Delhi: When Zia (11) and Arhaan (9) asked about their father, Nooreen Fatima had a story ready for her children: “A jail is a huge house where hundreds of people live and are fed tasty food. It’s quite comfortable there.”
Their father, Shifa-ur-Rehman, president of the Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia (AAJMI), was arrested on 26 April 2020 for his alleged role in instigating the Delhi riots that claimed the lives of 53 people—two-thirds Muslim—in February 2020. Of the 18 people charge-sheeted for terrorism, murder, sedition, and other crimes in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, 16 are Muslim.
To his family and friends, Rehman is a balding builder in his mid-forties, who goes out of his way to help the students coming to his alma mater, Jamia Millia Islamia University, one of India’s eminent minority institutions established in 1920.
Rehman was 12 years old when his father, Iftikhar Khan, a landowning farmer in Satla village of western Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) Meerut district, sent him and his elder brother to Delhi to study at Jamia. While Rehman’s elder brother moved back to Satla a couple of years later for health reasons, Rehman finished his education at Jamia and has spent much of his adult life engaging with and building the community around it.
In December 2019, Rehman helped galvanise the first sustained people’s movement since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, a law when read with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) allows for the detention and expulsion of undocumented Muslims in India, in effect making religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship.
The Delhi police allege that Rehman and his co-conspirators used the anti-CAA protests as a front for instigating communal violence in northeast Delhi. Chargesheeted for terror funding under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA, 1967, following an investigation that has been criticised by Delhi judges, former police officers, and civil society organisations, Rehman has been incarcerated for two years with no bail or trial.
Only 2.2% Of UAPA Cases End In Convictions
“It is inconceivable that you would spend years behind bars for merely protesting peacefully,” said Fatima, 38, who believes the case against her husband is fabricated. “Do you think Shifa would have taken Zia to the protests if they were hatching a conspiracy there to murder people?”
“Shifa cared deeply for Jamia and its students. Once, during the anti-CAA movement, he was detained by the police, along with other protestors. I scolded him for forgetting his responsibility towards his children,” she said. “He responded to me, saying, ‘I know you will look after our kids if something were to happen to me, but I have to look after these kids.’”
Only 2.2% of cases registered under the UAPA between 2016 and 2019 ended in convictions, but the counterterrorism law makes getting bail harder by requiring courts to refuse bail if the police can demonstrate the case against the accused is ‘prima facie’ true. Legal experts say the police invoke it when they have a weak case with little evidence and want to stop the accused from getting bail.
The vague, almost boundless, scope of the offences of “Terrorist Act” and “Unlawful Activity” created under the UAPA allows for punishing thought crimes, where the act itself might matter far less compared to the intentions allegedly imputed to a person, lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 in July 202. “These allegations can only be refuted at trial, in all probability being fought by the accused from behind bars, as the chances for securing bail are exceedingly small.”
Of the 18 people arrested under first information report (FIR) 59/20, the conspiracy case investigated by the Delhi Police special cell, five have received bail, four from the Delhi High Court, where judges found no prima facie case of terror made out, and one from additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat based on a narrow reading of the case.
Rehman’s lawyers, advocates Abhishek Singh, Amit Bhalla and Shreshtha Arya moved for bail in Rawat’s court in June 2021, and have argued in more than 15 hearings.
Her husband’s arrest, Fatima said, has exposed her to the brutal realities of state persecution. “After Shifa’s arrest, I forced myself to read articles on UAPA, even though doing that only added to my anxiety,” she said.
A senior professor who has spent more than a decade teaching at Jamia, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the only thing the students and teachers of Jamia were guilty of was defending the idea of an inclusive India, and since arresting the elderly Muslim women protesting in Shaheen Bagh would have made news around the world, the police went after students and activists to break the backbone of the movement.
Speaking about the silence of the faculty and administration on the arrests of Jamia students and Rehman, the professor said they feared arrest and expulsion from the university.
“It might be easy to judge us harshly for not speaking publicly against the arrests, but it is not difficult to understand our fear for personal safety and job security in the face of the state’s might,” the professor said. “However, several teachers view the arrests as an indirect attack on the minority university.”
In an interview with Article 14 in February, Rehman said: “The police action against students and activists who had participated in the peaceful demonstrations against the controversial citizenship law has raised serious questions on the democratic credentials of this country.”
“This India was not imagined by me because the India in which I was promoted love and affection among all sections of the society,” he said.
