LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — “This is the time for lawyers to come forward and help. There are a lot of people that mean well, but law is the only way to fight the injustice we are facing from this government,” said Ashma Izzat, a lawyer in Lucknow.
Izzat was meeting her client Pawan Rao Ambedkar, a Dalit activist and mathematician who was beaten by the Uttar Pradesh Police on 19 December, the day a peaceful protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the sceptre of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) was disrupted by the police.
Ambedkar, who says a woman constable smashed a helmet on his head, was among the more than 200 people arrested in Lucknow by the UP police that day. Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have vowed to crush any protests against the controversial new citizenship law.
Izzat, the lawyer, said the police’s attacks on activists like Ambedkar had attracted at least some media attention.
“What about the people who are very poor, who have no voice, who don’t have a roof over their heads, and who have no idea what is even happening to them,” she said. “No one asks about them. The media does not report on them. Who is going to help them?”
32-year-old Izzat, who was born in Sikandarpur, a small town in the district of Balia, grew up in Ghazipur in eastern UP, and studied law at Kanpur University, says she will.
Beginning on the day after the violence in Lucknow, Izzat stood outside the Lucknow jail for several days in a row, waiting to meet the families of those who had been swept up by the state police. She also studied First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police about the incident.
So far, Izzat says that she has found 17 clients and has won bail for all of them despite the grave charges against them. Almost all of them are economically marginalised Muslims. Izzat is representing them pro bono.
“There are a bunch of us lawyers who are doing this kind of work,” she said. “We can expose the UP government’s lies, case by case in the courts.”
In the case of one Mohammad Hafeez, Izzat said that her client was walking home from the bakery where he worked in the evening on 19 December, when he was picked up by the police and booked under at least 15 sections of the Indian Penal Code including attempt to murder and arson. His only fault, she said, was wearing a kurta-pyjama and sporting a beard.
“This is wrong. This is communal,” she said.
Hafiz’s bail order, written by Additional Session Judge Sanjay Pandey had three points.
First, the order said, the UP Police had made no effort to inform the public that Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the assembly of more than four people in one place, was in place at the time. It noted there is “no direct evidence” that Hafiz was involved in arson. It also said that according to the case diary of the police, the Lucknow-based policemen, including Superintendent of Police (SP) Suresh Chandra Rawat, did not sustain any grave injuries.
In five bail orders, which HuffPost India perused, Judge Pandey has made the same three observations.
The bail hearings and the orders that follow had become predictable, said Izzat.
Judge Pandey, she said, now gets straight to the point, asking the government if there is any evidence against the specific person in his courtroom. In one instance, Izzat said, the police responded by claiming that smoke billowing from the burning vehicles made it hard for them to capture clear images of people.
“Is this a joke for the police?” said Izzat. “You cannot beat people and arrest people on a whim. Do lives and dignity have no meaning for the UP Police?”
“You cannot beat people and arrest people on a whim. Do lives and dignity have no meaning for the UP Police.”
Uttar Pradesh has witnessed to the highest number of arrests, detention and deaths in connection with the anti-CAA protests that have swept across the country. The law, critics say, violates the principles of India’s secular constitution by making religion a basis for granting citizenship to refugees.
While clips circulating on social media suggest much of the violence has been enacted by the poorly-trained UP police, which has a documented history of human rights violations stretching back decades; Chief Minister Bisht has blamed “violent mobs” for attacking UP Police personnel, police posts and destroying public property.
Shrikant Sharma, Uttar Pradesh energy minister and govt spokesperson, said in an interview that activists who alleged brutality by the police should move court or complain to the SITs (Special Investigation Teams) being set up to investigate the violence which erupted in UP in December.
With women venturing out to join peaceful sit-ins — almost a month after the crackdown on 19 December — the UP Police is once again using force to break up all the all-women gatherings in several cities and lodging FIRs against hundreds of protestors.
Blame it on Muslim ‘outsiders’
The UP Police has consistently sought to blame outsiders from Bangladesh and Kashmir for the violence in Lucknow.
On December 22 2019, the police announced they had arrested 6 men from Malda in West Bengal. UP’s Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma claimed these six men had links to the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Kerala -based group, which is in the news for being the radical Islamists that instigated the violence in UP.
Izzat said that she has represented the six men from West Bengal, and her clients were not involved in the violence in Lucknow on 19 December.
All six men, booked for crimes like rioting, attempt to murder and arson, have been granted bail.
