Shifa Ur Rehman's Three Years in Jail Have Been a Constant Fight for Basic Rights

While his family finds it hard to hold on to hope, Rehman, an accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, believes different communities in India can still find a way to resolve their differences.

New Delhi: “When I was living life normally, we saw the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act], and today we see so many incidents targeting Muslims,” says Shifa Ur Rehman, one of the longest incarcerated undertrials in the Delhi riots conspiracy case. He completed three years in Tihar Jail on April 26, 2023.

Rehman, 46, is also one of the 18 people accused of provocation which led to the violence that unfolded in northeast Delhi in February 2020, and is named in the chargesheet for FIR 59/2020.

Communal violence shook northeast Delhi and caused widespread damage to the area, its Muslim-owned properties, mosques and Islamic shrines. Fifty-three people were killed, a majority of whom were Muslims. But the Delhi Police arrested some of those protesting the CAA, accusing them of using the two-month-long movement as a front for planning the riots. A majority of those arrested, both locals and activists, were also Muslims.

Harassment and hearings

On April 26, 2020, Rehman was asked to report to a police station in Mawana, in Uttar Pradesh’s Satla, from where he was arrested, and then taken to Delhi to remain in police custody. After 20 days in custody, he was moved to Tihar jail.

In the initial two months of his arrest, Rehman was not allowed contact with his lawyers, despite multiple orders by Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat directing the Tihar jail authorities to look into the situation. This continued until the Delhi high court intervened in September 2020.

After he was able to connect with his lawyers, the Delhi police refused to provide copies of the 17,000-page chargesheet in FIR 59 to his counsel, despite two orders by the trial court directing the police to fulfil this basic legal right.

Also read: Delhi Riots: New Charges, Multiple Bail Rejections Keep Gulfisha Fatima Lodged in Jail for 3 Years

The prosecution was only provided the hard copies of the FIR on March 25, 2021.

The FIR 59/2020 accused Rehman of offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1967 Arms Act and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Charges include but are not limited to rioting (Section 147 IPC), rioting with a deadly weapon (Section 148 IPC), murder (Section 302 IPC), attempted murder (Section 307 IPC), sedition (Section 124A IPC), promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony (Section 153A IPC), unlawful activities (Section 13 UAPA), terrorist acts (Section 16 UAPA), raising funds for terrorist acts (Section 17 UAPA), and conspiracy (Section 18 UAPA).

Shifa Ur Rehman along with fellow anti-CAA protestors in Jamia Nagar in 2019. Photo: Special arrangement

The FIR 59/2020 also accuses Rehman of “managing the protest sites as well as the execution of the conspiracy hatched for the riots in Delhi”. As per the chargesheet, Rehman, as the president of the Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia, “used funds from overseas accounts for providing logistical and other support to protestors and rioters,” amounting to lakhs of rupees, and forged bills amounting of Rs 1,69,554 to conceal some of the spending.

Section 17 of the UAPA levies punishment for raising funds for a terrorist act, punishable with a prison term of not less than five years that may extend to imprisonment for life, and a fine.

At a hearing in February 2023, Rehman’s lawyer Mohit Mathur before a special bench of Justice Siddharth Mridul and Justice Rajnish Bhatnagar said that Rehman cannot be roped into the case merely because of the idea that there may be a conspiracy. Mathur added that, “My [Rehman’s] role will have to be specific and limited to what I have done if at all there is anything culpable”, also saying that the witness statements relied upon by the prosecution suggesting Rehman’s role are “pure hearsay”.

Family’s fears and anxieties

In January 2023, Rehman stopped contacting his family from Tihar Jail. The five-minute calls that made the family feel closer to Rehman had been halted by the jail authorities.

To be able to connect with their families, Rehman and his co-accused whose calls were stopped – Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid and Gulfisha Fatima – filed applications before the court. On January 30, the court directed Tihar Jail authorities to provide inmate calling facilities for five minutes thrice a week to Rehman, Meeran Haider, Fatima, Athar Khan, Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and Tasleem Ahmed.

The directions of the court came as a relief to the family.

Noorien Fatima, Rehman’s wife, has been grappling with the multiple issues that face her and the family in his absence. Fatima told The Wire, “Our sons have become used to his absence, they have stopped asking about their father.”

Fatima, who has been severely dejected at the state of the trial, feels pained for her sons. They are spending their prime years without their father, and have matured before coming of age.

Also read: Three Years Since the Delhi Riots, We Are Left With the Fruits of an Extraordinary System

“Our children wait outside as the trial goes on. The minutes when they see their father being brought to and taken from the court holds them together. But the way their father is brought and taken away by policemen scares them.” Fatima said, “For the first few months they were very hopeful, but they are hopeless now. I have become their mother and father both.”

Zia, 13, their eldest son, has become quieter over the three years, Fatima explained. The constant trauma of living without his father has induced in them a sense of fatigue and quietude. “In the age that Zia is, boys look up to their father’s presence. I think his confidence is getting severely affected because of what our family is facing,” said Fatima.

Rehman’s tiring trial

On April 7, LiveLaw had reported that the trial in the UAPA case which points to the Delhi riots conspiracy is likely to commence soon, as a Delhi court has concluded the stage of supply of documents under Section 207 of CrPC for the accused persons, except Devangana Kalita.

The proceedings in this case began in September 2020 and the commencement of this UAPA trial, more than two years after the chargesheet was filed, would imply that the court will now proceed to the stage of framing of charges against 18 accused persons – Shifa Ur Rehman Khan, Natasha Narwal, Ishrat Jahan, Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Tahir Hussain, Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid, Gulfisha Fatima, Mohd Faizan, Khalid Saifi, Shadab Ahmed, Tasleem Ahmed, Salim Malik, Mohd Saleem Khan, and Athar Khan.

Answering The Wire’s questions from Tihar Jail in April 2023, in a telephonic interview, Rehman said he reads the news in jail and it deeply disturbs him. The Muslim identity, he said, is becoming increasingly vulnerable in the country.

Even after spending several Eids in prison, away from family, Rehman’s outlook towards India has not changed. “I have and will always love my country, it is a part of my faith to love my country, despite whatever I am facing. But the kind of anti-minority narrative being fanned in the country scares me. I hope communities resolve their differences and live in harmony,” he said.

Commenting on the reason for the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, Rehman said that India is a multicultural nation but certain fringe elements are trying to polarise the narrative and induce hatred between communities. “Everything is slowly turning into a Hindu-Muslim issue,” Rehman remarked.