What is your ideology?
Name a few countries with communist establishments
What kind of literature do you read?
These are just some of the questions that the Mumbai Police asked poet Bappadittya Sarkar on Wednesday night after his Uber driver reported him to the police for speaking about protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the car.
Activist Kavita Krishnan had first tweeted about the incident on Thursday.
There have been regular, often spontaneous protests in many Indian cities over the discriminatory CAA since it was passed by Parliament in December. The central government and some state governments, especially in Uttar Pradesh, have brutally cracked down on many protesters, some of them young students.
Many BJP leaders have also seized the opportunity to turn up the hate rhetoric against Muslims, targeting peaceful protesters and normalising the process of othering anyone who doesn’t agree with the Hindu nationalist ideology. Sarkar’s harrowing experience is an indication of how easy it has become to target someone whose politics you disagree with, over nothing more than a phone conversation.
Sarkar told HuffPost India over the phone that he had taken an Uber from Juhu and was speaking to a friend over the phone about Shaheen Bagh, “people’s discomfort with laal salaam” and how protests against in different cities are different. About 20 minutes into the ride, his driver stopped the car and asked him if he could go to an ATM.
It was only when the driver came back with two police officers that Sarkara realised that he had actually been taken to a police station. The policemen began questioning the poet about why he was in Bombay and whether he was carrying a dafli. When Sarkar answered those questions, the Uber driver turned to the police officers and said, “Ye communist hai. Ye desh jalaane ki baat kar rha tha. Aap isko andar daalo (He’s a communist. He was talking about burning the country. You arrest him)”.
The driver, according to Sarkar, said he had a recording to prove his claim. The poet said he told the police to listen to the recording and arrest him if he had said anything inciting or against the country.
Sarkar told HuffPost India that the driver did play the recording and the police found nothing inciting about the conversation he had had with his friend.
“Why was I kept for so long. They could have just heard that recording and let me go,” he said.
He also said that the driver threatened him in front of the cops and they did nothing. The driver, Sarkar said, told him “you should be thankful that I have only got you to the police station, not anywhere else”.
“I was literally sighing out of relief. I am so glad that he got me to a police station. This is so scary. The prospect of disappearing and nobody knowing where you are. That’s a very scary thought. This is not my city. The fear and paranoia sets in,” Sarkar told HuffPost India.
Sarkar said he sent his live location to a few of his friends and asked them to send help.
The police, meanwhile, continued questioning him. He said they asked him about his ideology, to name a few countries with communist establishments and what kind of literature he reads. They also asked to read his poems and sifted through his contacts, Sarkar said.
Apart from this, he said they also asked him who was funding him, how was he getting the money to sustain himself because he is an artist and doesn’t have a job that pays regularly. “From there, the questions went to what my father does, where my father works, how much my father earns. I refused to tell them this,” Sarkar added. When he refused to answer them and pointed out that these are unnecessary questions, the cops said, “sir aapka background samajhne ke liye kar rhe hai (it’s only to understand your background)”.
Th police also advised him not to “roam around with a dafli and a red scarf. Desh ka mahaul theek nai hai”.
At a rally in Jharkhand in December last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that those indulging in arson “can be identified by their clothes”. “People who are setting fire (to property) can be seen on TV... They can be identified by the clothes they are wearing,” he had said without elaborating.
“The Prime Minister said that and the state machinery is enforcing it actively,” alleged the poet.
Sarkar said that he was finally allowed to leave after S. Gohil, State Secretary of CPI(ML) Liberation Maharashtra, came to help him.
Activist Kavita Krishnan, who is a Politburo member of the CPI(ML) Liberation, also narrated the incident in a series of tweets on Thursday.
Uber replied to Krishnan, saying “this is concerning. We would like to address this on priority.” Sarkar said Uber contacted him and said they would investigate and take action. HuffPost India has written to Uber asking them about the action they have taken. This copy will be updated once they respond.
On Friday, Mumbai Police said they recorded the statements of both Sarkar and the driver, but found nothing suspicious.
“An Uber driver took a passenger to Santacruz Police station and said that passenger is an anti-national as he was talking about Shaheen Bagh kind of protests and other incidents in Mumbai. Police recorded statements of both but found nothing suspicious so let both go,” they said in a statement.
Officials at Santacruz police station told Scroll that “no case has been registered since it was just an inquiry.”
When asked by HuffPost India if he knows how much information he is obligated to give to the police, Sarkar said that’s something he has to talk to people about. “One has to be very wary of what they are talking about in public and it’s a very scary situation.”
Sarkar said, however, that he will continue to go to the protests. “You have to keep fighting the fight, you just can’t give up.”