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

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
07 January, 2020

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.

None of the families were given any documentation regarding their relatives’ admission, discharge or even death certificates. Two weeks later, none of them have received any post-mortem reports or any help from the government in terms of compensation.  All the families believe that the hospital administration deliberately withheld the news of their relatives’ deaths on orders from the police. The medical superintendent of the hospital, CS Singh, denied the families’ allegations, and told me that “a standard protocol was followed.”

As per my reporting, on 20 December, the police shot at least 12 men in and around Eidgah Maidan. Apart from the three who died, eight others are undergoing treatment at the Hallet Hospital. The locals told me that one more man was dead, but his family took away the dead body from the spot to their native village for fear of the police. They did not want to identify the family. On 20 December, at least 16 people died in police action against anti-CAA protestors across Uttar Pradesh. The next day, OP Singh, the state police chief said that “not a single bullet was fired at protesters” and that the “protesters died in firing among themselves.” I did not find a shred of evidence to support this during my reporting either in Bijnor or Kanpur. According to their families, none of the deceased had carried any weapons, participated in any of the protests or had any criminal antecedents.

The families and the residents in Kanpur recounted the same pattern of persecution by the police and the state administration as has been reported by The Caravan from Bijnor, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. The residents told me the police fired at the demonstrators without any provocation, stormed into people’s houses, assaulted the women, and arrested the men. They said the police were constantly hurling communal abuses such as “Jinnah ki auladon”—Jinnah’s offspring—and “Pakistani katuon salon”— a derogatory term for Muslims, literally meaning “circumcised.” The police also picked up several teenagers from the area, brutally beat them up in the police stations, and released them on Saturday morning, according to the residents. Like everywhere else in the state, the Kanpur Police too were accompanied by non-uniformed men who assaulted the residents, fired at them and beat up the women of the area. Like in the other cities, Muslim shopkeepers told me that the police and the militiamen selectively vandalised and looted their shops in Begum Purwa.

Most of the residents of the area are Dalit Muslims, and primarily employed as weavers, butchers, daily wagers and in the several small-scale household industries in the localities. The site of the firing, the Eidgah Tiraha—intersection of three roads near the Eidgah Maidan—has small shops for leatherworks, puncture fixing, weaving, and the dyeing of cotton. As I walked around the neighbourhood on 28 December, I saw that even a week after the incident, every square was still being guarded by policemen in riot gear. The walls were plastered with posters which had passport-sized photographs of protestors. Almost every picture in these posters had men wearing skull caps or scarves around their shoulders, and sporting beards—the implication was that the protestors had gathered there with their Muslim identities on ample display. However, residents told me that many of the men whose pictures were up there did not even live in Kanpur, and had been working outside the city for years. According to them, the police were conducting an exercise in religious profiling, with the help of local informers.

Ever since the police firing on 20 December, there is a palpable sense of distrust and alienation towards the government and the police among the area’s Muslim residents. The elders feel persecuted by the government and abandoned by the political parties in the state; the youth are angry and disillusioned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, but there was no talk of violence or “revenge.” Kanpur’s Lok Sabha representative is from the BJP. The Kanpur Lok Sabha constituency is further divided into five assembly constituencies—Kanpur Cantonment, Sisamau, Arya Nagar, Govind Nagar and Kidwai Nagar. Babu Purwa and its surrounding areas come under the Kanpur Cantonment assembly constituency and it is currently represented by the Indian National Congress. The rest are equally divided between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. Kanpur Cantonment constitutes 61 percent Hindus and 36 percent Muslims.

The distrust is so far reaching that none of the bereaved families have approached the local police stations to lodge complaints for the murder of their kin. The fact that the only police investigation into the incident will be conducted by a special investigation team comprised of the very officers who supervised the crackdown on the protest, has eroded whatever little credibility the system had in the eyes of the residents. The community has stopped looking to the government for any help and the neighbourhoods have been sharing food, fuel, money, medicine, water with whoever is in need.

Najma Bano, Aftab Alam’s mother, told me no government or police official had come to visit them or take their statements. She had no hope from the government and was too scared of the police to register a complaint against her son’s murder. She told me that Alam had studied at the Success School in Babu Purwa and completed his bachelor’s degree in arts from the Muslim Inter College in the city. He had been working as a labourer at a construction site next to the Success School. The school is near the Eidgah Maidan and on 20 December, Alam had thought if he was going to offer namaz, he could also collect his money on the way home and join the family for lunch. When she saw her son in the hospital that evening, he was soaked in blood. She asked him, “Beta, kisne maris hai tumko?”—Son, who shot you? Bano said that Alam told her, “Ammi, police wale marin hain. Ab unse hamari kaun si dushmani hai? Goli chala rahen hain.”—Mother, the policemen shot me. What enmity do they have with us that they are shooting us?? After Alam’s death, Bano said she was concerned for her younger son. She felt he would stay safe as long as her family kept their distance from the police.

