In Meerut, five families bereft of hope as sole earners shot down during anti-CAA protests

The family members of Aleem Ansari desperately searched for him on the night of 20 December, hours after clashes between the local police and anti-CAA protestors turned deadly in Meerut. Aleem was shot dead between 2 pm and 4 pm that day and his brother, Salahuddin Ansari (C), who is differently abled, spent the entire night trying to confirm his brother’s demise. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan
28 December, 2019

On December 26, the Uttar Pradesh police released CCTV footage of an unidentified civilian brandishing and firing what looks like a revolver amid the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 in Meerut. The police claimed that the video is from last Friday, the day anti-CAA protests in the city turned violent—at least five people were killed on 20 December and all of them died from gunshot wounds. The day after the protests, OP Singh, the state police chief said that “not a single bullet was fired at protesters” and that the “protesters died in firing among themselves.” The footage was uploaded to encourage the perception that the police was justified in its use of excessive force against protestors.

The Uttar Pradesh police has consistently used this argument to explain the state-wide killings of at least 19 people so far, and to justify the brutal crackdown on protestors across 21 districts. But lawyers, activists, human-rights groups, fact-finding missions, citizen networks and reports from the ground have contradicted this narrative. They have instead highlighted the leitmotif of the anti-CAA protests—excessive and indiscriminate use of police force, and the specific targeting of Muslim-majority areas.

On 20 December, Meerut, a small city in western Uttar Pradesh with a chequered history of communal conflict, became the site of a showdown between the police and the anti-CAA protesters. That Friday, after the afternoon namaz, a crowd from Firoz Nagar, Tubewell Tiraha and Kotwali—all predominantly Muslim areas in the heart of the city—started to march in protest against the CAA. They were making their way via the Bhumiya ka Pul area to Prahlad Nagar. All of these areas are within a two–kilometre radius. According to a first-information report lodged at the Lisari Gate police station in Prahlad Nagar, the crowd of around twelve hundred protestors was “sloganeering against the CAA, displaying abusive behaviour” and threatening violence. There is no consensus on what or who triggered the clashes that followed. But around 2.30 pm the police unleashed a two-hour long brutal campaign to suppress the protests.

While five people were killed in those two hours, another person succumbed to bullet wounds on 26 December, taking the official death toll in Meerut to six. In the course of my reporting, many locals dismissed the official figure and told me that the actual count is much higher—people are still missing or afraid to approach hospitals and police stations, the internet shut down in the district had made communication difficult and there is a serious trust deficit between the citizens and the media. I met with the families, friends and neighbours of the five men who were killed. The victims had been one and all, the sole-bread earners of extremely poor families, uninvolved in the protests and only interested in returning home to safety.

The families of the slain men and the residents of these areas expressed disillusionment and anger with the press. Local newspaper reports on police spies scouring the area for stone-pelters had exacerbated their fear and paranoia. The credibility deficit left in the wake of local Hindi reportage was evident in every interaction with family members of those killed. “If you are never going to write our part of the story, then why even bother talking to us?” was a fairly common refrain. All the families we spoke to told us that a number of Hindi newspaper reporters had met them and the former had recounted their stories thoroughly. But none of these accounts ever made it to the newspapers.

Over the past week, many of the local Hindi newspapers have parroted the Meerut police’s claims. The newspapers lionised the police as saviours, riding to the rescue of the locals from “balwayis aur updravis”—insurrectionists and miscreants—instead of critically evaluating the role of local police personnel in the violence. If the local Hindi papers are to be believed, mobs of violent thugs injured scores of policemen, but the protestors killed and injured themselves. None of the papers have paid heed to the victims or their families.

At Lisari Gate, a locality within Prahlad Nagar, we walked to the house of one of the victims, Mohammed Jaheer. Lisari Gate is a communally sensitive area and has been the focal point of the past week’s protests and police action. The 46-year-old Jaheer was killed outside a shop on 20 December. I came across a group of his neighbours who gave us a version of the chain of events in the lead-up to the clashes that was in sharp contrast to the police’s account that the local media had faithfully published. They refused to be identified or videographed for fear of reprisals by the local police, but agreed to audio recordings.

