NEW DELHI — In the months after the Delhi riots, Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia University, was submitting assignments for his final exam and delivering food to migrant workers amid the coronavirus lockdown. In between this, he was also being summoned for police interrogations and mentally preparing himself for his own arrest.
The irony, Tanha’s friend Abu Aala Subhani pointed out, was that the Jamia Nagar police station which booked the 24-year-old for rioting and attempt to murder was the same one that had issued him a movement pass for carrying out relief work during the lockdown, a month after the communal violence in February.
“He was always ready for relief work. When the phone rang, he would go and give food not just to migrant workers, but to anyone who needed it,” said the Jamia research scholar as he shared the image of the pass on WhatsApp.
At least 21 people have been arrested by the Delhi Police in a conspiracy case in connection with the February riots, most of whom have no criminal record whatsoever. Rather, those arrested represent a new generation of student activists who have articulated a principled, coherent and articulate response to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that critics say makes religion the basis for granting citizenship in India.
The arc of Tanha’s life is of a poor student from an underdeveloped state like Jharkhand to a young man who was finding his politics at a prestigious university like Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. He, like many of those opposing the increasing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) majoritarian politics, face charges of murder, terrorism and conspiracy. These are largely statements attributed to the accused and protected witnesses that defence lawyers in the conspiracy case — First Information Report (FIR) 59 — have called false and fabricated.
Tanha, who grew up in a poor family in Jharkhand, had made his family proud by getting into the Persian language programme at Jamia Millia Islamia. His father, Mujeebullah, a former school teacher, hoped that he would become a translator. As their financial situation became dire in 2019, Tanha started working at the counter at an eatery in exchange for food and a place to live.
In the winter of 2019, the young man found himself leading the movement against the CAA at one of India’s top national universities. He is the youngest student to be arrested in the conspiracy case, so far.
In a 17,000 page chargesheet, built on the statements of protected witnesses and select WhatsApp conversations, the Delhi Police say the students and activists leading the protests against the CAA in December and January were using it as a front to overthrow the Modi government, and the language of inclusivity and constitutional values they used was a ruse concealing their real objective of triggering Hindu-Muslim riots.
Alvi, an MBA from Pune University, who requested his first name not appear to avoid any backlash from the police, said he had interacted with Tanha when he came to speak in Allahabad on 19 February. They are members of the Student Islamic Organisation (SIO), a group that describes itself as an “ideological organization working in the country for preparing students and youth for the reconstruction of society in the divine guidance.”
“We wanted to hear from a student because students were under attack at the time. He was at Jamia when it was attacked. We wanted to know what he was thinking,” said Alvi, referring to the crackdown by Delhi Police inside the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus after a protest march descended into violence on 15 December. Both sides blamed each for the violence. “By nature, I liked him. He was easy, natural, respectful and polite,” he said.
“Everything that was happening in the country at the time, he was part of it. It was not just Jamia, or even Delhi, but the whole country,” said Mujeebullah, Tanha’s father and a heart patient. “We told him not to be at the front of anything but you can’t stop a young man.”
“I told my son that your father is very sick and you will have to learn to stand on your own two feet,” said Jahanara, his mother. “He was learning to stand on his own two feet.”
“He was learning to stand on his own two feet.”
Dreams of a father
Tanha was born in an orphanage run by his great-grandfather in Hazaribagh city in Jharkhand. It was the same orphanage where his mother, who lost her parents to tuberculosis at an early age, grew up.
Tanha went to St Augustine School, but when he appeared keener on cricket than his studies, he was packed off to Jamia Misbah Uloom, a madrassa in Siddharthnagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Jahanara, Tanha’s mother, said that she ran a tight ship when he and his sister, now a 25-year-old with Bachelor’s degree in sociology, were growing up, frowning on fraternising and fun.
“I had rules. School friends in school. College friends in college,” she said. “We are poor people but we are good people.”
“When he got into to Jamia, we told him that we cannot afford to pay for his room and board. He said, ‘I really want to go,’” said Jahanara. “We somehow managed to send some money for two years but after his father became very sick, we could not.”
They were always poor, said Mujeebullah, who taught Arabic and history at a private school for six years before returning to his village to run a kirana store. After his health failed, Jahanara started giving tuitions in Urdu and Arabic to children from Nursery to Class 1 to earn some money. It was with a heavy heart that Tanha’s parents told him last year that they could no longer send him money while he was studying in Delhi. It was then that Tanha started working at a struggling eatery run by two former Jamia students, close to his college.
Mujeebullah, who was also educated in a madrassa, and then studied Arabic at Lucknow University, said that while he could never rise out of poverty, he had experience and a practical view of the world.
With the meagre resources at their disposal, he could not see Tanha becoming a doctor or engineer, but he was hoping to see him as a translator of Arabic and Persian into English. That is why he chose to send him to a madrassa, and was thrilled when he was admitted to the Persian language programme at Jamia.
“I didn’t think we could make him a doctor or engineer, but we could have made him a translator,” he said. “It is a respectable job and pays really well in the Gulf countries.”
“I didn’t think we could make him a doctor or engineer, but we could have made him a translator.”
Tanha was first booked for rioting and attempt to murder after a protest march descended into violence near Jamia Millia Islamia University on 15 December. Five months later, on 17 May, he was arrested in FIR 298/2019 at the Jamia Nagar Police Station.
