LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — “Sir, my name is Dr. Pawan Rao Ambedkar. I’m a maths teacher. Sir, I’m not part of the violence,” Pawan Rao Ambedkar, 37, said over and over again as the blows rained down on him on 19 December, the day the Uttar Pradesh Police attacked peaceful protesters in Lucknow.
Ambedkar says he was slipping in and out of consciousness when a woman constable slammed her scooter helmet on his head. He can’t remember how many times she hit him with the helmet, but he remembers it breaking into pieces. He remembers his head swelling up.
“I was semi-conscious. I felt numb. It was an assault on my body and mind and there was nothing that I could do to stop it,” said Ambedkar in an interview with HuffPost India after he was released on bail on Friday.
Ambedkar, 37, was among the social activists who were beaten and arrested after the demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), that Home Minister Amit Shah is proposing, allegedly turned violent in Lucknow.
The crackdown was so brutal that no one has tried to protest against the discriminatory citizenship law in UP’s capital city after that.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP, led by Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, has crushed dissent by repeatedly invoking Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, making it illegal for more than four people to gather at one place.
The synchronised arrest of social activists means no one is left to mobilise people for peaceful protests . Those who were not arrested say they are being watched by the “LIU” — the Lucknow Intelligence Unit.
Sadaf Jafar, a political activist and the only woman protester arrested in Lucknow that day—she has accused the UP Police of beating her in custody—said she saw how badly Ambedkar was beaten at the site of the protest.
““I was semi-conscious. I felt numb. It was an assault on my body and mind and there was nothing that I could do to stop it.”
Ambedkar says he was the only Dalit crammed into the small cell of the Hazratganj Police Station on 19 December, along with at least 25 people, almost all of whom were Muslim. He says the police beat him inside the station.
Would he have been treated the way he was if his last name was different, Ambedkar asked, after giving a blow-by-blow account of how and where he was beaten, even drawing a sketch of the police station located in Lucknow’s most famous market.
Did it even matter that he had earned a DPhil in math from Ahmedabad University and an LLB degree from Lucknow University, he asked.
“My name is enough for the police to think they can beat me,” he said. “A good education, good clothes, a good way of speaking, means nothing. Discrimination is ingrained in our society. They hear my name and think — we have the right to mistreat you the way our ancestors did.”
“My name is enough for the police to think they can beat me.”
When reporters asked Lucknow Superintendent of Police (east) Suresh Chandra Rawat about the allegation of beating and torture, he said, “There was no violation of human rights. The norms were followed during the arrest of those accused of arson during the anti-CAA protest.”
Ambedkar, like the other activists who were arrested in Lucknow, faces several grave charges including attempt to murder, being in possession of explosives and arson.
Judge S.S. Pandey, while granting bail to Ambedkar, said there was no direct evidence that he was engaged in arson.
Ambedkar’s lawyer, Ashma Izzat, who was at the bail hearing, said the government lawyer told the judge that the video which the Uttar Pradesh authorities claim captures the vandalism, was hazy because of the smoke at the protest site.
Judge Pandey, Izzat said, also asked the police whether it was illegal to protest the CAA.
“The police do not have the power to pick up people from the road, beat them, keep them in jail overnight and then beat them again,” she said. “The police have abused the rule of law. What the police have done is a criminal offence.”
Ambedkar, who devoted himself to full-time activism three years ago, said, “The police is supposed to have a conscience of its own.”
“What the police have done is a criminal offense.”
Beaten and beaten again
Ambedkar said that when masked men appeared on the scene and the protest at Parivartan Chowk descended into chaos, he ran for cover. As they broke through the police barricades and started hurling stones, he and a handful of other protestors took refuge inside a house near the Fabindia clothing store in the Hazratganj market for an hour .
“They opened their gates and saved us,” he said, speaking of the people who owned the house.
When he thought it was safe to leave, and made his way to the road, Ambedkar said that he was set upon by a mob of policemen, who beat him with their batons.
He recalled falling on the ground and someone pulling him into a sitting position so that the blows could be aimed at his back.
“The police did not ask me anything. There was no dialogue. It was a brutal attack,” he said. “They hit me on my head. After four or five blows, I was flat. They hit me wherever they could. I lost consciousness. I don’t think I came back to my senses after that. I was in a semi-conscious state.”
He recalled being dragged to Parivartan Chowk, where he was hit on the head with the helmet of a scooter.
“There was a lady constable who hit me on the head many times with her helmet. She hit me so much that the helmet broke,” he said. “The blows from the helmet and lathis were happening at the same time.”
“The blows from the helmet and lathis were happening at the same time.”
Ambedkar said there was one police officer on the scene who recognised him as an organiser of the peaceful protest that was disrupted.
