New Delhi: In May 2020, student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalika and Asif Iqbal Tanha were arrested for 33 offences under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, the Arms Act, 1959, and the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. They were charged with being part of a violent conspiracy to unleash communal violence in Delhi in February 2020. The offences include murder, terrorism, rioting, dacoity, criminal conspiracy and sedition.
A little over a year later, on 15 June 2021 the Delhi High Court ordered their immediate release on bail. “(I)n an anxiety to suppress dissent the state has blurred the line between the right to protest and terrorist activity,” the court said, adding that if such a mindset gained traction, it would be a “sad day for democracy”.
The three students emerged from jail, defiant and upbeat. Tanha, 24, who finished his graduation from Jamia Millia Islamia, said that through his days in prison, he had kept alive the hope that he would be released one day; and that the “fight against CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019), NRC (National Register of Citizens), NPR (National Population Register) will continue.”
On his face mask, Tanha had written the words “NO CAA, NO NRC”.
We met Tanha near his home in Jamia Nagar. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You have consistently shown everyone that you haven’t been crushed by state intimidation and are still fighting. Why do you think such a message was important?
The movement we began from Jamia Millia Islamia, to save the country, democracy and the constitution, is not over yet. As soon as we stepped out of the prison, we wanted to say that our fight is not over yet. And it will continue until the CAA is repealed.
In the history of our country, the anti-CAA movement is historic for many reasons: one is that it was led by women. The movement began from Jamia. Its students made sacrifices and bore the brunt of state violence. But it was due to the large participation of all the women, that it became a mass movement. We were a part of the protest even after we were imprisoned. However, we realised that this movement—as a whole—was left unfinished, and it must be revived again.
But before we discuss the movement, we’d like to know a little more about you. Where are you from?
I come from a small village in Patratu in Ramgarh district, Jharkhand. After studying there till Class 5, I went to study in a madrasa and completed my almiyat. Almiyat is a Class 12 equivalent course.
I went to Ramgarh to visit the family of Alimuddin Ansari, a trader who was lynched in 2017. What was your experience of being in the madrasa for 6-8 years? What did you learn?
I learnt to be strong staying away from home. I went to a madrasa away from home at the age of 10. And being away from my family made me stronger. The hostel would have different people from different states. So learning to live with them was something that was useful to me in my time in jail.
And why did you decide to further your studies in Delhi? In Jamia?
There are many misconceptions about people from madrasas. People often believe we don’t study further. Contrary to this, our teachers urged us to study further. They urged us to go to Jamia, Aligarh and JNU to study. To honour the name of the madrasa and to help better our society.
What do your parents do?
My father teaches in a madrasa. My grandfather ran a madrasa for girls, so my mother is also a teacher there. It was to help educate and support girls who were orphans. So it wasn’t really a source of income for them. I thought I must leave for Delhi to study further. Being her only son, my mother is very emotional about me. She would often tell me not to go to Delhi and set up my own business back home. But I wanted to make something of my life.
When and at what age did you come here to Delhi?
I think I was 17 or 18 years old. I wanted to study Persian, but could not clear its entrance exam in my first attempt. So I started searching for a job and worked at a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) in Delhi. While simultaneously I prepared for the university entrance exam. I had saved my salary to later fund my education at Jamia without burdening my parents.
What did you do at the BPO?
I used to work as a telecaller. I worked there even after getting admission in Jamia. I have just completed my Bachelor’s and have now applied for my Master’s as well.
What do you hope to become once you complete your studies?
My father hoped that I would become a translator after completing my education. It is a good secure job. But now I feel becoming a translator is not my calling. I am certainly interested in activism more and I must continue with this, because our country today needs people to speak for our rights. Allah has empowered me with the ability to speak fearlessly in front of large audiences and I believe in speaking, more than writing, right now.
How did you get fond of activism?
Soon after I joined Jamia, JNU student Najeeb Ahmed went missing. The entire country was in shock, as his mother scrambled from India Gate to Parliament Street for justice. My heart said to me: Should we not stand with his mother in her fight for justice? So I began my journey in activism from there. And soon enough I realised that the foundation of my university, after all, was speaking out against injustice.
Yes, against the British empire as well.
Yes, the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement against the British empire began from Jamia. Our forefathers dreamed of a different India and I will try my best to make that dream a reality.
How did you become a part of the anti-CAA protests? How did that become significant to you?
