Prayagraj: In May 2021, Javed Mohammad, a 56-year-old social activist, was sitting down to eat with his family when news of the Sulli deals app—an application to auction Muslim women online—flashed across the television screen, abruptly ending the dinner time banter.
The next person to speak was Mohammad’s daughter Afreen Fatima, a 24-year-old student activist, who told her father that she was among the scores of Muslim women whose names and photos were shown on the app.
There was shock and concern, but her family were acquainted with the online abuse and castigating coverage she received from pro-government media after Afreen started speaking about the persecution of Indian Muslims under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), inviting the wrath of the right-wing establishment. Together, father and daughter, along with the rest of the family, living in Prayagraj in southern Uttar Pradesh, decided to pursue the legal route to hold the people behind the app accountable. A few days later, Afreen joined other women in persuading the Delhi police to register a criminal case against them.
Her sister and father for once agreed on something, Sumaiya Fatima, the youngest of Mohammad’s five children, smiled and recalled in conversation with Article 14. She spoke of the many disagreements her father and sister had on everything from the curtains in their house to whether the Congress Party had ever been a force for good in the country.
Even though they are both vocal critics of the BJP and its majoritarian politics, what they believed and how they expressed themselves were different.
“He was Afreen appi’s (sister) biggest supporter, but he would worry if something about her went viral. He would tell her to take care of what she said and how she said it. He would tell her the same thing can be expressed differently,” said Saumaiya. “He has always been very protective of me, but he is the proudest of Afreen appi.”
The UP police arrested Mohammad in connection with the violence that erupted in Prayagraj on 10 June, as rallies protesting the remarks made by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma against the Prophet Mohammad were breaking out in UP. The police called him the “mastermind” of the violence, illegally detained his wife and youngest daughter at a police station, and demolished their house, claiming it was an unauthorised construction.
After jailing him 260 km east of Prayagraj, in Deoria district, under more than 20 sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, including rioting with deadly weapon, using criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty, and attempt to murder, the UP Police booked Mohammad under the National Security Act (NSA), 1980, which allows for one year of incarceration without charges.
In July, Article 14 reported the weakness in the police case against the people they accuse of planning the riots, including evidence that defence lawyers say shows their clients to be elsewhere on the day of the violence and lack of evidence to back up the kind of violence—shooting pistols and lobbing bombs—described in the first information reports (FIRs) based on complaints by policemen.
A piece of evidence the police have publicly spoken about is a 12-bore pistol and 315-bore pistol and bullets they claim to have recovered amidst the rubble of his house, hours after national television channels televised the demolition allegedly carried out without due process.
An FIR says the police apprehended Mohammad and recovered a 315-bore pistol from his person. The police claimed that Mohammad had called for a “bandh” and asked people to reach the spot of the incident through a WhatsApp message.
His family said the items removed from the house were broadcast for everyone to see, and the police made no such claim at the time. They say that CCTV footage shows him on a scooty near his house on the afternoon of the violence and that he had called off the rally in a Facebook post the previous day.
While the superintendent of police in Prayagraj, Ajay Kumar, did not publicly share any evidence against Afreen Fatima after the violence in June, Kumar accused her “of being involved in such activities”, and said, “the father-daughter duo together propagate propaganda.”
For the family, these remarks have Roysed apprehensions for her future.
Article 14 spoke with friends, family, lawyers, activists and the police to find out more about Mohammad and why he has been jailed amid a slew of legal action against those critical of the attacks against minorities and free speech under the BJP, including vocal Indian Muslims—recently, fact checker Mohammad Zubair, and journalist Siddique Kappan for the past two years.
Believer In The Law
While national television channels castigated his daughter Afreen Fatima’s activism, few had heard of Mohammad outside his hometown of Prayagraj.
Mohammad, a senior leader of the 11-year-old Welfare Party of India in Uttar Pradesh and a recent Facebook convert, his family said, was in activism, not politics, and he used social media to highlight causes and injustices, not himself.
