“We were born in Hindustan, we will be buried in its soil”: Seelampur residents protest CAA

On 17 December, the Delhi Police beat a young boy in Seelampur with lathis so brutally he fainted. Over half a dozen police personnel dragged the boy, surrounded him and did not let up till he lost consciousness. When the boy came to, he struggled to get up and slowly limped away. The police had forcibly broken up a peaceful protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and local residents said that the police action was unprovoked. Ishan Tankha
20 December, 2019

Around mid-afternoon on 17 December, Mohammad Zakir, a 48-year-old labourer, was standing outside a godown in north-east Delhi’s Seelampur area, when some men came running and went straight inside. Before he could react, two Delhi Police personnel, who had been chasing the men, caught hold of Zakir. The policemen started beating him and dragged him to the street in front of the godown. Zakir told us, “I kept telling them that I am not a part of the protestors, but they kept hitting me. On the street, at least fifteen policemen kept beating me with dandas.” The godown Zakir works at is in Seelampur’s Gali Number 21. “The police kept beating me as they dragged me from Gali Number 21 to Gali Number 15 and when I fainted, they left me there because they thought I was dead,” he said.

That day, the residents of Seelampur had organised a protest against the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Seelampur is an assembly constituency of Delhi which was a Muslim-majority locality till 2008, when delimitation evened out the demographic. Mohammad Javed, a resident of Seelampur who is in his late twenties, told us, “The people were holding a peaceful protest against this law. The police had put up barricades on the way and so people sat down on the road.” He added, “We were born in Hindustan and we will be buried in its soil only. If they like some other land, they can leave this country and go, we will not go. Till we are alive, we will fight. They have to revoke this bill come what may.”

A young man in his mid-twenties, who was standing with Javed, said, “The people whose ancestors are buried here are being asked to prove if they are Hindustani and not Pakistani or Bangladeshi.” He said that the CAA was brought in to distract people from the “real issues.” He added that the act was brought in because “the country’s economy is bad so they want to turn people’s attention away from it.”

According to media reports, the Delhi Police lathi charged the protestors after they started pelting stones and damaged some Delhi Transport Corporation buses. The local contested this version of events. Amir Qureshi, a resident of Seelampur who was part of the protest, said, “If we wanted to fight, why would we come unarmed? After all, the police came armed with their weapons.” He told us that a stampede began the moment the police started lathi charging the protestors.

We were standing with Qureshi outside a shop in Seelampur that had been destroyed during the violence. He showed us a video, recorded during the protest, which revealed police personnel lifting the shutter of that shop and destroying the merchandise inside. Qureshi said that a middle-aged man, known as Qadir bhai, sells flowers right outside that shop. “When the lathi charge started, Qadir bhai ran inside the shop to save himself. Look, you can see the police beating Qadir bhai with dandas,” he said. Later, other residents told us that Qadir was in the hospital because his eye was injured in the beating.

Seelampur had witnessed a small protest march on the evening of 16 December too. According to Javed, “The protestors marched from K block to J block and there was no damage to property anywhere.” That day, the police presence was relatively small. Javed said that “around twelve to fourteen policemen came as the protestors reached J block and started lathi charging. You can check the CCTV footage to see what the public did and what the policemen did the moment they reached.”

Around 4 pm on 17 December, as reports of riots breaking out in Seelampur started flashing on the airwaves, one of us hailed an auto from Shahdara—which is around six kilometres from Seelampur— to get to the protest site. An elderly woman also entered and sat in the auto. She was completely distraught and dazed. She started talking and said that her name was Maya. That morning, she had left for Gokulpuri, a neighbourhood close to Shahdara, to meet her mother. When she reached her mother’s house, she saw television reports on “the riots in Seelampur.” She said that she was worried about her daughter-in-law and two grandsons who were alone at home as her son had gone to work. As she talked, her anxiety turned into anger. “First, they tortured us with demonetisation and now they will destroy us by spreading riots,” the elderly woman said.

A police post in Jaffrabad, a locality right next to Seelampur, that was burnt and destroyed during the violence on 17 December. Parijat

The police had dispersed the crowd of protestors by the time we reached Seelampur. But the scene in Seelampur—scores of police personnel, stones and rocks strewn about and the debris of glass and metal—was testament to the violence that had been unleashed there. One of us approached a policeman who was decked in riot-control gear and tried to talk to him. Once he confirmed that there was no hidden camera, he agreed to speak. “The government has so many well-educated people. Whatever law they make, it must be right. What is the need for protesting against that?” he said.

As we tried to talk to locals about the protests and police action, the hostility against the media was palpable. “Why the media was refusing to show the truth of what had transpired?” some asked us. “Why should we talk to you?” was a common refrain. As we tried to get the residents to talk, one of us saw a journalist and cameraperson from the news channel Republic TV. They, too, had arrived after the police action was over. Republic TV’s crew then proceeded to try and re-enact the protestors fleeing, so that they could get better footage. The crew started running helter-skelter as if they were being chased. In an already tense environment rife with rumours, panic ensued when some of the local young men saw the crew running. The group of young men started running behind the Republic TV crew, who, by now, were shooting the background—ostensibly of protestors running from something—and providing live commentary. A few elderly men, who were nearby, surrounded the Republic TV crew and shoved them aside.

Qureshi was furious with the media. He told us, “The media is saying that the public committed vandalism. They were here. They saw what happened. They know who did the damage.” He added, “They are making this sound like a Hindu-Muslim thing. This fight is not just the Muslims’; this fight is the whole country’s.”

None of the locals could give us a definitive answer on how many people were injured or what kind of injuries had been inflicted on the protestors. But all of them said that a huge number of people had been injured. Mohammad Khalid, a young man in his mid-twenties, showed us a video of a man who had been injured when a tear-gas shell exploded on his hands. Javed said that he personally knew at least two people whose hands had been completely destroyed by tear-gas shells. The administration of the nearby Jag Pravesh Chandra Hospital admitted that the injured protestors were being treated there. But they refused to give any further information. The receptionist said that it “was illegal” to give out such information.

The entire episode has left the local populace extremely fearful. Javed told us, “They keep telling us, you do not know what is the meaning of NRC, what it is. We know. We will keep sitting in our houses and they will keep passing these laws.” One of us asked Zakir if he or the community elders were contemplating initiating legal action against Delhi Police. “We can never win a court case against the police,” Zakir said. Javed said, “If they bring a bill in the Parliament that says drag Muslims out of their houses and straightaway shoot them, that too will pass in this Parliament. Now, we have hope only from the Supreme Court.”