31/12/2019 7:33 AM IST

CAA: Forget Protests, Yogi Adityanath's Govt Is Muzzling Funerals

At least 19 people have been killed in Uttar Pradesh as a consequence of police action on demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The police has forced many families to conduct quick secretive funerals.

Ishan Tankha
Families in Uttar Pradesh grieve the deaths of their sons killed when the Uttar Pradesh police opened fire on a demonstration.

NEHTAUR, Uttar Pradesh — The Uttar Pradesh police shot 20-year-old Mohammed Suleman dead in the afternoon of December 20. At midnight, his father was called to the closest police station to discuss funeral arrangements.

Suleman’s corpse was found by his family at a busy intersection in Nehtaur, a bustling urban settlement in Bijnor district, shortly after the state police trained their guns on a crowd of mostly Muslim men raising slogans against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The demonstration in Nehtaur was part of hundreds of similar protests across the country.

Immediately after his death, Suleman’s family took his body to Bijnor’s district hospital, where the corpse was held by the police pending a post-mortem. Suleman’s post-mortem would be conducted in the early hours of December 21, a police officer told his father Zahid Hussain, but the body would be released to his grieving family on the condition that he be buried immediately and at a spot far away from Nehtaur, where Suleman and his family lived. No friends or mourners could be called for the funeral, and the abbreviated ceremony would be conducted under strict police bandobast.

“The police said, ‘You are rioters, you will cause a riot at the funeral’,” said Suleman’s elder brother Shoaib, who accompanied his father to the police station. “They said, ‘Just dig a hole anywhere and bury him.’” Suleman’s family had to patiently explain their death rituals to the disinterested police force.

A little after 7 am on December 21, Suleman’s body was loaded into a police vehicle and accompanied by a police convoy that navigated the circuitous backroads from Bijnor to a cemetery in a village called Baghdad Ansar, where his grandmother lived.

On the same night, another desperate family from Nehtaur was conducting a similar negotiation with the police. Anas Hussain, the 21-year-old father of an 8-month-old child, had been shot dead when he stepped out of a narrow alley and into the path of a bullet most likely fired by the police.  Here too, the police were refusing to hand over the body until the family chose a spot far away from Nehtaur.

Eventually, the police brought the body to a cemetery in a village called Mithan, and stood guard over the body as Anas’s brothers dug a grave, as Anas’s father heated water to wash his son’s body, as Anas’s uncle organised a wooden frame to lower the corpse into the grave. 

“Most of our family wasn’t allowed to see Anas one last time,” said his father Arshad Hussain, his eyes welling up with tears.

Police Brutality

At least 19 people have been killed in Uttar Pradesh’s brutal crackdown on demonstrations against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The act, which makes religion a basis for deciding the citizenship status of refugees, has been criticised for violating India’s secular Constitution. UP’s Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, has justified the violence and has said his administration will take “revenge” against those demonstrating against the act. 

The visible violence, arson, and vandalism of the Uttar Pradesh police force, vividly captured by television channels, has been accompanied by an orchestrated attempt to erase all traces of deaths caused by the state police with a justified reputation for impunity.

The most evocative instance of this erasure is the state administration’s refusal to allow grieving families a moment to mourn their children killed in the course of police action. The police’s refusal to allow proper funerals for Suleman and Anas in Nehtaur follows a pattern across the state, as can be gleaned from similar accounts from Meerut, where at least five men were killed in police firing.

Viswajeet Srivastav, Additional Superintendent of Police Bijnor, confirmed that the families of Suleman and Anas were instructed to bury their children away from the village as the situation in Nehtaur was still volatile.

“The families gave their consent,” Srivastava told HuffPost India, adding that the midnight post-mortems had been conducted at the request of the families — a claim the families deny.

Last week, Bijnor Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Tyagi told The Indian Express that Suleman was killed in self-defence, after he shot a policeman Mohit Kumar with a country-made pistol

“When Mohit got close to Suleman, the latter opened fire with his country-made pistol. A bullet hit Mohit’s stomach,” said Tyagi. “In reply, Mohit also fired from his service pistol and the bullet hit Suleman’s stomach.” However, Tyagi confirmed to the Express that the police did not recover the pistol with which Suleman allegedly shot Kumar. Suleman’s family, in the meantime, insist he had no such weapon.

Ishan Tankha
The relatives of Suleman, a victim of police violence, console his grieving mother.

Memory And Forgetting

What remains of a young man after his body has been lowered into his grave? 

In Mohammed Suleman’s home, his sisters — none of whom could attend his secretive funeral choreographed by the UP police— handled his possessions with tenderness and sorrow.

There is a hand-written timetable charting out the hectic day of a student preparing for competitive exams for government jobs: a two hour slot from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM “to offer Namaz, Home Work, Take Bath”; an hour and a half each for English, Science, Math and Reasoning; two hours for coaching homework.

There is a thick file containing all of Suleman’s report cards, starting from the Green Wood Convent School where Suleman went to kindergarten, right up to an admission application for Jamia Hamdard, where he had hoped to do a B.Tech in computers. 

There is a shelf in his bedroom stuffed with notebooks and registers.

There is a photograph of his corpse, with a neat bullet hole a few inches below his heart, that young men surreptitiously pull up on their phones.

Aman Sethi
Mohammed Suleman's daily timetable. Suleman was shot by the Uttar Pradesh police on December 20, 2019, as part of a statewide crackdown on those protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.

“I don’t understand why the media doesn’t describe him as a student. They keep saying he was a “protestor’,” said Arshad, Suleman’s father. “But my son was not in at the protest, he was simply coming home from Namaz to continue his studies.”

It is right there in his daily timetable: “1:20PM to 2:30 PM — Namaz, coming home and lunch.”

That fateful day on December 20, 2019, Arshad said, Suleman did go to Namaz, and was coming home for lunch when he was struck by a policeman’s bullet. But there will be no tombstone in Nehtaur to mark the brief life and violent death of Mohammed Suleman. 

Those who wish to remember him, and pay their respects, will have to travel an hour to Baghdad Ansar. Many in Nehtaur will simply forget that there once lived a man called Mohammed Suleman, who wrote English in a neat cursive hand, who loved his parents, who was shot dead by the police on December 20, 2019.

Ishan Tankha
Mohammed Arshad, whose 21-year-old son Anas, was killed by a stray bullet in Nehtaur on the same day.