On December 11, 2019, the Indian Parliament passed amendments to the Citizenship Act that sparked off an unprecedented nationwide protest movement against the legislation, the controversial promise to institute a National Register of Citizens and other government policies that discriminate against Muslims and violate Constitutional norms.
One year later, after riots in Delhi, a deeply flawed investigation into the communal violence and the Covid-19 pandemic putting a halt to public sit-ins, Scroll.in returns to speak to some of those who participated in this truly remarkable moment in Indian history.
Read all the pieces in this series here.
On December 19, 2019, as protests against the amended Citizenship Act erupted in Khadra, Lucknow, Mahenoor Chaudhry, 38, decided to shut his scrap shop and go home.
The protests had been sparked by legal changes a week earlier that for the first time introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship. To make matters worse, Home Minister Amit Shah repeatedly linked the law to a proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens. Critics feared that this exercise would be used as an instrument to harass Indian Muslims. Across the country, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the amended law.
In Uttar Pradesh, protests had been held in several districts. As the demonstrations grew larger, the police used brute force against protestors, leaving at least 19 dead.
In the state capital, Lucknow, several roads were occupied by protestors that day. So Chaudhry asked police officials standing nearby which way would get him home faster. “They told me to go by the [main] roads,” said Chaudhry, over the phone from his home in Khadra. Chaudhry said that he took their advice.
Days later, Chaudhry was arrested by officials from the Hasanganj police station on December 24, for allegedly being involved in the violence that ensued in the area on December 19. Nearly a month later, he was granted bail by a lower court in Lucknow.
But his problems did not end there.
After the protests, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath said his government would “take revenge” against those who had vandalised property during protests. Less than a week after his statement, the Uttar Pradesh government began to send notices to seek compensation for damage to public property and in some cases private property.
Chaudhry received one of these notices too. It said that Rs 21.7 lakh would be recovered from him and others named in the notice. He was told to pay up – even though he had not been convicted, and claims that he was in no way involved with the violence.
The district administration sealed his shop in March, leaving him penniless during the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“We have become like beggars,” he said.
Districts in the state have continued to press forward with the recovery of damages. The state administration sent notices to nearly 400 people accused of violence in Muzaffarnagar, Lucknow, Rampur, Bijnor, Sambhal, Meerut, Kanpur and Bulandshahr seeking damages, according to The Indian Express in December 2019.
In Rampur, 112 notices were sent to residents accused in the matter, District Magistrate Aunjaneya Kumar Singh told Scroll.in. The total damages were estimated at Rs 14.8 lakh in December 2019, but then came down to Rs 9.6 lakh on reexamintion, Singh said. He added that the amount has not yet been recovered.
“For instance, we had to see a claim someone put on a burnt bike and then we had to reassess it,” he said. “Here [the violence] was a matter of one hour... one police van and around two bikes were burnt.”
In Kanpur, 48 notices were sent out to recover damages that amounted to Rs 4.3 lakh, said VK Mishra, the reader under Kanpur’s Additional District Magistrate, City, Atul Kumar. Of this, Rs 2.8 lakh was the estimated damage in the Becon Ganj police station area and Rs 1.5 lakh under the Babupurwa station area, Mishra said.
“The amount from Becon Ganj has been recovered entirely and 12 people are yet to give it from Babupurwa,” he said. He said that the administration had not resorted to property attachment in any of the cases in Kanpur.
The district magistrate of Lucknow refused to give information on the status of the damage recovery notices over the phone to Scroll.in. A report by the Times of India in January stated that at least 152 notices were sent out in Lucknow that pegged the damages at Rs 2.5 crore.
A flawed order
But the exercise of sending notices for the recovery of damages has come under legal scrutiny.
Firstly, the notices are based on a flawed Allahabad High Court order in 2010 that grants the power to a “competent authority” nominated by the government to assess the damage and receive claims from the public, experts say. This order puts the onus of recovering damages on the government and runs in complete contradiction to the Supreme Court guidelines issued in 2009 that mandates the appointment of a claims commissioner to estimate damages and investigate liability.
In February, the Allahabad High Court stayed a similar recovery notice issued to a Kanpur resident, saying it should have come from a claims commissioner. In January, a plea in the Supreme Court sought to quash the notices altogether. The Lucknow administration on March 20 decided to stop pressing to recover damages after a suggestion from the Allahabad High Court, The Indian Express reported.
