How detainees were denied legal counsel, medical help at the Daryaganj police station

The police beat and lathicharged protestors gathered in the Daryaganj area on 20 December. Srinivas Kuruganti
25 December, 2019

At around 9 pm, on the evening of 20 December, Shahid Ali, a 55-year-old man, waited outside the Daryaganj police station in central Delhi. He was there to inquire about his 19-year-old son, who had been detained by the police earlier that day. But Ali was not allowed to enter the police station. The station’s main gate was locked and he couldn’t find any police personnel to answer his questions. Two hours earlier, Ali’s son had called him over the phone and asked him to come to the police station with his identification documents as soon as possible. He told Ali that police had accused him of rioting and detained him. Since then, Ali had been unable to speak to his son.

Ali earns his livelihood by selling warm clothes on a footpath around the Red Fort. His son helped him in the business. Ali was among a dozen others who had gathered at the Daryaganj police station to inquire about their children. Their sons had informed them of their detentions before going incommunicado.

These detentions were part of a police crackdown on a protest march against the Citizenship Amendment Act on 20 December. The Delhi police’s conduct was symptomatic of a police state that has little accountability to its citizens and the law of the land. For over two hours, they refused to let lawyers and doctors gathered outside to meet detainees or provide first aid to the injured among them. It eventually took a battery of around thirty lawyers and an order from central Delhi’s chief metropolitan magistrate for the police to allow a lawyer and a doctor to meet the detainees. Tara Narula, the lawyer who was allowed inside, confirmed that 31 adults and eight minors had been detained. I visited the police station that night and met the families of several of the detainees, all of whom were residents of the Daryaganj area.

The people I spoke to were labourers, cart vendors and glass cutters. Others sold clothes for a living. Most of the detainees helped their respective families in their businesses, while a few attended college in their spare time. All the detainees were between 19 and 24 years old. The families of the detainees had been outside the police station for over two hours. Violating due process, the police had not yet confirmed to them that their kin had been detained. They told me that would never have known about the detentions if their sons had not called them.

Earlier that day, the residents of Old Delhi, a part of the Central Delhi district, had gathered on the steps of the Jama Masjid after the Friday prayer to observe a peaceful sit-in against the CAA. The Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad had also joined the protestors. Later in the evening, the number of the protestors swelled from the mosque to the Delhi Gate in Daryaganj. The protestors then attempted to march towards Jantar Mantar. In a statement, the Delhi police said they tried to “persuade” the crowed not to march to Jantar Mantar. When the crowed did not heed the “police advice,” the police said they used “water canon and minimun force to push them back.” Meanwhile, a private car parked at Subhash Marg in Daryaganj was set ablaze. The police also claimed the protestors were pelting stones that injured senior officers.

But according to eyewitnesses, the police unleashed a brutal crackdown, beating up protestors in a lathi charge, and hitting them on their heads. Following the crackdown, at least 39 people were detained and taken to the Daryaganj police station. Dozens were injured and taken to Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan hospital nearby.

At around 8 pm, after word of the detentions spread, several lawyers gathered at the Daryaganj police station to extend legal counsel to the detainees. At first, the police refused to let any lawyers inside the police station. The lawyers stood outside shouting to be let in, but the police simply ignored them and kept the gates of the police station closed for everyone.

Through the grills of the gate, one lawyer called out to the police to let him enter and at least provide first aid to the injured detainees. The lawyer was even holding bandages in his hand. He shouted, “I understand you have abandoned humanity, but at least as a policeman, please follow the law and allow the medical help.” The policemen, who were standing inside in riot gear, did not look at him.

Malini Barar, another lawyer, shouted, “Where is your station house officer? Advocates are standing outside. At least let us in.” Again, nobody answered. Barar then called up the police control room and asked the call receiver to connect her to the SHO or his boss, the deputy commissioner of the police, who is incharge of the Central Delhi district. The person on the other end provided her a contact number of the Delhi commissoner of police instead. The call went unanswered. “A person who is arrested has the legal right to have immediate access to legal counsel. The cops should show us the arrest memo and the arrest warrant. We are entitled to see them,” Barar told me, as she waited outside. “But the cops are not giving us access to the detainees who may need legal representation. At the moment, we don’t even know how many have been detained or already arrested so far.”

The lawyers struggled to get any police officer to talk to them for over two hours. Some constantly tried to reach out to higher officers through their cell phones. During this period, the Daryaganj police station remained locked down for any outside individual. Meanwhile, another lawyer, Saurabh Agrawal, told me,. “We have the right to see there are no women and children inside.” He continued, “At the moment, you can’t come to this police station. It’s a police station in lockdown.”

In the meantime, another lawyer had approached Arul Varma, the chief metropolitan magistrate for Central Delhi, for permission to meet the detainees. Making her way through the crowd, she reached up to the gate of the police station and shouted, “Can I see your officer in charge please? I have an order copy of the chief metropolitan magistrate that directs you to release all minors immediately.” Her voice went unheard too. The lawyer had an electronic copy of the order. Some lawyers then rushed to get a physical copy of it. They brought the order to the notice of higher officials over the phone as well.

