Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh: Umar Khalid, a 31-year-old law student, shared a Facebook post at seven in the morning on 10 June 2022 with photos of young men standing near a bus, announcing his arrival at a three-day-convention organised by the Student Islamic Organisation at the Jamiatul Falah religious school in Bilariaganj in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) district of Azamgarh.
“With a big and strong team, three-day UP convention of the SIO-2022, Jamiatul Falah Azamgarh,” he wrote.
Nine hours later, a few minutes after 3:30 pm, Khalid did a live stream of the event in Azamgarh, around 200 km away from his home city of Prayagraj, where a rally to protest the derogatory remarks made by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about the Prophet Muhammad turned violent. Over 400 people were arrested in connection with the violent protests in the BJP-ruled state at the time.
While accusing Muslim activists of planning the violence in Prayagraj, the UP police have described a violent agitation in the Muslim neighbourhood of Atala in the two first information reports (FIRs) they have registered naming them. They said that a mob of thousands with children took to the streets, throwing stones, shooting pistols, and lobbing bombs, gravely injuring three security personnel and destroying police motorcycles.
Residents disputed the police version of events, claiming the violence mainly was stone-throwing, not the “pistol-and-bomb” violence the police claimed.
In interviews with the media at the time, the senior superintendent of police (SSP), Prayagraj, Ajay Kumar, and district magistrate Sanjay Kumar Khatri said some young men hurled stones, and the situation was brought under control with the use of minimal force. They said that a few police personnel had minor injuries, and one dilapidated cycle rickshaw was set on fire and was put out.
As the media started reporting that the police suspected the role of ten people in the Prayagraj violence and were looking for him, Khalid quote-tweeted a news clip and said: “I've been 200 km away in Azamgarh since last night. Please don't spread rumours of this kind and incite the public. I'm not part of any kind of protest, nor am I in favour of this kind of incident.”
A few hours later, Khalid posted his Twitter message on his Facebook page: "Godi media reports anything from anywhere.”
Shamsul Islam, Khalid’s lawyer, who has filed for anticipatory bail to stop the UP police from arresting his client, told Article 14, “When a person is 200 km away, and he is doing a Facebook live, how can he be at the place of occurrence? All these things are lies.”
A month after the violence, the main accused and their families declined to speak because they feared the police would book another male relative. Lawyers, meanwhile, say the police have strategically targeted critics of the BJP’s majoritarian politics, those who organised and participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2019, and the farm laws, crushing the last vestiges of dissent in the city. In the past three years, the activists have been booked in connection with either the CAA-NRC or the farmers' protests.
In the applications for bail and anticipatory bail filed for some of the accused activists in Prayagraj, Shamsul has cited the messages that Khalid posted from Azamgarh, CCTV photos of a political leader at home on the day of the violence, a Facebook post by a social activist asking people not to come out to protest, their absence from police footage of the violence, and the 13-hour long delay in filing the first FIR describing the violence, to demonstrate the weakness of the police case.
A slew of recent cases, Article 14 reported on June 19, shows how the state manipulates the law and abandons due process to crack down on dissidents and activists, particularly if they are Muslim or from other minorities. Filing multiple FIRs has become a standard tool of harassment and extending incarceration even if a court grants bail.
Javed Mohammad : House Demolition To NSA
Khalid is one of the five people for whom the UP police had issued a non-bailable arrest warrant and announced a money reward of Rs 25,000 for information to locate them. The others are Shah Alam, district president of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Zeeshan Rahmani, a local leader of the AIMIM, Fazal Khan, a local leader of the Samajwadi Party, and Ashish Mittal, a doctor from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the general secretary of the All-India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha.
The police have also arrested Javed Mohammad , a leader of the Welfare Party of India (WPI), a distributor of pumps, and a well-known social activist in Prayagraj. He is jailed 200 km away in the Deoria district. On July 16, they booked him under the National Security Act, 1980, which allows the state to detain a person without charges for 12 months. Mohammad ’s wife, Parveen Fatima and his youngest daughter Sumaiya Fatima were illegally detained for two days after the police took him away on 10 June.
While no evidence pertaining to Mohammad ’s other daughter Afreen Fatima was shown after the violence on June 10, SSP Kumar told the media Fatima, a student activist from Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a critic of the BJP, of “being involved in such activities”.
