Delhi: For more than 25 years Talib Hussain sold chicken at his eatery—Mehak Restaurant—in Sambhal town, about 350 km northwest of Uttar Pradesh (UP) capital Lucknow, making a living reasonable enough to own his house, a car, a motorcycle and pay for the marriages of four daughters and two sons.
Everything changed on the evening of 3 July 2022, when in a widely reported action (here and here), the local police picked him up from his restaurant, following a complaint by a police officer, who accused him of hurting religious sentiments by selling chicken wrapped in newspaper printed with an advertisement carrying images of Hindu deities.
The first information report (FIR) filed against Hussain, 60, said after locals summoned police, they found a stack of 70 papers torn from the 3 April edition of Hindustan, a Hindi daily, some of which apparently were printed with the advertisements in question, commemorating Navratri, the Hindu new year.
“Iss karya ko dekh kar majood bheed restaurant ke maalik se kaafi krodit hai aur keh rahi hai ki isse hamari dharmik bhaavnaoon ko chot pahunchahi hai (After seeing this, the crowd at the restaurant are quite angry at the owner of the restaurant, and they say their religious sentiments have been hurt),” said the FIR, filed by a police officer.
No one came forward to file a complaint or be a witness, police sub-inspector Ajay Kumar Tyagi was quoted as saying in The Print, a website, on 6 July 2022.
So, Tyagi filed the complaint, even though the arrival of the police appeared linked to a tweet from the vice president of the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which said: “In Sambhal, Mehak Restaurant is packing chicken with newspapers that have photos of Gods. There are around 100 newspapers. The administration should take strict action.”
When the police started inquiries, Hussain, the police alleged in the FIR, suddenly took out an “illegal knife” from his counter and attacked them with the “intention to kill us police folk”.
The FIR charges him with the possession of illegal firearms, and in a video of his arrest, Hussain is seen peacefully accompanying two policemen on a motorcycle. The FIR says he cooperated with police after he was disarmed.
Charged under six sections of two laws, including attempt to murder, Hussain faces a long, legal battle. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years imprisonment. He alleged harassment by the police after he was released on bail, which a senior local official denied.
No Harassment, Says District Magistrate
A local judge granted Hussain bail and he was released on 19 July 2020 after 13 days of incarceration. After release, Hussain told Article 14, he sold only vegetarian food—paneer, vegetables and dal—for nearly a month.
“After I resumed my business, the police visited my shop three times and asked me to sell only vegetarian food,” said Hussain, who alleged he was singled out for such attention. He agreed, Hussain said, saying he reminded them on successive visits that he was selling only vegetarian food.
Hussain said no other restaurant was asked to shut down, “despite assurances from the DM (district magistrate) no one would harass me”.
Sambhal district magistrate Manish Bansal told Article 14 that no complaints of police harassment had come to his notice.
“This incident (the alleged wrapping of chicken in newspaper) took place after which an FIR was filed and proceeding happened as per law,” said Bansal. “But as far as running the restaurant (sic) is concerned, there was no intervention from my or my office’s side.”
The police also forced him, Hussain alleged, to shut his eatery for three days—21 July to 2 August 2022—apparently because of the Kawar yatra, an annual journey of devotees of Hindu lord Shiva to different places along the river Ganga. This year, the UP and Uttarakhand governments restricted or stopped the sale of meat, eggs and non-vegetarian food on routes of the Kanwar yatra.
The holy Hindu month of Sawan also ended on 12 August, during which eating non-vegetarian food is prohibited in Hindu tradition. Every year Hindus conduct processions in the town during Sawan to celebrate the birth of Lord Kalki who is believed to have been born in Sambhal.
In recent years, with the ascendance of Hindu nationalist governments in New Delhi and many states, the festival has seen heightened communal tension in northern Hindi-speaking states, such as UP, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Haryana.
Hussain’s case is the latest in a series of similar accusations and criminal cases against Muslims in UP, many seemingly without foundation, with this discriminatory attitude rooted in the approach taken by the government of chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
The Message From The Top
Since he began his second term in office in 2022, Adityanath has made clear his disdain for Muslims, threatening violence against the state’s largest minority on more than one occasion.
For instance, at an election rally in Jaunpur in October 2020, he warned about so-called “love jihad”, a popular Hindu rightwing conspiracy theory that says Muslim men entrap gullible Hindu girls into falling in love with them with the intent of conversion through marriage.
“Those who do not mend their ways, will be sent to their death journey (agar woh sudhre nahi toh Ram naam satya hai ki yatra nikalne waali hai),” he said in this 2020 video, an apparent reference to Muslims. Adityanath has denied hostility to Muslims, saying his relationship with them was “the same as their relationship with me” and it was “anti-national forces” he was opposed to.
His attitude has often transformed into official action, including demolitions of homes and properties of Muslim activists or those accused in riots, such as was witnessed in Kanpur in June 2022, where Muslims alleged bias in police investigations.