One of the neighbours told us that on the day of the clashes the locality was already tense. “There was a pall of fear within the people and it is because of this that markets were closed from the morning,” he said. Another elderly man told me that day at the Shahi Jama Masjid—half a kilometre away from Lisari Gate—some people were sporting black bands to protest against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens. He said, “After the namaz as I was leaving the masjid, RAF personnel”—Rapid Action Force—“were about to put two boys under arrest for wearing black bands.” According to him, the boys’ “black bands were snatched away from them only on the grounds that they were expressing objection by wearing a black band. When RAF starts picking up people like that, the people will create a ruckus. It was the police that was doing the wrong thing.” He added, “We cannot be blamed for wearing black bands to register our objection.”

The first neighbour also brought up the arbitrary actions of the police that day. According to him, “While the markets were closed, if two or three kids from here would go and stand on the road, the SHO of these two police stations, Lisari Gate and Brahmpuri, would charge at them with their lathis and slap them around.” Brahmpuri is about a kilometre away from Lisari Gate. He said that this continued for an hour or so till the policemen finally attacked an old man in a similar manner. “When the SHOs started attacking an old man the boys could not tolerate it anymore and then they put up a fight.” He insisted that they were telling the truth and added, “For how long were we supposed to keep getting beaten up?”

Jaheer’s house is in the Jali Wali Gali of Lisari Gate and he made a living by selling milch fodder. That day, he had dyed his hair in preparation for a wedding he was supposed to attend. His wife and daughter were already at the wedding venue. While some of his neighbours said that Jaheer had shut his shop and was about to leave for home following reports of clashes all around, some said that he had just taken a break from work and stepped out. Around 4.30 pm, as Jaheer smoked a beedi outside a provision store, the police shot him in broad daylight, they said.

Mohammad Jaheer's family members show a passport size picture of the 46-year-old who was shot dead on 20 December, outside a shop while on a smoke break. Jaheer lived in Lisari Gate, a communally sensitive area in the heart of Meerut city. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan

As he battled for his life, neighbours improvised to figure a way out of the almost siege-like police deployment at Lisari Gate to the hospital. Someone managed to procure a thela—push cart—and his neighbours loaded a still-breathing Jaheer on the cart and threaded a circuitous way out from Lisari Gate via Shyam Nagar, another labyrinthine colony nearby whose geography is chalked with cramped lanes. A neighbour, who had accompanied the injured man, told me that Jaheer died on the way to the hospital. “He would have survived had we taken him to the nearby hospital. But because of the police, we could not. He took his last breath midway to the hospital.”

I spoke to Mohammed Shahid, Jaheer’s brother, who stood sullenly in a corner of his home, a shawl draped across his drooping shoulders. “If my brother was to be no more, then it was fated,” he said. Shahid wanted to know why the police fired at Jaheer. He added, “All I want now is justice … Why did they kill him? Nobody from the police has come forth, nobody has come here to conduct any inquiry.”

Mohsin, a 26-year-old man, lived in a locality called Gulzar-e-Ibrahim, less than a kilometre from Jaheer’s house. He, too, was killed on 20 December. In a dimly-lit lane, I and the video journalist accompanying me found our way to Mohsin’s house late in the night. A clutch of men sat around a small campfire outside his house as the mercury dipped to a record-breaking low of 8.1 degrees for Meerut. The men were keeping guard—to prevent the police and RAF from arresting young men under the pretext of being part of the clashes. The men told us that the police had been sweeping the area and picking up youth by entering houses from the balconies with the aid of ladders that the personnel were carrying. In response, the men of these areas had taken to congregating in small groups outside houses, alley entrances and crossings. They had been doing this every night since the clashes. One of them told us that they were all missing their daily wages since the nights were spent guarding their localities.

Friends and neighbours of Mohsin, who was shot dead on 20 December, sit on guard outside his house in Gulzar-e-Ibrahim, a small Muslim locality close to Lisari Gate, in Meerut city, on 24 December. These all-night vigils are the community members’ response to the local police’s attempts to detain young men by labelling them as rioters. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan

A young man associated with an autonomous research and advocacy group, who did not want to be identified, told us that the resistance by the men huddled in such groups did not amount to much when confronted with the resources of the police and the RAF. But it was a reassurance to the men that they were doing all within their power to protect their families.