Arrested During Lockdown
In March 2020, Rehman and his family were at his ancestral home in Satla in Meerut, when they, like people across the country, found themselves under the Covid-19 lockdown.
After Meeran Haider, a PhD student at Jamia and president of the Delhi unit of Rashtriya Janata Dal’s youth wing was arrested on 1 April for his alleged role in inciting violence, Khan started receiving calls from the Delhi police, asking him to present himself.
Given how a number of people who were known to be involved in the protests were being called for questioning by the Delhi Police at that time, Fatima said neither Shifa nor his family was concerned because they knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Even on the day of his arrest, he left home saying that he would be back in a few hours,” she said.
On 26 April 2020, Rehman was called to the Mawana police station near Satla, where he was arrested, and taken to Delhi. After 20 days in police custody, he was moved to Tihar jail.
Rehman was not allowed to speak with his lawyers for nearly two months, despite multiple orders by Rawat directing the Tihar jail authorities to remedy the situation, until the Delhi High Court intervened in September 2020.
Shortly after he was allowed access to his lawyers, the Delhi police said they would not provide photocopies of the 17,000-page chargesheet in FIR 59 to the accused because it cost too much, despite two orders by the trial court directing the police to fulfil this basic legal right. The orders were challenged by the Delhi police, prompting the Delhi High Court to stay the trial. After a delay of nearly five months, the prosecution provided the hard copies on 25 March 2021.
Now, more than two years after FIR 59 was registered on 6 March 2020, the legal proceedings are at the stage where the accused are asking for the supply of deficit documents based on the chargesheet.
‘False And Frivolous Accusations’
The Delhi police have alleged that lakhs of rupees were transferred to two bank accounts belonging to AAJMI, including by the Jamia alumni living abroad, and used for planning the riots in February. In the summary of their oral arguments, Rehman’s lawyers have said, “Assuming that allegations against AAJMI for having funded the protests are true, yet, the same is neither unlawful nor an offence.” They have also pointed out that no other office bearer of AAJMI was arrested.
During a bail hearing on 24 August 2021, advocate Abhishek Singh, appearing for Khan, asked whether paying a few protesters who were protesting makes it an offence under UAPA. Singh said that protesting against a law perceived as unjust was not a crime. He said the police have not placed a single speech or communication by Rehman inciting violence.
Advocate Amit Bhalla told Article 14: “The accusations against him are completely false and frivolous.”
Devoted To Jamia
Rehman, who founded a construction company that builds residential buildings in Delhi and UP, is the sole breadwinner of his family, comprising his ailing 75-year-old mother, wife and two children, a brother who suffers from a disability, and two sisters, one of whom also suffers from a disability.
Rehman’s father passed away in 2015 after a prolonged illness.
Rehman’s association with Jamia began when he joined the school run by the university in class seven. In 2001, after graduating with a master’s degree in commerce, he continued residing in the Jamia Nagar neighbourhood that has grown around the university as a home and hub for Muslims living in the national capital.
It came as no surprise to those who knew him that Rehman decided to run for the post of president of AAJMI when it was formed in 2018 with the objective of nurturing a “close association between Jamia and its alumni”, making available appropriate intellectual and material support to the university”, “providing networking opportunities to current students and alumni”, and “supporting democratic and inclusive traditions” in the campus.
As president of AAJMI, Rehman launched a scholarship program for 150-200 students at the university each year, and proposed the creation of a blood bank for students at the university and residents of Jamia Nagar, Mohammad Danish, joint secretary of AAJMI, told Article 14.
His absence has had a “huge impact” on AAJMI’s work, with scholarship funds down from 15 lakh rupees in the first year to five or six lakh in the third year, while proposals for the blood bank and expansion of hostel facilities have stalled, said Danish.
“When he couldn’t help them with money, he would let students stay at his home free of cost,” said Danish.
His spirit of giving was alive and kicking inside Tihar jail, said Fatima.
“Shifa has spent four Eids in jail. During three of those, he asked us to send extra kurta-pyjamas of specific sizes for inmates whose families couldn’t afford to send them clothes,” she said.
A Moment In History
When the anti-CAA movement began from the Jamia campus and gathered momentum, Fatima said that she knew there was no question of Rehman not joining the protests. So preoccupied was he with the movement, Fatima recalled there were days when he would not come home. At the time, she felt there was nothing to fear.
“Anyone who attended the protests at Jamia would be able to tell there was a healthy environment there, with a strong emphasis on peaceful dissent. Nobody could have imagined the riot conspiracy angle that the police later attached to the anti-CAA protests,” she said. “I had my own doubts about whether the protests would lead to a repeal of the CAA, but I was never worried about Shifa’s involvement.”
