Police is operating at the behest of its political masters: Mehmood Pracha, Chandrashekhar Azad’s lawyer

The Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad and his lawyer Mehmood Pracha addressing a press conference in New Delhi on 17 December 2019. 
12 January, 2020

On 20 December 2019, thousands of people gathered at Jama Masjid in Delhi, to march to Jantar Mantar in protest of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad had given the call for the protest. After the Friday prayers at the Jama Masjid, Azad emerged from the crowd at the steps of the mosque. The police detained Azad for a few hours and then let him go.

That day, according to eye witnesses, the police also led a brutal crackdown on anti-CAA protestors in Daryaganj, an area near Jama Masjid. The police later claimed that the protesters pelted stones, which injured senior officers. A private car parked at Subhash Marg in Daryaganj was set ablaze. The police subsequently arrested 15 people from Daryaganj, who have now been granted bail.

As the Delhi police had not approved the request to hold Azad’s protest march on 20 December, he was arrested in the early hours of the next day. Shortly before the arrest, a video emerged on Twitter in which Azad said, “Amit Shah ka kahana hai ki Chandrashekar kisi bhi halat mein chahiyetoh Chandrashekhar khud jaane ko taiyyar hai”—Amit Shah wants me arrested at any cost, so I am willing to come on my own. The first-information report against Azad connects him to the violence at Daryaganj and states the charges against him as rioting, arson and destroying public property, among others. He has been lodged in the Tihar jail since then.

On 3 January, Azad’s physician, Harjit Singh Bhatti tweeted that the jail authorities were not providing Azad with medical treatment that he needed immediately—the Bhim Army leader suffers from polycythaemia, a blood-related disease. It was only on Delhi’s Tis Hazari court direction, issued on 9 January 2020, that the Tihar jail authorities later allowed Azad access to medical care at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. 

The police also detained Mehmood Pracha, Azad’s lawyer who was with him during the Jama Masjid protest, on 21 December 2019. Pracha was released the same day. He hails from the Chandni Chowk area, where Jama Masjid is located. In an interview with Nileena MS, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, Pracha narrated the events of 20 December 2019. He termed the charges against Azad baseless. The violence at Daryaganj “was orchestrated by the police at the behest of their political masters. It is clear cut,” Pracha said. 

Nileena MS: Why did the police deny permission to hold the march against CAA from Jama Masjid to Jantar Mantar?
Mehmood Pracha: The permission was not actually denied, they were dilly-dallying, and delayed till the last moment. Section 144 [of the Code of Criminal Procedure under which authorities can pass orders to impose restrictions on the assembly of persons] was not imposed. This method of invoking Section 144 to scuttle a peaceful protest—that is the first flaw. Even now, people are asking to hold peaceful protests at Jama Masjid. When [I] ask that as a lawyer, with the permission, I will go and explain the legal position of CAA and NRC [National Register of Citizens] that is also being denied as of now, on the ground that it will disturb the public. 

When [it is] political parties, they give permission, they are allowed to hold public rallies, but [we are] not [allowed] to educate people about constitution and law. That has [always] been the attitude. There was a big paradigm shift when the Bhim Army gave a call [for protests]. Till that time, the entire narrative was that CAA, NRC and NPR [National Population Register, a database of all Indian residents] were against the Muslims. That suits the narrative of the RSS and BJP—people supporting or criticising it, both helped them. It has been their strategy all along—be it Article 370 or Triple Talaq. The basic strategy of the RSS is to generate hatred for Muslim, and create a circumstance that if somebody is trying to defend Muslims, [even that] will be used by them to create further hatred. That has been their strategy and they have not evolved anything else, because there is no need. It is successful.

Now, Azad [went] to the steps of Jama Masjid, where [the Independence-era Congress leader] Maulana Azad had opposed the division of the country. It was an important moment for me too because my grandfather had helped Maulana Azad in holding public meetings in 1947. 

[Chandrashekhar] Azad read the preamble of the Constitution and gave the speech that the CAA is not just against Muslims, it is also against Dalits. Apart from Other Backward Classes and other minorities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will mostly be affected because [most of the] SCs will have no paper—54-percent of the SCs do not have any land. Scheduled Tribes have community ownership of land. 

So, if members of SC, ST and Banjara tribes are caught on the street and told they are a Bangladeshi or Pakistani, it will be impossible for them to prove their nationality. Even when Muslims who own land and could show their ancestry would be able to prove their citizenship, these people will not be able to show it. For thousands of years, they have been denied connection to the land. [CAA] is a solid step in the implementation of Manusmriti and reviving the caste system where the Shudras and Ati-Shudras were denied all rights including right to education, to do business, to hold property, et cetera. That speech turned the entire narrative. 