The police’s actions have also left Raees’ father, Mohammad Shareef, shocked beyond disbelief. As I spoke to him, the 65-year-old Shareef would go catatonic while narrating his son’s last moments. “Police ne goli maar di… Hamara bacha papad bechta tha.”—The police shot him… Our child used to sell papads. Somebody would periodically grab his arms to bring him back to his senses. Shareef has severe asthma and Raees bore the expenses of his father’s medicine, as well as the rent of the tiny one-room hut they live in.

Mohammad Shareef, the father of Raees Khan who was shot dead on 20 December by the Kanpur Police. Raees used to take care of the family's expenses, including his father's medical bills. Sagar

Raees’ younger brother, Sayeed, works as daily wager but said he did not get work every day and Raees was the one who took care of the family. Sayeed told me that Raees would pick papad from the market for up to Rs 700, sell it during the day and in the evening pay a part of his earnings to his creditor and the rest would be used for the family. On that day, and on other such occasions when weddings would be held at the maidan, Raees would take up a waiter’s job since it paid almost the same money as he earned by selling papad the whole day. When I asked Shareef if they would approach the administration, he said, “Police ne hi goli mari toh insaaf kissey mange? Hamare darwaze bhi koi nahi aaya ab tak.”—Police only shot him, so who do we ask for justice? No one has come to our door till now.

Muhammad Saif’s elder brother, Muhammad Jaki, also said that Saif told him at the hospital that the police had fired at him. Jaki has not recorded a statement with the police either, fearing that the police might arrest him or harass his family if he did so. Jaki told me he did not expect any help from the government because he believed the government itself was responsible for his brother’s death.

Muhammad Jaki (L), the elder brother of 25-year-old Muhammad Saif. Saif was shot dead by the Kanpur Police on 20 December, when he was on his way back to work after the Friday namaz. Sagar

Not just the families of the deceased, every local I spoke to felt that the government was deliberately targeting Muslims, and the protest merely gave it an excuse to persecute them. I met half a dozen elders at a tea stall in Begum Purwa. Shakeel Abba, who runs a social organisation in Babu Purwa and is a popular figure in the community, was the only one willing to be identified. As they spoke, Abba brought up the chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht’s statement where he said the state will take “revenge” from demonstrators by confiscating their properties. Abba said, “Kis cheez ka badla le rahen hain, bataiye?”—What are they taking revenge for, tell me? Abba continued, “BJP ki har haan mein haan toh mila raha hai Musalaman. Unhone kaha gosht khana chhor do, humne kaha chalo nahi khayenge bhainsa.”—Muslims are agreeing to everything that the BJP wants. They said, stop eating beef, so we said, alright, we will not eat beef. Abba took a pause and continued, “Musalmano ne kaha hum Supreme Court ka faisla manenge. Unhone faisla galat diya, magar musalmano ne kuchh nahi bola. Toh fir kis baat ka badla le rahen hain humse ab?”—Muslims said we will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision [on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi dispute]. They gave the wrong decision, but the Muslims did not say anything. So, what are they exacting revenge from us for now?

In another lane in the area, I met a group of five to six young men who showed me several videos taken that day which show police firing at the demonstrators directly. They had all witnessed the police action, and all said that there had been no firing from the protestors’ camp. I compared time stamps, visited the locations shown, the landmarks, the bullet marks on walls and storefronts; the videos were all authentic. One of the young men, on the condition of anonymity, told me he did not have any faith in the government and the police. “Aap dekhiye har din kuchh na kuchh aa jata hai. Us ghatna k baad bhi, Kanpur se video viral huye hain jisme mein dukaano aur logon ki gaadiyan tod rahen hain police. Humne dekha tha wo humpe direct goli chala de rahe the.”—You see, every day some new information comes out. Ever after that incident, several videos from Kanpur have gone viral which show police breaking cars and shops. I saw, they were firing directly at us.

