Released on bail after being imprisoned for 13 months, one of the leading figures in India's anti-CAA movement will not be scared into silence.
On the evening of June 17, dozens of people gathered outside Tihar jail in New Delhi to receive three student activists who were part of protests against India’s discriminatory citizenship law. They were granted bail on June 15 by the Delhi High Court after the prosecution failed to prove their “terrorist activity”.
Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were among 18 anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters arrested by the Special Investigation Team for “conspiracy” behind the violence that killed at least 53 people, overwhelmingly Muslims, in Delhi last February.
They were in jail for over a year without trial due to charges under India’s stringent terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Rights groups have criticised the investigation as a guise to stifle dissent.
The crowd cheered as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal walked out of prison. Revolutionary slogans were raised.
But Asif Tanha, a Muslim student leader of Jamia Millia Islamia University and youngest charged in the First Investigation Report (FIR) 59/2020, was still inside.
“I stayed longer to say goodbye to other prisoners,” Tanha told TRT World after coming out of jail. “Over the months, I built a good relationship with them. I couldn’t overlook it and walk out”.
Outside the prison, Tanha’s friend and lawyer, Tamanna Pankaj, was worried if it was another “tactic of Delhi Police''.
“It took 48 hours and a release warrant from a lower court, under the pressure of the High Court, to start the procedure,” Pankaj told TRT World. “An individual’s liberty was in question but the lower court took things casually while police were wasting time citing unprecedented procedure.”
Two days after the bail order, the High Court directed the trial to “proceed with promptitude and expedition” on the pleas filed by the three activists seeking immediate release.
20 minutes later, Tanha came out through another gate and “ironically” waited for his friends.
“I was overjoyed to see him. He was like my younger brother,” Nargis Saifi, wife of Khalid Saifi, incarcerated in the same case, told TRT World. Families of co-accused are preparing to move for bail after the landmark judgement.
Tanha joined the crowd by sloganeering for equality and justice. He wore a mask that read “No CAA, No NRC” — the slogan of anti-CAA protest along with “ SIO, UAH, JMI & JIH” — abbreviations for Students Islamic Organisation, United against Hate, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamaat e Islami Hind.
“I designed that mask to wear it on the day I come out,” Tanha reveals but admits he never expected bail within months. “Political prisoners spent many years in jail without trial under UAPA. Many of our friends are still in jail for no offences”.
The 24-year-old from Hazaribagh in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, reinstated that he would continue to raise his voice for “marginalised groups” and “injustice”.
“Others also deserve justice. The judgement validates our struggle; it brings hope to everyone”.
“In its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy,” reads Delhi High Court’s bail order, dressing down the investigation of Delhi police who directly report to the federal government.
Delhi police moved to the Supreme Court to cancel the bail, but it went in vain.
‘Asserting his identity’
Tanha moved to Delhi in 2017 to study Persian studies in Jamia Millia Islamia after completing his graduation course from Jamia Misbahul Uloom — an Islamic college in the Chaukonia district of Uttar Pradesh.
“We were all trying to go for further studies. I chose Jamia (Millia Islamia University) because of its legacy,” he says.
He entered the campus the year Jamia witnessed mass protest to restore the suspended Students Union. He was asked to speak representing the Students Islamic Organisation at the gathering.
“When I delivered my first speech in Jamia, the students were impressed with it, thus my journey started.” Tanha began to join demonstrations inside and outside the campus for various causes.
The same year, JNU student Najeeb Ahmed disappeared after being attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing student group.
“Asif was always there for Najeeb protests,” remembers Nadeem Khan, one of the founding members of United Against Hate (UAH), a conglomeration of human rights defenders.
“Asif saw Najeeb in himself. They were the first generation of Muslims in their families joining higher education after decades of marginalisation.”
According to the All India Survey of Higher Education in 2017-18, Muslim enrolment in Indian higher education is only 5 percent.
“Asif was a good orator. He started sharing the stage with prominent figures,” Khan told TRT World. Tanha became part of UAH, which supported victims of hate crimes that spiked after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.
Tanha felt responsible to lead protests against anti-Muslim lynchings that surged in his home state Jharkhand, and protested attacks on Muslims by “asserting his identity.”
Leading the anti-CAA movement
India passed the controversial CAA legislation in the first week of December 2019, in addition to a slew of anti-Muslim policies introduced by India’s re-elected Hindu nationist government.
Gutted by the audacity of the BJP government to amend discriminatory laws and the “absence of opposition” triggered Tanha and other activists to initiate a people’s movement.
“It was our fight. If we don’t resist, future generations will never forgive us,” says Tanha. SIO called for a parliament march from Jamia on December 13, which was followed by other groups.
Police barricaded the road outside the campus and assaulted protesters who tried to march forward. Dozens were injured and teargas shells were fired at students on the campus. Tanha and countless others were detained by Delhi Police.
