Fear stalks Uttar Pradesh as people are reminded of Kashmir at every step
Not only are Kashmiris unwelcome and suspects in the state, the Internet shutdown, excesses by the police and arrests for social media posts remind people of Kashmir and the Valley of fear
December has been a cruel month in Uttar Pradesh. For the first time, internet services were shut down in the state for almost a week. The common man was suddenly a potential threat to the mighty state ruled by Yogi Adityanath and people could no longer send or receive a simple text message.
The silver lining, if there was one, was that it made people think of Kashmiris, where the internet remains suspended for over five months. There were other things that reminded people in UP of Kashmir. Not only did the Uttar Pradesh Police claim that they had credible information that Kashmiris had engineered violence in Lucknow on December 19 ( signalling clearly that UP is no longer safe for Kashmiris, who could be picked up on suspicion), but a majority of the 75 districts in the state witnessed stone pelting and police brutality.
The chilling words of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who declared at an election rally in Jharkhand on December 3, “ When in 2024 the Congress comes to encash its vote bank, BJP would have implemented the National register of Citizens (NRC) in the entire country and would have identified and thrown out every infiltrator”, were clear enough and left not just Muslims but also Hindu liberals in no doubt about what he meant.
If that was not enough, Uttar Pradesh Police and the Rapid Action Force of the CRPF treated protesters like they do with the stone pelters in Kashmir. Fortunately, in the age of cell phones, not all but some acts of police brutality are now available in videos. Policemen raining blows indiscriminately, firing surreptitiously, firing tear gas shells, rubber bullets and stun grenades, even pelting stones themselves — were as menacing and as effective as the CRPF and the Army in Kashmir.
Protesting peacefully, policemen would say, was not just illegal in view of the prohibitory orders promulgated over the entire state (which itself is dubbed as illegal by legal experts) but also anti-national. In western UP, young protesters seem to have been picked up by the police and handed over to men in plainclothes (civil defence force or vigilante groups), who are said to have taken perverse pleasure in assaulting the men in captivity.
There is apparently no record of such ‘arrests’ and the ‘arrested’ were told to behave and not take part in future protests. Or else, the families would pay. Indeed, in Muzaffarnagar, police are said to have sealed shops owned by the minority community and accused the owners of instigating violence. Fines have been randomly and arbitrarily imposed to ostensibly recover costs of damage to public property during the protests.
The irony has not been lost on people. Vandals, who demolished the Babri mosque in 1992 or in subsequent communal riots including Muzaffarnagar in 2013, have got away scot free. But random people in the state are now being penalised for violence unleashed by mobs.
Uttar Pradesh also resembled Kashmir because people, possibly for the first time, stopped posting comments on social media, stopped meeting activists, journalists and political leaders out of sheer fear. Even phone calls were no longer welcome, and people refused to talk about the protests and police action, lest they are picked up by the police.
Activists, when they met each other, put up a brave face. Some were defiant and recited poems. Some cracked feeble jokes. They recalled how Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav was told that the Japanese could transform Bihar into Japan in less than five years. The apocryphal tale held that the Bihar chief minister had quipped that given a year, he could transform Japan into Bihar. On similar lines, they joked, Kashmir in five months has not become the allegedly ‘developed’ Uttar Pradesh, but Uttar Pradesh in less than a month had been transformed to a police state and resembled now Kashmir. “Modi promised to ease tension from Jammu and Kashmir, but he converted the entire Uttar Pradesh into the Valley,” they said with a forced chuckle.
“Modi scrapped Article 370, but he has put an end to peace and harmony in Uttar Pradesh by amending the citizenship law and threatening to launch a nationwide NRC,” said Rajendra Chaudhary, spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party.
His party leader and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was even more blunt when he said: “BJP supporters are instigating violence during peaceful protests because they are in the habit of misleading the majority and foment communal trouble.” What the former CM said on December 19 seemed to be confirmed the very next day in Muzaffarnagar, where police dragged away protesters while supporters of Sanjeev Baliyan, BJP MP, were given a free hand to throw stones and clash with the protesters for half an hour.
Eyewitness accounts held that at almost every place including Lucknow, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Sambhal, Firozabad, Kanpur, Bahraich, Varanasi, Mau and Azamgarh, police and the RAF didn’t stop those who were involved in pelting stones and arson but they caned protesters who tried to stop the violence.
And when protesters got agitated and retaliated with stones on the forces, they found themselves at the receiving end of rubber bullets, tear gas and batons from the police and the Rapid Action Force.
Sadaf Jafar, a woman activist and a former teacher, was beaten up by Lucknow police because she was recording the violence on her mobile camera and asked police at Parivatan Chowk: “Why are you silent spectators when some people are committing violence? Are you here not to take any action against them?” The policemen initially ignored her and then attacked her, hitting her with lathis and butts of rifles when they realised that she was live on a social media site and uploading the scenes, which showed that the police was selective in its action.
“Those who were burning buses and cars were also hurling invectives on us when we asked them not to do this. They were carrying revolvers and firing occasionally,” a protester in Sambbal told reporters the day violence erupted there on December 19.
Two people, who were instigating the protesters to burn shops, were beaten up by the people and locked up in a shop in Gorakhpur city on December 20. But they were rescued by the police. These two people were not among those who have been booked or arrested for their involvement in violence. The local police claimed they were members of “civil defence.”
For the record, a member of civil defence is said to be a public spirited citizen who helps the police in maintaining peace. For decades in Uttar Pradesh, they have changed with every change of the party in power. Civil Defence force comprised Bahujan Samaj Party members when Mayawati was in power between 2007 and 2012. When the Samajwadi Party won the election and formed the government, the state’s Civil Defence force was overnight filled with SP supporters. And now of course they are the BJP and RSS supporters since 2017.
Mainstream media have shown police firing from rifles and pistols at many places in the state. But OP Singh, the Director General of Police, stoutly maintains that not a single bullet was fired by the UP Police.
He blamed the deaths on “rioters who were called from Malda in West Bengal” with the expertise to resort to violence in Lucknow on December 19.
But now the state police are also claiming that Robin Verma, a social activist and a part time teacher in a minority institute of Lucknow, confessed to them that “60 to 70 stone pelters were brought from Jammu and Kashmir to engineer violence.”
Verma, ironically, was with Omar Rashid, a journalist in Lucknow when both were picked up by the police from the gates of the Bharatiya Janata Party office.
Rashid said the police told them that they were being arrested for hiding one Fazlu of Kashmir somewhere in Lucknow, and for rioting and damaging properties. Rashid was later released after two hours following public pressure but Verma was sent to jail. Significantly, Verma had some video footage recorded on his mobile phone, which showed the police selectively targeting Muslim families in old Lucknow after the violence on December 19. He had shown the videos to several journalists while sipping tea close to the VVIP Guest House.
Hours later, he and Rashid were picked up by the police.