Shaukat Ali, a 40-year-old farmer, was among the dozens of Muslims arrested for the August 2018 clashes in Purbaliyan in western UP’s Muzaffarnagar district. He denied that he had been involved in the clashes or even been a witness. When he heard stories that Muslim men were being detained, he fled the village. Fearing for his mother’s deteriorating health, he turned himself in eight days later. Days after, his 60-year-old father, Ali Mohammed, was also detained by the police. Ali was in prison for 38 days and his father for 70.
Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh: Recalling his reaction on hearing that all three of his buses had been set afire by a mob, Abdul* said his first emotion was not fear.
It was panic.
In January 2018, a ‘Tiranga Yatra’ (Tricolour March) taken out by Hindu activists on Republic Day triggered a communal clash in Kasganj in western Uttar Pradesh, leaving one person dead. Abdul was a victim of the violence, he said, but “I felt like I could be easily made the accused in a false case and there is nothing I would be able to do about it.”
Veer Hamid Chowk in Baddu Nagar, Kasganj city, in western Uttar Pradesh, where the first clash between Hindus and Muslims took place on January 26, 2018, when a motorcycle rally by Hindu youngsters waving the tricolour and saffron flags allegedly demanded right of way.
Abdul also feared for his son’s safety. “The police were knocking on the doors of Muslim homes and picking up any Muslim men they could find,” he said. Amid a crippling curfew, he rented an ambulance and smuggled his 36-year-old son Yusuf* out to a neighbouring district.
In Uttar Pradesh, the state where almost a third of religious identity-based hate crimes in 2018 were recorded–as per Hate Crime Watch, our tracker that records hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2018–stories of such distrust of the police abound among the Muslim community.
Our investigation from the site of many of these crimes reveals allegations of police excesses including falsely implicating and arresting Muslim men, levying onerous charges against them that are disproportionate to their alleged crime, and applying different legal yardsticks to Muslim and Hindu accused.
Facts much contested
In Kasganj, the local police registered a First Information Report (FIR) about the clashes the same night. It described in detail the clashes, the sequence of events, the provocations and the police response to them, and how people from both communities had been involved.
However, the FIR did not name any Hindu men, not even the organisers of the Tiranga Yatra, during which young Hindu men waving saffron flags were alleged to have shouted provocative slogans in the Muslim-dominated Baddu Nagar of Kasganj–some videos purportedly of the scene had gone viral–leading to the first clash.
The FIR named only four men–all of them Muslims. The other 100-150 people estimated to have been involved were all termed “unidentified”. (FactChecker has a copy of the FIR)
The police filed a separate FIR regarding the casualty, 22-year-old Chandan Gupta, based on a complaint by his father, Sushil Gupta, who was not present at the spot when his son was injured in firing.
Gupta had been injured by a single bullet, for which the police had booked 20 Muslim men under Section 302 of the IPC, which relates to murder, in addition to some other “unidentified” persons.
“There were so many videos of Hindu men, sloganeering, provoking the Muslim community,” Shamim Javed, whose three brothers, Salim, Nasim and Wasim, were arrested as the main accused in relation with Gupta’s death, told FactChecker. “Despite that, Muslims were picked up immediately, while some of the main Hindu men who organised the Tiranga Yatra were picked up after nearly two months,” he said, referring to Vishal Thakur, who had allegedly called for the yatra and was arrested at the end of March.
Javed, 30, is the only male member of his household not behind bars.
In Baddu Nagar, a Muslim-dominated locality which was the epicentre of the clashes, many people spoke to FactChecker, but none wanted to be named. Some had stacks of papers in their shops and offices to point out flaws in police investigations–applications written to the police, copies of FIRs, copies of documents submitted for bail, and so on. “Even during the clashes, people who spoke to the media were named by the police as accused the next day and arrested,” one resident said. “One bullet hit Gupta. How can 30 people be booked for firing that one bullet?” he asked. While the FIR booked 20 people for the murder, this Baddu Nagar resident claimed that many more were detained in the days after the incident.
In Baddu Nagar, the Muslim-dominated locality that was the epicentre of the clashes in western UP’s Kasganj city in January 2018, many homes and offices are maintaining documents and other evidence of lengthy correspondence with the police. This document notes the license-plate numbers of motorcycles that Hindu youngsters left behind after the clashes. Another paper in the stack contains an inventory of all the Muslim-owned shops and property damaged in the clashes.
