Lucknow: When Sharjeel Usmani’s brother and cousin asked the unknown men who they were and why they were taking away the civil-services aspirant on 8 July 2020, they were told Usmani’s father was not well.
“I confronted them and said let me call his father and confirm this,” Usmani’s younger brother Areeb told Article 14 a day after his brother was taken away. “They said Sharjeel knows where he is being taken and told me not to ask too many questions (zyada sawal-jawab karne ki zarurat nahi hai).”
Usmani was allegedly detained for participating in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) (CAA), which erupted across India in December 2019 and continued until Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a sudden national lockdown on 24 March. Usmani was picked up by men in plainclothes from Sidhari in the eastern Uttar Pradesh district of Azamgarh.
After denying Usmani was in their custody, the police produced him before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Aligarh on the evening of 9 July and sent him to 14-day judicial custody.
An arrest can be made without a warrant in case of serious cognizable offences and the police can start an investigation without the intervention of a magistrate or court, said S R Darapuri, a retired police officer. However, when an arrest is made, the family or relatives have to be informed of the accused’s detention and location.
But Sharjeel had been taken away by men in civilian clothes and his whereabouts were unknown, said Darapuri. The family could either complain to the local police or file a habeas corpus—a writ required an arrested person to be brought before a judge—application in a court.
An alumnus of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Usmani had been critical of the CAA and was among 26 against whom a first information report (FIR) was filed after the Uttar Pradesh Police stormed the AMU campus on 15 December 2019.
Usmani now faces charges under Indian Penal Code sections 148 (rioting armed with a deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 188 (disobedience to order by public servant), 189 (threat of injury to any public servant), 332 (voluntarily hurting a public servant during duty), 336 (endangering human life), 504 (insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 506 (criminal intimidation); section 7 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act; and section 3 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
Usmani’s father Tariq Usmani, an associate professor with AMU's Department of Geography at AMU, told Article 14 over the telephone that his son was picked up by five men in civilian dress from an uncle's house where he had been living since December. “The police in Azamgarh and Aligarh denied arresting or detaining him,” said Tariq.
The eldest of five siblings, Usmani was with friends when his brother Areeb saw Usmani being detained and taken away. “Sharjeel was going somewhere with his friends Nadir and Fuzail when five people came out of a Bolero and caught him from behind and asked him to sit in the car.”
Areeb said that after the men detained Usmani, they searched their uncle's house for his belongings, taking away Nadir’s laptop, which Usmani used, and all the books there, including many religious books. “They searched the entire room and also his clothes. The men asked the family members to give them two pairs of clothes before leaving,” said Areeb.
“They then left asking one of their aides to keep a vigil on my uncle Abdul Rab,” he said.
The public relations officer of the Senior Superintendent of the Police (SSP), Azamgarh, previously denied any knowledge of the arrest: “We don’t have any information about this case and I am not authorised (to speak). Saheb (the SSP) is busy with a meeting.”
The SSP (Azamgarh) did not answer repeated calls from Article 14. The SP (City Range) Alok Pandey said, “We do not know anything about this case.”
Hindi daily Amar Ujala quoted the district’s Additional SP (Crime) Arvind Kumar as saying that Usmani was arrested by the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) of the Lucknow police in connection with a case filed in Aligarh in December 2019.
Areeb also said that four policemen visited his maternal uncle’s house on 9 July, asked about Sharjeel and left without providing any details about his whereabouts.
“Sharjeel was detained without any legal procedure and without any warrant by a group of five unknown people in Azamgarh, " said Hamza Sufiyan, a former AMU students' union leader. "The Aligarh and Azamgarh police haven’t clarified who arrested him. We have no idea if it was an arrest or a case of kidnapping. If it was an arrest, then why was it carried out without any legal procedure and why are the police not saying anything? If it’s a kidnapping, then why are the police not taking it seriously? Police officials are silent, despite our constant queries about Sharjeel's illegal detention.”
Talha Rashadi, the advocate approached by Usmani’s family, said they had filed an application in the Sidhari police station and would speak to the media after they got more details about Usmani’s whereabouts.
During the lockdown, several students and activists who had participated in the CAA protests were arrested by the police. Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old M.Phil student was kept in custody from 10 April to 24 June in connection with the anti-CAA protests at Jamia Millia Islamia. Several activists from women’s collective Pinjra Tod were also taken in custody multiple times during the lockdown.
Twelve students, among them Farhan Zuberi and Ravish Ali Khan of the Aligarh Muslim University, and others from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, were arrested in recent weeks. The common thread in the arrests is that the police first accuse them of conspiracy to riot, hate speech and inciting mobs and keep the prospects of bail at bay by using the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Several groups, which include student bodies and citizens’ collective, have criticised such arrests and State abuse of power. On 1 May, around 300 teachers, researchers and journalists across India released a statement against these arrests.
Leaders of eight political parties, which included the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and Rashtriya Janata Dal, wrote a letter to President Ramnath Kovind, condemning the arrest of students in connection to the anti-CAA protests.
On 21 May, CPI(ML) Politburo member Kavita Krishnan, senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Saleem Engineer, Rajya Sabha member Manoj Kumar Jha, Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, president of All India Muslim Maljis-e-Mushawarat Naved Hamid and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace Teesta Setalvad held an online press conference condemning the arrests of activists and students by the police.
(Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com and Bandyopadhyay is a staff writer with 101Reporters.com)