New Delhi: On Friday, Delhi witnessed a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that exceeded the strength of those it had seen so far at Jamia Millia, Jantar Mantar and India Gate. What started as a peaceful protest at 1 pm ended with police brutality by nightfall.
The day’s events began at 1 pm, at Jama Masjid, after a call put out by Bhim Army leader Chandra Shekhar Aazad, who had called upon people to assemble and march from Jama Masjid to Jantar Mantar at which point they intended to sit on an indefinite dharna. Police sources told The Wire they had anticipated between 12,000-15,000 people attending. The Bhim Army side was expecting twice that number.
Just after noon, rumours of Aazad’s arrest had already begun to do the rounds, causing him to issue a tweet saying they were false and that he would be at Jama Masjid. By the time I reached central Delhi, Delhi Metro had closed down several stations in the area including Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. I reached Jama Masjid at 1.30, on a cycle rickshaw from New Delhi station. Before dropping me off, the rickshaw wala who had been giving running commentary on the general uselessness of the government, looked at me and said, “Paanch baje tak ghar jao – yahaan pe police aa gaye hai.” (Make sure you leave by 5 pm, the police are here).
Jama Masjid, Friday afternoon
At the Jama Masjid, thousands of people stood together before the gates, all the way up the stairs and all the way down through Chawri Bazaar, with one cry ringing out – ‘azaadi’ from the CAA. It was so packed there was no room to fall – every protestor was being held up by the bodies of the rest, with cries for freedom from black laws, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and the BJP. A tangle of wires stretched across the roads and lanes above and every time a monkey ran across, the crowd below cheered, shouting, “Modi Shah hai hai” and “Modiji ki tanashahi nahi chalegi nahi chalegi”. From a vantage point on the rooftop of a building in front of Jama Masjid, one could see thousands of people raising their voice against the imposing magnificence of the mosque, tricolours waving in full glory.
At every point through the protest there was a vein of fear running through that unrelated miscreants would use the energy of the protest to start violence against the police, which would allow them to unleash violence upon the protest itself. The organisers exhorted the protestors to sit down, saying that any untoward actions would play directly into the hands of the police. Along with a deep mistrust for the police was a disdain for ‘Godi Media’. One protestor said to The Wire, “We don’t want the godi media here — no matter what we do they will find a way to blame Muslims.”
The crowd was tense but exhilarated, with former Aam Aadmi Party leader and MLA Alka Lamba present. At the beginning of the protest, she had climbed up onto the walls surrounding the Jama Masjid, joined by scores of young men raising their voices against the ‘black law’.
Chandrashekhar Aazad, in comparison, was in the thick of the crowd – hidden at first, until he revealed himself to wild cheers. As the police attempted to detain him, he gave them the slip, with what will go down as a historic run through the rooftops of Old Delhi. He was allegedly sheltered by a family, and was so hidden that even his followers thought he had been arrested – until he showed up again to resounding cries inside the Jama Masjid, staying within there until events forced his hand by night.
It was at this point that the protestors started their march, going from Jama Masjid to Delhi Gate through Daryaganj. It was at Delhi Gate that they were prevented from going further by a huge paramilitary force, who had come armed and bearing water cannons.
Daryaganj to Delhi Gate, Friday afternoon
At no point during this entire period did the protest feel even remotely violent. At Daryaganj, I made my way to up to a flat that was under construction so as to get an aerial view of the strength of the protest. Even though there were thousands on the streets slowly filling up Daryaganj, there was an insistent peace. This protest differed from those that took place the previous day at Lal Qila and Mandi House in that these protestors were predominantly Muslim men – a critical distinction given the police violence unleashed upon them later in the day.
At around five, a hush descended upon the roaring crowd as the azaan rang out and the protestors swiftly began to organise themselves for the evening namaaz. I was right in front of Delhi Gate at this time, and as the protestors lined up their footwear neatly in rows along the road and spread their jackets and scarves on the street to kneel in prayer, there was an ineffable sense of hope and peace made uneasy by the baleful presence of the police in riot gear.
It is impossible to describe the dichotomy of that moment – hundreds of people in profound, peaceful worship, kneeling with bowed heads, joined together in a sacred vulnerability with the deep hum of the ameen thrumming in the air, while right beside them stood a smaller but more organised force, armed with guns, shields and sticks, water canon and tear gas. I have never seen a more poignant picture of the state of the nation as in that moment.
One of the most numinous and simultaneouslychilling moments I have seen today was the protestors efficiently and peacefully coming together to do the namaaz while the police watched and waited.#DelhiGate pic.twitter.com/MZhBaNQ0zl
— Naomi Barton (@therealnaomib) December 20, 2019
After the namaz, the protest swung back into form, but more toned down. Organisers had begun asking people to start heading back home, and failing that, to the Jama Masjid. An imam walked through Daryaganj with his loudspeaker, exhorting the crowd to go back home, where their mothers and fathers, wives and children would be waiting for them. Protestors formed a human chain and gently began to move the crowd away from Delhi Gate, away from the police, back up the street.
