Ahmedabad, Gujarat: Around noon on 21 June 2022, Kalim Siddiqui was reading the newspaper in his store selling household paints and other hardware in the Bapunagar locality of Ahmedabad when he received a call from an unknown number.
The caller did not give his name. He said Siddiqui had been summoned to the office of the crime branch of Ahmedabad police in Raikhad, near the Sabarmati riverfront. Taken aback briefly, the 39-year-old assumed it was a routine call of some sort and visited the office the following day.
At the police station, he found he was not alone—other Muslims activists had been summoned too, about 40 of them over a period of three days, he later found out.
Siddiqui said he was asked questions about his family, his place of residence, children, their school, their daily routine, other personal details, including his occupation, and what he did after work hours. Policemen noted down Siddiqui’s social media handles and asked what subjects he posted about.
After the activists had waited “hours” at the police station, assistant commissioner of police (ACP) D P Chudasama reportedly asked them to stop demonstrating on the streets with placards, banners and posters. According to Siddiqui, the officer asked them to “focus” on their families instead.
Most recently, on 25 September, seven activists preparing for a padyatra (march) from Godhra to Ahmedabad to show support for 2002 riots survivor Bilkis Bano were detained at 10.15 pm in Godhra.
Over 100 policemen entered the room where the activists were having dinner and detained Magsasay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, Noorjehan, Nitesh Gangaramani, Tanushree Gangopadhyay, Hanif Kalandar, Kausar Ali and T Gopal Krishna, who were taken to the B-Division police station in Godhra. Later in the night, Kalandar, who is a local corporator, and the two women activists were released, while the others were taken to Kakanpur police station, around 25 km from Godhra.
The police stalling permission for their padyatra, Pandey began a hunger strike in custody. Eventually, around noon on 26 September, the detained activists were released that afternoon, and the march proceeded. That night, they were detained again, with police adamant that the padyatra would not be allowed to proceed.
Crackdown Grows. Police Say No Crackdown
With elections to the 182-member Gujarat legislative assembly approaching, the recent detentions reflect a state crackdown on dissent and lawful protests and an increasingly hostile environment for civil society. The padyatra was the first major demonstration against the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists on 15 August.
Three days after Siddiqui and other activists were summoned to the crime branch office, on 26 June, Mumbai activist Teesta Setalvad who pursued cases related to the 2002 Gujarat riots was arrested by the Gujarat police. Activists in Ahmedabad who would normally have staged demonstrations against the arrest remained silent.
“The police do not even inform you clearly why you are being called,” Siddiqui said. Before he went to the police station on 23 June, he told some activist friends to be “prepared” if they didn’t hear from him by 5 pm.
Given his history of run-ins with the police for his activism and the recent call to the crime branch office, Siddiqui felt unable to organise a protest or even write posts on social media about Setalvad’s arrest.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns, civil society activists in Gujarat said the state has witnessed a decline in the number of protests, demonstrations and rallies across issues and movements.
Gandhian activists, those working on the rights of tribals and Muslim activists told Article 14 about being picked up by policemen before a protest event, or being summoned by the crime branch in anticipation of such events.
At least two activists—Siddiqui was one of them—were externed from their home districts and nearby districts during the pandemic months.
Despite repeated attempts, Article 14 could not reach ACP Chudasama, who had been transferred out of the Ahmedabad Crime Branch after the June detentions.
Director general of police Ashish Bhatia denied there was any crackdown on dissent.
“Day in and day out programs are being organised,” Bhatia told Article 14. “Whatever is allowed as per law we allow, we don’t have a problem with that. Unless it has a communal angle or it's about some serious issue, we do not restrain anyone.”
A Series Of FIRs For Protests
Siddiqui is a long-time activist, having participated in an anti-liquor movement, a 2017 march to Una to protest the killing of four Dalit youth for alleged cow smuggling and, more recently, in mobilising those opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
With a commerce degree from the Aligarh Muslim University and a background in student politics, Siddiqui originally belongs to Ahmedabad. He now focuses more on his small home-improvement products store and less on public life.
In 2020, Siddiqui and others staged a ‘Shaheen Bagh’ in Gujarat for a couple of days, in the Shaheri Garib Awas Yojana area of Ajit Mill in Rakhiyal, Ahmedabad. “We tried to keep the demonstrations very peaceful, and there was no trouble that came our way,” he said. Covid-19 lockdowns prevented them from continuing the protests.
In July 2020, the police issued a notice to Siddiqui announcing proceedings to extern him from Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Kheda and Mehsana districts, based on four first information reports (FIRs) against Siddiqui at various police stations. The notice listed only two FIRs, one each at the Rakhiyal and Ramol police stations in Ahmedabad.
The complaint at Rakhiyal police station was for allegedly violating prohibitory orders under sections 144 (unlawful assembly with deadly weapons) and 188 (disobedience to order promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, for a bandh call in December 2021. Arrested in that case, he had immediately been granted bail.
The second one was in Ramol police station, dating back to January 2018, under sections 143 (unlawful assembly), 144, 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50) and 294 (B) (recite / sing obscene song, ballad or words in or near a public place) of the IPC.
