“I don’t regret anything that I did,” said Srishti Kashyap, an aspiring politician and businesswoman who lives in Varanasi. “I had to come out and protest because everyone else was too scared to do it.”
“We have become a country where an alleged rapist is given bail, but a peaceful protester is denied bail,” she said, referring to Chinmayanand, a former Union Minister, who is accused of sexually exploiting a law student.
Kashyap, who joined the Congress party in November 2019, was denied bail by the district court in Varanasi on 4 February, eleven days after she had organised a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The 24-year-old and her mother Neeti Kashyap have been on the run since 23 January, when the UP Police forcefully broke up the women-led protest in a park called Beniya Bagh in the city.
The UP Police booked 32 people including Kashyap and her mother for crimes such as rioting, criminal conspiracy and assaulting a public official. After she evaded arrest, the police released a poster with her headshot, along with that of 19 other people, offering Rs 5,000 to anyone who could provide information about their whereabouts.
The police booked her for the destruction of public property after her bail on 4 February, and has raised the “bounty on her head” to Rs. 25,000, said Kashyap, speaking to HuffPost India from an undisclosed location.
All she had wanted to do was stage a silent sit-in along with other women, holding posters condemning the CAA, said Kashyap, but the UP Police refused to leave them alone.
In the same way almost all protests against the CAA have ended in UP, the one in Beniya Bagh descended into chaos, with competing narratives of why the police ended up locking the gates of the park and lathi charging the protestors.
“They were saying that we wanted to burn down the city. They were talking about invoking the NSA (National Security Act),” she said. “If I had been arrested that day, I just know that things would have ended very badly for me. When the gulf between what is true and what is a lie becomes so vast, how can I trust the police to do the right thing?”
Over the past two months, lakhs of people in several states have joined protests against the CAA, which its critics say is a discriminatory law that makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship. In Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has given the police license to violently suppress all demonstrations against the new law as well as any opposition to the Modi government.
Under Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath, the state has arrested thousands of people, and detained thousands more, claiming the protests against the CAA in December were largely violent, with protestors attacking police posts and security personnel, and damaging public property worth crores.
Lawyers for those assaulted and arrested say the UP Police has acted in contravention of the laws and procedures laid down for arrest and detention. Peaceful protesters, including at least one woman activist in Lucknow, have been allegedly tortured and abused in police custody. Interviews and video clips show women have been assaulted at protest sites in Lucknow and Etawah. Children have been rounded from their homes and tortured by the police in Bijnor.
Almost all those who have been arrested, beaten and tortured are Muslim.
When HuffPost India informed Shrikant Sharma, a senior minister in the Bisht government, that people alleging torture had named Station House Officer (SHO) Dheerendra Kushwaha and Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Kalanidhi Naithani, who were overseeing the Hazratganj thana in Lucknow in December, he said they could complain to the courts or the Special Investigation Teams (SITs) set up to probe the violence in several districts of UP.
Police action has been visibly partisan: The police have relied on the colonial era Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to act against those opposed to the new citizenship law, even as those in support of the government and the new law have organised rallies with the police’s blessings.
In its latest crackdown in Azamgarh, this week, the UP Police lobbed tear gas to break up a protest against the CAA. The police claimed that stones were lobbed at them. Several protesters including women were injured. Twenty people have been booked for sedition.
Kashyap said, “Today, peaceful protesters are treated like dangerous criminals. Our phones are tracked, our faces are put on posters, and a bounty is put on our heads.”
“We have become a country where an alleged rapist is given bail, but a peaceful protester is denied bail.”
To stay or run
Kashyap, who is the social media coordinator for the Mahila Congress in eastern UP, runs an online clothing business and lives with her mother, a dog and two rabbits in a middle-income neighbourhood in Varanasi.
Her mother, she said, used to be a criminal lawyer in Delhi. Her great granduncle was Rameshwar Singh Kashyap, a Padma Shri recipient for literature and education in 1991. Their family hails from Bihar.
Mother and daughter were heading home from the protest on the afternoon of 23 January when a journalist phoned and told them that the police were questioning her neighbours and waiting to arrest her.
They stopped and waited at a restaurant close to their home. They watched uneasily as the restaurant owner clicked through news videos about them and the protest. They fielded calls from an irate landlord, stunned neighbours and anxious relatives. They tried answering the question — “what have you done?”
Many thoughts raced through her head as Kashyap decided whether to stay or leave Varanasi. She was baffled at what the police were saying about “outsiders” funding the protest. She was worried they would invoke the NSA. She was determined to find a way of retrieving her pets.
Her overarching concern was that her 47-year-old mother, who had ferried food and water to the park that morning, would also be arrested if they went back to the house.
“I had dengue and was admitted in hospital in December and still in recovery,” she said. “She was bringing me brunch and meds.”
On her mind was the frightening account of what happened to Sadaf Jafar, a Congress member and the only woman who was arrested following the anti-CAA rally in Lucknow on 19 December. Jafar has alleged the police informed no one about her whereabouts while she was beaten in custody and held without food for over 24 hours.
