New Delhi: A few days after additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat granted bail for the first time in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, Ishrat Jahan told Article 14 that she was stunned by the order that allowed her to walk out of Mandoli jail in India’s capital after more than two years, leaving behind a place where she was labelled a “terrorist,” beaten and abused by her fellow inmates.
Given how difficult it is to get bail under India’s counterterrorism law (here and here), the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, and Rawat denying bail to others accused of instigating the February 2020 riots, the 31-year-old lawyer found it “unbelievable” that she was set free despite being charged under the UAPA.
Even as she spoke of her persisting faith in the Constitution and the judiciary, Jahan, a former councillor for the Congress Party from Jagatpuri, said that she had become convinced of two things: the UAPA is being used to silence people and much
the harassment she faced in prison was because she is Muslim.
“Twenty-five months is a long, long time. The hatred and mistreatment I have endured made me question the reasons for it,” said Jahan. “My identity was always at the core of all this. Sadly enough, I had become used to the communal abuse.”
“I have always placed my trust in the Constitution and trusted it to yield justice for me, but the targeted harassment I faced in prison is a reality,” she said.
The Delhi police have pinned the communal violence on a few of the students and activists who were driving the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, a law when read with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) allows for undocumented Muslims to be treated differently from people of other faiths.
The police allege the anti-CAA protests were a front for planning the Delhi riots that claimed the lives of 53 people in February 2020, two-thirds of them Muslim. Of the 18 people charge-sheeted in the conspiracy case, 16 are Muslim.
In the immediate aftermath of the communal violence, Jahan was accused of provoking a crowd at a protest site in Khureji Khas and arrested on 26 February in first information report (FIR) 44/2020 for rioting, obstructing a public servant on duty, assault, attempt to murder under the Indian Penal Code, 1869.
The day Jahan was granted bail by additional sessions judge Manjusha Wadhwa on 21 March 2020, the Delhi police arrested her in FIR 59/2020—the conspiracy case—for murder, sedition and other crimes under the IPC, and the UAPA, which makes getting bail harder by requiring courts to refuse bail if the police can demonstrate the case against the accused is ‘prima facie’ true.
While granting bail to Jahan on 14 March, Rawat said “she was neither physically present in northeast Delhi for riots nor was she part of any group” and she “is not the one who created the idea of chakka jam” or roadblock. Analysing Jahan’s bail order for Article 14 on 15 March, Delhi-based lawyer Abhinav Sekhri noted that in granting bail, Rawat did not engage with the case of the prosecution, but adopted a “tightrope-walking technique which sufficiently justified bail” in her case.
“In granting bail to Jahan, the obvious implication which arose is that a court has concluded that the case against her did not meet this threshold. The very clause designed to restrict bail, therefore, would have delivered an indictment of the police case itself,” he wrote. “The order granting bail to Jahan, as I contend here, does not travel this distance, adopting instead a tightrope-walking technique which sufficiently justified bail but at the same time did not engage with the larger case of the prosecution.”
The only time that Jahan left Mandoli jail was in June 2020 when additional sessions judge Dharmendra Rana granted her interim bail for ten days for her wedding. In November 2020, Rawat denied interim bail that she sought on medical grounds, citing “the gravity of the offences including Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967.” In December 2020, Jahan told the court that she was “facing harassment and regular beatings at the hands of inmates”. “They keep calling me a terrorist,” she said.
Jahan filed her bail application in July 2021.
Rawat has recently denied bail in FIR 59 to Saleem Khan, Tasleem Ahmad, Gulfisha Fatima, Umar Khalid , Tahir Hussain and Sharjeel Imam, who have been incarcerated since 2020. In July 2021, the Delhi High Court granted bail to Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha after it was rejected by Rawat. The Delhi High Court has also granted bail to Safoora Zargar and Faizan Khan.
At the start of bail arguments for Jahan in July 2021, her lawyer, advocate Pradeep Teotia, said, “There is no evidence. Is it wrong to have a political affiliation? What wrong have I committed? Stifling voices was the reason behind imposing UAPA. UAPA must be scrutinized.”
“UAPA is dark. One cannot see the road ahead. Even reading it sends shivers down my spine, but the judiciary rescued me out of it,” said Jahan. “Achieving justice is painful and heavier when you live behind bars every day, with the thought that you never committed any crime.”
What were your first thoughts after being sent to Mandoli jail?
I was arrested on 26 February 2020. I knew that I was innocent and that no violence had transpired in my area, Jagatpuri. Despite that, they summoned me to the police station and arrested me. When they lodged me in Mandoli, I kept telling myself that this would only last for three or four days. On 21 March, I was granted bail and then, on the same day, they demanded that I be produced in (FIR) 59. It was extremely shocking to be falsely framed just as I was about to be released for something I never did. Orders, remands, bail granted and then new orders for my incarceration; the process to prove one’s innocence is extremely painful. It is still unbelievable for me that I received justice, and that too in UAPA. All I can say is that law can be blind, but justice is not blind.
You have said that you were targeted by fellow prisoners in jail because you are Muslim.
When I was lodged, I was tormented not only by fellow prisoners but the jail administration. The kind of instructions they used to give to the fellow prisoners and their brutal adherence to the same, made my life even worse behind bars. They created an environment for me where everyone was asked to boycott me since they labelled me a ‘terrorist’ in prison. But slowly, when inmates engaged with me, those walls of hate crumbled. As I’m an advocate, the under-trials and long time inmates used to ask me for legal advice in their cases. Then, they opened up to me about how if they hadn’t been dismissive of me, the administration would put them in worse situations. Many fellow prisoners intentionally made my life difficult, but many women there were those whom I shared my food with, taught them yoga. I have even spent time and played with the children of fellow inmates.
After being labelled a ‘terrorist,’ the Islamophobic treatment I got was extremely demeaning. They removed my headscarf in the name of checking, they opened my plaited hair, they unmasked me and searched for hidden items in my mouth. Here, my education became my strength. I often wrote letters to the concerned court about these grievances and almost always they reverted to me. Having lived there for 25 months, I can say that the women’s prison is in dire need of reforms.
You felt targeted because you are Muslim?
Every day in those 25 months, I was harassed in the name of a headscarf or some way or the other that was linked to my Muslim identity. This is what the inside environment is. Many times when I used to sit in the park during Hindu prayer programs, I was asked to leave (by the jail authorities), in the name of security, safety – me being someone who has already faced abuse and hatred inside. But nonetheless, I have always placed my trust in the Constitution and trusted it to yield justice for me, but the targeted harassment I faced in prison is a reality.
Two years after your arrest, do you regret raising your voice against the CAA/NRC?
I would often attend the protests held in Khureji Khas, admire the courage of the people, and also take part in claiming our rights. But because no violence broke out there, no riots took place, and only false allegations were levelled against me, I see these protests not as mere gatherings of the like-minded, but as the biggest example of women empowerment and women-led revolutions that have taken birth in India since the freedom struggle.
What was your weakest moment?
I have revering faith in the Indian Constitution and the Constitution says that this country does not belong to any kind of people or any one kind of ideology. It belongs to everyone. But when this voice is silenced using a draconian law like a UAPA, that was my weakest moment, plus the torture I faced and my family had to face because of me. This belief in secularism and the Constitution became the two aspects of my existence that put me through the 25 months I spent in prison.
(Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)