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.