The Times, January 9, 2020
The crowd scattered and word spread up the street in panic: “Police, police.” While protesters scrambled to flee over the rooftops of the block in old Lucknow, dozens of officers burst in below, raining blows on women and children. The Muslim families cowered from their attackers.
“Take her veil off, check if she’s a man,” one officer yelled, pointing to Salma Hussain, 29, who wept as she recalled the humiliation. The women were groped and officers commented on their breasts as they beat them.
“One man put a gun to my head,” said Tabasum Raza, 26. “He said: ‘Tell me where the men are hiding or I’ll shoot you.’”
Some officers tried to stop their colleagues from looting but the mob was out of control. Dozens of men stormed from room to room, pilfering jewellery and cash, breaking ornaments and furniture. A copy of the Koran was hurled on the floor. “One man kept threatening the children. ‘Beat the children, then they’ll talk,’” Ms Hussain said.
Lucknow and other cities in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh have borne the brunt of a savage police crackdown on protests that have convulsed India over the past month.
A citizenship law rammed through parliament by the Hindu nationalist government of prime minister Narendra Modi in December has brought tens of thousands on to the streets, the greatest backlash yet to Mr Modi’s Hindu agenda.
Indian police have killed at least 23 people as they try to stamp out the protests, 19 in Uttar Pradesh. Allegations of torture, forced confessions and sexual assault on prisoners have emerged from across the state. Police have denied all allegations of abuse.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) offers a fast track to citizenship for migrants from neighbouring countries but not if they are Muslim.
Coupled with a planned citizens’ register to weed out illegal immigrants, the law is seen as a fresh bid to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims, who have complained of a surge in discrimination and hate crimes since Mr Modi and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014.
Mr Modi and his feared right-hand man, Amit Shah, the home minister, who has previously referred to Muslim immigrants as “termites”, insist that Muslims have nothing to fear. In Uttar Pradesh, however, communities have no doubt they are under attack.
“They are terrorising the Muslim community. India is a Hindu state now. We are second-class citizens,” Ms Raza said. “Children should not have to witness these abuses. We are not safe at all. Who do we turn to for protection if the police are acting for the government?”
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most-populous state, home to more than 200 million people, a fifth of them Muslim. A vast crucible of intersecting caste and religious tensions, the state is now governed for the BJP by the firebrand Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath.
A ferocious nationalist Islamophobe, Mr Adityanath has previously faced charges of murder and inciting religious hatred against Muslims. Since taking office in 2017 he has set about crushing Muslim-dominated industries, such as the beef and leather trade, and begun erasing the state’s Islamic heritage by renaming sites and cities with ancient Hindu names.
Since the CAA cleared parliament last month, Mr Adityanath has set about enforcing the act with a savage zeal. Police have been let off the leash to crush the protests, arresting hundreds, many on false charges, according to activists and lawyers.
Several of those killed as police fired on the crowds were charged posthumously with rioting. Efforts by bereaved families to take legal action have been blocked at every turn.
“One female officer said: ‘I’m going to draw blood from your face.’ Then she clawed me with her nails,” said Sadaf Jafar, an activist who was released on bail this week after being arrested in Lucknow in December.
“They kept beating me and calling me Pakistani. ‘We have given you people so much in this country.’ That was the first time I truly understood what it was to be a Muslim in Modi’s India,” she said.
Ms Jafar said that she was kicked in the stomach by a senior officer and left to bleed internally, only given sanitary towels hours later. Male prisoners were beaten mercilessly in neighbouring rooms. A group of men were made to strip in a cold room in front of her, revealing broken bones and bodies covered in deep bruises.
“I kept hearing cries and the sounds of beating,” she said. “New people were brought in and battered. The cries were terrifying.”
Mr Adityanath has relished the severity of the crackdown, despite the spiralling death toll, and reports of police brutality from across the state. His official Twitter account lauded his response as an “example for the country”.
He wrote: “Every rioter is shocked. Every troublemaker is shocked. Seeing the strictness of the Yogi government, everyone is silent.”
Determined to make an example of the protesters, the state government has also set out to cripple them financially. More than 700 men, most of them Muslims, have received huge fines for allegedly vandalising property during the clashes. They have a week to prove their innocence or face a fine. If they do not pay their property can be seized by the state.
Many say that they were not involved in the protests at all, or had no part in the violence. Mayank Shukla, a lawyer representing several men, said that his clients faced ruin. “Many are the only breadwinner for their families,” he said. “If the government seizes their property, they will be left to beg.”
With the crisis still unfolding, including an attack by masked men on a university campus in Delhi and a general strike called by unions against the Modi government, Uttar Pradesh has already begun implementing the new law. Senior government officials in Lucknow confirmed that local magistrates have quietly been ordered to begin drawing up lists of refugees and foreign migrants in their district.
Last summer in Assam state almost two million civilians were struck off the civil register in what was widely seen as a trial run for a nationwide crackdown on Muslims. The first of ten huge detention camps planned for Assam alone is nearing completion, to hold those left stateless pending deportation.
In Muslim neighbourhoods of Uttar Pradesh, word is spreading that they will be next.
“We will boycott the CAA but they plan to force us out,” Ms Raza said. “Muslims will be thrown out of this country. How do you tell your children that they are hated because of their faith?”