Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Lucknow/Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh): Suhail’s ambition is to be a doctor someday, but for now he can only stare with regret at his class 10 marks card. Instead of the “respectable marks” the teenager said he hoped for, the card says, “ABSENT”.
That is because Suhail—not his real name, which we have not used because he is not yet 18 and he would like to remain anonymous—was in jail during his board examinations.
“I have seen a lot of people suffer, and I want to serve them,” said Suhail. “I have lost one precious year of my life, but that will not deter my desire to become a doctor.”
Suhail was in illegal police custody because, according to Indian law, he should have been, at worst, in a juvenile home.
“Putting a child in jail for any crime is a clear violation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015,” said Naresh Paras, a child-rights activist based in Agra. “ In case a child has been sent to jail, then the Juvenile Justice Board can take action against the concerned officials. In many of the cases in Uttar Pradesh (UP), juveniles have been transferred to observation homes.”
Calls to Azamgarh Senior Superintendent (SSP) on 6 June were answered by the police public relations officer, who said the SSP was busy with meetings and would respond later. Both did not answer calls made again on 18 July.
Five months short of turning 18, Suhail—whose school admission certificate says he was born on 5 December, 2002—was one of two minors picked up by police near an anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019) protest site in the eastern UP district of Azamgarh on 5 February, 2020.
Suhail got bail 136 days later on 22 June. The other minor, Faizan (name changed), 16, got bail after 121 days.
Suhail and Faizan were among 20 arrested and charged with sedition, among other crimes, for allegedly staging an anti-CAA protest, which included Tahir Madni, general secretary of the Rashtriya Ulama Council, a regional political party. Madni said he was at the site trying to defuse the protest on behalf of the police.
A first information report (FIR) filed against Suhail, Faizan, Madni and 34 identified and 100 unidentified individuals by the Azamgarh police accuses them of crimes under 16 sections of the law, including sedition, rioting, unlawful assembly, intentional insult to provoke breach of peace, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal intimidation and attempt to commit culpable homicide (The FIR mentions sections 147, 148, 149, 124-A, 153-A, 504, 505, 506, 188, 332, 333, 336, 186, 353, 307 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code).
Suhail’s father Hakeemuddin, who works in a factory in the Middle East, was also arrested by the police and named in the FIR under the same sections. Hakeemuddin claimed that he was not part of the protest and was arrested by the police at about 5.30 am while on a morning stroll. Hakeemuddin also secured bail on 22 June.
Suhail does not have to report to a police station, but his fear is palpable. He did not want to recount his days in custody. His lawyers, he said, are waiting for the Allahabad High Court to reopen, so they can file a case about his age and illegal incarceration.
“While in jail I have realized that this government does not count Muslims as citizens,” said Suhail. “I want to serve them all equally and I will work harder now."
‘Anti-Muslim Slurs After Arrest’
Suhail told us that he finished school at 3 pm on 4 February and went to the protest site to see what was going on.
“I was there with my friends, and we stayed there at night,” he said. “The protests went on, the police and a maulvi (Islamic scholar) kept coming and going. After 3 am, the police attacked the protestors, and we were then asked to sit in the police van.”
Suhail said while they were in the van, the police “hurled abuses and slurs”, including katua (an anti-Muslim slur).
“We were then taken to the Kandhrapur police station and put in the lockup, where the abuses by the policeman continued,” said Suhail. After that, they were taken to the Azamgarh police lines at 11:30 am, and a medical examination was done by 4 pm. “
We were not given food or water by the police even after we begged them for it. We were sent to Azamgarh jail at 9 pm,” said Suhail. “The officers and policemen (in the jail) treated us like we had committed some big crime. This was my most humiliating experience.”
The other minor arrested, Faizan, said he was arrested at about 6 am by the police when he was going to a dhaba (eatery) where he worked in the morning.
“I was not involved in the protest, and the women police personnel on the road asked me to sit in the van,” said Faizan, a class VIII student. “I was then taken to police lines and told that I have been arrested. I spent four months in the jail.”
Faizan’s elder brother Naeem said he showed the police Faizan’s Aadhar card and school documents, which list his birth date as 4 February 2004, and requested his release.
“I took my brother’s mark sheet and other documents to prove that he was minor but no one at the Bilariyaganj police station was ready to listen to us and finally we had to take the help of an advocate to get my brother out,” said Naeem.
Violation Of Law: Advocate
Faizan got bail in the first week of June. The Allahabad High Court, citing Madni’s bail on 15 May, said the minor had been “languishing in jail” since 5 February. He deserves bail on “ground of parity”,
Madni said Suhail and Faizan were in jail along with him and the other adults but kept in a separate barrack for minors.
“The police were using me to defuse the protest,” said Madni. “The district magistrate and the superintendent of police had requested me three times that night to convince women protestors to withdraw their protest. In the last attempt, I was successful in convincing. them but the police baton-charged the protesting women while they were praying before wrapping up their protest.”
Talha Rashadi, Suhail’s lawyer, said the police hoped to “crush” the anti-CAA movement and they appeared to have filed charges with little thought.
“The contents of the FIR did not match with the sections imposed on my clients,” said Rashadi. “It was an all-women protest, but random men were picked by the police and they were all sent to jail. The juveniles were also not acknowledged as minors and sent with the adults in the jail, and that is a violation (of the law).”
(Saurabh Sharma is an independent journalist based in Lucknow and a member of 101Reporters.com.)