Kozhikode/Lucknow: Muhsina, 30, from southern Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, left her home on the morning of 23 September to board a flight for Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (UP).
It was her second visit since February to UP, more than 2,500 km north, to meet her husband Anshad Badruddin, 34, who was arrested in February 2021 by the UP police and accused of terrorism. Badruddin is an undertrial at Lucknow Central Jail, along with co-accused Firos Khan, also from Kerala.
The men are volunteers of the Popular Front Of India, an Islamic group that various state governments (here and here) including UP have sought to ban. The union government has told the Supreme Court that it is in the process of outlawing the PFI, whose members it believes are linked to proscribed group Students Islamic Movement of India.
PFI leaders and some researchers (here and here), however, have said the group’s young adult cadre and welfare initiatives have won it support among Muslims.
Badruddin and Khan have been in jail for 234 days.
Unlike Muhsina’s previous visit, events unfolded quickly and unexpectedly. First, she was denied permission to visit her husband in jail. Days later, she was arrested by the UP police for allegedly submitting a “fake” Covid-19 negative report.
More than two weeks later, Muhsina is still in judicial custody, along with her seven-year-old son and Naseema, her 62-year-old mother-in-law.
Two other women and four children of Firos Khan’s family and a lawyer were accompanying Muhsina. One of them, Khan’s mother Halima, alias Kunhalima, was also arrested. The others returned to Kerala on 29 September, except Naseer.
Two retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officers who served as director generals of police told Article 14 that the police action and incarceration of three women, including two senior citizens, and a child was “absurd” and “outrageous”, for a relatively minor misdemeanour—if the test reports were indeed fake.
‘Conspiracy’, Allege UP Police
According to the UP police, Muhsina and Halima could have been involved in a “conspiracy” by attempting to meet Badruddin and Khan using undertrial visitation rights.
The first information report (FIR) was based on a complaint made by a jailer. It invoked five sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 against them, including sections 419 (punishment for cheating by personation), 420 (cheating), 467 (forgery), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating) and 471 (using a forged document or electronic record as genuine).
According to the FIR, jail staff sought to verify the RTPCR reports’ veracity with the laboratory and suspected them to be fake. Citing a letter received from the office of the Lucknow police commissioner on 23 September regarding security concerns while producing the two accused in court in person, the FIR said, “Under these circumstances, a conspiracy or possibility of an incident cannot be ruled out in the attempt to meet the men on the basis of fake RTPCR reports."
They asked the Gosaiganj police to investigate.
The police claimed they contacted the laboratory that had conducted the women’s Covid-19 tests to check the validity of the certificates submitted by them to the jail authorities.
Station house officer (SHO) of Lucknow’s Gosaiganj police station Amarnath Verma said the diagnostic laboratory whose RT-PCR test reports the women had submitted denied having issued three of the four reports sent for verification.
“When the lab refused to acknowledge the validity of the certificates, a case was registered against the three,” Verma told Article 14.
Article 14 could not independently verify whether the Covid-19 test reports submitted by the women to the jail authorities were valid or not.
Article 14 was unable to procure copies of the Covid-19 test reports or the contact details of the medical laboratory or laboratories where the tests were conducted. Neither the UP police nor advocate Naseer provided these details.
Badruddin’s elder brother Azhar claimed the UP police’s allegation that the Covid-19 test reports were fake was “a blatant lie”. He told Article 14: “Everyone in the group got tested at the same lab, at the same time.”
Friends and relatives of Saujath, Khan’s wife and the only woman in the group who was released by the UP police, said she was not in a condition to talk to the media.
A ‘Dangerous Offer’ To Meet Undertrials Outside Jail
According to the women’s lawyer, K C Naseer, who accompanied the two families, the three women were detained by the UP police on 26 September.
The following day, Naseer received information that an FIR had been filed against the women for allegedly submitting fake Covid-19 test reports while applying for permission to visit their relatives in jail.
The two families and Naseer had, on 26 September, submitted RT-PCR test reports to the Lucknow central jail along with their application for a visit and their contact details.
The families’ original plan had been to meet Badruddin and Khan at the court of the additional district judge, Lucknow, on 24 September—the duo was to be produced in court for framing of charges.