Legal experts said that the process of recovering damages was complex and required the additional scrutiny of the court.
“If you cause damage, there can be a mechanism to recover that damage,” said Sanjay Hegde, a Supreme Court lawyer. “So far, it does not appear to be a constitutional problem.”
But he added that “identification, quantification and how you take over such property without there being a conviction in a criminal case are questions that would arise”. The court, he said, “would have to give answers to this”.
The Uttar Pradesh government has used this and other legally questionable means to prosecute critics of the Citizenship Act amendments and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Across Lucknow, hoardings were put up bearing the photos, names and addresses of 53 people, including activists, accused of commiting violence during the protests – even though none had been convicted.
After this was challenged in the Supreme Court, the Uttar Pradesh government in March introduced an ordinance that would allow it to publish the information of accused people. The Allahabad High Court in March described the ordinance as “arbitrary” and issued a notice challenging it.
Hedge said that the administration has been acting “with a heavy hand, confident that the courts will not come in the way except to maintain the status quo”. But one day, he said, “the basic legality of the issue will have to be tested”.
A year later, the accounts of Lucknow’s Mahenoor Chaudhry and Rampur’s Zeeshan Khan illustrate how the residents of neighbourhoods in which violence and police brutality took place have been made to pay the price.
On December 24, 2019, Chaudhry was arrested by Hasanganj police station officials under case number 599/2019 pertaining to the violence during the protests in Khadra, Lucknow.
The charges mentioned in the First Information Report in this case include rioting, obstructing a public official, using criminal force and deterring them from discharging their duties along with sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
Chaudhry had not been named as an accused in the report. “I have nothing to do with the protest,” he claimed. “I was just returning from the shop. I have been picked up because my photo came [in the CCTV footage].”
He spent nearly a month in jail. “We do not know what a thana is, what a chowki is but they [police] showed us the jail,” Chaudhry said.
On January 18, he was granted bail by Additional District and Sessions Judge Sanjay Shankar Pandey in the Lucknow district court, on the condition that he furnish two bail bonds of Rs 50,000.
Chaudhry’s lawyer, Israr Ahmad, said that the prosecution did not have evidence against his client. “The prosecution only showed his photo as proof,” Ahmad said. “But both his hands were in his pocket and he was standing next to his house where the violence happened.”
However, the bail order would not spell the end for Chaudhry’s troubles. On December 26, he received a notice signed by Additional District Magistrate Vishwa Bhushan Mishra seeking to recover damages to public property destroyed on December 19. The notice asked Chaudhry to present himself before the administration within a week or face consequences. However, he was in jail at the time and could not send his response to the notice, he said.
On March 16, he received another notice signed by the tehsildar in Lucknow. The notice states that Chaudhry would have to pay Rs 21.7 lakh for the damage caused to public property or submit his response within seven days. If he failed to respond, it could result in him being arrested or his property being auctioned, it states.
The notice was sent to 12 others in Chaudhry’s neighbourhood. “Two of them live next to me... they are very poor,” he said. “They keep to themselves. From where will we get so much money?”
After he was unable to pay his share of the damages, the administration in March sealed his scrap shop as they pressed forward with the charges. The shop is owned by his father and auction notices were pasted on it, Chaudhry said. He earned around Rs 500 per day from work at the shop and said it was the only means for him to earn a living for his family that includes his wife and three children aged 16, 12 and 10.
Tehsildar (Sadar) Umesh Kumar told Scroll.in that the auction process of Chaudhry’s shop had not yet begun and that he would only look at the matter after the counting of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council elections had concluded.
Chaudhry’s lawyer Nitin Mishra said that he was yet to file an application to put a stay on the auction of the shop.
However, the closure of the shop left Chaudhry without any work and an income. During the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he borrowed money from relatives. His ration card was invalid because his wife did not have an Aadhaar card that was linked to it, he said. His relatives gave him rice, flour and pulses, he said.
“We are very ashamed to ask,” Chaudhry said. “We have become like beggars.”
He has been unable to pay the school fees for two of his children. “I have to pay around Rs 6,000 for my elder daughter,” he said. “Her principal called me and said that she will not let her sit for her half-yearly exams.”