Mohammad Anees, one of the shopkeepers in the lane whose shop too had a bullet mark, told me that the government wanted to economically weaken the Muslims and he felt it was being done in an “organised manner”. He said, “Police wale galiyon mein ghus ghus kar, ladkon ki gaadiyan check kar rahen hain, unka chalan bana rahen hain. Aur toh aur zabt bhi kar rahen hain. Aur ye sirf Muslim muhallon mein ho raha hai.”—The police is coming inside alleys and checking the cars and bikes of the youth, they are levying fines. In fact they are even confiscating them. And this is happening only in Muslim localities.

Ansar Ahmad, the imam of Masjid Mahmoodiya at Ajitganj, a neighbourhood of Babu Purwa, told me that the police had no reason to use live weapons at a gathering that was less than a thousand in strength, and which had come primarily to offer namaz. He said that the gathering on 20 December had been fairly spontaneous, and none of the mosques had given a call for a protest. “Humne toh uske pichle Jumme ko call di thi, 13 tarikh ko, jo call Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind ka tha pure mulk mein. Usme humne memorandum diya tha aur wo shanti purn khatam ho gaya tha. Magar 20 ko toh aisi koi call bhi nahin thi, log bus namaz padh ke nikle the. Un par goliyan chalane ki jarurat nahin thi.”—We sent out a call on the Friday before that, on 13 December, the all-India call sent out by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind [an organisation of Islamic scholars]. There we gave a memorandum and it all got over peacefully. But there was no call for 20 December, people had just come out after offering namaz. There was no need to fire at them. Ahmad also said that the same day, bigger demonstrations had been held in other Muslim areas of Kanpur, like Yateem Khana, but nothing untoward happened there. He, too, reiterated the community’s loss of faith in the police and the government.

At Babu Purwa, I met a 17-year-old teenager who was picked up by the police from near the Badi Masjid on 20 December, brutally beaten up on the road and later again inside the police lock-up. The teenager was detained for a night at the Barra police station along with two of his friends, who were also minors. When I met him at his home, he was lying in bed and could sit only with support. His feet were swollen and he had bruises all over his back. His jaw had been dislocated and he could barely form words as he spoke in a low whisper. The teenager told me he had gone to the mosque to offer namaz and was doing his ablutions just outside the mosque, when the police walked towards him. He said he closed the door but the police asked him and his friends to run away from the mosque. As soon as he left the mosque though, he said, he was caught by the policemen and beaten up brutally. He told me, “bahut mara. Har jagah mara. Teen-char log the, sab ek sath mar rahe the. Main khada bhi nahi ho pa raha tha. Fir thane le gaye, wahan bhi mara, raat bhar hawalat mein band rakhe.”—[They] beat me a lot. They hit me everywhere. Three-four of them, they were beating me at the same time. I could not even stand. Then they took me to the police station and beat me there also, kept me in the lock up for the night.

The teenager told me the police personnel at the station made him chant, “Jai Shri Ram.” He told me, “Jai Shri Ram ke naarey lagwaye. Bolen bolo toh humne bol diya tha. Kyunki jaise hamara Allah waise wo bhi hain bhagwan hain. Humne laga diya. Naarey lagwa rahe the, maarey ja rahe the.”—They made me chant Jai Shri Ram. They asked me to chant, so I did. The way we have Allah, he is also a god. So I chanted. They kept making me chant and they kept beating me. The teenager’s mother told me that when she went to the police station to look for her son, the police personnel abused her and said, “tumlog 50-50 bacche paida karti ho, patthar fekne ke liye. Aao tumhari garmi nikalte hain”—You people produce 50 children each to pelt stones. Come, we will satisfy your lust.  The teenager was released the next morning only after his mother proved that he was minor by showing his Aadhar card.

I met three other families at Begum Purwa whose sons—between the age group of 17 and 20—had been picked up from their homes. Abil Hussain, a labourer, told me that his son, Mohammad Adil, a 20-year-old, was arrested from their home. He said, “Yahin ghar pe tha, darwaza tod ke le gaye. Itna maara, itna maara, uske hath paiir sab bekar.”—He was here at home; they broke the door and took him away. They beat him so bad his hands and feet are gone. Hussain told me that after the beating, Adil had sustained a head injury too. Adil finished his intermediate exams last year and was still studying. Adil is still in jail as the police remanded him to judicial custody. But, Hussain had not been informed what had Adil been charged with.