These cases were for anti-liquor protests, including a gherao of the office of a joint commissioner of police.
High Court Quashes Externment Order
The externment notice named 10 unidentified witnesses who had reportedly given statements against Siddiqui calling him a “trouble-maker” who frequently disrupted the peace.
“All the witnesses who appeared against me did so in the month of June,” Siddiqui told Article 14. “All of a sudden, all of them turned up, and that too in the middle of a pandemic.”
The externment proceedings were conducted before the assistant commissioner of police. On 13 November 2020, Siddiqui was declared ‘tadipaar’ (externed), for a period of one year, until the Gujarat high court quashed the externment order in August 2021.
The hearing in his appeal was still underway in the high court when one afternoon in February 2021 Siddiqui crossed paths with a stranger who told him he was the complainant in the Ramol FIR.
“He said he did not even know me,” said Siddiqui. “It was the police who forced him into being the complainant.”
When Article 14 contacted this complainant, he said he had called the police when, three years earlier, a fight had broken out in Bapu Nagar. “However, I never named anyone,” he said.
Months later, he got to know that Siddiqui was facing externment proceedings on the basis of that complaint, and had reached out to Siddiqui. “I later also met the police inspector and told him that,” he said.
Quashing the externment order, the high court pointed out that 2 FIRs were mentioned in the externment notice but not shown. The government lawyer called this a ‘typographical error’.
“A Muslim in Gujarat is irrelevant before the elections,” Siddiqui said sadly. “We are used like a bait for electoral benefit throughout and thrown under the bus before the elections.”
A Gandhian Activist Detained Overnight Before Trump Visit
In Ahmedabad, activists said it had become almost impossible for them to organise seminars on issues related to hate crimes and human rights. If they tried to hold these events outside the city or if they attempted to invite a speaker or activist from another state for an event, they faced state action, they said.
It was 1 am when a posse of policemen knocked on the door of Dev Desai’s house in Ghatlodia, Ahmedabad, in February 2020.
Desai lives in a joint family with 11 members including his three-year-old daughter who was then an infant. When he answered the door, he saw a black SUV outside and two crime branch officers at the doorstep. They were there to take him into custody.
“I was not given a reason for being taken into custody, and was only given time to drink water,” said Desai, 32, a Gandhian activist. “I remained detained for over 24 hours for a hunch that the police had about me.”
According to the crime branch, they had intelligence that Desai and others had planned to protest with black flags as visiting US president Donald Trump’s motorcade passed, to make their anger against the CAA known.
The anti-CAA protests were still active in Gujarat at the time, and the crime branch was taking no chances even if it meant detaining people on mere suspicion.
Desai, who works for an nonprofit named Anhad from the offices of the Mahatma Gandhi-founded Sarvoday Mandal inside Gujarat Vidyapeeth and a participant in various movements since his college days in 2012, denied that such a protest had been planned.
“I asked if I could at least change my clothes, but they refused,” he said.
Detained In His Boxers
As Desai stopped to drink a glass of water, he managed to send a text message to friends saying he was being detained so that they could take further steps if he wasn’t released the next day.
Eventually, he was detained in his boxers until 6 pm the following evening, along with several other activists in Gujarat.
According to Desai, before 2012, Gujaratis heard frequently of alleged threats by terrorists seeking to kill prime minister Narendra Modi, then the state’s chief minister. “Every now and then, we would hear of encounters,” he said.
According to one report, there were at least eight such encounters, with five to six Indian Police Service (IPS) officers and 20 policemen accused of involvement in fake encounters.
At that time, Desai said, at every protest they staged, they were labelled Congress supporters. It was, however, after 2017 that activists began to feel active intimidation by the police.
In 2017, activists including Desai, Jignesh Mevani (now a legislator), Rahul Sharma and a few others had rallied thousands of people with their ‘Chalo Una’ call. Four Dalit youth had been assaulted in Una, a town in the Gir Somnath district of south Gujarat, for allegedly skinning a cow.
As preparations were underway for the protest march from Ahmedabad to Una, a distance of 350 km, the process of seeking permissions appeared smooth in comparison to the hurdles the organisers faced trying to bring speakers to Una. One of the speakers was Kanhaiya Kumar, then a student leader, who was himself facing death threats at the time.
According to Desai, officers in civil clothes were stationed at the Ahmedabad airport. To ensure that Kanhaiya Kumar made it out of the city and to Una without being stopped by police, he was put inside a car that drove him till the riverfront, where he was shifted to another car that went till Juhapura.
“The moment we reached there, colleagues who were ahead of us told us the police were checking all cars to hunt Kanhaiya down,” Desai said. Organisers hurried their speaker into an ambulance that zipped past police pickets and reached Una.
Since this incident, Desai became an identified activist in the police’s list, he said.
Now, even to organise a seminar in Gujarat Vidyapeeth’s auditorium, police permission is required after the university management gives its nod.
Desai said police often denied permission, either on seeing the names of the organisers or on account of the topics to be discussed. In 2020, Desai sought permission for various events on 15 occasions and was refused each time, he said.
