When the Delhi Police identified a man by his clothes and detained him, on Modi’s cue

A gentleman in a traditional Muslim attire was crossing a road, when cops seemed to notice him. The police ignored all the other pedestrians, and three policemen rushed towards the Muslim gentleman, grabbing him and hustling him off.
24 December, 2019

It was mid December, I had returned to Delhi only a few days ago from New York, having completed my master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Soon after my arrival, protests broke out over the Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes provisions for granting citizenship on the basis of religion in specific circumstances, but singularly excludes Muslims from its scope. On 15 December, the Delhi Police brutally attacked innocent students in the Jamia Milia Islamia library, leaving several students injured and one student blinded in one eye.

Like a roar came out demonstrators across the country. It was just the beginning.

On the morning of 19 December, I took a metro to Mandi House, where a protest rally was to convene that day. In my bag was my camera, a water bottle, and swim goggles—a last-minute resort against possible tear gas, which the police had used without restraint in Jamia. I learnt that the Mandi House metro station had been closed in anticipation of the protest. It was one among at least seventeen metro stations that had been temporarily shut down. Modes of communication, including voice call, SMS and internet services, were also intermittently suspended in parts of the capital. I alighted the metro one stop earlier—at Janpath.

Outside, I saw a five-hundred-strong protest marching towards Jantar Mantar. The rally from Mandi House, which was slated to march to a different location, had been diverted to Jantar Mantar. The Delhi Police had imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prevented an assembly of five or more persons, at Mandi House and Lal Qila—a convening spot for another protest march organised for the same day. Soon enough, news came in that people had begun to be detained.

From Janpath, I made my way to Mandi House with a friend, and saw dozens of police and security personnel lined up by the road. Several buses were parked in the area, to cart off detained protesters. It was ominous seeing the familiar space swarming with police forces, rifles, batons and bulletproof jackets.

On the day of the violence at Jamia Millia University, during an election rally in the state of Jharkhand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared that those responsible for the violence “can be identified by their clothes.” The speech was widely condemned for its thinly veiled reference to the Muslim community. At Mandi House, something caught my eye—something that chilled me to the bone and that seemed to suggest that Modi’s remarks had signalled a promise of impunity for people in authority to mistreat Muslims. I recorded the scene.

A gentleman in a traditional Muslim attire–wearing white kurta-pyjamas and a skull cap—was walking on the road at a zebra crossing, when cops seemed to notice him. As far as I could tell, he was by himself, merely passing by, perhaps on his way somewhere, but showing no indications of protesting. The police ignored all the other pedestrians, and three policemen rushed towards the Muslim gentleman, grabbing him and hustling him off. I had not seen him do anything to provoke the police force or to even suggest that he was a protestor. I jumped into the road and rushed after them, continuing to film the event.

Suddenly another man appeared, dressed in a blue shirt and a jacket. His appearance did not disclose any particular religious affiliation.

“They recognised him by his clothes,” the man started to yell. “This is Modi’s country.” My initial reaction was one of fear and anger, because I thought he was condemning the Muslim man. As the man in the blue shirt walked alongside shouting out these comments, the police continued to shove the Muslim gentleman down the road and into a waiting bus.

Notably, the policemen did not as much as touch the yelling man, even though they were grabbing other protesters and throwing them onto the bus. Until the last moment, just as the Muslim man was forced to board the bus, the man in the blue shirt made a remark that revealed that he was actually protesting the detention of the Muslim gentleman. “This good man was just passing by, and they have arrested him,” he said. Within moments, he, too, was apprehended.

Frightened as I was with what I had witnessed, when I got home that evening, I edited the video and uploaded it on social media. I slowed down the first few seconds to highlight the manner in which the cops had singled the Muslim gentleman out and gone after him. The post went viral, and several people told me that they had seen similar arrests happening across the board, where Muslims were specifically targeted.

That day, as protestors continued to gather for the two protest marches, the police detained more than a thousand people and forcibly put them on buses. As illustrated in the video, several detainees said that they were not even participating in the protest when they were detained. They were then taken to different locations in the capital, including the Surajmal Stadium in West Delhi’s Nangloi area and the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in the Bawana area in North West Delhi.

Since the protests began, over two dozen people have died—primarily in Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Scores of others have been injured. Yet, the protests have continued, as has the brutal police response. Witnessing the arbitrary detention of an innocent Muslim man has triggered deep-rooted fears about human-rights abuses carried on with impunity and horrors committed in the name of religion. I fear for what is to come.