The only sign of any aggression I witnessed at that point was not toward the police; it was single individuals angrily questioning the press about why they “had not spoken the truth” about the protests at Jamia, at AMU and at Seelampur. Even then, anyone getting angry was immediately surrounded by other protestors to ensure they kept the calm, and to make sure reporters were safe, no matter how high emotions ran.
When I left Delhi Gate at 6 pm, there seemed no chance of violence. The crowd had thinned out considerably from the packed crush of people from earlier in the day, where the potential for chaos was so much higher. Protestors had begun to clean up the litter left behind – water bottles and tea cups along the road, clearing things away.
Half an hour later, as soon as twilight fell, the situation changed and the police had begun a violent crackdown along Daryaganj up to the Jama Masjid.
In Connaught Place, pro-CAA meeting calls for violence
At the same time, a huge protest was taking place at Connaught Place – this time in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Supporters of the BJP were openly calling for violence: A notable slogan was “Goli maaro salon ko, desh ke gadaaron ko” (‘Shoot all traitors to the nation’) , led by former MLA Kapil Mishra. Despite the blatant calls for violence, there was no water cannon and no riot police on hand. A policeman accompanying the protest said Section 144 had not been enforced.
हम भी सड़क पर उतर चुके हैं
कोई गलतफहमी ना पाले
संसद में जीतना आता हैं तो सड़क पर भी जीतना आता हैं
दिल्ली के हजारों युवाओं के साथ आज मैं भी सड़क पर हूँ
— Kapil Mishra (@KapilMishra_IND) December 20, 2019
While we were at Connaught Place, reports started arriving thick and fast. Apparently in response to stone pelting, the police brought out their water canon and waded in with lathis raised high, aimed at heads. A car had been burned down by an unknown person, directly in front of the Daryaganj police station, and on the assumption that it was by the protestors, the police terrorised those along Daryaganj up to the mosque. What had been a carefully and neatly organised row of footwear less than an hour ago had turned into hundreds of slippers strewn on the road as protestors ran, with blood spilling in the street.
We rushed back, too late to bear witness to the violence in action and only able to pick up the pieces from the ruin left in its wake.
At LNJP hospital, stories of police violence
A woman whom The Wire met later on at LNJP Hospital five minutes away from the Daryaganj thana said that the police had charged indiscriminately at protestors who were running away. Trembling with shock, she was attending a protest for the first time, and suddenly found herself with a young boy whose head had been struck by a lathi, bleeding profusely from the head onto her kurta, paralysed by horror at what was taking place.
“Unke sar phod rahe the.”
A girl who went to protest alone for the first time today talks about how the police lathi charged without warning, hitting a young boy on the head who said he was not protesting, he just worked in the area. She took him bleeding to LNJP. #DelhiGate pic.twitter.com/xZuLEzZjG2
— The Wire (@thewire_in) December 20, 2019
I reached LNJP at 8 pm, where the hospital was on lockdown, entering through a back entrance. The place was teeming with police, jumpy and furious or defensive, with one immediately yelling at me on seeing my phone. Nobody was allowed to meet patients that had been detained in the hospital, but two doctors who had seen them reported at that time that at least 17 patients had been admitted, two with fractured legs, and the majority with head and other bone injuries.
Bystanders who happened to be near the protest as well were caught in the violence, with a man who runs a photocopy shop sporting head injuries outside the hospital telling The Wire that he had made his way out as soon as they bandaged him in the fear that the police would take him in and torture him.
— The Wire (@thewire_in) December 20, 2019
This fear would prove to be well founded. Thirty-two people had been detained at Daryaganj Police station that evening, from Delhi Gate as well as Jama Masjid, and a team of lawyers assembled outside the police station at night to demand that the detained be given legal and medical aid, which the police refused. Those detained included at least 11 minors.
Horror stories at Daryaganj police station, Friday night
At about 9 pm, a crowd had slowly started to assemble by the police station again, with worried parents and relatives of people of those who had been detained making their way there, after being too scared to come before in fear of the riot police which was still on standby. Zainab, the sister of one of those detained, said she was at the protest when her brother was taken away, and hotly disputed the allegations of stone throwing. Her brother had been able to call her when he was detained, saying that he had been bundled into a police van as a bystander. (Interestingly, a video surfaced the next morning, of policemen on the roofs of the Jama Masjid neighbourhood that afternoon, breaking bricks on the terraces.)
— A (@RealAamAdmi) December 20, 2019
Shabana, the wife of one of those detained, who had come to the station with her baby, said she had received a call from her husband as he was being taken away. He had called her and told her he was being taken in to the station, and said that he was afraid the police would beat him up. He was crying.
Lawyers organised the parents of those waiting, taking down the names of those that were missing and believed to be at the station, patiently communicating with uncooperative police officers so as to find out the minimum information about the detainees.