“Like most people, he understood how a discriminatory CAA, clubbed with NRC, could render Indian Muslims stateless, especially the poor ones,” she said.
During the course of the movement, Rehman’s family and friends said that he was like a father figure to the protesting students.
Safoora Zargar, a research scholar at Jamia and a co-accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, who was pregnant when she was incarcerated in Tihar jail, recalled that Rehman always volunteered to approach the Delhi police when the anti-CAA protesters needed permission to hold a protest.
“He had a very conciliatory attitude. He would often mediate between the Jamia administration and the students and try to get them to reach common ground,” said Zargar, who was granted bail on “humanitarian grounds” in June 2020.
Following the violence at Jamia on 13 and 15 December 2020, when students clashed with the Delhi police, Danish, the AAJMI joint secretary, said that Rehman rushed to the New Friends Colony and Kalkaji police stations with a team of lawyers and got them released, and he bore the medical expenses of a few of those injured on those two days.
Mohammad Harris, a 22-year-old student, recalled that on 26 February 2020, when hundreds of students protesting outside the residence of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal were lathi-charged, Rehman managed to escape but returned to help a few students who were allegedly beaten up by the police.
While a member of his family showed us a photograph of the injuries that Rehman allegedly sustained that night, Harris recalled, “The police beat and abused us at the police station.”
Surviving Without Shifa
Fatima, who hails from the Sambhal district of western UP and completed her bachelor's in sociology from Aligarh Muslim University in 2002, married Rehman in November 2008. Theirs was an arranged marriage.
Describing her marriage as “comfortable,” Fatima said Rehman was a “devoted father” who took their sons to school every day and played a pivotal role in their development as human beings. Running the house and raising the children on her own during the two-year-long pandemic, she said had left her weak and suffering from anxiety.
“In the days after his arrest, all I could do was cry all day. Shifa was very fond of channe and ande ka halwa and I haven’t cooked these even once since his arrest,” she said. “I feel his absence the most when it comes to handling things related to the kids. Now, I have to do all of that alone. The lockdowns and isolation only made matters more difficult.”
Fatima said that she has gone to great lengths to protect her children, not letting them attend physical hearings in Delhi courts because she did not want them to see their father handcuffed or shoved around by policemen. Their first meeting with him this March was a difficult one.
“My elder son was very sad after the meeting and cried a lot upon coming home,” she said.
Despite her best efforts, Fatima said she had not been able to quell their grief.
“Once I was rearranging Shifa’s clothes in our almirah. Zia suddenly snatched them from my hands and cried, ‘Abbu (father) will come back. Don’t throw his clothes away,’” she said.
Zargar said that the suffering of the families of the incarcerated is often overlooked. “In a way, those people become prisoners too,” she said.
Taking A Stand
On 30 January 2020, after Hindu nationalist Rambhakt Gopal opened fire at protesting students at Jamia, injuring one, while the Delhi Police looked on, Rehman filed a police complaint at the New Friends Colony police station against him, as well as union minister Anurag Thakur, BJP MP Parvesh Verma and BJP leader Kapil Mishra for making inflammatory speeches (here, here and here) while campaigning for the Delhi Assembly elections earlier that month.
Gopal, reportedly 17 at the time of the Jamia shooting, was sent to a correctional home by the juvenile justice board and released after a few months. He was arrested by the Haryana police on 12 July 2021 for an anti-Muslim hate speech he made in Pataudi on 4 July, and granted bail on 2 August.
The police took no action against the three BJP leaders.
In a hearing on 26 July 2021, advocate Abhishek Singh told the court that Rehman was roped into the conspiracy case because of his complaint. “I was vindictively arrested as I had made a complaint against a BJP minister,” he said.
While hearing a petition against the lower court’s decision declining the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat’s prayer for registration of FIR against Thakur and Verma, the Delhi High Court’s Justice Chandra Dhari Singh on 26 March 2022 said, “If you’re saying something with a smile then there is no criminality, if you’re saying something offensively then criminality.”
In February, Rehman said: “Why aren’t they in jail like me and scores of others? Didn’t their statements increase the vulnerabilities of Muslims? Or do you just have to be Muslim to be in jail?”
When Article 14 asked Nooreen if she had faith in the judiciary, she replied, “I have faith in Allah.”
(Arbab Ali is an independent journalist based in Delhi. Shania Ali is a development finance professional.)