India's new citizenship law and its plan to conduct nationality tests sparked popular fury across the country, which the far-right BJP government is trying to muzzle with brute force.
Mohammad Sharik has been whimpering in pain for the last seven days. All this while his mother Rayeesa has stood by his bedside holding his hand. Every time Sharik lets out a scream in anguish, his mother breaks down into tears. On December 20, the 20-year-old was protesting against India's new citizenship law, a controversial measure that triggered countrywide demonstrations against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The police detained and subjected him to custodial torture.
A resident of Nagina Town in district Bijnor of Uttar Pradesh, Sharik has multiple fractures in his left leg. He was first taken to Nagina Police Station and then moved to Bijnor Police Lines later in the evening.
"We were 20 boys on the bus. When it arrived at Bijnor Police lines they (policemen) brought us down one by one. We could see they had lined up in two rows with batons in hand. They were beating us one at a time. My best friend Saleem hugged me and started crying," Sharik told TRT World.
Sharik said all the men, many of them teenagers, were severely beaten. "I was the last to step out. The first blow hit me just above the ankle and I collapsed on the floor. But the beating continued. I was dragging myself on the floor and they kept hitting me. They wanted me to stand up but I just couldn't. Eventually, one policeman helped me to stand up. When they saw my leg was dangling from the shin. They stopped."
Sharik said the police did not take him to the hospital despite his worsening health. He said he was kept locked up with other detainees until his father arrived at 2:30 am.
"When they put me on the bus, I passed out," he said
He was soon taken to hospital where a metal rod was planted in his injured leg.
His father Shahid Ahamd told TRT World that the police shadowed them until his son was discharged from the hospital. "When the surgery ended at around 5 am, the policemen asked us to go home immediately. I paid Rs 60,000 ($900) for it. That was all the money I had. I still owe the hospital the remaining 4,000 ($57)," he said.
Sharik had never taken part in any protest in his life before. But he says with the introduction of the new citizenship law things have come to a tipping point for Indian Muslims.
“First they demolished Babri Masjid and allowed a Mandir to be built there. Then they scrapped the special status of the only Muslim state in the country. And now they are plotting to throw us out of our own country,” Sharik said.
The road to statelessness
On 11 December, when the Indian parliament ratified new citizenship law and the ruling BJP announced NRC will be the next step, protest first broke out in several Indian universities. The students opposing the law were met with a brutal police crackdown. Hundreds of them were detained and dozens were left injured in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The controversial citizenship law guarantees citizenship for Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Jain migrants fleeing religious persecution from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, while excluding Muslims.
Those opposing the law argue that India has a secular constitution, which allows people from all faiths to seek refuge or citizenship in the country. And by excluding Muslims from it, they argue, the law violates one of the basic tenets of Indian constitution--which is the freedom to practice any religion.
The measure doesn't stop at opening doors to 'persecuted minorities' of neighbouring majority Muslim countries. Critics argue that the law along with another countrywide process called National Register of Citizens (NRC), which records names and personal information of "genuine" Indian citizens, is a dangerous mix, precisely targeting Muslims. While the citizenship law accommodates non-Muslims from outside India, NRC "filters out" those whom the government would disqualify as "illegal immigrants."
The combination of NRC and new citizenship law has spooked Indian Muslims and secular-minded Indians from other faiths since the state government of Assam carried out a similar measure earlier this year, rendering 1.9 million people stateless. Several journalistic investigations revealed that Muslims in Assam were largely affected by the NRC, and many of them were declared foreigners without their knowledge.
Since then the protests have spread to major towns and cities across India which has been met with even harsher police action. Particularly in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh which has become one of the protest hotspots.
A total of 25 people have been killed across India since the protests against the law began earlier this month, 19 of these deaths occurred in Uttar Pradesh.
Harsh Mandar, a prominent Indian human rights activist who has been a part of an independent fact-finding team accessing police violence in universities and other parts of the country, believes these protests are one of the most significant moments in the history of India’s republic. “After a very long time, since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, there is a public upsurge on the streets to safeguard the pluralistic nature of Indian society, which the BJP government has been trying to poison for years.”
“This law is designed to humiliate and target the minority Muslim community of this country. The people have realised this divisive plan of the BJP and they are out on the streets demanding it to be repealed,” Mandar said.
Talking about the police violence against protestors at various places, Mandar told TRT World the government has declared war on its citizens. “Peaceful protests have been turned violent by using excessive force on them. The situation is particularly grim in UP where the police are acting like goons and attacking people inside their homes.”
Ruled by a far-right monk Yogi Adityanath, who's a member of BJP and has a reputation of speaking ill about Indian Muslims, Uttar Pradesh witnessed a massive police crackdown on protesters, which led to the killings of 16 people.
Facing criticism for suppressing the ongoing dissent using brute police force, the Indian government has condemned the protesters, calling them "rioters" and accusing them of vandalising public property and injuring several hundred policemen.
In the Neighbouring Nehtaur City of Bijnor, where two young men Anas and Sulieman died in police firing on December 20, a sense fear has gripped the Muslim population of the area.
Mohamad Kaif, a 45-year-old father of three children says it was like “qayamat ki raat” (doomsday). He says after the protests in the areas were quelled police continued to rampage through the neighbourhoods in the area. “They came inside our home and started breaking things. I tried to reason with them but they didn’t relent,” he said. At one point, Kaif says he worried the police might just kill him and his family.
"Go to Pakistan"
According to various eyewitnesses TRT World interviewed, police vandalised dozens of homes throughout the night, smashing bikes and cars and even beating up people inside their homes. “They kept telling us 'go to Pakistan'. And threatened us of severe consequences if there is another protest in the area,” a resident of Nehtaur said on the condition of anonymity.
In the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, several dozen shops belonging to Muslims were sealed by authorities after a protest in the area. The residents believe the authorities have taken such a step to further intimidate the community.
A shop owner, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “we are living in fear. Nothing is safe right now. Not our homes or businesses. Or even lives. The police have been unleashed on us so that there is no opposition to what is happening in the country right now.”
Akram Akthar, a lawyer based in Muzaffarnagar, who has been working closely with several other lawyers to provide pro-bono legal support to those detained by police told TRT World that the administration has not been clear on why the shops were sealed.
"First the police said the shops were sealed to use them to recover damages caused by the protestors. But when shop owners and trade unions met the police, they were told these shops have CCTV cameras so they were sealed to preserve recordings," Akthar said, expressing his dissatisfaction with the claims made by the police.
"67 shops in total. Out of them only three or four have CCTV cameras," he said.
Some of the shop owners have been named in police investigations for rioting and arson.
A senior police official told TRT World that after meeting the district administration the shop owners have been assured their shops will be open soon. “The seizure of shops was an administrative decision which is being dealt with by the district magistrate after holding several meetings with stakeholders. We will continue to pursue those named in the FIRs (investigation reports). Anyone violating peace will be dealt with.”
The official also refused allegation of torture and police vanadalism that has been widely reported across Indian media. “Police doesn’t torture anyone,” he added.
While Sharik is recovering from his wound at home he is worried about his friend Saleem, who has been shifted to Bijnor jail. "He was also beaten badly. He has been there for days now, I don't know what he must be going through," he said.