Student activist Afreen Fatima's home in Prayagraj was demolished by the UP government on 12 June 2022. Courtesy: Afreen Fatima's Facebook page
New Delhi: “You mentally prepare yourself but when the storm hits, you feel like there is nothing that you can do,” Afreen Fatima told Article 14 at 12:30 am on 12 June 2022, as she answered questions from a relative’s phone, speaking to us from an undisclosed location having left her house in anticipation that it might be demolished.
“My mind just went blank,” said Fatima, 24, a student activist, a postgraduate in linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and a vocal critic of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its online right-wing ecosystem. “I felt paralysed when it happened. I didn't know what to do or whom to call. It felt like a nightmare.”
Twelve hours after she spoke with us, Fatima’s nightmare came true, as municipal backhoe excavators arrived at her home in the city of Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and began demolishing it. Officials removed the family’s belongings, as pro-government television channels rummaged in the debris and displayed flags and posters found within. “When injustice becomes law rebellion becomes duty,” read one.
The police accused Fatima’s father Javed Mohammad, a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and a prominent face of civil society in the city, of organising the protests in Prayagraj and arrested him. It was one of many towns and cities where Indian Muslims protested, sometimes violently, against slurs made by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma against Prophet Mohammad during a television debate.
Fatima said she believed she was mentally prepared for the backlash that she knew her outspokenness would inevitably trigger, but when the reaction came late on the night of 11 June 2022, she was at a loss about what to do and whom to call.
In her five years as a student activist, Fatima said she had envisioned many scenarios, even joking with her father, Javed Mohammad, a leader of the Welfare Party of India and a fellow critic of India’s current government, what they would do if the authorities came for them.
The government did come for not just her father and her but her mother and teenage sister as well, in what she described as “retribution”, when police arrived at the doorstep of her family home in Prayagraj, formerly known as Allahabad before it was renamed by chief minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP in October 2018.
The charges against Mohammad are unclear, and there are unconfirmed reports that he is lodged in Naini central prison in Allahabad. There are also conflicting reports on whether her mother and sister are still in police custody.
Govt Charge That Home Was Illegal ‘A Complete Lie’
When Fatima spoke with us from her relative’s phone after midnight on 12 June, she said that more than 24 hours had passed but she did not know for sure where her father was being held, and she had only just found out where her mother and sister were being questioned.
Denying they had received official notice about her family house being an “illegal construction”, as officials alleged, and was scheduled for demolition, Fatima said it was a “complete lie”. The family had never been told before the notice was stuck on their door on 11 June and was reported in the media for the first time.
Fatima expressed her “deep anguish” by the manner in which she felt her family were being targeted because she and her father were Muslims critical of the BJP and its treatment of minorities. Fatima had over the last few years consistently protested Hindu majoritarianism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, a law criticised for being unconstitutional and making religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship to refugees from certain countries by excluding Muslims.
When she spoke with us, Fatima said she expected her home to be demolished.
There was no word on what her father’s alleged crime was and the demolition of their home was the latest in illegal demolitions in many UP towns after the recent protests and many more this year in four BJP-ruled states across India. As Article 14 reported on 25 April 2022, it has become the norm in these states to bulldoze the properties of protestors and those accused of crimes by claiming them to be illegal encroachments without due process, without establishing guilt, disproportionately impacting Muslims.
Fatima denied that her father was behind the protests, and even if he were, it was, she noted, illegal to arrest people without a warrant or notice or to take women to the police station in the middle of the night.
“I feel like this is a vendetta, not just against me and my politics, or my father and his politics, but our whole family,” she said. “For them to take my mother and sister is very crushing for me.”
“The only thing I want right now is to know where my father is and to know that he is safe. I want my mother and sister back,” she said.
By 1:00 pm on 12 June, videos posted on Twitter showed a bulldozer demolishing Javed’s home.
Javed Mohammed, A ‘Key Conspirator’: Police
Prayagraj superintendent of police, Ajay Kumar, on 11 June, told the media that Javed was one the “key conspirators” of the violence that erupted, and he was “propagating Bharat bandh (shut down India), gave a call to assemble in Atala area in the city”.
Kumar also reportedly said Javed’s daughter (Fatima) studied at JNU and was “involved in notorious activities". The officer said: “The father-daughter duo together propagate propaganda.”
The website NewsClick on 11 June reported that about 5,000 people have been named in three FIRs registered in Prayagraj, of which 68 had been arrested. The police had a list of 10 “key conspirators” including leaders of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), the Samajwadi Party, student activists, Left party workers, and those who protested against the CAA.
The Press Trust of India on 12 June reported that 227 people from various districts in the state including 68 in Prayagraj, 50 in Hathras, 48 people in Saharanpur, 28 in Ambedkarnagar, 25 in Moradabad and eight in Firozabad.
The UP police say they are using CCTV footage and video clips to identify the culprits.
