A 57-year-old Ayurveda doctor who runs a clinic, a 56-year-old social activist who runs a school for Dalit and Muslim children, a 47-year-old political activist who runs a puncture shop, a 51-year-old businessman who also runs two educational institutions. They are among 59 persons issued notices by the UP government for payment of Rs 15.35 lakh in total to compensate for damage to property caused during anti-CAA protests in Sambhal district on December 19.
All of them say they will challenge the order in court. And all of them speak in one voice on the government’s notices: They are being sent to muzzle civil society and the protests.
Topping the list is Mushir Khan, who runs a cold storage facility and two schools, is a well known social activist, and heads the Sambhal Sangharsh Samiti.
“I am shocked. We have held so many protests against the policies of various governments. Never has such an action been taken. What message are they sending? That they will restrict our Constitutional right to a peaceful protest? Our committee held a 14-day protest against the Mayawati government demanding a separate district. We had mobilised 7,000 people but not a single incident of violence was reported,” says Khan.
On December 19, the Samiti had planned to organise a “Save the Constitution” protest at the Nagar Palika in Sambhal. “I had got a call from SDM that we had to take permission, with an undertaking that we would protest peacefully. At night, we received a call that our request had been cancelled. The SDM said we could protest at my cold storage facility. Later, permission to do even that was cancelled. Finally, we agreed to not hold any protest that day,” says Khan.
According to him, there is evidence to show that the Samiti did hold any protest or indulge in arson. “Police was deployed outside the cold storage facility. There are CCTV cameras. There is clear evidence that we did not take part any protest. How can anyone go out and indulge in violence when the police is deployed outside?” he says.
“I run two schools where 225 students are given free education. Sixty per cent of the students are Hindus. We are peace-loving people. Why is the administration creating an atmosphere of fear?” asks Khan.
Dr Nazim, a 57-year-old Ayurveda doctor, says the notices are being issued to curb the voice of the “educated middle class”. “Note the pattern. None of those in the notices are there in any video footage of the violence. All of them are from the educated middle class who have been at forefront against government policies,” he says.
“I am not new to protests. I had spearheaded peaceful protests at Jantar Mantar against Lalu Prasad, when he was Railway Minister, demanding a train for Sambhal. We know that protesting against the government is a Constitutional right. We also know that it is our duty to maintain peace during protests,” he says.
Nazim says the administration has sought his help for various developmental activities. “A committee was formed for rejuvenating the Sot river. Knowing my credentials in social work, the district magistrate made me the head of the committee. We revived a 42-km stretch of the river. We have worked to build the nation. Today, this government is saying we are involved in violence and dividing people,” he says.
Sayyed Aslam, who runs a small school on his terrace for Dalit and Muslim children, says that by targeting individuals, the government is instilling fear among their families. “I have my daughter’s wedding in less than a month. Now, I feel guilty that because of my social activism, my family is made to suffer. Such is the fear that my wife feels uncertain about the wedding. Look what this government has done to us,” he says.
Aslam, 56, says that while the Prime Minister’s message to citizens is to keep faith in the government, his own party’s administration is “working with a feeling of revenge”. “How can we trust the government when its own administration is lying and lodging FIRs? Why is the government not arresting the real culprits when they have video footage?” he says.
Aslam’s wife Nahid Begum fears that she has to shut the school “if the government continues its victimisation”. “We have 150 students, mostly Dalit and Muslim. We charge Rs 100 as fees. We have recruited five Dalit teachers, keeping in mind that they should get jobs. Is this how a state treats its peace-loving citizens? Does the government not know who is involved in the violence?” she says.
Zia Ashraf, 47, who runs a tyre puncture shop, was among several members of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) who protested outside the Chaudary Sarai area on December 16.
“We held a meeting with the Circle Officer and the SDM about the protest, where police were present. There were 1,000 party workers and it went peacefully. The local media also covered the event. But I fail to understand why I was named in an FIR related to violence on December 19. On what basis has the SDM issued the notices? My shop is a kilometre from where a bike was set on fire on December 19. Is that why I am being targeted?” he asks.
Asked if those issued notices have been captured on CCTV, Additional District Magistrate Kamlesh Awasthi told The Indian Express: “The names were sent to us by police. It is on the basis of the FIRs registered. The police have access to CCTV footage and testimonies of constables. But the identity of the accused will be decided in court.”
According to Awasthi, the process is similar to that of a recovery. “All of them will be given an opportunity to reply. On the basis of these replies, it will be ascertained as to how many were actually involved in damaging property. All this will take place in court. There will be a proper hearing, where evidence will be produced by both sides. The court will verify the estimated amount and pass an order on the amount to be paid by each person,” he says.