Before Every PM Visit To Tribal Area, A Police Hunt
Since 2013, two days before any event or inauguration by the then chief minister in the tribal belt around Kevadia and Narmada districts in north Gujarat, Lakhan Musafir would be taken into custody.
A 60-year-old activist based in Kevadia town, Musafir has fought for the rights of the state’s indigenous people and their education for four decades.
Kevadia is a schedule V area, named thus for being included in the Constitution’s fifth schedule.
Though the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), which grants tribal village panchayats the right to a measure of territorial integrity through empowering them to make decisions including about land acquisitions, is applicable here, locals said they were not included in the government's plan to turn Kevadia into a tourist destination.
In 2007, when tourism plans for Gujarat were extended to 72 villages around Narmada, Musafir and other activists began to take the map given by the Gujarat government house to house and organised public meetings to educate tribals about the rules and how their lands would be lost.
“Ever since the inauguration of the Statue of Unity, more than ever before, tribal land is being sold to capitalists who have entered Kevadia and are constructing hotels, restaurants, etc in the area,” said Musafir.
He said he became aware of the adverse impact of industrialisation in the Nineties, when Vapi and Ankleshwar began to become polluted. While the state government has promised sustainable development of areas around the Statue of Unity, protests have emerged every time a new plan was announced.
Since 2013, Musafir alleged, regardless of who gave a call for a protest, the police would summon him or question him about it.
According to Musafir, a day before the inauguration of the Statue of Unity on 31 October 2013, at half past ten in the night, police reached his house to detain him. He remained in custody until the event was over.
According to the police, Musafir was picked up for a speech he had given at a public meeting on 2 October 2019. Musafir also faces charges for allegedly provoking riots, illegal assembly, harming public employees, and criminal intimidation in 2019.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Musafir’s case was heard and on 14 September 2020, he was externed from Bharuch, Narmada, Vadodara, Chhota Udepur and Tapi districts of the state.
Why Gujarat’s Farm Protests Were A Quiet Affair
By mid-2020, with the pandemic and lockdowns having devastated household incomes, crop prices dropped dramatically, deepening economic distress for agrarian communities. Cotton, which had averaged Rs 6,000 per quintal the previous year, had dropped to Rs 3,000 per quintal.
Pal Ambaliya, a lean 44-year-old farmer leader from Devbhoomi Dwarka who has been working for the rights of farmers since 2014, went to the Rajkot district collector’s office in May 2020 with two other farmers, all three of them carrying sacks of cotton, to demand better prices for their produce.
Before they could enter any office, they were stopped by policemen in the compound and taken to the nearby Pradyuman Nagar police station in Rajkot where they were made to wait for hours. In the evening, policemen took protesting Pal away, claiming they were going to take him to the office of the commissioner of police.
“The police took me to a far-flung area and beat me up,” Ambaliya told Article 14. “This was in return for all the scams of the government that I had unveiled earlier.”
Ambaliya felt this was “obvious” because only he was targeted for the assault, not the other men accompanying him.
“I asked if I had committed a mistake or if I was responsible for crops being sold at half the rate,” he said. He claimed the policemen tied him to a neem tree and beat him for 15 minutes.
Pal, and also Desai, said farmer protestors from Gujarat found it difficult to participate in the nationwide protest by farmers on the outskirts of Delhi. When farmers in Delhi gave a call for a tractor rally on 26 January 2021, farmers in Gujarat wanted to participate.
A ‘Delhi Chalo’ call was given for 13 January when farmers were to begin their journey to the capital. The previous night, however, one of the organisers of the farm protest, Chetan Gadiya, saw policemen at his doorstep and was taken into custody. The police claimed the detention was for violation of pandemic rules.
On hearing of this, Pal shaved his head and moustache and, with a changed attire, started to drive towards Delhi along a different route so as to not cross paths with the police.
“I moved from Junagad and, crossing the hills of Aravali, entered the Rajasthan border and reached Udaipur where everyone was supposed to meet.”
Other farm activists who wished to remain anonymous also confirmed that when arrest by the police began, they opted to take different routes, some by buses, cars, tractors and others by trains, offering excuses along the way that they were visiting relatives or beginning a pilgrimage.
At least 13 farmer leaders in Gujarat were placed under house arrest for seven to 37 days. Pal says that it was difficult to even state on social media that they were going to be a part of the Delhi farmers’ protest.
A colleague from Rajasthan who posted on social media that he was going to Delhi to join the movement suddenly found policemen at his doorstep, said Pal.
Pal said their families have borne the brunt of the state’s crackdown on them. Musafir, fearing an uncertain future, never got married. Siddiqui reluctantly parts with information on his family members and his business. Dev’s three-year-old daughter watched her father being taken away in the middle of the night.
Pal’s loved ones became targets too.
“Every time they want to target me, they knock on the doors of my relatives and harass them,” he said. “And in a village like ours, if the police are at your door, you are a criminal.”
(Hrishi Raj Anand is a freelance journalist based in Delhi reporting on issues of unemployment, human rights and education.)