NMS: Could you tell me the events that had led to Azad’s arrest on 20 December?
MP: Till 6 pm in the evening, there was no FIR. Thousands of people had gathered there—we had the support of the people. Our protest started at 1.30 pm. Azad was [detained] in 10 minutes, at 1.40 pm. I was with Azad. we were moving in the direction of the march. I told DCP Randhawa, “If you have to arrest him [Azad], please tell me, he’ll surrender.” [MS Randhawa is the deputy commissioner of police for central Delhi.We were walking hand in hand. But, he [Randhawa] and his men in plain clothes were trying to forcibly pull Azad away from me. I was asking him, “If you are arresting or detaining someone, you should have a ground. Please tell me the ground and we will surrender.” But, he [Randhawa] said, “No, just give him to me.” We said that is not happening, but they forcibly snatched him away from us and [detained] him. That was his fault. But at this point in time, there was no FIR. 

Then we held a protest there. We said that Azad has been forcefully kidnapped by the police at the behest of this government and, therefore, we would hold the dharna at the steps of Jama Masjid till the time he has returned or that till they tell us that he has been [picked up] following a legal procedure. 

This boosted the people—they had the confidence that by peaceful means, their rightful demands can [be] met. Thereafter, the protests continued and people started gathering in more numbers. There was at one point of time, the number of people gathered were in [several thousands]. That was despite the fact that the metros were stopped, the buses were being checked. People started marching to Jama Masjid from all over Delhi and neighbouring districts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. 

I was standing in the middle of the crowd, and I could see that there was no violence. There were IB [Intelligence Bureau] people—[they] tried to instigate the public, one after the other, things like [talking about] burning down the chowk. Being a member of that locality, I could calm down people around me. There were all kind of attempts—they even resorted to lathi charge around three–four times, just to provoke people. We told people to hold hands together and not retaliate and people did not. This continued till Azad was back and he continued the protest after his return. I was explaining the legal aspects to the people. This continued till 6 pm. All their efforts to somehow orchestrate violence failed.  

After one and a half hours, because of our peaceful protests and dharna, the police returned him to the same place. There was nothing against him till 12 pm in the night. That is visible in the FIR itself, it was registered at [1.11] am. 

NMS: What happened at Daryaganj? 
MP: At 6 pm, about two kilometers from Jama Masjid, a car of a police officer was burnt. This was not even on a straight road from Jama Masjid. We [could] not even see, we did not have any loudspeaker. The police threatened all shop owners who were renting [out] loudspeakers. So, we were left without any mic. 

 The political parties were also playing into the hands of the police. BJP, [one] can understand, but the councillor Aaley Mohhamed, who was with the Congress but has recently joined the AAP, tried to tell us after Azad’s arrest to start the march to Jantar Mantar. He had brought fifty–sixty supporters and then he would try to start the march—at least five–six times till evening. That kind of confusion was being created by even political parties. But I had realised that the moment we move out of Jama Masjid, they will orchestrate violence and make that an excuse. We said, “We will not move from there.” By that time, we knew that people were coming from all sides and they will definitely try to give it a violent turn which they ultimately did. 

At 6 pm, the police burnt one of the private vehicles of the police officer themselves. It was just in front of the police station. Thereafter started police action against people who were coming from various other places on foot; that is how this entire scenario happened. Even then, the rumour mongering started—it was being reported in the media that time that the people had dispersed. But around 7–7.30 pm there were around two hundred people left at Jama Masjid. We did not move from there. Because there was press, the police could not assault us, although they were again and against trying through their cronies to [create] disturbance once again. When we held our ground, people started coming back and once again at 8 pm, there were fifty thousand people at Jama Masjid once again. 

[The violence in Daryaganj] was orchestrated by the police at the behest of their police masters. It is clear cut. It was a vehicle belonging to a police officer, who deliberately brought it there, parked it there and burnt it. Just look at the FIR. No other vehicles were burnt. [Several thousands] of people and only one vehicle was burnt. [That] sounds very good. 

NMS: What was happening at Jama Masjid at that time? 
MP: Thereafter, the announcements were being made by the imam [Syed Ahmed Bukhari] himself, on the public address system. He announced that “I am being contacted by the higher ups”—openly admitting that [he is] an agent of the government. [He said,] “I say that Mr Azad is our guest, but we request you to go from here, we do not want the police to beat you up. So please go away from here and I request Mr Pracha to speak to the police officers.” He said that he had requested to the police and ensured from the higher ups, that is, Mr Amit Shah—he did not take his name. He said, “Nobody will be arrested if you go, we will give you the right of peaceful passage,” as if we were in siege. [Imam] said, “Nobody [will be] assaulted or harmed, you could go peacefully.” 

Then I took the mic and said that the imam, Shah and the police are probably misunderstanding what we are saying. [I said,] “We are not going anywhere, we are protesting peacefully. If you want to arrest, we are happy to be arrested. But we do not want any ‘passage’ from here. This is our right to protest, so he is probably misunderstanding.”

Then people got very angry, they actually wanted to go and confront the imam. I tried to pacify them. They were raising slogans against the imam. That would have also served the purpose of the people who wanted to [cause a disruption] so we stopped people from entering the mosque and confronting him. 