“I called out to him. I said, ‘Sir, you know me,’” he said. “But he either didn’t hear me or ignored me. He said, “maaro sale ko.’”
Ambedkar says he doesn’t know the officer’s name, but he can identify him by his face.
The beating continued after he and three others who were picked up at Parivartan Chowk reached the police station at Hazratganj. As soon as they got down from the police bus, Ambedkar says policemen started hitting them. Inside the police station, men dressed in civilian clothes joined the uniformed personnel in beating them.
At one point, he said, they were pushed into a room with beds and mosquito nets that looked like a dorm for the constables, where he said 10-15 policemen surrounded them.
“The beating did not stop,” he said. “The swear words which they used, I cannot repeat them.”
“The swear words which they used, I cannot repeat them.”
Inside the cell
There were at least 25 men who were squatting on the floor, “stuck to each other” in a small cell with bars on the intervening night of 19 and 20 December, Ambedkar said.
There was only one Indian-style toilet with a flush that did not work and no soap for people to wash their hands, he said.
“The floor of the cell was very cold. People kept asking for blankets all night but they did not give,” he said. “They did not give us any food. They gave water but it was after midnight or one in the morning because so many people were asking.”
Ambedkar, who says he was brought to the station at around six in the evening on 19 December, says he had nothing to eat for more than 24 hours.
Inside the cell, Ambedkar said that he spoke with one man, who told him that he worked in a private company in Delhi and was in Lucknow for work. He recalls his last name as “Baig.” “He was saying, ‘How will I get back to Delhi? How will I keep my job?’” he said.
“Ambedkar says he had nothing to eat for more than 24 hours.”
Getting kicked inside the cell
It was around 10 in the night when the Station House Officer (SHO) came into the cell, asked for him by name and kicked him in the stomach, said Ambedkar.
He later learnt the SHO’s name is Dheerendra Kushwaha.
The next morning, on 20 December, Ambedkar heard another social activist, who goes by the name Deepak Kabir, enter the police station, inquiring after his fellow activists. He saw him getting beaten up by policemen including SHO Kushwaha, he said.
In a separate conversation, Kabir, who was also slapped with charges like attempt to murder and arson, told HuffPost India that SHO Kushwaha was among the policemen who beat him.
“It was not a police revenge, it was an ideological revenge,” he said. “They had gone mad.”
“It was not a police revenge, it was an ideological revenge.”
After Kabir was thrown into the cell, Ambedkar said the SHO targeted him once again. “He asked again, “where is Pawan Rao Ambedkar” and then he kicked me again,” he said. “I can say this to his face.”
Ambedkar said that two other persons, who came looking for either their friend or brother, were also beaten up and thrown into the cell.
SHO Kushwaha denied having beaten either Kabir or Rao.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, he said, “These allegations are baseless and untrue.”
Kushwaha said that he was busy controlling the violence well into the night on 19 December and had had no time to beat anyone up. All the 34 people lodged in Hazratganj jail that night were sent to a government hospital for their medical examination and sent to jail the next day, he said, adding “the people who are making these statements have political agendas,” he said.
Kabir said that he was beaten in the presence of Kalanidhi Naithani, who was the Senior Superintendent of Police in Lucknow on 19 December. (Naithani was recently transferred to Ghaziabad). Naithani, Kabir said, called him an urban naxal and said his long hair was proof of him being a communist.
“I was so shocked. The level of a a SHO and a constable are different and that of an IPS officer is different,” he said. “You expect an IPS officer to be educated about the Constitution, to know something about different ideologies, different points of view...”
Naithani did not respond to phone calls and text messages.
The “biggest victory,” Kabir said, is the speed with which the district court gave bail in cases involving activists who have been slapped with grave charges like attempt to murder, being in possession of explosives and arson.
“It goes to show the police have no evidence,” he said.
“I was so shocked. The level of a a SHO and a constable are different and that of an IPS officer is different.”
Panic in the police bus
When he was boarding the police bus on 20 December, Ambedkar said the policemen standing at the back of the vehicle were kicking people as they clambered inside.
The procedures of arrest and detention and — even basic human decency — had been so violated till that point, Ambedkar said that he felt that anything could happen to him.
He panicked when the police bus, which he thought was heading to the district court, took a different route.
It was hard for him to see through the barred windows of the police bus. The police guards inside the bus said nothing
“People on the bus were asking, ‘Are you taking us to court? Where are we going?’ There was panic. People were saying, ‘Are they taking us somewhere to shoot us? Are they going to encounter us?’” he said.
A collective sigh of relief wafted through the bus when it stopped at the Lucknow district jail.
“We were happy that at least our encounter did not happen,” said Ambedkar.