New Delhi: “If you remain quiet despite injustices, you will survive. But if you criticise them (government), they will open the gates of prison for you,” says Tasneef Hussain, the father of Gulfisha Fatima.
On April 9, Fatima completed three years in prison, after the Delhi Police arrested (under FIR 48/2020) her for her alleged involvement in the clashes that rocked Jaffrabad in northeast Delhi when the city witnessed riots in early 2020. She took part in the protests that opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). She was charged under multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including for rioting and assaulting public servants.
Although the CAA was enacted on December 11, 2019, the rules which enable the real-time enforcement of the law are yet to be framed. Without rules framed, the law cannot be implemented. The Union home ministry was granted an extension for the seventh time by parliamentary committees in January this year since the law was enacted in December 2019 – this time for another six months.
While the law is yet to be implemented, many Muslim political prisoners, like Fatima, continue to languish in jails for protesting against what they called a “religiously discriminatory” law.
Delhi Police and conspiracy
After Fatima was granted bail in the case (FIR 48/2020) by a Delhi court on May 13, 2020, police lodged another FIR (FIR 59/2020) against her to ensure her custody. In the second FIR, police charged her under various provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA].
The FIR 59/2020 alleges that the Delhi riots were the consequence of a pre-planned conspiracy hatched by Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid, Gulfisha Fatima, Shifa Ur Rehman Khan, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Ishrat Jahan, Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Tahir Hussain, Mohd Faizan, Khalid Saifi, Shadab Ahmed, Tasleem Ahmed, Salim Malik, Mohd Saleem Khan, and Athar Khan.
Both the FIRs accuse Fatima of serious charges, with police alleging that the 31-year-old activist was present at a protest demonstration on 66 Foota Road near the Jaffrabad Metro Station, Delhi, from February 22 to 24. This, the police allege, proves her role in “conspiring and constantly instigating” the local Muslims against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
According to the police, Fatima opened an office near the above-mentioned protest site under the “garb of peaceful protests” demanding the revocation of the CAA, NRC, and the National Population Register (NPR). The police also said she had actively planned riots with her associates, naming Umar Khalid, Natasha, and Devangana in the FIR. The FIR also accuses her of instigating locals to “be violent” and use stones, lathis, and firearms against the police, and to create a “surcharge atmosphere”.
After her arrest in April 2020, Fatima’s family moved a habeas corpus plea in the Delhi high court challenging her arrest on June 22, 2020. But the high court bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rajnish Bhatnagar dismissed her plea and ruled that she cannot be in “illegal detention” because she was in judicial custody. The court further held that the decision of the additional sessions judge to remand her in judicial custody till June 25, 2020, was correct, saying that failing to remand her would “cause public disorder, confusion, and mischief”.
In all, three FIRs were lodged against her: FIR 48/2020, FIR 59/2020, and FIR 83/2020. The last one (FIR 83/2020) was filed after her arrest in April 2020 and whilst she was in Tihar jail. She secured bail in FIR 83/2020 on July 20, 2020.
Although it has been three years and counting, Fatima’s family says she is stronger and brave than ever before, and much more aware of her rights as an Indian citizen. The family members say she has emerged as a symbol of courage and resilience.
An MBA graduate, a student activist, and a history enthusiast, Fatima shared with her family – months before she was to get arrested – that she wanted to pursue a doctorate in history. “She wanted the prefix ‘Dr’ before her name. She always wanted to make us proud. And we are proud parents of a strong woman who understands the rights of Muslims,” her father says.
Her father, who attended online and offline hearings at courts, is punctual with his presence at these trials – because for him, even they were opportunities for him to meet his daughter.
“After I come home from hearings and there is no good news, Gulfisha’s mother cries. She has been traumatised because of our daughter being taken away. It is not easy for us, as parents, to see our daughter caged when she could have done so well for herself,” her father adds.
Fatima’s friend, who requested anonymity, shared that she had always been a helpful woman whose heart would go out to people in need. “She was beyond materialism. She studied to gain knowledge and spoke to people to help them, as compassionately as possible. Before being anything else, she was a friend to anyone in need,” her friend shared.
It is her third Ramzan away from home, as Fatima completes three years in prison, with the prosecution’s efforts to prove that she is the “mastermind” behind the northeast Delhi violence of February 2020 that followed the protests against the CAA which claimed the lives of 53 people, a majority of whom were Muslim.
Currently in jail for charges filed against her under draconian UAPA law, her c0-accused share the same fate, for allegedly “conspiring and planning” the February 2020 riots that still keep northeast Delhi tense.
Trials and trauma
In September 2020, during the hearing of her default bail, she complained that she had been facing harassment in jail at the hands of authorities. She had told the court that inmates in Tihar Jail were hurling communal slurs at her. “They called me ‘educated terrorist’ and are hurling communal slurs at me. I am facing mental harassment here. If I hurt myself, only jail authorities will be responsible for it,” she had said in court.
Later, in October 2020, when she completed 180 plus days in Tihar, and since no charge sheet had been filed against her within the mandatory 90 days period by the Police, she pleaded for release on bail under Section 167(2) of the Cr. PC. But the court dismissed her application claiming that there stood no merit in the application.
In November 2020, the sessions court granted her bail in FIR 50 under the Indian Penal Code charges of murder, attempt to murder, unlawful assembly, mischief, and other relevant sections of the Arms Act and Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. The court observed that Fatima was in custody since June 3, 2020, and that “the co-accused Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal have already been granted bail in the case and their role is stated to be similar to the present applicant/accused”.
The trial court had in March 2022 denied her bail and so she has appealed before the Delhi high court. The order in this appeal has been reserved by a bench of Justice Siddharth Mridul and Justice Rajnish Bhatnagar. Her bail, along with another accused, Tasleem Ahmed’s bail pleas were rejected by the Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat saying that in view of the charge sheet and the accompanying documents, the allegations against the accused appear to be “prima facie true”.
Recently, on February 2, during her bail hearing before the high court, her lawyer, Sushil Bajaj, had pleaded that “if nothing else, we can at least give her freedom back”. Here as well, while opposing her bail through special public prosecutor Amit Prasad, Delhi Police maintained that Fatima was part of a WhatsApp group to coordinate protests and roadblocks.
In response, her lawyer submitted that Fatima had only created the WhatsApp group “Warriors” for the purpose of protest and there is nothing incriminating in that. After the arguments in the case concluded, a division bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Rajnish Bhatnagar reserved orders in the bail plea filed by her.