The WPI was formed in 2011 to “promote alternative politics that is rooted in high standards of morality and ethical values, and is free from crimes, corruption, selfishness and all kinds of narrow-minded prejudices.” Its president, SQR Ilyas, said the party has contested several parliamentary and state elections and has won civic and panchayat elections in Kerala, Karnataka, Bengal, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
“Javed Mohammad is not only a party worker but he is famous for his social activities in Allahabad. He has submitted many legal interventions and memorandums on topics concerning the people of Allahabad,” said Ilyas, who is also the father of Umar Khalid, a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a political activist, whom the Delhi police labelled the “mastermind” of the Delhi riots and jailed under the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act, 1967.
“The ruling party, whether in UP or at the Centre, is targeting prominent people in the Muslim community and civil society by using draconian provisions of the law,” he said.
People in his hometown know him as a social activist, a mediator between the local administration and the Muslim community in the city, yet someone who was not afraid of speaking out against the ruling dispensation. A believer in the letter of the law, Mohammad had moved the courts several times. Still, two recent matters he litigated regarding the functioning of the city slaughterhouse and removing illegal encroachers from the Muslim cemetery further elevated his standing in the community.
When the Allahabad High Court ordered the police to clear the cemetery of encroachers—poor people and criminals exploiting them for illegal activities—Mohammad worked with the police to get it done. But when the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 was passed, and fears of how it may affect Muslims when read with a possible nationwide National Register of Citizens surfaced, Mohammad helped drive the nationwide protest in Prayagraj. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Mohammad worked with the police to get the protest site at Mansoor Ali park cleared.
Farman Naqvi, the advocate who fought the case against the illegal encroachment before the Allahabad High Court, said Mohammad’s “big victory” in getting the cemetery cleared earned him many friends but made enemies of the local criminals, both Hindus and Muslims. While his outspokenness against the CAA-NRC won him the displeasure of the authorities, his decision to call it off invited the wrath of some people in his community.
Naqvi believes Mohammad’s incarceration is a consequence of his speaking out against the BJP, and local rivalries that became more pronounced after he pushed criminal elements off the cemetery land and ended the protest.
“They even accused him of being a government spy,” said Naqvi. “I told him they will blame the protests and the Muslim community if there is a Covid outbreak in the city. He is someone who is calm and listens. He agreed.”
Naqvi’s fears were not unfounded. Shortly after the pandemic hit India in March 2020, the right-wing establishment, BJP and other political leaders, and pro-government channels pinned the spread of the virus on a gathering of a conservative Islamic sect, Tablighi Jamaat, in Delhi, deepening anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority found biased coverage a year later and fined two channels.
Naqvi recalled the last case that Mohammad asked him to take up was of the new Allahabad High Court office violating the building norms in the civil lines area of the city. When he advised his friend and client against “sticking his leg into everything” and refused to take up the matter, Naqvi said Mohammad went to another lawyer KK Roy.
“I know him as a man who loves this country and has full faith in the judiciary,” he said. “Otherwise, a person does not file a case against the High Court before the High Court.”
Roy, the lawyer challenging the demolition of Mohammad’s house in the Allahabad High Court and a family friend, said there were no grounds for invoking the NSA to prevent public disorder. The events of 10 June—which SSP Kumar is on record saying involved some stone pelting the police controlled with minimal force—did not portend public disorder in the future.
The law, Roy said, recognises that every breach of law is not a public disorder. Furthermore, the lawyer asked why the version presented in the FIRs should be taken as “gospel truth” when it contradicts the SP’s account to the media and there is a lack of evidence showing violence involving guns and bombs.
“They are using laws to suppress the democratic voices,” he said.
Given the violence faced by minorities in the past few years, Mohammad Shujat, Mohammad’s 31-year-old son, said that he had imagined the worst when he went to see his father in Deoria jail on 27 June. He was profoundly relieved to see him looking well and speaking animatedly.
His father said, “what has happened has happened”, and he trusted the law to take its course, but he did not want his children to reorient their lives to deal with the fallout, Shujat said. He added that the only thing his father confessed to being worried about were the questions the police had asked him about Afreen and what they were planning to do.
As he sat speaking with his father in jail, Shujat said his mind flashed back to a conversation he had with his father, where he had joked with him about whether his criticism of the government could lead to the demolition of their house, in light of how the bulldozer has become the symbol of the BJP’s power in UP. He said his father was confident there was nothing he wrote that could warrant such wrath from the state.