Two days after that, the Delhi Police arrested him in FIR 59/2020, the conspiracy FIR, which pinned the blame for the riots on the anti-CAA protesters, and invoked the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s draconian anti-terror law.
While granting him bail on 28 May in FIR 298, Additional Sessions Judge Gaurav Rao of the Patiala House district court said that eight of the 10 people arrested in the case were out on bail, and Tanha was a 24-year-old student with no prior criminal antecedents. He remained in jail under the conspiracy case.
While denying him bail on 4 September in FIR 59, Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat of the Karkardooma district court said that his name appears in witness statements as “one of the main coordinators in the entire conspiracy.”
Tanha reapplied for bail in Rawat’s court on 5 October.
A disclosure statement attributed to Tanha in FIR 59 says that the Jamia Misbah Uloom, the madrassa he joined in class 8, and the Jamiatul Falah, an Islamic university in Azamgarh in UP, were run by Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic movement, and Muslims students were told to “spread Islam and rub out the name of kafirs from the face of the earth.” Those who graduate from Jamiatul Falah write Falahi after their names, the statement said.
On the Jamiatul Falah website, the first image is of the opening of the Department of Women and Children, followed by a remark left by Syed Hamid, ex-chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University in New Delhi, who writes, “After visiting Jamiatul Falah, one feels, it never looked back. Its aims are lofty and its philosophy consists in broadmindedness, magnanimity, tolerance and mutual-respect. Sectarianism has no place here to survive.”
Rizwan Rafeequi, a 42-year-old alumni of Jamia Misbah Uloom and Jamiatul Falah, who also holds a PhD in Arabic from Lucknow University, said that he does not write “Falahi” after his name, and he remembered the madrassas as “open places,” where all manner of subjects were taught, and it was frequented by district officials and politicians.
Rafeequi, who is now secretary of the Islami Academy in New Delhi, an educational institute that offers language courses such as Arabic, Persian, English and Urdu, said, “People who have studied there are doing well in all different fields today.”
It is unclear why the statement attributed to Tanha mentions Jamiatul Falah since he did not go there after Jamia Misbah Uloom, but joined Jamia Millia Islamia University after sitting for an entrance examination.
A disclosure statement is taken shortly after a person is arrested and has no evidentiary value unless it leads to the discovery of further evidence.
Sowjhanya Shankaran, Tanha’s lawyer, declined to comment on the veracity of the disclosure statements attributed to him. The Delhi High Court has asked Zee News to disclose the source for some of the sensational stories it published based on the disclosure statements.
A friend of Tanha, who attended the same classes for three years at Jamia Millia Islamia University, said that he had 75% attendance and oscillated between a 1st and 2nd division.
“He was regular with his classes, but his heart was always in activism. Everyone knew him as the guy who would help, whether it was getting a marksheet out or if you had to go to the hospital,” he said. “But he was also worried about the future. His family is poor. He wanted to get a job after graduation.”
“... his heart was always in activism.”
The activist behind the counter
Disclosure statements attributed to Tanha say that he travelled to cities in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and UP, spreading lies about the CAA, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), on the instructions and invitation of fellow members of the Students Islamic Organization of India (SIO).
In a speech that he delivered on 19 January in Jaipur, the only one that the Delhi Police has transcribed in the chargesheet, Tanha began by telling students that education was key to them being assets to any community and country. He then touched on the lynching of Muslims, the outlawing of Triple Talaq, the Babri Masjid verdict, and spoke at length about the CAA and the NRC, encouraging students to inform themselves and educate their families and friends.
“... to save the peace and unity of the country, to save the Constitution, to save the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb…,” he said in this speech in January as per the police chargesheet.
While Mujeebullah, Tanha’s father, does not recall his son having a penchant for oratory when he was growing up in Jharkhand, his friends say that he blossomed into an activist in Jamia, long before the anti-CAA protests.
Another friend of Tanha’s, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears backlash from the police, said that the first time that he saw Tanha was when they were waiting in the admissions line.
“It was the first day and there was this other guy who said he did not have his blood report and he was panicking. Subhani said, “don’t worry,” and went with him to get the report,” said this second friend. “Not everyone does that.”
Tanha’s friends said the budding activist campaigned to end hostel curfews for women students, set up blood donation camps, and fought more mundane battles with the university administration.
The 27-year-old owner of the eatery where Tanha worked described him as “decent and dedicated,” but recalled how he would never stop talking about what was happening at Jamia.
“We told him that his family is poor, and he needed to leave activism and get a job,” said the owner, a Jamia graduate, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “But we could see that he loved being an activist and he was really proud of the work that he was doing.”
Letters in jail
After the riots and the police investigation that targeted anti-CAA protesters, Tanha continued posting messages on Twitter and Facebook, calling for the release of other activists who were being arrested.
After his college mates Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s anti-terror law, Tanha’s friends say he had mentally prepared himself for facing a terror charge.
Abu Aala Subhani, Tanha’s friend who is the head of SIO in Delhi, recalled the 24-year-old trying to learn as much as he could about the UAPA law in between fits of panic and spells of calm.
Over phone calls from Tihar Jail, Subhani said that Tanha spoke mournfully of the long days, a library that was shuttered amid the pandemic, and the weeks and months slipping by.
But Tanha, Subhani said, had settled into his old ways of making friends and solving problems.
“He spends his time writing letters for the other prisoners,” he said. “That is Asif Tanha.”