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New Delhi: The morning is a bit rushed: waking up three children, making them sit for online classes, especially the seven-year-old, designating a spot for each of them and making sure that they don’t start playing video games, doze off to sleep or get into a brawl with each other during the classes. It can be a bit much when you have been parenting solo for the last 17 months.
It’s her 14th year of being married. When the marriage proposal came in 2007, both she and him wanted to meet at least once privately, something still a rarity in most traditional arranged marriage situations.
They were to meet at a newly opened Pizza Hut outlet in Connaught Place in central Delhi. She was 20, a first-year undergraduate student of Delhi University. Him, 25 and a postgraduate from Symbiosis Institute, Pune.
She took the metro, and he drove. “Unlike other men I had seen, he was neither reckless nor stuck up. Sensible and mature, but also had a sense of humour,” she says.
“He collected chillies from both our pizzas and made me eat them. Imagine!” she recounts.
He even made her foot the bill for the meeting. She grew up with men around her paying for things. This was entirely unexpected from a man who you are supposed to marry. “But I liked it. I felt equal, in control,” she says.
They got married in a few months. It was a conventional life, but a happy one.
The next few years were spent taking care of her three children, the youngest came much later because they both wanted a daughter desperately.
He initially worked with his father in his furniture business. “But he was not very inspired in his work,” she says. He later started a travel company that organised pilgrimages.
But he always had interests beyond his work.
If the drains would get clogged, if the sewer line would overflow, he would start running from pillar to post to get them cleaned, sorted, she says.
“I used to get hassled. We live on the third floor. It is not even affecting us. Why do you need to do this?”
He got involved in the anti-corruption protests of the India Against Corruption movement in 2011-2012.
When Aam Aadmi Party was formed in 2012, he genuinely believed in the possibilities of this new party.
“Every election, busy netajis would come and tell us to vote for elephant, kite, spoon, and what not. But they had no time to get the drain cleaned,” she recalls.
Fed up with unemployment, failing infrastructure and useless election campaigns, he worked for the party for a few years.
They had a deal at home. He wouldn’t be asked what he does the entire week. He came late at night, sometimes at 1 am-2 am. They didn’t even have a meal together on days at a stretch. But one day in the week was sacrosanct. The children still call it #FridayMasti and their social media is full of their time together – mall, waterpark, public park or just a drive.
On June 22, 2017, a 15-year-old boy, Junaid Khan was on his way back home to Faridabad in a Mathura-bound train. Eid was just days away. He had bought new clothes, shoes, etc. He was stabbed to death by a group of men after an argument over seats turned ugly. The men allegedly mocked the boys, tugged at their beards and accused them of being beef eaters. They threw him out of the train at Asaoti station in Faridabad where he bled to death.
By now India had already witnessed two bloody years of hate crimes and lynchings targeted at the Muslim minorities in the garb of cow protection. Fundamentalists had been emboldened by state support and enjoyed complete impunity.
But Junaid’s lynching brought everyone’s nightmare alive – you may be killed just because you being from a particular community offends fundamentalists.
Five days later, on June 28, 2017, a protest called ‘Not in My name’ was organised all over the country to condemn targeted killings in the name of safeguarding the majority community’s interests.
He was disturbed too and went to Jantar Mantar, the ‘Not in my Name’ protest site in Delhi.
That is the first time he was detained by the police. “I panicked at the thought of him being arrested.”
That’s when she learnt the difference between detention and arrest.
A couple of people were detained along with him that day. A few days later, they formed an advocacy group called United Against Hate (UAH).
UAH would hold frequent protests for Muslims, tribal Christians, even for Sri Lankan Christians. They organised solidarity events for the Kerala floods and for people in Palestine. They condemned the attack on Nankana saheb and also held public tribunals for fake encounter cases.
They collaborated with journalists, researchers, activists to send out fact-finding missions across India – on the National Register of Citizens in Assam; to Kasganj, Bahraich and Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh for the spate of violence. They would even protest for press freedom and even stepped in when journalists like Prashant Kanojia were jailed. A new world had opened up that was beyond the clogged drains and potholes on the road. “It seemed like he had found his calling, finally,” she says.
Within a year and a half, on July 15, 2019, UAH launched a helpline against hate crimes. The helpline was supposed to provide rapid response, legal help and advocacy to people facing hate crimes.