Muslims have said they felt embattled and persecuted in UP, including those who have been victims of hate crime and those who protested against India’s controversial 2019 citizenship law. Almost 37% of those killed in UP police “encounters” over three years to 2020 were Muslims, who make up 19% of the state population, the Economic Times reported in August 2020.
The result is that Muslims often take abundant precaution against anything that might be construed as being against Hindu sentiments, as Hussain did before and after he was released on bail.
‘I Know Why I Am Being Harrassed…I Am A Muslim’
Hussain said he believed his ordeal was caused by his Muslim identity, viewing his experience as part of the growing trend of attacking Muslims.
“I know why I was put in jail and why I am being harassed,” said Hussain. “It is because I am a Muslim, and it was done at the behest of RSS people.” He was referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.
Hussain’s business, which suffered during his ordeal, has started picking up pace. He said he believed people should be free to “live their lives the way they want and follow the religion they want to follow”.
But Muslims, Hussain said, faced a lot of prohibitions and problems these days”.
13 Days In Jail
The police team that visited Mehak restaurant on the day Hussain was accused of selling chicken wrapped in scrap newspaper, said his 30-year old son Mohammad Tabish, did not reveal the real purpose of their visit.
“They said ‘sir’ wants to see you at the police station,” said Tabish. “They said he would be home soon.”
Hussain agreed and went with the police. Once there, Tabish said, they made him sign a few papers, after which he was arrested. Next day they took him to a jail in Moradabad, 35 km from home.
The FIR invoked four sections of the Indian Penal Code 1860, including 295A (deliberate act intended to outrage religious feelings of any community), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race place of birth, residence), 307 (attempt to murder) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging their duties).
The police also booked Hussain under sections 4 and 25 of the Arms Act 1959, relating to possession of unlicensed arms and ammunition.
A Difficult Legal Case
It is the police accusation that Hussain attacked them with a knife that makes the legal battle ahead of him onerous.
“The attempt to murder charges made bail difficult, as the punishment is 10 years in jail, but we were eventually able to convince the judge at the sessions court for bail,” said his lawyer Danish Saifi.
Sambhal town, like many others in UP, had been witness to campaigns by Hindu organisations against Muslim business interests.
On 24 May, 40 days before the episode leading to Hussain’s arrest, Himanshu Kashyap, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of the BJP, had run a social-media campaign against meat shops, largely Muslim owned.
A video Kashyap posted showed a stream turning red, caused, he alleged, by blood from slaughterhouses, which also created a “stench”. Kashyap did not answer repeated calls seeking comment.
The Role Of The BJP’s Youth Wing
The FIR said that the police arrived at the eatery after hearing about an altercation between Hussain and some Hindus from an informer and found newspapers on the billing counter with images of goddesses Mahagauri and Saraswati.
But they appeared to have come there after Himanshu Kashyap, district vice-president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, posted pictures on Twitter, showing Hussain at the counter of his restaurant with a stack of newspapers with images of Hindu deities.
Kashyap tagged the Sambhal police, the chief minister and the district administration, seeking action against Hussain.
After arrest, Hussain was in jail for 13 days over what Tabish termed a “small matter” before he got bail.
The ordeal ruined the family's Eid festival. They did not even perform animal sacrifice, a ritual they had never missed before.
“Nothing felt good for those 12 days,” said Tabish, adding that his fearful children did not go to school during those days. “We were sad, and I think it was the first time we did not sacrifice a goat. If papa were with us we would have a happy Eid.”
‘Living In Constant Fear’
The family was baffled why Hussain was arrested. Both Hussain and his son, who was also at the counter on the day of his arrest, denied the allegation that they had wrapped chicken in the paper.
“It was roti (bread),” said Hussain, adding that they did not remember if they wrapped it in a paper with images of Hindu deities.
“When we buy scrap paper from our dealers we don't check each and every page,” said Hussain. “We have so many customers every day and every eatery sells bread wrapped in newspaper.”
“He was totally innocent,” said Tabish. “If it were about sentiments of Hindu community, then there would have been demonstrations in the city.”
“Everyone respects my father in the market,” said Tabish. “His focus is his business and would never do anything that could harm his business. Hindu neighbours supported us. They did not say anything against us.”
“They know my father was falsely implicated,” said Tabish.
“Hume bura lag raha tha magar hum ne koi hungama nahni kara, hum ne socha papa ki aazada ka wait karna behtar hai, hungama karne ka koi faida nahin, hum ne nahin chaha mahol kharab ho jaye (We were hurt but we did not raise any hue and cry . We waited patiently for his release; we did see any benefit from protesting and did not disturb law and order),” said Tabish.
Hussain said he had restarted selling meat since mid-August, but spoke of “living in constant fear”. He feared the case against him would drag on for years and burden him mentally and financially.
“It will go on for two or three years,” he said. “I will fight this legal battle. I have to keep count of hearings and pay the fee of the advocate.”
The next hearing will perhaps come up in about four months, after police file a chargesheet, said Hussain’s lawyer, Saifi.
(Zafar Aafaq is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)