After bulldozing his house on 12 June, alleging it was an illegal construction, the police claim to have recovered proactive political literature and illegal weapons–a 12-bore pistol and 315-bore pistol and bullets.
Refuting the allegations as false and fabricated, Mohammad ’s family told Article 14 that the destruction of their house and the removal of its contents was televised on Indian news channels, and no such claim was made at the time. News channels showed a poster that said, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” calling it incriminating material.
In June 2022, five days before he was arrested for the violence in Attala, an FIR was registered against Mohammad at the Kareli police station for hurting religious sentiments over a social media post about the allegedly one-side investigation carried out by the UP police after a protest against anti-prophet remarks turned violent in Kanpur and a second post on the independence of the judiciary.
Mohammad ’s family said that he deleted the Facebook post critical of the UP Police investigation into the Kanpur violence at the request of police officials in Prayagraj. He also wrote about the police refusing to register an FIR against the organisers of a religious gathering in Prayagraj on 30 January 2022 where Hindu monks declared India a Hindu nation.
“Why did the Kanpur violence occur? Why does the state government not investigate the real disease? Until when will people like Nupur Sharma and Yati Narsinghanand make obscene remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and the government and police will be quiet…” Mohammad wrote in the post.
A screenshot of the Facebook post has been included in the notice invoking the NSA against him.
Delays In Filing FIRs
The first FIR that carries a detailed account of the alleged violence in Attala was registered on 11 June at 3:13 am, more than 13 hours after the violence that erupted at around 2:00 pm on 10 June. The second FIR with a detailed account was registered on 11 June at 7:51, more than 17 hours later.
Legal experts say that naming people in multiple FIRs has become standard operating procedure to harass them and ensure they remain incarcerated despite getting bail. Long delays in registering FIRs after the occurrence suggest an intent to foist cases on the accused.
Multiple cases were registered against student activists accused of planning the Delhi riots and, more recently, fact-checker and Alt-News founder Mohammad Zubair.
In Zubair’s case, while prohibiting the UP police from arresting him in five cases they have registered against him, alleging hurting of religious sentiments through his tweets, Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud observed: “Contents of all FIRs seem to be similar. What seems to be happening is that as he gets bail in one case, he is remanded in another. This vicious cycle is continuing.”
2 FIRs, 2 Police Stations
Furthermore, in the case of the violence in Prayagraj, if the two FIRs registered at two different police stations are describing the same incident, they are in contravention of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling in T.T. Antony vs State of Kerala & Ors that only one FIR can be registered for one crime.
If the FIRs are describing different incidents in two locations in the same area, Islam, the lawyer for Khalid, Mohammad and Alam, noted that given the heightened violence depicted in the FIRs, his clients couldn't have been simultaneously rioting at two different places.
“If you read both FIRs, your head will spin at how fabricated they are,” he said. “How is it possible for the same people to be present in two different places at the same time.”
Video, Photo & Bus Receipt Submitted As Evidence
The anticipatory bail application for Khalid says he was submitting video, photographs and the payment receipt of his bus journey from Prayagraj to Azamgarh on 9 June.
The anticipatory bail application for Shah Alam says there is CCTV footage of 10 June that places him at home with his family, 2.5 km from where the violence erupted.
On the nature of events alleged by the FIR, the anticipatory bail applications said: “According to the FIR, 5,000 people continuously attacked with bombs, bullets and rocks but no policeman or passerby but no one was hurt by pistols or bombs nor was any FIR registered by a member of the public. The prosecution has not submitted any grave hospital report.”
The applications also said the police had not explained why they took 13 hours to register the first FIR of the Attala violence and 17 hours in the second one.
This week, Shamsul told Article 14 that Khalid and Alam’s anticipatory bail application was rejected in the district court, and they were moving the Allahabad High Court.
A Bridge Between Communities
Last month, a judicial magistrate rejected Mohammad ’s bail on the ground that he was not the competent authority to hear a matter of section 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, punishable with a prison sentence of 10 years. The application was filed before a sessions judge and is due for a hearing on 25 July.