“He was wrong. They just came and demolished our house. There was no law, constitution or judiciary. They target us today. They will target someone else tomorrow,” he said. “If you want to make India a Hindu nation, make it, but let us live in peace. We are from this country. What is happening in India?”
Spectators To The Demolition
Mohammad’s family saw the demolition of their house on live television from different locations. While Shujat was in Delhi, Sumaiya Fatima, who had been released from illegal detention hours before the bulldozer arrived, watched it at her paternal uncle’s house.
As she watched their things being carried out, what “hurt” the most were the celebratory live comments which appeared as the demolition was broadcast, Sumaiya Fatima said. “I don't understand when someone's house is being demolished, why they were so happy,” she said. “It hurt too much. That is when I closed it.”
After it happened, Sumaiya Fatima said she received messages of support from a few Hindu friends on the first day and her Muslim friends four days later, presumably because they too were afraid after the police started arresting Muslims accused of the violence on 10 June. Sumaiya Fatima said she felt there was not enough support, but among the few who publicly expressed their support, she was surprised to see a message from a young Christian woman she knew from school.
Confessing that it “hurt” to have had little support and how much she wanted to discuss everything that had happened with her father, as she did on most days, Sumaiya Fatima said, “It was just my father, mother and me in the house for the past few years. He used to share everything that happened that day with us. We knew all his friends. I miss him.”
Mohammad saw the demolition from a government hospital bed where he was sent for a medical check-up after the police arrested him. He heard what the police said about him, his 51-year-old wife, Parveen Fatima, learnt when she visited him in jail.
As the destruction played out on national television, Mohammad told his wife that a hospital attendant told him, ‘Javed bhai aap aur mat dekhiye.’ (Javed bhai, don't see any more).”
“He seemed troubled because he thought I was unhappy. He told me, ‘Our house has been martyred, but we will be okay,’” she said. “I said, ‘I feel Allah is testing us, and Allah will save us’.”
Gift From A Father
Her elderly father, on whose land the demolished house was built—land that he gave his daughter as a wedding present—watched the destruction on television at her maternal home in Chhattisgarh, Parveen Fatima said.
Her father, who stayed in India after half of his siblings moved to Pakistan after the partition, was tasked with caring for his sisters. He struggled to make a living for a long time, she said.
He moved to Bhilai, a major centre because of the steel plant that was coming up at the time, and sold fruits from a basket and then a cart before he started his own business that allowed him to give his daughter a piece of land many years later.
Her father, Parveen Fatima said, could not speak after he saw the demolition on the news. She only saw him crying in their video calls for for a week.
The UP government says Mohammad's house was an unauthorised construction, they were notified by authorities, and their neighbours had complained about the activity and number of cars on the street. The family says they did not receive any notification about the demolition—one day after Mohammad was arrested in connection with the 10 June violence, making it illegal and politically motivated.
For Parveen Fatima, the pain of losing her house is incomparable to how she feels about the police jailing her husband. “I thought let them go ahead and destroy the house if that's what it takes to get him back,” she said.
Faith In God
Mohammad’s family says they were so scattered and distraught on the day of the demolition that it was good neighbours who went and pulled some of their belongings from the rubble of the house.
As she moved about the kitchen in the rented house Mohammad’s family managed to find with some difficulty in a different part of the Prayagraj, Parveen Fatima did not speak of the many things they had lost in the demolition but the items of sentimental value they salvaged.
Running her hand over a dinner set they were given at their wedding, Parveen Fatima said she felt calm about the choppy waters her family had run into because of her implacable faith that god would set things right. But what she missed was her husband’s everyday presence and what worried her was his diabetes and the state of the nation.
From the beginning, Parveen Fatima said her husband pushed her to be more outgoing—as he did with his children, but it was something she found difficult. She was lucky she said that her husband was hands-on, buying everything from the curtains and blankets to the daily groceries. But his gentle needling for her to get more exposure did not stop.
“He would say, ‘Meet, talk to people. Why are you afraid?’ I would rather hear him scolding me about not going out than going out. Allah made me such that I don't like going out, but Afreen takes after her father and my mother-in-law,” she said.