In the bail orders for two of them, Shah Alam and Sanjur Ali, which HuffPost India perused, Judge Pandey wrote there was “no direct evidence” against them.
Stroke of luck?
Izzat says that having Judge Pandey is a stroke of luck. “He is neutral. Thank goodness,” she said. “In this day and age, who knows when the courts sing the tune of the government.”
In Muzaffarnagar, District Judge Sanjay Kumar Pachori recently granted bail to at least 14 people. The tally of those released in the district in western UP is now 33. Ten of them were released following a probe by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), set up by the state government in each violence-hit district.
With their cases failing in Muzaffarnagar, The Indian Express reported, the UP Police have now invoked Section 82 of the Juvenile Justice Act, claiming that protesters used children “for illegal activity.”
While granting bail to two persons accused of attempt to murder and rioting in Bijnor, the national daily reported that Additional District and Sessions Judge Sanjiv Pandey tore into the police, saying they had provided no evidence against the allegations.
Getting bail, making bail
Izzat said the six men from West Bengal, arrested by the UP police, were extremely poor daily wagers who worked as waiters and cooks in Lucknow.
A team from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal visited Lucknow, offering these men financial and legal help, but human rights activists say they never followed through on their assurances.
Even with the bail orders going in their favour, Izzat’s clients cannot always afford the bail bonds of Rs. 50,000 each, which they need to pay in order to walk out of jail. Some of her clients have a cycle or motorcycle, but the value of these modes of transport depreciates, every year.
In addition to her legal work, Izzat spends time working the phones, speaking with the people who might step forward to provide the sureties. This is especially hard when the accused are from another state because any guarantor fears they might run away.
In some of the cases of the men from West Bengal, Izzat said, the restaurant owners have offered to stand surety. She added, however, “People say they will do a lot of things but they don’t always end up doing it.”
“People say they will do a lot of things but they don't always end up doing it.”
‘The lady lawyer’
The street where the six men from West Bengal live and work is lined with restaurants, offering some of Lucknow’s most famous meaty delights. A large number of cooks and waiters serving these restaurants are from Malda district in West Bengal. The cooks earn between Rs.10,000 to 15,000 per month. The waiters earn Rs. 5000 to 6,000 per month. Some people have worked here for almost 20 years. Their younger siblings have followed them to the city known for its cuisine. With most of their families living in Bengal, brotherly ties and friendships count for a lot in this tightly knit community.
Hundreds fled after the crackdown on 19 December. Many have returned following pleas and reassurance by the restaurant owners who depend on them. Those that HuffPost India spoke with say they live in fear, never going anywhere without a government issued proof of identity on them.
“We had never felt fear in Lucknow. We did not feel like outsiders. It was home. We would walk home from serving at a party or an event at one and two in the morning,” said Akbar Ali, a cook and the brother of Sagar Ali, who was arrested on 19 December. “Now, I’m afraid to sleep. I wake up in the middle of night thinking the police have come to take my family away to a detention centre. How will we cope inside a detention centre?”
“I wake up in the middle of night thinking the police have come to take my family away to a detention centre.”
When it was pointed out that the Narendra Modi government has repeatedly said that no Indian Muslim will be hurt by any of the laws and schemes it is attempting to put in place, Ali said, “I don’t believe them. You tell me how you would feel if your brother is beaten and thrown in jail without any reason. It really feels that people don’t want Muslims in India.”
A cook named Kharidul, who works across the street from Ali, has two brothers who were arrested on 19 December. “How can we be from Bangladesh when we are from Bengal? Our grandfather and great grandfather are from here,” he said. “Why are people questioning our patriotism now? What right do they have?”
Izzat blamed sections of the local media for printing, without asking any questions, the government’s account of Bangladeshi and Kashmiri infiltrators instigating the violence in Lucknow.
“We have a state sponsored media,” she said.
On this street of popular restaurants, where fear has become a way of life, Izzat is known as the “lady lawyer who is fighting the case.”
When asked about bail hearings and other legal matters, relatives and friends of the accused said, “You can ask the lady lawyer. This is her number.”
His brother, Ali said, had just stepped out of the restaurant as the noise of the mayhem unfolding on the streets was dying down, when he was picked up by the police on 19 December.
The police constables, his brother told him, had beaten him and stomped on his feet.
“He was wearing sandals so half his feet were bare,” said Ali. “I don’t know what kind of shoes the police constables wear but they crushed his feet. He had boils on his feet.”
Izzat said, “This is an attack on humanity. The government wants to break people, physically, financially, emotionally, but we are fighting back.”
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