Mohsin was the youngest of four brothers and has two sisters. He lived with his ailing mother, wife and his two young children—a four-year-old and a six-month-old. He took care of all the household expenses. Mohsin juggled as a milkman, a scrap monger and depending on the season would sell bric-a-brac on hand-pushed carts. “The time he was shot he had gone to get fodder for the cows. Even before he reached the shop, the police opened fire on him,” Mohsina, his sister, told me. Mohsina did not remember by whom or by when the family was informed about Mohsin’s being shot, “but when we came to know about it my mother collapsed screaming, ‘Save my son, save my son.’” Mohsina added, “When people from our locality rushed to help, they were beaten up and told to scram by the police.”

I also spoke to Mohammad Imran, one of Mohsin’s brothers. His account varied from Mohsina’s in certain details, but the thread of arbitrary police action, and institutional apathy remained constant in both the accounts. Imran, too, said that Mohsin had stepped out to get fodder and placed the time around 3 pm. At 4 pm, Imran got a call that his brother’s body was laid on a rickshaw in an alley near his house. A boy from the community had carried Mohsin’s body from the road, hoping to find the family. Imran reached the alley, found his brother and rushed him to the Santosh Hospital on Hapur road, about four kilometres from their house. Imran said that the hospital refused to admit him. By 5 pm, Imran managed to get Mohsin to the government-run Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial Medical College, locally referred to as Medical, which is about five kilometres from Lisari Gate. There, Mohsin was declared dead on arrival.

Sitting on a charpoy in a cramped room, the pink paint peeling off of the old decrepit walls, Mohsina called on one of her brothers to show us a video, purportedly of Mohsin, recorded after he was shot at. “Here take a look at this. The bullet has been shot right in the middle of the chest. It hasn’t even pierced through his body,” she said. “Tell us, tell us, what is his crime? Was he a terrorist? What sort of justice is this?” Mohsina said that the local police station refused to register their complaint. “They sent us back from Bhumiya Ka Pul after charging at us with lathis ... ‘Come here if you want to be shot dead,’ they said. We are not going to file your complaint anyway.” Bhumiya Ka Pul is in Brahmpuri, a locality right next to Prahlad Nagar.

Imran told me that from Medical, within the hour they had brought Mohsin’s body back home. The locals decided that a post-mortem should be carried out. As per Imran, after multiple calls to the police, around 11 pm a police van arrived to transport Mohsin’s body to Medical for the post-mortem.

Mohsina also recounted that around 2 am, the police dragged two of their uncles to the find the house of the man who looks after the local cemetery. The policemen wanted the cemetery keeper to dig a grave at that hour itself.

Around 4 am, said Imran, the post-mortem was done and the police had arranged for a couple of diggers. Imran said the police supplied the shroud, too. “All throughout the police kept hastening us and once the funeral was over,” Imran said, “the police had disappeared.” Mohsina told me that she and her mother “could not even condole the death of my brother, we did not even get to see his face for the last time.”

Mohsina said, “What is our fault? Are we at fault for being born Muslims? Whether one is born a Hindu or a Muslim is all in God’s hand.” She is worried about Mohsin’s children and her mother: “In the future, his kids will ask us; will ask their mother about their father. What are we supposed to tell them? The police has destroyed the lives of his kids as well. Tell us, who is going to take care of their security? Of their education? Of their future? Of their jobs and business? Who will come forward to take care of them?” she said. “I have an old mother. If something happens to her tomorrow, then what? We lost our father in an early age and now my nephews share the same misfortune,” she added. The family told us that they are yet to receive Mohsin’s post-mortem report.

A short distance from Mohsin’s house is the Ghante Wali Gali of Firoz Nagar, another small Muslim-dominated locality. On the afternoon of 20 December, Mohammad Asif, a 33-year-old man, was sitting around in the vicinity of his house in the Ghante Wali Gali. He was accompanied by his cousin, Mohammad Rashid, and his brother-in-law, Mohammad Imran. Rashid and Mohammad Imran recounted that they suddenly saw a panicked rush of people darting through the narrow alleyways of their locality with around fifty to sixty police personnel chasing them. Many from the crowd rushed into Asif’s lane as well. By this time, the police personnel had started shooting down the fleeing people indiscriminately.

All three ran for cover; Rashid and Imran managed to find a safe spot, but Asif caught a bullet. After five minutes, as the police contingent moved on, Asif’s kin returned, picked him up, put him on a rickshaw and left for the nearby Falah-e-Aam hospital. The hospital refused to admit him on the ground that it did not have the facilities to take care of such a critical patient. Over the next hour and half, Rashid and Mohammad Imran struggled to get Asif to Medical. By the time they reached Medical, Asif was in need of blood and Rashid and Imran went back to Firoz Nagar to find people who could donate blood. Midway to Firoz Nagar, they received news of Asif’s death.

