Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India on December 27, 2019. Photo: STR/NurPhoto

Muslims living in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, are bearing the brunt as protests against the religion-based citizenship law continue to grow across the country. Several reports show that the state’s actions to quell the protests have left many Muslims dead or injured and many have been arrested.

The citizenship law was amended recently by the Narendra Modi government. It excludes Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh from seeking fast-track citizenship. This is seen as discriminatory and a violation of certain constitutional provisions and, coupled with a planned nationwide National Register for Citizens (NRC), threatens to strip Muslims of their citizenship. Once a nationwide register is created, it will become harder for Muslims to prove and retain their citizenship under the new law, while people of other faiths will be fast-tracked.

Asia Times asked several key officials posted in the state about the issue. They revealed that the usual channels of communication in the police are being side-stepped regularly to ensure that junior officers follow political directions. At least three highly placed officials in the state have confirmed that political interference is leading to more violence.

“A few police officers have ignored what they are being instructed to do since they are directly in touch with people at the top,” a senior state administrative official said. “The police leadership has repeatedly asked the younger officers to maintain calm, but these orders are being countermanded by the top political leadership,” this official said.

India’s states are divided into sub-units known as districts. The police in the districts are headed by senior superintendents, a designation and structure that was designed by the colonial British government more than a century ago. Many superintendents are drawn from the Indian Police Service (IPS), an all-India service that serves as the backbone of the country’s police leadership at the operational and policy levels.

“IPS officers in 61 districts have managed to keep the peace and handled the protests with great maturity. But in the districts where the officers succumbed to political pressure, violence was inevitable,” another senior official tasked with handling the issue told Asia Times.

Some of these officers share the state’s chief minister’s troubling view on Muslims, all the officers confirmed.

Targeting Muslims

So far 19 people have been killed in the protests in the state, and 1,113 have been formally arrested and over 5,000 detained as a preventive measure. The overwhelming majority of them are Muslims. Many in the state are now pointing towards the state’s chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht, also known as Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu supremacist leader from the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) for the escalating violence.

Bisht has been known to hold extreme views on Muslims. A few years ago, a video surfaced where he was seen on stage while one of his supporters exhorted the crowd to dig up corpses of Muslim women to rape them. He has also told his followers that if one Hindu is killed, then 100 Muslims will be killed in revenge.

This, many agree, has led to the violence and deaths in the state, where Muslims are now facing unprecedented persecution. On December 20, he stated that his government would take “revenge” against protesters who were committing arson.

On December 27, the official Twitter handle of the chief minister tweeted a tougher message indulging in self-praise: “Every rioter is shocked. Every demonstrator is shocked. Everyone has been silenced seeing Yogi Adityanath’s stern actions”. He added the hashtag self-certifying himself as “#TheGreat_CMYogi” to his tweet.

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is a key BJP leader. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

“This explains why the political leadership is pushing police officers to take a hard stand against any protests. They are also pushing them to arrest as many Muslims as they can and slap serious charges against them to ensure that bail is denied,” a third senior administrative official told Asia Times.

When a senior police officer in the district of Meerut was caught on camera asking Muslims to go to Pakistan, the state administration immediately swung into action to defend him. The officer’s supervisors insisted that the police officer was responding to provocative slogans but failed to show any proof to back up these claims.

In another incident, a popular 66-year-old Muslim cleric who ran an orphanage in Muzaffarnagar district was attacked by the police, allegedly stripped and beaten up along with his 12- and 13-year-old students. Videos that emerged show the children trying to escape as the police beat them with fiberglass canes. The cleric was released later with bandages on both arms and no case was filed against him as the police arrived at an understanding with local community leaders.

V N Rai, a retired IPS official who also headed the national police academy was very critical of how the state police force is targeting Muslims. “See how the mindset of many policemen from [Uttar Pradesh] is revealed from some of their reactions – these are not the reactions of professional policemen but those biased by religious prejudices and political propaganda that comes from an extreme ideology,” he told Asia Times. “They are no longer looking at Muslims as people, but as the ‘enemy’ and that creates major issues. We have always tried to inculcate among our young officers that they have to be constitutionally conditioned policemen, rather than be conditioned by authority,” Rai said.

Meanwhile, many Muslim families are now getting government notices asking them to pay for the damage that was caused to public property during the protests. However, as several senior lawyers have pointed out, there is no law that allows such administrative action, unless a court has heard the case and passed orders. However, India’s cumbersome judicial processes are likely to trap these families and individuals in decades of litigation if they were to seek relief from the courts, lawyers pointed out.

In the state’s capital city of Lucknow, Sadaf Jafar, an activist and member of the opposition Congress party, was picked up while she was filming protests. Her family members alleged that she was repeatedly kicked in the stomach and beaten by police constables before being taken away.

This occurred “despite advice from senior police officers to only book her for violating section 144, a colonial law that prohibits more than four people to gather in public spaces,”  one of the senior administrative officers told Asia Times.  “However, there was pressure from the political leadership to charge her with more cases so that she does not get bail from the court.”

The lower court denied her bail and her lawyers have appealed in the high court. The video, which was uploaded on Facebook, shows that she was merely filming the protests when the police pounced on her.

In districts like Muzzaffarnagar, which has a sizable Muslim presence, many Muslims were arrested and their houses raided. However, following an intervention from the state’s top police leadership, cases against nearly 35 Muslims were dropped. According to a report in the newspaper, The Hindu, WhatsApp messages exchanged between senior police officials show officers being encouraged to help shape the narrative. The state’s top official also asked his officers to take “pictures of 12- to 13-year-old children at agitations with stones in their hands or in such aggressive forms.” Apparently, this was done to convince people that the police force was taking hard action against violent protesters.

Political observers say this helps Chief Minister Bisht to not only grow his political stature in the state but also nationally since he has ambitions to replace Prime Minister Modi in the future. “This will also silence his critics within the state BJP as well as the party’s central leadership and give a boost to his prime ministerial ambitions,” a senior political leader from his party told Asia Times. Ironically, the chief minister’s election affidavit reveals that he was also charged with rioting earlier. Some of these cases were closed soon after he took office.

Even Modi has tried to paint the protests as being restricted to Muslims. At a political rally a few weeks ago, he mentioned that the protesters “can be recognized by their clothes.” This was a dog whistle to his party’s support base to identify the protesters as Muslims just ahead of state elections in Jharkhand.

These incidents have now begun to create a major issue for India internationally. Many foreign envoys posted in New Delhi have expressed concern at the citizenship law and the crackdown on protesters. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has called for a meeting to discuss the continuing lockdown in India’s lone Muslim-majority union territory Kashmir as well as the citizenship law that bars Muslims.

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