Meerut: “Nothing happened in two years, what will happen now? Only if the government changes after the election in February might something move.”
Wasim Malik, 29, had little hope that the killers of his brother Mohsin—just two years older—would ever be punished. Mohsin was just 28 years old when he fell to allegedly police bullets.
Over the two years since 20 December 2019, police in the western Uttar Pradesh (UP) district of Meerut, about 100 km northeast of Delhi, refused to file even a first information report (FIR), the first step to a police investigation.
“Jumma padh kar, khana kha ke, bacche ko cheej dila kar, chaara laaney ke liye ghar se nikla tha, tabhi Bhumia ke pul par use goli maar di. After his prayers and a meal, Mohsin gave the children some snacks and left home to buy fodder,” said Wasim.
That’s when they shot him on the bridge of Bhumia,” said Mohsin's mother Nafisa Begum, 55, sobbing, as she spoke to Article 14 about the killing of her son in alleged police firing during the protest against the contentious, discriminatory law called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019.
On the day Mohsin was killed, protests against the CAA and the associated National Register of Citizens (NRC) were underway in various UP cities, and especially in Meerut, with UP’s second-highest death toll after Firozabad, where seven died.
At least 25 Muslims across India were shot allegedly in police firing, 18 in UP alone and hundreds injured in a UP police crackdown.
The UP government in a compliance report to the Allahabad HC in February 2020 acknowledged 23 deaths, with 83 general public and protesters and 455 police personnel injured and 833 arrested.
On 11 December 2019, Parliamentary approval for the CAA introduced religion as a filter for Indian citizenship, allowing Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan a fast-track to citizenship, leaving out Muslims.
The union government and state governments run by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) quelled protests that broke out nationwide. The law was criticised (here, here and here) as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Two Years, No FIRs
On that afternoon of 20 December 2019, Mohsin was among five killed in Meerut, renowned as India’s sports hub, located between the Ganga and Yamuna in western UP: the others were scrap dealer Mohsin Malik, 28, dhaba worker Aleem Ansari, 24, cattle-fodder worker Zaheer Ahmed, 45, e-rickshaw driver Mohammad Asif, 20, and tyre repairman Asif (only one name was available, his family was not traceable) 33.
All were poor, mostly surviving on daily wages.
“Not a single FIR against police has been registered yet, and it has been over two years, though, for each of the five killings, we moved the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) in Meerut with applications citing section 156(3) of the Code for Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1973, which gives magistrates the power to order a probe,” said Riyasat Ali, who has practised in Meerut for 20 years and represents the families of the five dead men pro bono, with some help from lawyers in Delhi.
Some reports pointed to a sixth victim, but police records reflect five deaths.
“In Meerut, police killed six people. Five postmortems took place here, one in Delhi,” said Ali. “Eyewitnesses have clearly said police directly fired on protesters.”
Within a week, Ali said, the families of the five men had filed complaints in police stations in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, all within a few kilometres, where the shootings took place—Brahmpuri, Lisadi Gate and Nauchandi police stations—naming policemen, those present at the incidents, the time of firing and eyewitness details.
It is mandatory to file an FIR when a complaint is made to police, but in this case none was filed against the families’ complaints.
‘Protestors Died In Firing Among Themselves’
Instead, the UP police blamed the killings on the protesters. On 21 December 2019, O P Singh, the state police chief, said “not a single bullet was fired at protesters” and that the “protesters died in firing among themselves”.
The UP police released photos and CCTV footage of an unidentified civilian brandishing and firing from what appeared to be a revolver during the protests.
Earlier, chief minister Yogi Adityanath had warned his government would confiscate properties of those who were allegedly involved in violence during the anti-CAA protests in the state.
Local Hindi newspapers also blamed the protesters and profiled them as “upadravis” (trouble-makers), the police as saviours.
When complaints to police yielded no FIR and prompted no investigation, the families made official complaints to every level of the police hierarchy: senior superintendent, inspector general, deputy inspector general, the additional director general (ADGP) and director general of police from around February 2020.
Attempts to reach Meerut ADG Rajesh Sabharwal and SSP Prabhakar Chaudhary were unsuccessful. We will update this story if they respond.
Appeals were made to the senior officials in the Meerut administration, the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), naming dozens of police personnel as responsible for the deaths, urging that the policemen be punished and dismissed.
When Article 14 sought comment from Meerut district magistrate (DM) K Balaji on 31 December, an aide promised to call back. The next day, and for 10 days after, requests for comment about the families complaints were sent by text to the DM’s phone. This story will be updated if there is a response.
The pandemic kicked in soon after. The families said there was no response from anyone they complained to, except, later, from the NHRC.
“When nothing happened, we moved the Meerut court to file applications for the two Asifs under section 156(3) of the CrPC in October 2020,” said Ali, the lawyer.
The district magistrate had earlier rejected Mohsin and Zaheer’s similar pleas in February 2020.
Mohsin’s brother filed a revision petition, which is pending. Aleem’s and cases of both the Asifs are also pending and no arguments have begun. Over this time, the police have registered around 22 FIRs in Meerut against protesters, said Ali.
The Allahabad High Court (HC) in January 2020 had heard at least four petitions filed by various public-spirited people, including from a Mumbai lawyer, former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and peace activist Swami Agnivesh, requesting a judicial probe into the violent crackdown.
The Allahabad HC held two hearings before the lockdowns in 2020, but there has been no hearing since. A public interest litigation (PIL) demanding an investigation into police and the deaths in UP is also pending in Allahabad HC.
It was not until October 2021 that an NHRC team reached Meerut for an inquiry into the December 2019 killings. “NHRC investigation is underway,” said Ali.
Thes suit filed by the families in the CJM court accused about 150 policemen of murder under section 302 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860.