Mohammad Mushtaq, a 19-year-old, was arrested in a similar manner, his uncle Mohammad Abaid told me. He said that his niece had gotten married the previous night and the family had been resting during the day when the police broke into the house and arrested Mushtaq. Abaid too did not know about the charges his nephew faced as the police had not given him any information or even a copy of the first information report. I met the brother of another teenager, a minor, who was detained from home but was later released. The teenager’s brother told me the cops had beaten him so brutally that he had to be admitted in a hospital for almost a week. According to Ahmad, the imam, a total of 39 people were detained on 20 December, of whom 35 were released the next morning and four have been arrested under various charges.

The locals said the police did not spare even the women during their rampage. The police personnel verbally and physically assaulted the women. The women, though, did not want to speak of their humiliation. They were also scared that the police may turn vindictive if they spoke out and would punish family members already in detention. They also reiterated that non-uniformed men who they had never seen in the area accompanied the police.

All the eyewitnesses and locals I spoke to told me that on 20 December, non-uniformed men who were wearing “blue jeans and jackets” had accompanied the police.  The residents said that none of these men were locals and had never been seen before in the neighbourhood. The accounts of such militia groups along with the police have been reported from almost all the districts where the police has cracked down on demonstrators and residents. For instance in Bijnor, the superintendent of police acknowledged that civilians had accompanied the police, but stated that their presence was not illegal and they were recruited legally under a policy called “Police Mitr”—Friends of Police.

The Kanpur administration is yet to officially admit to the presence of such mitrs with the police. Shakeel Abba explained that the police mitrs are all locals and the community recognises them even though they did not like them. But, on that day, “Woh sirf police mitr nahi the. Wo toh kshetriye hi hotey hain. Unko toh humlog pehchante hain. Unke alawa us din kai log they jo local nahi they. Wo kaun they hum nahi jantey, magar wo police mitr nahi the.”—They were not just police mitrs. The mitrs are always locals, we know them. There were many people that day apart from them, who were not locals. We don’t know who they were, but they were not our police mitrs. The locals believed apart from police mitr, the other militiamen were from Bajrang Dal and Hindu Yuva Vahini.

In Begum Purwa, I also met half a dozen shopkeepers whose properties the police vandalised on 20 December. None of them have lodged any complaint and many did not want to speak on record for fear of reprisals from the government. The threat of confiscation of their properties was omnipresent. I saw two sweet shops, an electric shop, a tea stall and a small restaurant among others that were vandalised by the police. Shakeel Ahmad, one of the sweet shop owners, told me that the police broke the glass of his counter “by pelting a big stone at it.” Ahmad said his shop was closed but the cops vandalised it after they started seizing the demonstrators from all corners and entering into the houses of the residents. The other shopkeepers also showed me their ransacked stores. The city’s senior superintendent of police Anant Deo has not responded to multiple attempts to meet or talk with him.

Later in the evening, I also visited Yateem Khana—located near the Parade Chauraha, it is one of the biggest Muslim residential areas of Kanpur. On 20 December, Yateem Khana had also been the site of a protest, one much bigger in scale than Eidgah Maidan, although there was no firing in the area. The residents told me the crowd was disciplined, carried the tricolour and did not raise any religious slogans. They also told me that the area of Yateem Khana is huge and the police do not bother them as long as the Muslims of the area stayed in their neighbourhood and did not cross what they said is the “border” of the colony marked by the shops of non-Muslims. They still could not understand why the police had targeted Babu Purwa. Moreover, on 21 December, the police did not spare Yateem Khana either. While no one was shot, the residents told me Yateem Khana looked like a war zone in terms of police deployment. They told me the cops broke their cars, bikes, doors and whatever they could from outside.

Mohsin Nawaz, one of the residents of Yateem Khana, told me, “The demonstration was not just against CAA. It was long due and I feel the community was finally able to express themselves.” Nawaz explained that Muslims remained quiet while under the BJP government Muslims were lynched in a systematic manner with involvement of several of its leaders. “Then they humiliated us with Love Jihad. Then the Babri verdict happened, then 370.” Nawaz told me the community was affected by this but was not able to speak out because they had a burden to convince the majority-Hindu community that their protest was not for any religion. “Humne apne jasbaat maar diye, magar aise mudde par nahi uthey jehan laga baat majhab ki ho jayegi”—We killed our sentiments, but did not stand [in protest] if we thought the issue would become communal, Nawaz said.

He continued, “Finally CAA hua. Aur ab hum keh saktey they ki ye ladai dharm ki nahin hai, samvidhan ki hai. Ab kisi ki nazar mein ye na ho ki hum dharm ke liye uth rahen hain.”—Finally, CAA happened. Now, we could say that this is not a religious fight, but a fight for the Constitution. Now, no one can say that we are standing for our religion.