Regarding Afreen’s activism, Parveen Fatima said her husband was more encouraging while helping temper her worries and doing it light-heartedly.
“He would tell me, ‘Let her do it once and get it out of her system.’ He was the most supportive of her standing for the election even when her brothers and I were against it. I would tell her, ‘Afreen, fighting elections is a man’s job, beta, don't get involved in all this. She would tell me the election was for the women’s college (Aligarh Muslim University), and she will be fighting for women’s rights,” she said. “They think independently, and we cannot tell them what to do. I tell them to say namaz five times a day and be honest and kind.”
Recalling the Russians who she used to see coming to the Bhilai steel plant and the many coming and going of Hindu neighbours to their home in Chhattisgarh, Parveen Fatima, while sharing memories of her youth, said that she felt the world had changed.
For the last few years, Parveen Fatima said she felt a distinct coldness from those Hindu neighbours, as calls became less frequent and no one told them when someone was coming to Prayagraj for a dip in the Ganga. No one called when the police arrested Mohammad.
“I'm not angry at one person but at my circumstances and the circumstances of the country and the world. Humans aren't human anymore,” she said. “That is why I stopped watching the news.”
Amid The Rubble
As she walked around the rubble that was once her house, Sumaiya Fatima said that her father had a rule about his family spending an hour with him every day. He did not object to them being glued to their mobile phones as long as they all did it together in the same room. Pointing to what used to be her father’s room, Sumaiya said he was clearing his almirah—separating winter from summer clothes—the day the violence erupted in Prayagraj.
As she pointed out the room that belonged to Afreen—the one her sister persuaded their father to paint dark blue with one light blue wall—Sumaiya Fatima said, “He was the one who supported her when Afreen appi first ran for the election. He told her, ‘Don't think about winning and losing. Just running is fun. Try and don't be afraid.’ He was the happiest when she won.”
They often joked in the family that Afreen was like her father, who was like their grandmother, said Sumaiya Fatima.
Mohammad’s father was an inspector on the roadways who wanted a quiet life, unlike his feisty wife, who worked for the poor and adopted a baby girl with special needs abandoned at a hospital where she volunteered.
Mohammad had pursued activism since his college days. Still, as the realities of domestic life became more profound, he worked as a salesman for a company selling fans in Mumbai and then a company selling pumps before returning home to run his pump dealership.
The family said they had years of financial difficulties. While the children learnt to be economical, their father told them it was important to buy good quality things. Even in the most challenging times, the children were educated at the best schools in Allahabad—the Boys’ High School and College, established by the Church of England in 1861, where Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan is an alumnus, and St Mary’s school, established in 1866 by a Catholic nun.
When his children grew up, and the family finances improved, Mohammad found more time for his activism. For the past many years, his life was that of a family man, a social activist, a man with many friends and a problem solver for those who needed help in the city.
His family salvaged newspaper clippings about Mohammad as the WPI leader in the city, a folder of the legal papers for the cases he has fought, and photos of events and meetings capturing his activism over the years. Among them were complaints against an anti-Muslim gathering organised by Hindu monks, petitions against the jailing of Indian Muslims on terror charges, clippings of judges speaking on civil liberties, an essay on the contemporary Muslim situation in India, and the Sachar committee report on Indian Muslims.
Flipping through photos of a Mohammad with police officers and bureaucrats, Sumaiya Fatima referred to SSP Ajay Kumar—the officer who had called her father the “mastermind”—as “SSP uncle”, explaining that she did it out of respect despite the anger she was feeling.
“My father worked for many years with the officers to improve things, but they are different now. We don't know what happened,” she said. “It now feels like we are not allowed to say how we think and feel. We have to keep it inside. Our bodies and minds feel imprisoned.”
Man In The Middle
But when Article 14 spoke to Kumar, the police officer said the local administration met many people from different communities. Mohammad was “double-faced”, and they had the evidence to back up their allegation that he was behind the violence on 10 June.
District magistrate Sanjeev Khatri said they had bulldozed several unauthorised constructions, not just Mohammad’s, and evidence had informed the action against him.