The police did not produce the two men in court that day.
The reason given to the duo’s lawyer Naseer was that Badruddin was unwell, but in their FIR against the three women, the police later argued that the men had not been produced in court in person in order to avoid possible “security and law and order” issues.
The families then decided to visit the men in jail, but could not do so on 25 September as the jail disallows visitors on Saturdays. They eventually went to the jail on 26 September.
There, jail authorities reportedly made them wait until other visitors left. Later, according to Naseer, a police officer offered to let them meet the men “outside the jail premise”. Fearful of a staged encounter killing, Naseer declined.
“I found it a dangerous offer,” Naseer told Article 14.
Article 14 sought comment from the deputy commissioner of police (north Lucknow) Deveshi Kumar, but there was no response to several calls and messages. The police police public relations officer said the DCP was busy in a meeting.
The police tried to arrest the women immediately, while they were still in the jail premises. Using force, according to Naseer, the police accused the women of providing fake Covid-19 test reports and bundled the women and children into a police vehicle.
The group had submitted a total of 10 test reports—of four women, five children and the lawyer. Three of these were invalid, according to the policemen.
The families sought to know how only three reports had been found invalid when their reports had all been issued at the same time.
According to Naseer, the police responded by forcing the women into the police van, shouting, in Hindi, “hurry, hurry”. The women and children were crying in fear as they were being hustled into the vehicle, the lawyer said.
A local woman lawyer intervened, however, and questioned the police action. The families were eventually allowed to leave, but without meeting Badruddin and Khan.
“We felt relieved,” said Naseer, recalling the minutes as they were allowed to leave the jail premises.
Mohammad Tanweer, an advocate practising in the Allahabad High Court (Lucknow bench), said the FIR indicated that while the accused men were in jail, their wives were arrested “merely on the grounds of being the wives of the accused” with the stated reason being a fake RTPCR report.
“Without proper investigation, they have initiated a false FIR against the wives of the accused,” Tanweer said.
Policemen In Their Hotel Room; Women, Children Cried In Fear
The incident in the premises of the Lucknow Central Jail was only the beginning.
Around 7 pm the same day, policemen arrived at the hotel where the families and the lawyer were staying, 26 km from the jail.
“They kept ringing the bell. There were five policemen, including some in civil dress,” said Naseer.
He said their address in Lucknow could have been taken from the visitors’ application form they had submitted to the jail authorities.
The police demanded that the lawyer and the women accompany them. Naseer said the police did not first give them a reason, but instead snatched his phone when he tried to capture a video of the incident. He said they “forced” the hotel officials to turn off their CCTV cameras.
“The police finally told us that they wanted to verify our Covid-19 test certificates,” said Naseer.
Naseer said the police personnel, both male and female, “made fun” of the women and children who were crying in fear. About an hour later, the families and lawyer stopped resisting and went with the police who had come to the hotel in three vehicles, according to Naseer.
The lawyer said the police told them they were being taken to a nearby police station, but were brought to a police station close to the jail where Badruddin and Khan were, the Gosaiganj station. The vehicles took almost 45 minutes to reach.
Three Women & One Child Held, Others Released
At the police station, the women and their lawyers, Naseer and two UP-based advocates, were separated. They were told that the police had found “some issue” with three of the 10 Covid-19 test reports they had submitted to jail authorities.
The police said the rest of the group could leave. “We requested that the three women be released too. But the police responded by shouting at us,” Naseer told Article 14.
He said the policemen communicated only in Hindi, despite knowing that many Keralites do not understand the language. “I don’t know if they don’t know English or they were intentionally avoiding speaking in English.”
The group (one woman, her four children and three lawyers) finally left, while Muhsina, her mother-in-law Naseema, and Halima stayed back at the police station. With Muhsina and Naseema both being detained, they had no choice but to keep the former’s seven-year-old boy with them, said Naseer.
FIR For Wrong Covid-19 Report, Bail Rejected
Suspecting that the women would be arrested overnight, Naseer arranged a lawyer at the magistrate’s court. When he and two other lawyers went to the police station the following morning, they discovered that an FIR had been registered against the three women for “wrong Covid-19 test certificates”.