People and the media had spoken up for Jafar and other prominent activists who were arbitrarily arrested in Lucknow, but would anyone speak up for her, Kashyap calculated.
The businesswoman, who is taking her first steps in politics, figured she had a long way to go before the public cared about what happened to her.
Once they were taken into custody, Kashyap feared that she and her mother would disappear into the bewildering labyrinth of the justice system.
“I knew I had to mobilise help for myself and the others. If I had got arrested, and my mother was arrested with me, there would have been no one outside trying to help us,” she said. “Nobody.”
“Today, peaceful protesters are treated like dangerous criminals. Our phones are tracked, our faces are put on posters, and a bounty is put on our heads.”
Bail, bail… no bail
In several cases of arbitrary arrests following the anti-CAA movement, judges in UP’s lower courts have granted bail to those accused of grave crimes like rioting and arson — even attempt to murder — while pointing out the lack of evidence and even slamming the UP Police over its unsubstantiated claims.
These bail orders have gone a long way in fighting the UP government’s narrative that the anti-CAA movement is driven by radical Islamists, “outsiders” from Bangladesh and Kashmir, and the Kerala-based Popular Front of India (PFI), which it blames for “masterminding and instigating violence” in UP.
This week, the UP Police said it has arrested over 100 PFI members.
In one instance, the UP’s Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma had claimed that six men arrested by the UP Police in Lucknow on 19 December were linked to the PFI. While granting them bail in January, Additional District and Sessions Judge Sanjay Pandey said the UP Police did not have “direct evidence” against them.
Even in Varanasi, Additional District and Sessions Judge Sarvesh Kumar Pandey granted bail to the vast majority of those arrested by the UP Police in the eastern district in December.
In denying bail to Kashyap and her mother, Additional District and Sessions Judge Anurodh Mishra appears to have relied entirely on the FIR (First Information Report) filed by the police. His order stated that according to the FIR, both women were at a protest that was carried out without permission, in contravention of Section 144, and at a venue that was not a designated protest site. The FIR, the judge noted, said they had planned to instigate the local populace in order to create an incident that would set the city on fire.
Ashma Izzat, a lawyer who is handling several cases related to arbitrary arrests linked to the anti-CAA movement in Lucknow, and has managed to get bail for her clients, had told HuffPost India earlier that she hopes the courts remain neutral.
Kashyap said that she had never even thought of anything like setting the city on fire.
As for violating Section 144, and carrying out a demonstration at a site not designated for protests, Kashyap asked why these rules did not apply to Union Minister Smriti Irani and CM Bisht, who had addressed a pro-CAA event at the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University grounds in Varanasi on 19 January.
“Why are they allowed to do it in schools and colleges, chaurahas and nukkads?” she asked.
Responding to whether the judge had denied her bail because she was absconding, Kashyap reiterated the reasons that made her believe that it was the only way for her to fight back.
Looking back at how events unfolded on 23 January, Kashyap said that she did not want to flee the city, but to escape the conflict that suddenly overwhelmed her. “I think there is a difference between running away and saving oneself,” she said.
“I think there is a difference between running away and saving oneself.”
Life on the run
Instead of going back to Varanasi to surrender, Kashyap plans to challenge the district court’s order denying her bail in the Allahabad High Court.
Even as her business and reputation suffers, especially after her face was plastered on a “wanted” poster, returning home is not an option.
“I agree that the circumstances have been unfortunate. I have exhausted myself over the past 15 days. I’m suffering professionally and personally,” she said, before adding, “But it’s okay.”
As for her reputation taking a hit, she said, “Varanasi is a small city. People will look at the poster and wonder what I did. They will say, ‘It must be pretty bad for her face to be on a poster.’ But that’s okay too. It only matters if you let it matter. It only hurts you if you let it hurt you.”
Kashyap, who designs Indian ethnic wear and sells them to online shopping sites such as Myntra, says that she risks losing merchandise worth lakhs because her buyers cannot reach her.
Her mobile phone is always switched off in case the UP Police is tracking it.
“It only matters if you let it matter. It only hurts you if you let it hurt you.”
When she and her mother eventually return to Varanasi, Kashyap doubts whether her landlord will let them continue living in the same place.
Not only do they live in a neighbourhood where almost everyone votes for the BJP, she said the police banged on the doors of all their neighbours, creating a ruckus that has rattled them.
Her mother, who was fielding a barrage of phone calls from their neighbours, tried explaining that her daughter had done nothing wrong.
“My landlord said that he did not know there was a ‘Congressi’ among them,” she said. “I don’t think he will throw us out or anything, but I think he will give us a month to vacate. Everyone is scared of a police case. Not only is this a police case, but it’s also a political matter. People are afraid that it could flare up again and again.”
What frightened Kashyap most are the vitriolic comments that people left in response to news videos about the Beniya Bagh protest that were posted on YouTube.
“It is harrowing to read these comments,” she said. “How can people think such things? How can people say such things? How can people say things on a public platform?”
As she charts her future course, Kashyap says that she draws strength from her mother.
“I’m so thankful that my mother is with me,” she said. “I could not have survived this without her.”