India's Muslim protesters detail alleged 'acts of vengeance' by police

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Haji Hamid Ali’s eyes well up every time he talks about the night when he says dozens of armed police barged into his three-storey house, vandalising it beyond redemption and detaining his son.

Police allegedly went on an hours-long rampage across several Muslim-dominated areas of Muzaffarnagar, a city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, following protests earlier this month.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets across India after Friday prayers on December 20 to decry a contentious new law that grants Indian citizenship to people from certain religious groups in three neighbouring countries, but not Muslims. Uttar Pradesh is the country’s most populated state with 200 million residents, of which around 20 per cent are Muslim, and it was the worst affected with at least 19 people killed.

That proposed law has been further compounded by the introduction of a national citizenship register, prompting fears that Muslims could be stripped of their Indian citizenship.

The protests were met with a harsh crackdown and an internet block, which authorities said was to help end the unrest. Only days later did the harrowing details of alleged police violence begin to emerge.

Mainstream media broadcast videos showing police attacking protesters, firing live ammunition and smashing up Muslim properties in Uttar Pradesh.

Indian security personnel detain student activists during a protest against alleged police brutality on protesters in Uttar Pradesh. EPA
Indian security personnel detain student activists during a protest against alleged police brutality on protesters in Uttar Pradesh. EPA

Muzaffarnagar’s Muslim residents say that police stormed their homes and destroyed their possessions. They claim it was a clear “act of vengeance” by the state’s government, which is headed by a firebrand Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, who has previously promised an iron fist in response to protests.

“It is worse than anything that has happened in all the previous riots over the decades. I have been living here for the last 40 years, but never witnessed this barbarity,” said Mr Ali, shrieking and sobbing as he lay in a bed recovering from what he says was a police beating.

Over a week later, Mr Ali’s home still resembles a junkyard. “They did not spare a thing in this house. We do not have a cup left to drink tea,” said the 73-year-old, who runs a timber business.

Seven-month-pregnant Shanno, 25, also had her world turned upside down by the protests. Her husband, Noor Mohammad, a manual worker originally from Khalarpur, was shot in the left temple while on his way to work. He was taken to hospital, but later died, and police did not allow relatives to take his body home. They said the burial had to be done in another city 60km away.

“I couldn’t even see his body. My daughter couldn’t see her father’s body, I want justice,” Shanno said, weeping inconsolably. She said she is worried for the future of her one-and-a-half-year-old, as well as the new baby.

I want justice

Shanno, wife of man killed in Muzaffarnagar's protests

Police said they did not fire live ammunition during their operation to calm the unrest, and that the shot that killed Mohammed had come from the protesters. Around 70 people have been formally charged with rioting, attempted murder and arson, and local police are searching for another 200 suspects.

“Stones were being thrown, there was arson and attacks on police vehicles,” Abhishek Yadav, police chief of the district, said.

“We were outnumbered heavily by the protesters but still used minimum force to control the situation."

Mr Yadav refuted allegations of police vandalism and said a special team has been set up to investigate the claims.

“We are a disciplined police force. We do not go to homes to vandalise and steal,” he said.

“Our job is to safe guard every citizen.”

The small city of around half a million people is some 125 kilometres from New Delhi and is known for its sugar cane fields. It has a history of communal violence, and is separated into enclaves for the almost 55 per cent that are Hindu and the 41 per cent who are Muslim.

In 2013, 62 people were killed as violence erupted between the two communities in one of the worst riots of the last two decades. Muslims in the state claim they are being targeted for their faith under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Scores of Muslims have been killed or attacked by Hindu gangs in the last few years over allegations that they were eating beef or slaughtering cows, which are considered holy animals by many Hindus.

Policewomen detain a student protesting outside Uttar Pradesh. AP
Policewomen detain a student protesting outside Uttar Pradesh. AP

Tens of thousands marched on December 20 in Muzaffarnagar, shouting anti-government slogans and had planned to hand over a memorandum to the district officials against the passage of the law. Many dispersed peacefully, but some pelted police with stones and set fire to official vehicles, according to top officials, who said they were forced to use teargas shells and batons.

But residents say they were victims of co-ordinated, state-orchestrated violence, with police and BJP supporters hurling religious slurs and asking them to choose between “Pakistan or a graveyard”.

Many are also worried that the government will now move to reprimand the Muslim population for its dissent.

“They broke the shutter of my shop and looted mobiles worth 8 lakh rupees (US$11,500)," said Mohammad Asif, 49, who runs a mobile shop near the city centre.

“They targeted our shop because it is next to a mosque and called us 'Mullah' (meant as a religious slur)."

Zulfiqar, 40, who refused to give his last name, said that the police raid "sounded like a thunderstorm".

"There were police everywhere, banging on doors, hitting cars and vehicles … we could hear from a distance the shouts of police and people screaming at home."

He said police and men in plainclothes were selectively targeting well-off Muslim families.

Mehraaz, 38, and sister-in-law Ruksana Begum, 50, said their house was broken into after midnight by police, who ransacked everything.

“Our husbands ran away in fear of arrest … The police took one lakh rupee in cash, before beating and detaining my brother who was visiting,” said Mehraaz.

“They wanted to scare us, teach us a lesson, but Muslims are not scared of standing up for their rights,” Mehraaz’s husband, Haji Akbar, 40, said.

The government has defended its crackdown, and Muzaffarnagar police said they were following guidelines to control the protest situation.

Amid fear and anxiety, many Muslims say they will fight back for their rights peacefully and refuse to be cowed by heavy-handed police tactics.

"This is our country. They are intimidating us, trying to target us, but we will not leave this place and we will live peacefully,” said Mr Akbar.

“The protests will continue and we will not go anywhere, this is our place," he said.

Updated: December 31, 2019 07:08 PM

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