While lawyers were outside the police station, some of the minors inside were being subject to beatings, which we only found out about when they were released hours later. The police refused information to the lawyers, with an ACP allegedly saying, “Darwaza band karo, inko andar ghusne mat doh, inke baat karne ki zaroorat nahi hai,” according to Mishika Singh, a lawyer.
At 11.30 pm, metropolitan magistrate Arul Varma called for the release of minor detainees, unequivocally stating that it was against the law, and allowing lawyers to meet with them.
At 10.30 last night, while area magistrate & duty magistrate remained unavailable, chief metropolitan magistrate Arul Varma rose to the occasion. Hearing the #Daryaganj protest matter at his residence, the judge sought to assure legal & medical aid, besides minors’ rights. pic.twitter.com/9yDBfgVIRn
— Utkarsh Anand (@utkarsh_aanand) December 21, 2019
At midnight, the juvenile detainees began to be released one by one. Two juveniles accompanied by their parents spoke to me on video, and said that despite telling the police their age, the police threatened them with jail. A 17-year-old who happened to be at Jama Masjid who was on his way home, said that the police beat them with lathis when taking them into the vans, and continued to beat them saying that they had set the car on fire, and thrown stones at policemen.
Another 17-year-old said that the police had put him into a bus, saying they would take them to Seelampur, but then took him to Daryaganj. He said 10-15 men hit him with lathis as they put them into the bus, and started beating him in the bus itself, showing bruises on his head and legs. He said that inside the police station, they had removed his pajamas and beat him with belts, and that he had had fallen unconscious after the police hit him with a lathi on his head.
Another 17 year old boy was released with a medical certificate from LNJP Hospital which described his injuries – bruises across his arms legs and chest, and a bloody head injury. An image taken after he was released shows his clothes covered in blood.
The last of the 11 juveniles that were in Daryaganj police station were released at 2.30 am. The release of the adult detainees was announced later, around the same time Chandra Shekhar Azad, who had been inside Jama Masjid since his return, announced that he would turn himself in to the police for the detainees to be released, saying that the violence was caused by BJP stooges and that the Bhim Army’s protest was peaceful.
दिल्ली पुलिस द्वारा गिरफ्तार किए जाने से पहले @BhimArmyChief का संदेश, चंद्रशेखर आज़ाद को दिल्ली पुलिस ने कुछ देर पहले गिरफ्तार किया है। बता दें कि चंद्रशेखर ने NRC और CAA के खिलाफ #JamaMasjid से आंदोलन का किया है। pic.twitter.com/5L5Z1a1N5F
— Wasim Akram Tyagi (@akramtyagi) December 20, 2019
At this point, lawyers had called for attention to be drawn to Seemapuri, near Dilshad Gardens.
A protest had broken out there in Friday afternoon around 4pm, after people had left the mosque following namaz, Mohd. Saleem, whose relative was detained and who was present said that stones had been thrown by children who ran. At that point, he alleges, the police released tear gas and started entering the houses of people near the mosque, picking up people at random and accusing them of stone pelting, taking them away in vans.
Seemapuri, early hours of Saturday
I left Daryaganj for Seemapuri at 1.30 am. Lawyers had been given information that 13-15 people had been detained there, with at least one minor present. Sana, the wife of an older man who had been detained was there as well, tearfully saying that she didn’t know how he could be detained as he did not even have his own teeth, and could not have caused any violence.
Rizak, a 19 year old, was released half an hour after I reached there, along with a minor who was 17. Both of them were tight-lipped – saying only that the police had just hit them a few times (‘doh chaar chaate maare’) and asked normal questions – and appeared intimidated by what had taken place. The minor had a visible swelling across his face, and was limping. On being asked, he said the police had not hit him much.
A little while later, Rizak told me that while he was kept aside and not beaten as he told the police that he was a ‘sugar patient’ (diabetic), he witnessed the minor being beaten across his face with shoes. The minor begged to be released and told the police officers that he was a student, and that he had an exam the next day, but the police did not relent. He also said that the police laid out detainees on a bench and beat them with lathis, while using abusive language and demanding to know who had thrown stones. The adults detained at Seemapuri were charged on Sunday under, among others, Article 307 of the IPC – Attempt to Murder.
At 7pm on Saturday, Chandra Shekhar Aazad was charged with instigating the violence at the protests which took place at Daryaganj, even though from all accounts he was at Jama Masjid at the time. In court, the police refused to let the press in to watch the proceedings. When reporters protested, the magistrate then ordered an in-camera hearing, despite Azad’s counsel protesting that there was no provision in the CrPC for this. On applying for bail, the police opposed it saying that he could threaten witnesses, and he has been remanded into custody for 14 days.
Adv. Paracha for Chandra Shekhar Azad @BhimArmyChief is saying that there’s no provision in the CrPC regarding this. But, the judge refused to listen to us and has passed an order about no press and in-camera proceeding.#CAA_NRC_Protests
— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) December 21, 2019