This continued till 1 in the night. The police started announcing that [it] would take police action, if we do not vacate. Now, legally, we were not on a public street, we were on the steps of Jama Masjid. No person was objecting to us being there apart from the imam—who was later forced to announce from the public address system that “[I am] not saying that you should go from here.” There was no opposition for us sitting there, yet the police made this announcement that “we will take action.” 

By this time, because of his medical condition, Azad was feeling very dizzy and breathless. Forcibly, Azad and I were taken in a police vehicle. Around five hundred people were with us then, despite all the police action. They said, “We would also like to get arrested.” But we requested them not to and said that we will comeback. 

We were taken to the crime branch [office] at Chankayapuri. We were taken to the AIIMS hospital and Azad was given his medicine. Till morning, we were at Chankyapuri crime branch office and at about 9–9.30 am, we were taken to the Patel Nagar police station. By that time, he [Azad] was booked. I saw the papers. My name was not there and I was allowed to go. It will be clear from the video captured by the police that every time there was some provocation, I was trying to pacify the people. After this, I went to the court. 

NMS: How do you look at the charges against Azad and the 15 people arrested from Daryaganj? 
MP: The FIR is more or less this that he [Azad] gave a call [to protest] minus the police brutality. There is no other name in the FIR. They were caught randomly. In fact, there was a public announcement made by the police that “we will not arrest anyone” and whoever has been arrested before our arrest, that they will release everyone from Daryaganj police station. By that time also, they were not telling us that there was an FIR. They had registered or not, I do not know. Because, they pre-time the FIRs also. They would have registered the FIRs in the morning only, but the FIR shows [after] 12 in the night. Even when we were picked up, there was no FIR. 

This incident occurred just outside the police station. These two premises are two kilometers apart. Obviously, the FIR also mentions that these people were coming from Seelampur [which also saw violence in the aftermath of anti-CAA protests] and all. These people were not part of the assembly we were holding at Jama Masjid which is again not illegal. There was no Section 144 and the FIR also does not mention that. 

There was nothing against them, that is why they got the bail. Such a big protest going on, it is being videographed by the police. It is their basic standard operating procedure. They have their own cameraman. To cover the protest at the Jama Masjid, a policeman was standing near the police station just across the mosque. 

From 1.30 pm [on 20 December], everything was being videographed. We were announcing through the mic that that anybody who was indulging in violence was not from among us—mark him out, he would be an RSS man, hand him out to the police. This was being announced regularly. To people who were serving tea there, we were asking them to give it to the police too, because they were also doing their duty. We were announcing that the police are doing their duty and we must help them. Therefore, they will not show that footage. 

Regarding his bail, he had always had the stand that whoever gets arrested because of his peaceful protests, he applies for bail only after everybody is out. Now that, those who were arrested at Daryaganj have been granted bail, he will also apply on Monday [January 13]. 

NMS: Are the charges strong enough for the magistrate to dismiss Azad’s bail plea? 
MP: Not at all. The only allegation against him is that he gave a call for a march. 

NMS: Azad’s doctor Bhatti  repeatedly said that he needed immediate medical attention, but the jail authorities were refusing to do this. Could you tell me what transpired till the court ordered to give him treatment?
MP:There was an assault on him inside the jail. This we got to know from the report filed by the doctor. Azad reported to the jail authority that he was suffering from polycythemia, which the jail authorities knew because he was arrested before also. But they feigned ignorance. When I met him five days ago, I saw that his hand was swollen. He told me that he was feeling breathlessness, because he was not given treatment. The doctor came the next day and said that there was no dizziness. But I said he was suffering from this. 

The IO [investigating officer] was not available despite it being a such a serious matter. They were deliberately trying to delay the matter and accentuate his health condition. That is the conspiracy we see clearly now because the [jail] doctor says [in the court] he is not aware. But his own first report says that he [Azad] reported that he is suffering from polyscythemia and he needs medical attention. The court has also observed against the jail doctor that he had failed in his duty deliberately.

This kind of lies coming from the Delhi government is also surprising. We can understand this from the Delhi police [which are under the central government], but the public prosecutor, jail doctor and jail authorities are under the Delhi government. They are also in absolute denial that he was suffering from any disease. Everybody is joining hands to put him in harm’s way and especially trying to misuse his medical condition. That is very very shameful. You may have political differences, but you cannot conspire to harm him because of his medical condition. Ostensibly, they [Delhi government] are taking a stand against the RSS and BJP, but what is happening on the ground? They are indirectly harming the only leader who has been arrested for putting up a real fight against this government.

NMS: What is the legal course of action ahead after Azad’s bail plea? 
MP: We will file FIR against all the police officers who committed the illegalities. Forcefully taking Azad away at 1.30 was abduction. Another FIR we are going to file is on instigating violence. Who were these people who tried to instigate violence? A FIR should be filed against the police official who burnt the car and for implicating all these people. Right now, we are busy helping people in Uttar Pradesh, where the situation is very bad. But we will be filing cases soon. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that the 15 people arrested from Daryaganj are out on bail. At the time this piece was published, they had been granted bail, but had not been released. The Caravan regrets the error.