While there is no consensus on what transpired next, every local I spoke to said that the police opened fire on the gathering without any provocation. In the ensuing chaos, Khan ran for home, but was hit by a bullet in his stomach a short distance from the maidan. According to his family, Khan, the sole earner of a family of six, died the next evening.

Muhammad Saif, a 25-year-old labourer, was a resident of Babu Purwa. He worked in a tannery in Begum Purwa with his elder brother, Muhammad Jaki. Despite the visible police presence, it was a normal Friday for him. For the residents of these areas, heavy police deployment was not new. They were used to seeing the police watch over them at every festival. Saif had gone home from work to pick up lunch for Jaki, and stopped at the mosque on his way back, for the afternoon prayer. He left the mosque to head to the tannery and had barely crossed the road when the bullet hit him, Jaki told me. He died later that evening, according to Jaki. All the three men who were hit by bullets had been taken to the government-run Lala Lajpat Rai Hospital, popularly known as Hallet Hospital, by their respective friends or locals who happened to be around when the men were shot. Despite being almost seven kilometres away, the state-sponsored hospital was the only affordable facility in the vicinity.

Within the next hour or so, all three families had reached Hallet Hospital. All the families told me that the men had died long before the hospital administration officially informed them. Mohammad Saif, Alam’s brother, said that he was with his brother during his last moments. “The doctors had kept him on a bed in the intensive-care unit but nobody was attending to him,” he said. “He was not being operated on either.” He told me that Alam had stopped responding on the evening of 20 December itself, and his body had gone absolutely cold. “He had also stopped breathing. I told the doctors that he was dead but they asked me to go outside and wait.” Instead, the doctors told him that Alam was being treated and that they were carrying out investigations. The family was informed about Alam’s death the next day.

Jaki told me that they found out about his brother’s death from the local newspapers the next day, even as the doctors were still telling them that his brother was being treated. Raees’ father, Shareef Khan, also said something similar. “Doctors ne kuchh nahin kiya. Bas rui laga di aur tape laga diya tha lekin koi ilaj nahin kiya.”—Doctors did not do anything. They just put some cotton and tape and no other treatment. Raees’ brother, Sayeed Khan, told me that Raees had stopped responding on Saturday evening itself, but the doctors refused to tell the family till almost twenty four hours later.

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Citizenship (Amendment) Act Uttar Pradesh Police Muslims in India Kanpur