The UAH team was small and they had started taking more work than ever. He would sometimes leave the phone with the helpline number at home and ask her to attend to each and every call.
He did give her the contact numbers of local people in various areas to activate emergency help. But what happened to logic and humanity, she thought.
One day a caller from a remote part of Jharkhand said that a man had been tied to a tree and they were suspecting a lynching.
She chided the callers. “Great that you are calling but can you actually see someone being lynched in front of your eyes and do nothing but make a phone call? Collect some people and make them stop. We will send some local help immediately but till then go and save them.”
And that day, that person was saved indeed.
People also called up to ask, “Do you only save Muslims?”
I asked one of them, “Do you remember who was killed in Bulandshahr in December 2018?”
In December 2018, two persons – inspector Subodh Kumar Singh and a protester Sumit – were shot dead in the incident, which involved the use of firearms, heavy stone-pelting, brick-batting and arson at a police post in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. Members of the Hindu right-wing alleged that cows were being slaughtered in one part of the city and derided police officers as anti-Hindu.
One of the police officers, Subodh Kumar Singh, was also investigating a Dadri lynching case where Akhlaq a 50-something man was lynched in September 2015, on the suspicion of consuming beef. Subodh’s family alleged that he was killed because of that link.
UAH had taken a delegation to Bulandshahr to express solidarity with the family of the deceased.
“But I also told them that it is indeed true that the minorities and the Dalits are more vulnerable to hate crimes in present India. There should not be any false equivalence.”
All this while, her social life was limited to the kitchen, making chai, snacks for a large number of guests he had started receiving. “I didn’t know most people and did not even bother to know,” she says.
Women speaking to strangers on the phone has been long been demonised in India. But it is the anonymity that helped her build confidence to argue, advise, help, listen and navigate territories that she thought were not hers – the public, the social and the political.
By now, he had stopped spending time at home. He would go for long hours, not even stay at home on a Sunday. She was being taken for granted, ‘like it always happens,’ she adds.
After women get married, they can hardly maintain old friendships, they move places, get out of touch with their friends. “He is the only friend I have since I got married. We can chat for hours. I had started to miss that.”
When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed on December 12, 2019, he was upset. He became a regular at protest sites, facing the police barricades and pushbacks along with fellow protestors.
“Honestly, I accompanied him to protests all of next week to be able to spend more time with him. Oblivious that it was prep for what is to follow,” she says.
The Citizenship Amendment Act specifically excluded Muslims from taking refuge in India. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was supposed to follow was meant to filter out people who could not present written, documented proof that their ancestors lived in India.
“I told him, you were born in Delhi. I was born in Delhi. Even our kids were born in Delhi. Why are you getting into all this?” she recounts.
He explained to her the ramifications of CAA and NRC for the marginalised, for the poor. He cited the UAH Assam fact-finding report that revealed how several hundred thousand people were declared ‘illegal citizens’ and sent to detention centres.
Then on December 19, 2019, for the first time, she was detained by the police from a protest site. That day, she received several calls from her extended family members reprimanding her for being an irresponsible mother.
“I told them that I am protesting for my children’s rights too,” she says. “And for the rights of homeless people, my domestic worker and anyone who has no documents because they are too caught up in their struggles to stay alive every day.”
She had transitioned from speaking her mind on the phone to strangers to speaking her mind to family – a difficult task in the world she inhabits.
He became one of the co-organisers of an anti-CAA protest site in Khureji in East Delhi, launched in January 2020, a month after the CAA was passed.
It was inspired by a similar demonstration at Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi which had gained national attention. The Khureji protesters sat opposite a pump on Patparganj road, sheltered by canopies and tents. The women would come in the evening after finishing housework. It soon became a popular protest site visited by people from far and wide to show solidarity. She was also a regular participant, often leading marches from the main road to the protest site.
A month later, on February 23, 2020, riots broke out in northeast Delhi near another anti-CAA protest site in Jaffrabad.
That day, he came and he slept off after praying. He looked visibly upset.
“In our world, men are not trained to share their challenges, struggles, problems, emotions with their families. There is role-playing all the time,” she says.
She was not aware that he was not just upset because so many lives were lost in the riots, so close to home. He was also worried because of the police pressure to empty the protest site.
Three days later, on February 26, 2020, the police came and started breaking the protest site and scattered away protesters. They put barricades to stop the protesters from coming back.