Asif was a mechanic by profession and the sole bread-earner of his family of five—a wife, two daughters and one son aged ten, three and six, respectively. Rashid and Mohammad Imran told me no one has informed the kids about Asif’s death. “When Asif was being taken for burial after he was brought home from the hospital, the kids were fast asleep,” said Mohammad Imran. “They think that their papa is out for work. Till today, we haven’t told them. How can we tell them?” he added. “We tell them that your father has gone off to Delhi for work. Tell us, we ask the kids, what should we tell your father to bring for you? His three-year-old daughter won’t stop crying. Keeps saying that I want to talk to papa. Who do we get her to speak to?”

Rashid and Mohammad Imran were furious with the media and the police’s portrayal of Asif as an “insurrectionist.” Mohammad Imran said, “Actually, people need to understand who is a balwayi. How can a man who is the sole earner of his family and has five mouths to feed be a balwayi? Can such a man be a balwayi?” Mohammad Imran also said that the police action was premeditated. He told me that the police first assaulted people and then went around breaking CCTV cameras in the ensuing confusion. It was only after the CCTV cameras were destroyed that the guns came out, he said. The family, just like the all the other families, is still to receive the post-mortem report.

Just over a kilometre away from the Lisari Gate police station is Ahmed Nagar, which also has a sizeable Muslim population. Two of the five killed on 20 December lived in Ahmed Nagar. One of them was Mohammad Aasif, a 20-year-old who drove an e-rickshaw for a living. He was the sole working member of household that included his father Id ul Hassan, his mother and two younger siblings. Hassan suffers from a lung infection and cannot work anymore. That day, Aasif was out plying his rickshaw when his family heard the news about a rally that turned violent. Hassan was extremely worried and called Aasif on his phone. Aasif answered that he was on his way home. An hour later, Aasif had still not arrived. Hassan recalled that he started calling his son obsessively and all his calls went unanswered.

Mohammad Aasif, a 20-year-old who drove a rickshaw for a living, is survived by his father, Id ul Hassan (C-L), his mother (C-R) and two younger siblings. He was the lone earning member of his family. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan

A few hours later, Hassan heard a rumour that two boys of the locality were dead. Hassan was told that one of the boys had an identity card issued in Delhi. An anxious Hassan was terrified by now—Aasif had lived in Delhi’s Shahdara area a few years ago and his identity card had the Delhi address. Meanwhile, photos of two young men, whose bodies had been brought to a nearby hospital, were being widely shared within the local community on an app called ShareIt. This app enables content sharing in the absence of internet. One of Hassan’s neighbours, a teenage boy, identified Aasif from the ShareIt content and informed the family around 10 pm that night.

The family was handed over the body at 5.30 pm the next evening, after the post-mortem was conducted. By 7.30 pm, Aasif had been buried at the local Ansar Kabristan, as the police had instructed the family to ensure as speedy a burial as possible. The insistence on speedy burials, no funeral processions and delayed post-mortem reports was a common thread in all the police instructions issued to the grieving families.

The next day, the Hindi national Amar Ujala’s local supplement—My City—published a report quoting the police which said that Aasif, a resident of Jhilmil Colony in Delhi, had put together a band of around twenty-five men from Delhi and brought them to Meerut to incite riots in the area. No reporter from the publication reached out to Aasif’s family or spoke to Hassan. Hassan is illiterate and was informed about the news item by his neighbours.

“Whether the administration helps me or not, my child deserves justice,” Hassan said, as he attempted to hold back tears. “My child does not have a criminal record. I don’t have a criminal record. My brothers don’t have a criminal record. Nobody in my house has a criminal record.” Hassan was distraught that they had maligned his child. He said that the story about 25 rioters was to deflect from the police’s action. “The police keeps saying that they haven’t fired a single bullet. Four boys came to visit me yesterday who were witnesses to the whole episode.” Hassan said that the boys told him: “the police had climbed the terrace of a steel godown in City from where they were shooting and kept shooting till they ran out of bullets. Once they ran out of bullets, the police sneaked out of there. Once their shooting ended, then the stone pelting started.” Hassan has been told that he will receive the post-mortem report of his son within eight days.