Before the anti-CAA protests, we researched extensively about the NRC. The NRC enacted in Assam was a total failure. The final NRC list excluded 19 lakh people. If we look at the first NRC list, the number of Muslim names excluded is quite high. However in the final list only 5 lakh Muslims were excluded. Those who were excluded started asking the Government why their names weren’t included, but the Government had no convincing answers.
With no answer to that, the government proposed the CAA. In the amendment, they made it clear that Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists will be given citizenship. They only excluded Muslims. Hence, the Bill enacted wasn’t just against Muslims, but against the constitution too. As Rahat Indori once said, “Everyone's blood is mingled with the earth of this country, Hindustan is not the ancestral property of any one group."
We started raising our voices against this unconstitutional law from Jamia, and the government tried extremely hard to crush our voices. The police harassed and brutalised our students and damaged Jamia's properties. Yet, we garnered support and it became a mass movement.
Muslims never have been and never will be categorised as second-class citizens in India. Neither Hindus or Muslims are in danger today, it is democracy that is in danger. Muslims are the strongest pillar of our democracy. Today it is Muslims, tomorrow it will be Dalits and Adivasis.
Did you foresee the large number of Hindus from colleges and universities across the country who came out in support of the movement? Did you anticipate such a large number of people from Hindu communities to participate?
Absolutely, I anticipated that from the day we began discussing the CAA. The FIR filed against us did not just name an Asif Iqbal Tanha, but also a Chandan Kumar, a student of my university. Irrespective of religion, we walked hand-in-hand.
That is exactly what happened. Historically, this was perhaps the biggest protest ever since India's freedom struggle. I think this was the first time that Hindus and Muslims stood and fought together ever since Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. In those 100 days of the protests, where did you go and what did you see?
In the beginning of the protests, I was at Jamia. I stepped forward whenever Jamia needed me; and you will find me in front of the line for the country too. From Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala to Maharashtra. I traveled to speak at anti-CAA movements in different parts of the country
What kind of atmosphere did you notice in the different parts of the country you visited?
That, for me, was the real India. People from all religions and walks of life stood together as one.
But why do you feel that it was the real India?
I met people of all religions there at the protest sites. They welcomed me with love. They would hug us, give us their blessings. I would be reminded that our forefathers always dreamt of this kind of India. There is only this small fragment of people who wish to divide our country.
Very few people wish to propagate Hindutva ideology. Propagators of the Hindutva ideology were once aides to the British empire and are today trying to divide the country. The protests were completely secular and democratic. Across all sites, women would be leading from the front. I would like to thank them for dispelling the myth that Muslim men don’t allow them out of their homes. This was their answer to these prejudices. They were being told to fight for their rights on the issue of triple talaq. But when they stepped out on the streets to demand their rights, they were only being criticised and their integrity questioned. Whenever history remembers this movement, it will be with great pride.
The farmers’ protest carries the same emotion comprising people from all religions and castes.
Yes, it follows the same pattern. I consider myself fortunate to have become a part of the movement right from the beginning.
Tell us a little about your experience in jail.
I was arrested on 1 May 2020. The Special Cell officers took me to their office. After physically torturing me that night I was handed to the Crime Branch in Chanakyapuri the next morning. They took my medical tests and basic details, and told me that I was being arrested. They called my family to inform them. I was then produced in Court, where they appealed for police custody for me. Rejecting the appeal, the Court sent me to judicial custody.
On my first day in prison, the authorities asked my name first. I said, "Asif Iqbal Tanha". Then they asked me in which case have I been arrested? As soon as I told them ‘the Jamia case’, I instantly sensed hate. They behaved differently with me. When they were taking me to the ward they gave me a plate of food. As I was about to eat, an inmate asked me which case I was being imprisoned for. When I said Jamia, he made me get up, tied me up to a tree and beat me a lot.
On the very first night?
Yes, that same night.
He was an inmate only?
Yes, some were prisoners, some convicts, and some jail wardens. All of them together beat me up. I was then locked up in a small cell. I asked them to provide me food because it was the month of Ramadan and I needed to fast. They refused. They said they had an issue with ‘people like me’. And it was not because I was a Muslim, they didn’t have any problems with the other inmates who were Muslim. “We have a problem with you because you are students of Jamia and anti-nationals,” they said to me. They refused to provide me with any facilities. They even denied my repeated requests of a clock to offer my Namaz on time. So I estimated the time myself and offered my prayers without a clock. That is the kind of discrimination that I faced.
Two days later, the Special Cell team again visited me and made me sign an arrest memo to formalise it. The next day, I was produced in Court again and I was arrested under the Delhi riots conspiracy case and taken to the Special Cell office. The mental torture that ensued is undescribable.