Recalling the days when they were working with the administration to clear the cemetery of encroachers, Mohammad Habib Rehman, a member of the Kala Danda Kabristan Committee of which Mohammad is president, said it was possible because Mohammad worked with the police to get it done.
During the pandemic's peak, when family members were afraid to be near the dead bodies of their loved ones, Rehman said Mohammad worked with the administration and managed the burials. He later found a more permanent solution to bury the abandoned bodies. More recently, Mohammad had lights installed alongside the main path transforming how the cemetery looked.
“No one else would have had the heft to get the encroachers out,” said Rehman. “He made everything so systematic that it was a big relief for the community.”
Even as the case challenging the closure of the slaughterhouse is pending, Naqvi, the lawyer, said Mohammad would get a favourable court order to open it up for Bakra Eid and then work with the administration to enforce it. Last year, Naqvi said the administration opened it up for a few days without a court order.
Roy, the lawyer, said that he knew Mohammad from their college days when they were all part of a group of “like-minded” and “secular-minded” people who believed in the rule of law. In all this time, Roy said he never knew Mohammad to have acted alone or rashly, but rather with other organisations and on joint platforms because he had a “wider perspective” on the social problems that came his way.
“He is a man who has immense faith in the rule of law and is a beloved activist of Allahabad,” he said, referring to the old name of Prayagraj before the BJP government changed it in 2018.
“Allahabad’s people believe in him,” he said.
Friends And Neighbours
Anshu Malviya, a Hindi poet and activist in Prayagraj, said they were not friends who met every day. Still, he knew Mohammad as a fellow activist since the eighties and had seen him evolve as a mediator and a firm believer in the judiciary over the years. The latter preferred activism to politics and keeping a low profile to being in the spotlight.
During the deadly second wave of Covid-19, Malviya said few in the city did more than Mohammad in getting rations and relief to poor people, often working with the administration.
"Thirty years is a long time to know somebody. I've never seen him be aggressive or lose his cool. He is calm and balanced and believes in taking everyone along," said Malviya. "It is impossible to imagine him plotting a violent rally and pelting stones. That is why how they are treating him is so shocking."
In their left-leaning circle of activists and friends, Malviya, who was attacked by goons during the anti-CAA protests in 2020, said they knew Mohammad to be a religious man and a devoted father to his children, especially his daughters.
"He is a friend, a helpful friend. He helps people to help them, not to get something from it. Even the bond he shares with his daughters is beautiful," he said.
Anjum Begam, Mohammad's neighbour, recalled she barricaded her house from the swarm of reporters who arrived on the day of the demolition. When she looked from a crack in the window, she could only see the shoes of the policemen clogging her street. Watching the bulldozers eating away at that property next door, Anjum said, was terrifying.
Remembering the days when her family moved into the colony and they did not have piped water supply, Anjum Begam said that Mohammad gave them water from his house for two years. In the 22 years that she knew him, Anjum Begam said people came to look at him as the man of the colony, relying on him to work out electricity, water and garbage problems with the authorities.
While many things occupied his mind as a social activist, Anjum Begam said there was nothing that mattered to him more than the health and happiness of his family.
“It is not easy to raise and educate five children and to build a house. They built it with a lot of difficulties over the years. More than relatives, the neighbours know,” she said. "They have not just demolished a house, they have destroyed a happy home."
Friend To The Teachers
Rattling the names of the teachers who populated their school life—Mr D'Souza, Mr D Costa, Mr Egbert, Mr Maxwell—54-year-old Kamar Ali, who has been friends with Mohammad since they were in class two, said that Mohammad would get along with the faculty and students in equal measure.
While he and many children their age were indifferent or incurious about their teachers, Ali said that Mohammad liked speaking with them. When Mohammad’s sons went to the same school as him, they would carry nihari with them for his old school teachers.
Ali said that Mohammad was a “good friend” to him as they became adults. When he no longer wanted to sit at his father’s general store and could find no other work, Mohammad showed him an advertisement for a supplier to the airforce and went with him a few times to complete the paperwork. When it came time to admit his children to school, Ali said that Mohammad helped.
“I can bet my life that he could never do the things they accuse him of,” he said. “He is a good person and friend who does not deserve this. What they have already done to him is too much. Now, let there be justice.”
(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14).