Asif Tanha, a student and terror accused, recalls the time he spent in Tihar Jail
Asif Iqbal Tanha speaks of his ‘activism’, the 13 months he spent in prison and of justice delivered and justice derailed
Arrested last year for alleged involvement in Delhi Riots case and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Asif Iqbal Tanha is out on bail, thanks, he says, to a landmark order by the Delhi High Court and his team of lawyers especially Sowjhanya Shankaran. Getting bail within 13 months of being charged under UAPA, he points out, is nothing short of a miracle. Others he saw in prison are languishing for much longer.
But Indians, he says, still have faith in the judiciary. “In rural India, whenever there’s a fight, the weaker party always says ‘Court mei dekh lenge’,” he recalls and then adds with a sigh, “if only courts were not so slow…” He was hopeful of being released some day because the circumstantial evidence against him mentioned in the chargesheet was too far-fetched. “I knew Natasha and Devangana because of the anti-CAA protests but I’d never even spoken to them,” he explains, adding, “The more I read through the 17,000 pages, the more mistakes I found!”
On his time in jail: “For the first 14 days in jail, I wasn’t allowed to read the namaz or keep a roza in Ramzan. They would tie me to a tree and thrash me. They asked me which case I was arrested in, and when I told them, their reaction baffled me.”
Things changed after he was transferred to Jail Number 4. He motivated some to sing, shared stories and lessons with others, bought crayons and paint for someone who liked to paint and wrote letters and applications for others. Out of the five minutes that he was allotted every day to talk to his family, he often used just one and connected someone else’s family on conference so that they could talk.
Though prison inmates are regarded as dirt in the dustbin of society, the “waste there can be recycled” and they deserve to be treated better. “Inmates are not given medicines, medical attention, proper food, legal aid or any other facility that the jail manual allows them. Some are in depression and need counselling. How will they change?”
There is also no system in place for inmates who’d want to study. There’s a library, and you can borrow books, but there is no place to sit and read. Moreover, there are only novels in the library and nothing else. For those who wanted to read newspapers, advance payment had to be made (and it cost 10% more than normal). Tanha says, “Whenever there was some news about me or my case, the jail authorities would cut it out and then give me the paper.” He recalls being asked by an inmate if he was a terrorist.
He also recalls someone else taunting him that this wasn’t the place for his activism, when he spoke to the jail authorities about another inmate’s concern. Tanha says, “Mujhe bola gaya ki yeh meri netagiri karne ki jagah nahi hai”.
The court ordered to shift him to a guest house when his exams were nearing, because the jail didn’t have any provision that’d allow him to take online exams. He adds, “You can’t study in jail. Firstly, the conditions are not conducive and you can’t focus. And secondly, you can’t ask people to sit silently just because you want to study. If they don’t talk or crack jokes, how else would they pass the 24 hours?”
What baffled him more was the jail authorities refusing access to news channels. “There was a television in jail but all the Godi media channels were locked. I wonder why!”
On his arrest: In December 2019, the campus was shut down following protests by students against CAA and after Delhi Police stormed the campus, beat up students and broke CCTV cameras in the library. He took advantage to travel to other cities to express solidarity with protests there. Delhi was where he spent the least time during the next few months but yet that did not stop the police from implicating him in the riots in February.
What continues to distress him is the media trial. The disclosure statement in his case was leaked by the police to the media even before it reached the court. “The media called me a terrorist, a jihadi and a rioter. Most of these videos are still available on YouTube, and they sometimes make me cry.”
After Delhi Police arrested Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider, both research scholars, he was convinced that they would come for him too and he started reading about UAPA. He was called several times to ‘assist in the investigation’ and once his phone was seized. The main ground of suspicion of the police was apparently because neighbours had told them that he only returned home at night and left in the morning. That was because he was doing relief work for labourers in the lockdown, distributing food and ration, he says.
When he was out as usual during daytime, Shaheen Bagh police called him and asked him to return to his room. They needed a photo of him, they said. He volunteered to send it to them, but they insisted he should return and hand over the photograph. When he got back, he recalls with a chuckle, a high voltage drama was enacted to create the impression that he was about to flee the country.
He was taken to Jamia Nagar Police Station, where he was put in another car and taken to the Special Cell office. After keeping him overnight, he was handed over to the Crime Branch.
A supportive family: Tanha was the first person from his small Jharkhand village who came to Delhi to study. His ammi has promised that she would never stop him from fighting for the country, the Constitution, his identity and rights of the people. His activism did not begin with anti-CAA protests, he recalls with a laugh. It began when he entered the Jamia university campus. Jamia didn’t have a students’ union and before he knew it, he was fighting for it. He went on to lead protests against the mob-lynching of Muslims, protests after Rohit Vemula’s suicide and then attacks on students and universities.
But the turning point of his life, he says, was in 2016, when Najeeb Ahmed, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, went missing after he was beaten up by a group owing allegiance to ABVP. “I’m emotionally attached to Najeeb’s issue,” he adds and says he meets Najeeb’s ammi every time she visits Delhi. He feels strongly about being a Muslim in India. Muslims are second to none when it comes to patriotism, he points out but feels the government and the media have let down India’s Muslims. He is also disappointed with the political opposition failing to rally against the mounting injustice.
He would like to see India’s Muslims to fight daily demonisation and discrimination. He also wants them to raise their voice against injustice to tribals, adivasis and women, because they are all equal citizens of India and contribute in building India everyday.
“It is possible that I might have to go to jail again, because of their labels of terrorist and anti-national, but I think I am strong enough to not be afraid of them anymore. Whenever the country or the Constitution needs me, Asif Iqbal Tanha will be standing in the first line.”