She heard that he was picked up from the site. Someone sent her a video that showed him walking peacefully towards the police.
“Must have been detained. He will be back by evening,” she dismissed.
He did not. That day, seven more people were sent into judicial custody including a former municipal councillor from Congress, Ishrat Jahan.
They were charged under various sections of the Arms Act and the Indian Penal Code dealing with rioting armed with a deadly weapon; unlawful assembly; obstruction of a public servant in the discharge of their duty; use of assault or criminal force to deter public servant; attempt to murder. He was also charged with the draconian UAPA, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
Fourteen days later, on March 11, when she saw him next, he was in a wheelchair, with bandages on his legs and fingers of his right hand. He had been beaten in custody.
He has been in jail for 17 months.
Thirteen days after she saw him with broken legs, on March 24, 2020, a nationwide lockdown was imposed following the outbreak of COVID-19. Several international bodies including the UN appealed to various states to release political prisoners.
As he is diabetic and prisons are crowded, they were worried for him. He was still not released.
That’s when online classes for children started.
“My English is weak and so he had to step in to help the children with their homework. And here I was navigating online classes simultaneously for three school-going children,” she says.
They didn’t even have a device each for the longest time. It took some time to arrange that slowly and find a rhythm, she says.
She is now a self-taught social media manager for his release campaign. She used the lockdown to train herself. “I didn’t even have a social media account before his arrest,” she recalls.
In the present day, some part of her day is devoted to making posters, videos using graphics and music as part of her advocacy work for his release.
Children do understand why their father is not around, but there is only as much they will. She says she is glad that they are not physically attending school.
Children don’t understand complexities so well. “They would have been bullied for not being able to explain to their schoolmates why their father is in prison,” she says.
During the pandemic, the children, confined at home, would ask for their father. “You can’t have an atmosphere of mourning all the time with such young children at home.”
His memories pepper the day. Throwback vacation videos and pictures, the last one from Goa in 2019 are revisited often. Insta reels – because their favorite Tik Tok was banned – imitating dialogues, dances are frequent too. Computer games – where she learnt that grinding means ‘level up’– are allowed once in a while. That day, the children were eating dal-gosht, his favourite. The youngest stopped eating. She asked, “Why does father get only parwal – pointed gourd – to eat inside the jail?”
He has mohabbat with this country and its people, she says. “Deep love.”
She says that he has never been partisan. If he arrnaged an Eid party, he did Diwali party too. “Since his arrest, so many women came to collect fees for their children. He used to fund them, regardless of which religion they were from. I didn’t even know he was doing this,” she adds.
In the last year and a half, she has become a regular at protests. Whether it is in Hathras’s rape case where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was raped by upper caste men or the ongoing farmers’ protest.
“I have learnt that all those who want a better country need to stick around,” she says.
In the last year and a half, she has had to learn a lot of legal terminologies and to know what to say when in public. She can express solidarity and also deal with the hurt when neighbours or extended families question her demeanour.
She didn’t ask for help, didn’t play the victim, something not appreciated in a woman. And so her stepping out of the house – to pay electricity bill, fill gas cylinder, taking her child to a dentist or taking herself to a physiotherapist to treat her leg – something that she did not do on her own before – invite derision, segregation.
When she takes the children to the market, they ask, “Mummy, it’s not expensive no?” before wanting to buy anything. Something they never thought about when their father was around.
Like all travel businesses, his company has been shut for over a year due to the pandemic. The savings are depleting. “I have learnt a bit since he has been away. Slowly, I will try to learn to put his company back on track too,” she says.
What she is still learning is to be more creative with the excuses that she gives her children.
They endlessly ask, “Mummy, when will father come home?”
She cites the date of one of their birthdays. It comes and goes, but he doesn’t come. She cites the date of the next upcoming birthday in the family. Six such birthdays have passed.
Children should not lose hope. And so everyday plans are made on how they will welcome Khalid Saifi, their father, home.
“I will stand with chicken tikka in one hand, Chinese food in the other in front of him, when he is released,” says Yessa, the oldest.
“Crackers, lots of them, rockets and sparklers,” says Taha, the middle one.
“Flowers in every corner of the house and loud music,” says Mariyam, the youngest.
“And we will chat a lot and never let him go,” adds Nargis Saifi, their mother.
Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. She covers politics, gender and social justice in South Asia.