Was it only mental torture, or physical as well?
I was physically tortured only on my first night, never after that. The mental torture was immense. They’d threaten to connect me with ISIS, and Al-Qaeda, the harm they could cause my family. The torture was endless. Simultaneously, the media trial was also happening. They had declared me a terrorist. It was only the historic High Court judgement a year later that gave me bail that proved them wrong.
Circling back, the police sent you back to jail after that one week?
Yes, I was sent back to jail after the police remand and quarantined for 14 days.
Yes, alone in a cell. After the quarantine, I was shifted to Jail number 4. The atmosphere was different there. There I could meet and talk to people. We could listen and share each other’s problems and pains.
Did you find a friendly atmosphere there?
I got much more than that there. I’d get newspapers there—my only way of knowing what was happening outside. I could buy them. However, since I had no money initially, I’d share with older jail inmates. It was my only way to stay updated about my own case. Then I began working in Jail number 4.
It was the time of COVID-19—we had no medical facilities. There were no precautions followed inside prisons. Several of the inmates would fall sick and none of them would be tested for COVID. None of them would be allowed to consult doctors when they became sick either. Inmates were not even allowed to make calls. I only got to speak to my family after spending 3 months in prison. I’d often argue with prison authorities for us to at least get the rights mandated by the Jail Manual.
How would the prison authorities respond to that?
They listened. But no action would be taken. They would say that they will try to work on the problems. But that’s it. When we were in jail we tried to improve the conditions in the jail. Many of the people in jail suffer from depression and need counselling. We listened, gave them company and some hope.
I’d borrow books from the library for the ones who read and we would all sit together and discuss what we learnt after reading the books. I would arrange painting tools for those who liked painting. and we would hang paintings on the prison walls using cooked rice as glue. The Court allowed me to use the phone to talk to my family for 5 minutes daily. I'd use those 5 minutes to connect inmates to their families on conference call.
You would help them talk to their families?
Yes, I’d ask my family to get their families on conference call. We need to better the prison system and to help prisoners receive their rights. I propose to write about all of this.
Did you build relationships and make any friends inside the jail as well? As a young Muslim, how did people behave with you?
Yes, it was actually very nice. I had a friends’ circle of 3 to 4 people comprising a doctor, journalist and lawyer. We’d discuss the kind of work we want to do once released. Honestly, you will witness discrimination everywhere you go, with the kind of hate being spread over the past few years. But the jail was different. Prison has people from all religions. People of all religions were good to me. They may be criminals but they aren’t communal. And as I see it, it is our duty to spread love and compassion among people wherever we are. That is what I tried to do in jail.
How did your family members respond to everything that was happening with you? I'm sure they were in a lot of agony.
Yes, they were in a lot of pain. I’d constantly remember how my mother would not sleep before talking to me at least for a few minutes every day. I was the only pillar of support for my parents. However, even though they suffered, they always stood strong for me; the moral support they got from everyone around them made them stronger.
Has your family suggested that you leave activism now?
No, I remember my mother participating in protests in Jharkhand. My family believes in fighting for what is right. At the same time, they always remind me that while I helped those in need, I must work strictly within the boundaries of the law. Irrespective of what the government does to us, we should never resort to violence. Neither violence, nor hate. We never did, and never will.
Like you said earlier as well, this is an extremely tough time for the country. Hindus and Muslims are being divided, and innocent people are being arrested as ‘political prisoners’. Even during the lockdown, we saw the role of the government. So as a youth of a country comprising the largest below-25 population, are you filled with hope or disappointment?
I think despair is like blasphemy. I don’t want to allow myself to slip into depression, whatever happens, but always to hold firmly on to hope. And I hope this for everyone striving for justice against this government today. They are raising their voices and fighting. If you truly seek a revolution, we will have to pay some price. Sacrifice can mean going to jail or maybe losing one’s life. People often say that those who are willing to take risks are too few. But at the end of the day, a revolution only needs a few people who throw themselves into battle, ready for any sacrifice.
We are striving for an India which is united, an India where everyone has equal access to education, an India which provides free medical facilities to all its citizens—not one where so many people have to die due to lack of oxygen in the hospitals. The future of our country shall not be determined by those who wish to turn it into a Hindu Rashtra. They wish to destroy our unity and destroy our Constitution. The students and civil society members must be the ones to shape the future of our country.
(Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. Interview translated and edited for brevity by Oishika Neogi and Anam Sheikh)