The application said the district administration called a meeting on 9 June to stop the protest that Mohammad attended. The next day, in a Facebook post, Mohammad wrote “Bewajaah koi bhi sadak par ikattha bilkul na ho jisse poori millat ko nuksaan uthaana pade, jumma padhein aur apne ghar jaakar dua kariye aman aur shanti mohobbat kaayam rahe”. (Do not gather on the road together without reason. The entire community will have to bear the brunt. Read your Friday prayers, go home and pray that harmony, peace and love will prevail.)
The application said that Mohammad was never identified in any police footage and was at home on 10 June. “Without any evidence, he was declared the ‘mastermind’ through the media when the petitioner was not involved in the protest in person or on social media.”
In an FIR registered at 2:22 pm on 11 June, over 24 hours after the violence erupted, the UP police claim they apprehended Mohammed from near his house and recovered a 315-bore pistol and live bullets from him. Refuting the allegation, Mohammed’s family told Article 14 they have CCTV footage from a neighbour that shows him on a scooty near his house at 2:27 pm, 30 minutes after the police say violence erupted in Atala, approximately 2.6 km away, and they have photos that show him following the police on his own scooty after they came to take him away later that night.
“He is a social activist. He is known for working with the administration and solving problems,” said Islam. “What has happened is unbelievable. He is innocent. How they have treated him is deeply insulting.”
‘No Procedure Was Followed’
While officials say, they have demolished scores of illegal constructions in Prayagraj, advocate K K Roy, who is arguing Mohammad ’s wife Parveen Fatima's petition challenging the demolition as unlawful in the Allahabad High Court, said that Mohammad was targeted because he was one of the leaders of the movement against the CAA-NRC.
While Mohammad works with the administration in civic and community matters, he is also critical of the BJP’s majoritarian policies.
Roy has argued that Mohammad ’s house was demolished in contravention of The Uttar Pradesh Urban Planning & Development Act 1973 without notice or right to appeal. “Our development authority has done some backdating, forged everything, and demolished the house without giving notice,” he said. “No procedure was followed.”
In its counter affidavit filed before the Allahabad High Court, the UP government said that Mohammed's neighbours had also filed complaints that his house was constructed without a sanction map from the development authority, the premises was being used by the Welfare Party of India without a sanction map, and people kept coming at all times of the day and night and parking their vehicles on the road. Calling the complaints fabricated, Roy said the particulars of the complainants including mobile numbers and addresses were missing.
The complaint says, "All the colony members,” with a few signatures.
‘We Acted Based On Proof’
SSP Kumar told Article 14 that he was new to the district. Having arrived five months ago, he was unaware whether Mohammad worked with the district administration and the police.
“I don't know whether he was working with the police or not,” said Kumar. “He would come to meetings. I've seen him once or twice in meetings.”
Noting the arrest was made on evidence, Kumar said, “From what has come out so far, he has a double face.”
Kumar terminated the interview before we could ask about the nature of the evidence or the other activists.
Accusing the police of downplaying the role Mohammad has played as a go-between his community and the district administration, his family shared with Article 14 photographs of him with government and police officials over the years, including SSP Kumar.
Sanjay Kumar Khatri, the district magistrate of Prayagraj, told Article 14 they met over 500 people on the 9 June meeting, and Mohammad may have been one of them.
“We acted based on proof,” he said. “The court will decide the matter.”
‘There Is Legal Malice’
Ashish Mittal is a doctor from AIIMS, a social activist, and married to Madhavi Mittal, a successful ultrasound specialist in the city.
Lawyer T P Singh told Article 14, days after he moved the Allahabad High Court to quash the FIR against Mishra, that he had no role in the protest against the derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and was not in Attala on 10 June.
Mishra, Singh noted, was the only Hindu among the accused, there was no footage or specific allegation against him, and on the day the violence erupted, he was in the district court of Allahabad filing a bond giving surety for not participating in any such agitation, and the authorities have accepted that.
Mishra, Singh added, was being “victimised for participating in the farmers’ agitation”. In addition to four cases pending against him in connection with the protest, Singh said the administration had previously sealed his wife’s office over some alleged discrepancy with the records. Still, the High Court came to her rescue.
“We have challenged the FIR, saying there is legal malice,” said Singh, noting that Mishra was 62. “This is not proper, but illegal things are going on. Article 14, 16, 19, 21, 22 have become redundant.”
(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)