That bullet has spawned many conspiracy theories in Kasganj. The police and many in the Hindu community said Gupta was killed by a bullet fired by Salim, whereas Salim’s family and many people in Baddu Nagar said the bullet was fired accidentally by one of Gupta’s own companions in the Yatra.
FactChecker tried to get in touch with Kasganj superintendent of police Ashok Kumar. Despite repeated attempts, Kumar remained unavailable.
An independent investigation by civil society organisations has questioned the police version.
A civil society investigation
In August 2018, civil society organisations and activists led by former Indian Police Services (IPS) officer S.R. Darapuri, civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad, and Magsaysay award-winning activist Sandeep Pandey, among others, released a report on the police investigations.
The police’s responses were partisan, the report said: Muslims had been “selectively targeted”, the prosecution was “tainted” and the police probe was “grossly compromised”.
The report recorded inconsistencies in the police probe “from wrong timing of starting of the scuffle, place where the clashes began, an incorrect distance of the crime scene from the police station and the delay in filing of an FIR, 12 hours after the violence”. It also cited specific mistakes that the police had made–one accused, Zahid, had been in Lucknow, 330 km away from Kasganj, on the day of the incident; there were delays in filing the FIR; the police had recorded the location and the time of the clashes incorrectly in the FIR. The report also found that the FIR had ignored the origins of the clashes–the first skirmish in Baddu Nagar.
The report alleged that there had been an attempt to protect members of the Hindu community, despite there being substantial evidence of their involvement. No members of the Hindu community had been arrested until the end of March, it said, whereas 21 members of the Muslim community had been arrested during the same period.
In fact, the report also points to the possibility that Gupta was killed by firing by the Hindu mob or by the police, which had fired to control the violence.
Javed’s family claim that of the three brothers arrested, the oldest, Salim, 40, was at a primary school attending a flag-hoisting ceremony, while Wasim, 35, was 60 km away in Hathras city for a religious congregation, and claim to have submitted eyewitness accounts of Wasim’s presence in Hathras. The third brother, Nasim, had clinical depression and was asleep at home, they said.
“The police have not been able to present any substantial evidence against us,” Javed said, “Neither are my brothers in any videos nor are there any independent eye-witnesses who have alleged that they were present.”
The Allahabad High Court granted them bail in the murder case under Section 302, along with 20 others. “Before the bail could be executed, NSA [National Security Act] was imposed on my brothers,” Javed said, pointing out that a case under the stringent law was imposed seven months after the incident. “And their prison stay continued,” Javed said.
The NSA allows for preventive detention for up to 12 months. The person detained has to be informed of the charges within 10 days, but if the authorities consider this disclosure against public interest, they can withhold this information. Effectively, this means a person can be detained for up to a year without being told why.
Detention is reviewed within three weeks by one or more advisory boards appointed by the state government concerned, each consisting of three persons “who are, or have been, or are qualified to be appointed as, Judges of a High Court”. In practice, if the accused are not informed of the charges, they are unable to contest them before the advisory board.
“My brothers have never had a single criminal case in their life. How can they suddenly be deemed to be such threats that they need to be kept in preventive custody, after the High Court grants them bail?” Javed said.
By its own admission, the Uttar Pradesh government had invoked the NSA against 160 people in less than a year of coming to power in March 2017, according to this September 2018 report in The Wire.
In Purbaliyan village in Muzaffarnagar district in western UP, four Muslim men have been held under the NSA since August 2018, for allegedly stirring up a communal riot and assaulting some Hindu villagers after a dispute that originated over a cricket match.
Purbaliyan, a village consisting largely of Jats and Muslims, is known to be communally sensitive in police records, especially since the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. During the riots, three Jats had allegedly been killed by a mob of Muslims, some of them from the village. The local police told FactChecker that Yamin, one of those arrested and charged under NSA for his role in the latest clashes, was also accused in the 2013 riots.
Several people that FactChecker spoke to questioned the use of NSA. “Have you ever heard of someone being prosecuted so severely for a riot in which not a single bullet was fired, nor was anyone even seriously injured, nor were any weapons used?” one Muslim villager said, not wishing to be named.
At the heart of the clash was a fight on a cricket field, between boys from all faiths. Twenty-year-old Sumit Kumar’s teenage cousin was part of the game when the fight broke out. That connection alone landed him in the middle of the clash that followed–he is the complainant in both the FIRs that the police filed about clashes on two separate days, August 21 and August 24, 2018.
Sumit Kumar at the door of his house in Purbaliyan village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district. He is the complainant in two FIRs filed after a fight over a cricket match escalated.