“After our pursuing the cases, and the petitions in the high court, police finally conceded in affidavits to Allahabad HC the deaths were from police bullets, but on that day police didn’t file any such complaint,” said Ali. “Goli police ki taraf se hi chali thi (The bullets were fired only by the police).”
‘Nothing Moved In Two Years:’ Family
Back in December 2019, among the coldest years in north India, the police refusal to file FIRs was not the only shock to Aleem Ansari’s family.
The police told them that the 24-year-old could be buried anywhere but not in Ahmednagar, where Aleem lived.
“A Senior Superintendent of Police from Noida who had been posted in Meerut as officer on special duty during the anti-CAA protests told me that if you want the body, bury him somewhere other than Ahmednagar,” said Aleem’s brother Salauddin. “He said only then would he hand over the remains.”
Four relatives said they witnessed the exchange. “We took his remains to my cousin’s home in gali no 26 in Lakhipura, a locality near Ahmednagar and buried Aleem there,” said Salauddin.
Dhaba worker Aleem had married in June 2019, six months before he was shot by police, witnesses said.
Salauddin quoted an eyewitness as saying his brother was shot in the head on his way home. “We filed a complaint in Nauchandi thana against thana incharge and other police personnel,” he said. “But nothing has moved in the last two years.”
Article 14 has a copy of their complaint and a video of Aleem’s body that had been circulated among Ahmednagar’s local residents.
‘We Will Fight For Justice Till Our Last Breath’
“I am at a loss as to what I should do,” said the physically challenged Salauddin, who runs a small grocery store from his house. “Where can I go to seek justice?”
He alleged police had pressured him to withdraw the court application, but he said he was steadfast. “I was threatened, told to withdraw the complaint,” he said. “But we will fight for justice till our last breath.”
Mohsin Malik, a resident of Gulzar-e-Ibrahim Colony in Meerut and the second oldest of four brothers, was a scrap dealer and lived with his ailing mother, wife and their two children.
Mohsin’s mother and brother Wasim sat in his room on the first floor of their house with creaky flooring as they spoke of the days after Mohsin was shot.
“My brother died of a bullet to his chest fired by police,” said Wasim. “Our neighbours took him to Santosh hospital. But no one was willing to treat him. A neighbour said a doctor claimed that reportedly there were orders that none of the victims of the violence were to be treated.”
Wasim said that he and another brother were in Belgaum, Karnataka, at the time, trading scrap. Their oldest brother in Meerut, said Wasim, filed a complaint in Meerut city’s Brahmpuri thana but “the police tore up the complaint”.
“We don’t have any more hope of justice from this government,” said Wasim. Mother Nafisa Begum spoke through her tears: “My son was only 28. His eight-year-old son says amma, talk to my dad. They ruined my house, my family.”
‘In Govt’s Eyes, Those Shot Dead Were The Criminals’
“Zaheer had dyed his hair for a wedding at his in-laws. He stepped out to smoke a beedi. Barely 150m from the main road, a policeman in civil dress shot him in the head,” Zaheer’s brother Shaheed, 50, told Article 14 at their residence in Ahmednagar. “But in the government’s eyes, those shot dead were the criminals.”
When the police refused to file an FIR, Shaheed filed a complaint in court early January 2020 against almost 50 policemen of Meerut’s Lisari Gate police station under section 156(3) of the CrPc .
But “nothing moved,” said Shaheed. “We seek justice, regardless of the pain and hardship we face in pursuing it. If anyone can prove my brother was in any protest or any CCTV footage showed him in a protest, we will withdraw the case.”
Shaheed said his case for the magistrate to order a probe was dismissed. “We filed for review in the district court of Meerut. We attend hearings as and when they happen.”
Allegations Of Police Intimidation
Id-ul Hassan, 52, father of Mohammad Asif, has not missed court any of the over 40 times that a date for hearing came up, almost twice a month barring the three-month lockdown period in 2020, for the magistrate to order an inquiry into police conduct that killed his 20-year-old son, an e-rickshaw driver.
“He was on his way home on 20 December when he was hit by a bullet near his heart. We were looking for him, then neighbours showed us a photo of his body,” Hassan said quietly, adding that passers-by took Asif to a hospital, which refused to take him in.
An image in Asif’s autopsy report, a copy of which is with Article 14, highlights a “burn mark” on his upper back to the left of his spine.
Hassan said he was “astonished” at police attempts to intimidate him.
“They (the police) said my son Asif was a key conspirator in the protests,” said Hassan. “Police said he was the mastermind of the protests and had brought 20-25 boys from Delhi.”
The fifth man to die was also called Asif, whose house in a poor neighbourhood of Meerut city was abandoned when we visited.
A neighbour said Asif’s wife had left with their children: two boys and one girl. Asif’s parents were dead.
Lawyer Ali has filed a case for a probe into this killing as well and Asif’s young wife, Ali said, “is active and fighting for justice, and is present as and when required for the case to proceed”.
‘Justice Takes Time, But There Will Be Justice’
The families said they had faith in that judiciary, and they hoped police “excesses” would be investigated despite the slow process, setbacks and what they alleged was police intimidation. They said they gained strength from their faith.
"We live from court date to court date with little happening,” said Hassan. “But we have faith that some day justice will be done.” The last date for a hearing was on 17 January 2022, when the only progress was further delay. The next date of hearing is now 3 February.
“Inshallah, there will be justice, if not here, at the high court,” said Ali, the lawyer. “All such cases take time, but there will be success. The verdicts will set a precedent for justice for the common man.”
“Our faith in Allah,” said Wasim Malik, “says that one day we will get justice for those we lost.”
(Muhammad Tahir is an independent journalist based in Delhi.)