In the lane right next to Aasif’s house, lived Aleem Ansari, a 23-year-old man. Aleem was the second fatality of that night in Ahmed Nagar. He lived in Gali Number 9 and was a cook at a restaurant in the nearby area of Kotwali. Salahuddin Ansari, Aleem’s brother, told us that around 2 pm, when the clashes broke out, senior members of the community sent out a message to start shutting down shops. Following the advisory, the restaurant Aleem worked at was shuttered as well. Some locals told Salahuddin that Aleem had been seen shutting down the shop and heading home. However, he never turned up. Around 4 pm, one of Salahuddin’s aunts called him and said that Aleem might be dead, but there was no way to confirm. Salahuddin went back to trying to call Aleem, to no avail.

Meanwhile, panic was spreading across the city with reports of police brutality increasing in tenor. Salahuddin and another relative were forced to stay at home instead of searching for Aleem or his body. Around 10.30 pm, an Ahmed Nagar resident showed them a video on ShareIt. The video had Aleem’s dead body splayed on the ground, the skin at his temple ripped open with a bullet lodged in his head. The family, however, was still hunkered in their house because stepping out of the area was fraught with the fear of being shot at sight.

Sometime after midnight, Salahuddin, who is differently abled, could not bear it anymore and left for Medical. At the hospital, Salahuddin and a relative were directed to the mortuary. The mortuary administration showed them Aasif’s body, not Aleem’s, and said that there was no other body in the mortuary. This, however, turned out to be a lie. Over the next six to eight hours, the hospital administration and local police refused to help Salahuddin.

Salahuddin and his relative went back to Medical from the mortuary and were asked to go to the emergency ward. The emergency ward was equally unhelpful. Salahuddin was back at Medical’s reception and by now entreating all staff and police personnel to help them. Eventually, they were told that Aleem’s body had been brought to Medical but had been sent ahead to the Lisari Gate police station. “They told us to confirm with the Lisari Gate SHO whether the body had been sent off to Muzaffarnagar or Delhi,” Salahuddin said. “After that I called up home and told my relatives to tell the Lisari gate SHO that we can’t find our brother’s body and ask him if he had sent it off to some other place,” he added. He told me that the police pushed the family out of the station and “they were waving their lathis at us. Is this the concern that the law has for us?”

Harassed and hassled, Salahuddin eventually called up the local member of legislative assembly, Rafiq Ansari, who is from the Samajwadi Party. After the MLA’s intervention, the mortuary admitted that they had had Aleem’s body all along. “My brother’s post-mortem had been done in the night already and his body had been marked as unclaimed and they didn’t tell us,” Salahuddin told me. Finally, at 8 am on 21 December, Salahuddin was allowed to identify his brother’s body. “They told us that they would give us the body at 5 itself ....What was the point of pushing us all around the place? We kept sitting there … sometimes filling up the panchnaama, sometimes filling this and that.” Salahuddin was convinced that the police did not want to hand over the body. “Look at the manner in which my brother was shot. An aim was taken at his head. His brain was aimed at. They wanted to keep that under wraps,” he said.

Aleem’s body was handed over to the family by 5 pm that day and he, too, had been buried hastily by 7.30 pm, at the Ansar Kabristan. But not before the local police extracted a guarantee from the family that Aleem would be buried in a cemetery different from where the burials usually took place. In case the family could not arrange that, the police demanded assurance that no disturbance would erupt in their locality when they took him home or set out on his funeral. Backed into a corner, Salahuddin told me that he agreed to the police’s terms and even signed some sort of a document taking full responsibility in the event of any clashes in the area during Aleem’s funeral. He did not have a copy of the document.

Salahuddin’s wife is also differently abled and Aleem was the sole working member supporting his brother, brother’s wife and their three young children, aged 12, 10 and seven. Salahuddin now faces an uphill battle, with practically no means of providing for his family. He also said that the family was yet to receive the post-mortem report.

According to many of the locals I spoke to, a number of young men and boys who were injured by police action have chosen not to seek medical help or talk to the press for fear of further reprisals, persecution and arrest. Their ability to access medical or legal help has been severely curtailed by the local police’s vicious crackdown that has been ongoing since the 20 December clashes. In the Muslim-majority areas of Meerut like Lisari Gate, Hapur road, Kotwali, Sadar Bazaar, Rashid Nagar and Kidwai Nagar, among others, talk of police raids, preventive detentions and illegal detentions has silenced the residents.