The women were to be produced at a local court the next morning. The lawyers were told they could try to secure bail for the women from court.
According to Naseer, the police misinformed them about when the women would be presented before a magistrate. When they returned to their hotel rooms from the police station, around 3.30 pm, they received information that the police had already produced the women at the court of an additional chief judicial magistrate earlier in the day.
A bail application moved by the lawyer pre-arranged by Naseer was rejected and then women were remanded to judicial custody.
On 29 September, the women’s lawyers filed another bail application, this time before the district court. The application will be considered on 11 October by a principal sessions court.
Naseer said he met the women three nights after their arrest, in a quarantine facility. He said they were “certainly shocked” by the unexpected turn of events, but were “not completely down”.
‘Clear Case Of Abuse Of Police Powers’
The arrest of the women appeared to be a case of overreach, two retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officers told Article 14.
N C Asthana, PhD., a former director general of police in Kerala, said he had read a report about the arrest in The News Minute, on 5 October. “If that account of the turn of events is correct, it is a clear case of police abuse of their legal powers," said Asthana. "The law must be enforced not just in letter but also in spirit.”
The former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, also a columnist on on police reforms and other governance issues, said even if the RT-PCR reports were indeed fake, the offence did not merit registration of a case invoking sections 419, 420, 467, 468 and 471 of the IPC. “If that is true, it is outrageous,” Asthana said.
The best course would have been for the police to enforce a quarantine period for the family, at the latter’s expense, in a hotel, he said.
Asthana also asked if the police checked with laboratories concerned about the genuineness of every report. “Registration of a case was not warranted,” he said.
“Even if a person carrying a genuine RT-PCR report turned up at some airport or railway station with all the visible symptoms of Covid, which law says that he should be arrested?” said Asthana.
Retired IPS officer Francis Colaso, a former director general of police from Karnataka, termed the episode “absurd”.
Police forces in “some of the northern states like UP are behaving like a tool in the hands of politicians”, said Colaso. “Such police excesses are more unlikely to happen in the southern states, because both the police and the political leadership in the south are more sensible.”
A Diabetic Woman In UP Jail, 2 Kids Left Alone In Kerala
Azhar, Badruddin’s elder brother and a driver by profession, said the latter was a full-time volunteer of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim organisation. He had been travelling outside Kerala for the group’s expansion activities when he was arrested by the UP police in February, Azhar said.
The UP police accused Badruddin and Khan of planning to organise a “series of blasts”. The men were arrested with explosives and firearms, they said, Later, they charged the men with receiving funds from abroad to “incite caste riots” in UP.
In Kerala, the PFI leadership alleged that the UP police were unfairly targeting the group because they filed a public interest litigation in January 2020 before the Allahabad high court against the alleged killings of some protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
On 8 October, PFI leaders in Kerala demanded “immediate intervention” by the Kerala state government to ensure the release of the women. “Uttar Pradesh has now become the capital of human rights abuses,” the PFI’s Kerala state general secretary A Abdul Sathar said during a press conference held in Kollam.
After the arrest of Badruddin and Khan in February, their case was clubbed with that of Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan, arrested by the UP police in October last year when he was travelling in the state to report on the gangrape-murder of a Dalit girl.
Azhar said his family members had originally planned to return on 24 or 25 September, after meeting Badruddin at his court hearing. “But he was not produced in court, so the family had to extend their stay,” he said.
Azhar said this was Muhsina’s second visit to meet her husband in jail. On the first trip, she had been accompanied by their father and her two children. “This time, mother (Naseema) insisted that she wanted to see Anshad, and joined Muhsina.”
Before Badruddin’s arrest, the couple had been living in a rented home for eight years. Besides their seven-year-old son who is currently in custody with Muhsina, the couple also has an eight-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. The two children are now in the care of Muhsina’s mother, with Badruddin and Muhsina both lodged in prison in UP.
Azhar said he believed the UP government and the police wanted to “send a message” to the families of political prisoners, to intimidate them. Naseema suffers from diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension, he said. He was “concerned” about Naseema’s health and that of Muhsina’s two children living with her mother.
(Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist based in Kozhikode and Mohammad Sartaj Alam is an independent journalist based in Lucknow.)