The magisterial order, which lawyers had secured by visiting the judge’s residence, directed the police to allow the advocates to meet the detainees, and to provide any necessary medical aid. It further noted that the “detention of minors in a police station is a flagrant violation of the law.” Soon after, at around 10.30 pm, Maninder Singh, the police in-charge at the station, came up to the gate. He said the station house officer was not present but one of the lawyers could come inside and check on the detainees.

It was then that lawyer Tara Narula was allowed in. When she came back out she announced that 31 men and some minors had been detained and that nobody had been arrested yet. Narula then read out the names of the detainees, which their respective family members at the gate heard with shock and cries. She added that the adults and minors were kept separately and she could not meet the minors. Narula said some of the detainees had bruises, but their condition was stable.

Meanwhile, a group of doctors had also gathered outside the police station to provide first aid to the detainees. Following Narula’s visit, the lawyers made another appeal to the police to allow the doctors to examine the detainees. A policeman, whose rank was not visible hidden under his coat, came out to hear the doctors. He refused to let them enter and said, “Why do you want to help people who invite riots? Go home doctor sahab, if there would be a need for medical help, we would send the detainees to hospital.” The lawyers and doctors, however, continued shouting that doctors be let inside. Finally, the police relented and allowed two doctors in.

I spoke to Harjit Singh, one of the doctors who went in. “There were around forty detainees including eight minors inside and one of them had a head injury,” Singh told me. “The cops didn’t let me attend to him. They said they will send him to the hospital.” Singh added, “There was one elderly person who had an injury on his knee and abdomen pain, probably because of beating. I gave the first aid to him, but the cops said I can’t give him any pain killer or any medicine. We were only allowed to attend to their external injuries.”

Despite the magistrate’s order, by midnight, no minors had been released. At around midnight, the police informed the crowd from inside the police station’s premises that they would release the minors if their respective families vouched for their identity. None of the families had till then been allowed to enter the police station.

Sameena, the mother of a detainee, told me that the police had picked up her 24-year-old son when he had gone to buy medicine for his daughter. “Only two months ago he had become a father,” she told me, in tears, at around 9pm. “Today as my granddaughter was feverish, I asked him to get some medicine. We didn’t know the police wouldn’t distinguish between a rioter and a civilian. On his way back, he was picked up by the police. My son called me last at 7 pm and asked me to come to the police station.”

Zainab, a 16-year-old girl, had also been waiting to hear about her brother who had last called her from the police station in the evening. “My brother has nothing to do with whatever happened here. He was going on a scooty to visit a relative but the police picked him up when he was parking the scooty,” Zainab said. I also spoke to Irshad Khan who said his 19-year-old son was picked up by the police while he was returning from work. While he narrated his last conversation with his son over the phone, his eyes welled up. “I pull a cart and sell fruits,” Khan said. “My son used to help me. Now his phone says it’s out of coverage area. The police isn’t speaking to me yet.” I left the police station a little before midnight. When I returned at 1.30 am, the families were still waiting outside.

The next day, on 21 December, 15 of the detainees were arrested, while the rest were released. A case was registered against the arrested. They were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sections 147 and 148 for rioting, section 149 for unlawful assembly, section 186 for obstructing a public servant in the discharge of public functions, section 353 for using criminal force to deter a public servant, section 323 for voluntarily causing hurt and section 436 for mischief by fire or an explosive substance with an intent to destroy. The station house officer became the complainant in the case. His statement in the first-information report said, “When the police had started chasing away the protestors, many of them had received injuries due to their fall on the ground.” On 23 December, the 15 arrested were denied bail and sent to 14 days of judicial custody.

The police crackdown in Daryaganj is not an isolated event. Over the past week, as thousands protested against the CAA, the police responded with heavy force and mass detentions. However, the protests have continued. Despite the crackdown on 20 December, hundreds of protestors continued to observe a sit in on the steps of the Jama Masjid that night.

When I visited the mosque around midnight, the crowd was respectful and peaceful. They appealed to the media to portray the truth and not to describe them as violent. I did not hear any provocative slogan or witness any violent act. The protestors waved Indian flag, hailed the Constitution and asked the government to repeal the CAA. Mohammad Bilal, one of the protestors, who works as a mechanic, told me that the Narendra Modi led government had always worked to divide citizens on religious lines and the CAA was just an extension of that policy. “Asal masla hai berojgari ka, arthvyavastha ka magar logon ki nazar uspe na jayen, isliye Modi aur Shah ye kaala kanoon lekar aayen hai Hindu aur Musalman ko baatne.”—The real issue is jobs and the economic situation. But to divert the attention of people from these issues, Modi and the home minister Amit Shah have brought this black law to divide Hindus and Muslims.