On December 15, police barged into the campus and thrashed students, provoking a nationwide outrage that evolved into an organic civil uprising.
“We saw Shaheen Bagh being built and the movement spread all over the country. There was never such a big movement after independence in India,” says Tanha, who travelled across the country addressing protest gatherings that winter.
Khan saw Tanha “filing the absence of a genuine Muslim leadership.” He became a part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) that was formed to steer the protest on the campus before suspending it due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dozens of people, overwhelmingly Muslims, were killed in different states by Indian police to disband the momentum. Then in February, violence broke out in Northeast Delhi, which turned into an anti-Muslim pogrom.
“Protests didn’t stop even after multiple crackdowns and huge human cost,” anti-CAA activist Aysha Renna told TRT World. “It was suspended only due to the health emergency”.
Ten days after the carnage, Delhi police launched an investigation to unearth a “premeditated conspiracy” that alleged anti-CAA protesters were responsible for the violence.
The arrest of Meeran Haider, a research scholar from Jamia, on April 1, 2020, spread panic in student activists. Police began sending notices to students for interrogation amid the lockdown.
Within a week, Safoora Zargar, another Jamia student who was pregnant at the time, was arrested and sent to jail. She was given bail under humanitarian grounds after months of criticism.
Tanha knew the police were coming for him. “I remember when Delhi Police first took me to the special cell on April 8. I had a mental breakdown after that”.
Tanha distanced himself from everyone and locked himself in a room due to “mental torture” before turning to God for help. Certain about his arrest, Tanha wanted “no one else to be arrested on his behalf.”
On May 16, 2020, the last week of Ramadan, Asif was summoned to the police station and sent to judicial custody in the Jamia violence case. But three days later he was re-arrested in FIR 59 and booked under UAPA.
Tanha admits he was physically tortured by police and claims it was routine. He spent the next 13 months in prison, while dozens of his colleagues were “harassed by police” to name him.
“A practising Muslim from a Muslim organisation is an easy target for police and media,” argues Fawaz Shaheen, the national secretary of SIO. “The claims were shocking but not surprising. As an organisation, we were confident he didn’t commit any crime.”
Indian television channels ran news about a “leaked confession” that claimed Asif Tanha admitted his role in the violence.
“It felt bizarre,” says Afreen Fatima, who was attending a program with Tanha in the southern state of Kerala on the day the Delhi violence broke out. “Although it is regular for some channels to malign Muslims, I couldn’t understand how blatantly they lie.”
Tanha denied giving any such confession and challenged the “leak” in the Delhi High Court, forcing police to conduct a vigilance inquiry. Zee News channel was directed to submit an affidavit disclosing the source of its news report of the alleged disclosure statement.
The Court ripped the report saying the vigilance inquiry was even worse than an ordinary inquiry in a petty theft case. The matter is still pending in court.
According to the 18,000-page charge sheet and supplementary documents, one of Tanha’s crimes was being “affiliated with SIO” and “going to parts of Delhi to instigate violence”.
“The charge sheet says he was taught to hate Hindus in his Madrasa. It comes from the usual trope to portray Muslims as criminals. There are only allegations but no evidence in the complete documents,” explains Shaheen.
The High Court in its bail order stated that SIO and JCC are not banned organisations.
“There are about 740 witnesses in the charge sheet but none say Asif or any other accused were calling for violence”, he adds.
Delhi Police Public Relation Officer Chinmoy Biswal told TRT World their version was out in the public and had no further comments. Anil Mittal, Assistant Commission of Police North West, did not respond to any questions either.
Tanha’s lawyer Sowjhanya Shankaran restrained from commenting, citing the matter is pending in the Supreme Court.
“I feel like a caged bird who found a new sky,” Tanha tweeted after coming out of jail, and extended his gratitude to lawyers, friends and family for supporting him.
Tanha is looking forward to seeing others jailed on “bogus charges” also walk out of prison.
Tanha’s mother, Jahar Aara, Told TRT World that her happiness had no bound when she heard the news. “If other people are feeling proud of my son, then imagine how proud it will be for a mother”.
“Everyone used to say that there are allegations of being a terrorist but I knew my son was implicated on false charges. We want our son to continue on his path”.
After completing his final exams in the last week of June, Tanha shares that he would prepare for a masters degree. He explains that it is important to be educated to be validated in society.
“There are many prisons who suffer unnecessarily because they are illiterate. Some don't have lawyers.”
Criticising the reportage of released prisoners, Muslim activists pointed out majority of media failed to accommodate Tanha as a forefront leader of the anti-CAA movement, rather than portraying him as a “collateral” or “victim”.
“They always ostracise Muslims. India’s public spaces are Islamophobic. Erasing the significance of Asif represents the price of being Muslim in India,” claims Renna. Pankaj and Fatima echo that the media failed to amplify Muslims in their fight against Hindu nationalism.
“I have no fear but fear of Allah. This is a struggle for our existence and there is no turning back from resistance,” Tanha adds.