Finding work in Lucknow was not easy either. “There is no work because of the lockdown and corona… and there are too many expenses,” he said. “I have asked around, even if there is work of a security guard.”
As his shop remains untouched, the premises have gone to pieces since it was sealed. “There are at least five foot long trees and plants there…it has become a jungle,” Chaudhry said.
And there was only one question that lingered in his mind as he struggled to meet his daily expenses. “Will my shop open?” he asked. If that happens, he said, he would at least be able to pay for his children’s expenses. “We are stressed even for Rs 200,” he added.
In Rampur, residents continued to face arrest months after the violence. Thirty-year-old Zeeshan Khan was one of them. Khan lives with his mother, a homemaker, and his father, who works as an electrician at a meat export factory. He works as a supplier of furniture material and earns around Rs 15,000 per month depending on orders.
In September – nine months after the protests – police officials from the Ganj Police Station visited his home three times to arrest him while he was at work, Khan said. “They told my mother that I was a part of the NRC [National Register of Citizens] protests and that I should go to the thana and surrender myself,” he said.
After consulting with a lawyer, Khan said he surrendered to the district judge on September 22.
According to the affidavit filed by his lawyer on that date, he was surrendering under case number 655/2019 filed at Kotwali Police Station in Rampur on December 22, 2019, which included charges including for rioting, obstructing a public official from discharging their duties, assaulting or using criminal force to deter a public official along with various sections under Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
The First Information Report in this case pertains to the violence that took place in Rampur on December 21, 2019, that left one person dead and several other civilians and police officials injured. The FIR accuses 116 men as suspects and also implicates “thousands of unknown persons”. Khan’s name does not feature among the identified men.
His lawyer Syed Arafat Arish submitted a bail application on that date to the chief judicial magistrate. The application was rejected the same day, according to the order.
After Khan surrendered, he spent around two weeks in a quarantine facility after which he was shifted to the Rampur district jail.
“I did not have the will to think about anything [in jail],” Khan said. “It was broken. I spent that time in jail with a lot of difficulty. Each day seemed mountainous to me. I could not run because I am not a criminal so why would I run.”
He was also interrogated once by the police while he was in jail. “They said they have evidence against me and I told them that they should bring it to court because I am not running anywhere since I was the one who surrendered,” he said. However, police did not show him any videos or photos either, he said.
On December 21, Khan claimed that he was at home as violence broke out in parts of Rampur. “I did not go anywhere so there is no question of evidence,” he claimed.
“The atmosphere [in Rampur] was that of a protest... but as far as I know it is a right to protest,” he added. “What happened there and how things changed that the media knows.”
The police had put photographs of those allegedly involved in newspapers to identify them, he said. “Most of the faces were covered,” he said.
There was one question that continued to remain unanswered for Khan: “Why did they [police] find me in September?”
Investigating Officer Ravindra Pratap Singh told Scroll.in that he was transferred to manage this case in September after which he pursued more arrests. “It has been three months for me... that time it was someone else,” he said. “When I came, I started the arrests.”
Khan also alleged that several others who were innocent were arrested under this case. “Not everyone can be wrong,” he said. “I met a few people in jail [who had been arrested in this case]. They said that they were not involved in this.”
He was granted bail by District and Sessions Judge Alka Srivastava at the Rampur District Court on October 9 and was released on October 12. He had to furnish two bail bonds of Rs 50,000 each, according to the bail order.
Khan’s lawyer Syed Arafat Arish said that the Rampur police were continuously making arrests in the case.
“I have done nearly seven bails and all of them were arrested as unknown accused,” Arish said. “There is no non-Muslim person that has been arrested. After looking at the cases, it seems as if there is a religious targeting.”
After he was released, Khan received a call from the police once in October asking about the status of his bail. However, the arrest and his time in jail had led to some changes in his daily routine.
“When you get arrested once even if you are innocent then your image gets destroyed,” he said. “It affects your personality...we know how society is.”
In addition to this, Khan said he faced some difficulties in restarting his business after his release. “The supplier who would regularly get material from me started asking from someone else,” he said.
“I was not available for nearly 20 to 25 days and after I came out [of jail] I took one week to become normal. It makes a difference,” Khan said. “And no one will say it to your face, these are things you feel.”
Read the entire series here.