Protests in Prayagraj turned violent, with the national media reporting stone pelting, vehicles being set on fire, and policemen sustaining injuries, and the authorities using tear gas and lathis (batons) to disperse the mob.
“Strictest action will be taken against the anti-social elements involved in the chaotic efforts to spoil the atmosphere in various cities in the past few days,” CM Adityanath has said. “There is no place for such anti-social people in a civilised society. No innocent should be harassed, but not a single guilty should be spared.”
Mrityunjay Kumar, the media advisor to the chief minister, in a tweet in Hindi, said, “Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday,” and posted a photo of a bulldozer demolishing a building.
In Ranchi, two young Muslim men died after succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained after protests in Jharkhand—governed by an alliance of the Congress Party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Rashtriya Janata Dal— turned violent, with many more injured and at least a dozen policemen and CRPF personnel have been injured.
A ‘Nightmare’ Unfolds
On Friday night, Fatima was at her family home with her 19-year-old sister, mother, an elderly aunt, her sister-in-law and her young children, when the police arrived and on the pretext of questioning her father took him away to a station.
Three hours later, as per Fatima, the police came and took away her mother and teenage sister—once again on the pretext of questioning.
When the police came for the third time—at around 2:30 in the morning as per Fatima—and asked for her and her sister-in-law to come with them, they both refused, asking why they were being summoned. They said it was impossible for them to leave behind the young children and their elderly aunt who was extremely disoriented.
When they refused to leave, as per Fatima, a policewoman said that even if they did not come with the police, they should leave the house because it was on a “hit-list”.
When the news of the authorities planning to demolish her house appeared in the news, Fatima said she connected the dots.
“When the police came, they were asking questions like, ‘How many people are in the house? How many children?’” she said. “They were recording the whole time.”
What struck her about the policemen who took her father away, Fatima told us, was how polite they were, calling him ‘Javed sahab’ and promising that he could return after a brief conversation with them.
Fatima said that her father went with the police on his own scooty.
“They were so polite. I don't know how he went from ‘Javed sahab’ to criminal mastermind in one night. I don't know what happened,” she said. “What criminal mastermind goes with the police on his own scooty.”
As for her mother and sister leaving with the police a few hours later, Fatima said she was upstairs when it happened.
“I came down to see my mother and sister leaving with the police,” said Fatima. “I was so angry with my mother that she did, but I don't think she was thinking straight. All she thought of was wearing her abaya and leaving.”
Fatima said that her father had a wide circle of supporters, including lawyers who were helping them. Shortly after he was arrested, she said they believed him to be at the Kotwali police station but lost track after that, making inquiries at different police stations without success.
“My father is a diabetes patient and he needs his insulin injection every day,” said Fatima. “It has been more than 24 hours and we don't know where he is,”
Shortly before she spoke with us, Fatima said that her sister-in-law had received a call from her mother who she said had called them from the Civil Lines police station in Prayagraj.
Noting that she had considered filing a missing person report and a case of kidnapping to find them, Fatima said, “They used my sister and mother as hostages to make us vacate the house?”
‘No Notice Was Ever Given’
A letter from the Prayagraj Development Authority, dated 10 June 2022, said that Javed was informed his house was an illegal construction on 10 May and told to come for a hearing on 24 May, but he was not present.
The decision to demolish the house was taken on 25 May, and he was given time till 9 June to make any representation which he failed to do. He was told to vacate the house by 11 am on 12 June.
Fatima’s supporters say the letter was “vague”, appeared to be hastily written, did not have a time stamp, and was hastily written over the weekend, and not in the name of the actual property holder, Javed’s wife, whose ancestral property it stands on. Article 14 could not independently verify the claim of ownership.
The notice was issued on 10 June but stuck to the family home late at night on 11 June.
Fatima said they were never sent the notice.
“No notice was given to my father,” said Fatima. “They just stuck it an hour ago.”
“They basically want to demolish the house and they have been pestering and intimidating us into leaving our house, vacating our house since last night,” said Fatima. “The third time they came to detain me and my sister-in-law and when we refused to go with them, they said you have to leave your house. Because we refused, they have now come up with this notice.”
Her lawyers have reportedly moved the Allahabad High Court against the “illegal demolition,” stating “Any attempt by the District & Police admin to demolish the house will be against the basic principle of law and a grave injustice to the wife and children of Javed Mohammad.”
As for the support she has received on social media, Fatima said that she was tremendously appreciative, but it didn't change her current reality or the legal black hole that her family would be pulled into or the fear that has descended over Prayagraj, where she said the police were deployed “everywhere”.
“It is a very tense situation,” she said. “Living like this is very scary.”
When we asked Fatima what her years of activism meant through the lens of her father’s arrest, she said. “The whole exercise suddenly feels very futile to me.”
‘It doesn't feel like my story alone. It feels like the story of any Muslim family in India today,” said Fatima. “Any Muslim family today feels like if they speak out, the police may walk in and arrest a loved one."
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