After the first dispute on the cricket field, Kumar told FactChecker, he was walking back from his field when he was ambushed by some Muslim men. “I didn’t know why. I later found out that my cousin, Lucky, had had a fight with some children from the other community while playing cricket,” he said.
However, in the FIR that FactChecker has a copy of, Kumar said he had intervened in the fight on the cricket field and brought his cousin home.
Kumar said he was targeted again, at his house, a few hours later by a mob of 30-odd people from the Muslim community; his sister and mother were also attacked, he said. Kumar named 12 people in the first FIR he filed, on the night of August 21, and also accused 15-20 “unidentified” persons.
On August 24, the two sides clashed again–Kumar claimed he was attacked by Muslim villagers while the Muslim families in the village denied this, and countered that one Muslim family’s domestic help, Abid, was assaulted by Hindu villagers including Kumar.
The police told FactChecker there had been no attack on Abid and that the story had been concocted to settle scores with Kumar.
After the clashes, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of parliament and former union minister Sanjeev Baliyan visited the village and said the NSA would be invoked against the accused, The Indian Express reported on September 26, 2018. This was before the local administration had passed the order.
“Soon after, the administration invoked the NSA–this shows that the order was a political decision, not an executive one,” Vipin Baliyan, the national chief of Rashtriya Jatt Sanrakshan Samiti, a socio-cultural organisation which works for the interests of the Jat community in the region, told FactChecker.
Thereafter, dozens of Muslims were arrested for being involved in the clashes.
Shaukat Ali, a 40-year-old farmer, was one of them. He denied that he had been involved in the clashes or even been a witness. When he heard stories that Muslim men were being detained, he fled the village.
“Every night, the police would cut off the electricity and enter my house, where my mother and wife continued to live,” Ali said. They would search the house and ask questions. Fearing for his mother’s deteriorating health, he turned himself in eight days later. Days after, his 60-year-old father, Ali Mohammed, was also detained by the police.
Ali was in prison for 38 days and his father for 70.
Many in the village said the attention the clashes got was disproportionate to what had happened. “This issue started off as a dispute between two families. That is where this should have remained. But that would not have benefitted politicians, would it?” said Ali Mohammed, adding that people like him and his son had been victims of politics.
Muzaffarnagar superintendent of police Sudhir Kumar Singh denied allegations of partisan policing, saying the police had clear evidence against the accused. “If people from one community have acted against the other, the police cannot book innocent people just to show a false sense of balance in the investigations,” he said.
Singh refused to comment on the imposition of the NSA on the four accused, saying he could not comment on the decision of the advisory board that had ratified it.
The politicisation of Uttar Pradesh Police has reached a new low since the Yogi Adityanath government took charge, Darapuri, the ex-IPS officer who was part of the civil society group that reported on the police investigations, told FactChecker. He retired as the inspector-general of Uttar Pradesh Police. “[Politicisation] has been a slow process, where each regime has used the police to further its own political agenda,” he said, adding, “Police officers have their own prejudices, often religious, caste-based and gender-based. When a government like this comes into power, such prejudices are emboldened.”
In 1987, 16 UP police personnel from the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had shot dead 42 Muslim youths from Meerut city’s Hashimpura mohalla and thrown their bodies in a canal, while Meerut was ravaged by communal riots. The National Human Rights Commission had called the incident the “worst incident of targeted custodial killings by the police since Independence”. Instances such as these, Darapuri said, point to a history of biases in UP’s police force. Use of the NSA shows perpetuation of that bias, he said.
The use of NSA as a political tool has become a pattern, said Rajeev Yadav, an activist with Rihai Manch, a Lucknow-based advocacy group that focuses on fighting hate crimes and hate speech, citing Kasganj and Muzaffarnagar as examples. Rihai Manch has chronicled the use of NSA under the Yogi Adityanath government, which, Yadav said, is a way of sending out a larger political message.
In Ghazipur, the main accused is a leader of the Rashtriya Nishad Party, which recently tied up with the Samajwadi Party and defeated the BJP candidate in the Gorakhpur by-polls held last year. In Bulandshahr, the UP government recently invoked NSA against three people who were accused of cow slaughter. Those accused in the death of the policemen, including the main accused who was a local Bajrang Dal activist, have not been charged under the NSA.
“If the NSA is invoked in Kasganj and Ghazipur, why is the government applying a different yardstick and not invoking it in Bulandshahr?” Yadav asked.
*Some names have been changed in the interest of interviewees’ safety.
Next: In Hate Crimes’ Wake, Leaving Home In Search Of Safety
(Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them. He is an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.)
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