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This is what the “scapegoats” in Jamia violence case have to say

Is there some light at the end of the tunnel for former and current university students who were granted relief by the court after a three year-long struggle that was not easy for them or their family members or is the consolation a weak, flickering candle?


IN the Jamia Nagar violence case, a Delhi court on February 4 discharged 11 persons, including student activists Sharjeel Imam, Safoora Zargar and Asif Iqbal Tanha, concluding that the Delhi Police had roped them as “scapegoats” since it was unable to find the “actual perpetrators“.

The prosecutor had submitted “ill-conceived chargesheets” that the police had arbitrarily arranged with “some people from the demonstrating throng as accused and some others as police witnesses“, Additional Sessions Judge Arul Verma of the Saket district court noted. The court further stated that this “cherry-choosing (sic)” is contrary to the idea of fairness.

Dissent is an extension of the fundamental right to free speech, Judge Verma underlined. 

It would be pertinent to underscore that dissent is nothing but an extension of the invaluable fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression contained in Article 19 of the Constitution of India, subject to the restrictions contained. It is therefore a right which we are sworn to uphold,” the judge affirmed.

The judge also emphasised the necessity to safeguard the right to disagree. “When something is repugnant to our conscience, we refuse to obey it. This disobedience is constituted by duty. It becomes our duty to disobey anything that is repugnant to our conscience. 

Judge Varma continued by quoting Chief Justice Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud, who had previously referred to dissent as a democracy’s safety valve. “The destruction of spaces for questioning and dissent destroys the basis of all growth — political, economic, cultural, and social. In this sense, dissent is a safety valve of democracy. 

Also read: Jamia violence case: Delhi High Court refuses to stay lower court’s remarks against the prosecution

All students who were then charged for heinous crimes, where seditious laws were inflicted upon them, are now researchers, scholars, lawyers, and journalists.

Shahzar Khan, a PhD student at the Hyderabad University is in his early twenties, struggling to complete his doctorate as the court hearings always keep coming in the way. He is originally from Bareilly and his father owns a shoe shop in the village itself.

Umair’s Ahmed, who is now 25 years old, is from Mau and was completing his higher education at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi when he was named as one of the accused in the case. Seeing the legal perils people have to deal with from close quarters and understanding the gravity of the situation, validated his decision to pursue law from Mumbai, in order to better serve his community.

While talking to The Leaflet, the students explained their reluctant preparation for a long legal battle. However, there was some respite at the end of a three year-long struggle for the former and current university students who were granted relief by the court, but these years have not been easy for them or their families.

Shahzar Raza Khan’s ordeal

The youngest member of his family, Shahzar Raza Khan, 23, was a graduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia. When he got a call from Delhi police, requesting him to show up for an interrogation a few days later, he was in his village in Bareilly to attend a wedding. 

Young Shahzar was compelled to contact his father, who runs a shoe store in the village, for help. Thankfully, his parents had the gumption to reassure him that nothing untoward would happen to him because he was innocent.

The summons arrived quickly, and when the court proceedings got underway, things were even more challenging for him because he had to begin his Master’s course at Hyderabad University — not close to Delhi by any means.

Almost every student from Jamia had participated in the protests; Shahzar was only one among them. He says he had to endure a terrible time emotionally and his mental health has suffered during the three years for which the case has gone on. However, the case was also a learning experience for him in a way, and inadvertently provided life-affirming lessons. For example, he takes solace in the manner in which his family supported him, and he also learned a lot observing the legal course of action from a close proximity.

In 2021, Shahzar received an offer to pursue Master’s at a University in Australia. “I missed out on this opportunity only because of the case that falsely put me in a place of despair,” he says, and adds that he would have studied political science at the Australian National University had he not been hamstrung by the case proceedings, ruing that by now he would have been pursuing a PhD from a different university.

When asked about the court’s judgement, he said, “I would say that the judgement is fine. But what came before that was a long time of judicial harassment with every hearing we had to face. If I had to go somewhere or make plans, I did not check my academic calendar, as I should have done being a student, but rather I would call up my lawyer and ask him if a hearing is close. If he said yes, I would have to alter my plans accordingly.”  

At the age of 20 years, managing the costs of monthly travel to Delhi in addition to the costs of regular food, accommodation, and transport in Hyderabad was a lot to handle, he said. “This put an additional burden on my head,” he adds. Raza’s family was financially supportive, yet he needed to work as a freelancer while pursuing education in order to make ends meet. 

Because we are Muslims, we were singled out. Despite the fact that one of our fellow Hindus was also prosecuted, I think it was just because she was spotted with us.” He indicates that while people from all religious backgrounds took part in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA), it was mainly Muslims who were harassed through the filing of false charges. 

Shahzar ends with a description of something that has been haunting him ever since the case started. He says that he did not have to necessarily keep low, but there have been times when he would have to completely refrain from tweeting or writing on social media. “I do not feel that it brings out anything concrete, and therefore I feel that it is best not to do it.” 

He says that many victims of suppression do not know or understand English, whereas most people who write on social media do so in English. So the message on social media does not even reach the person for whom it is written. “Social media is giving us a voice, a stage to speak up, but the State has stopped taking it seriously.”

Advocate representing accused still filled with dread 

Advocate Abu Bakr Sabbaq was the lawyer who took up the legal battle of four of the accused students. He spoke to The Leaflet about the confidence and the dread that he carries with him constantly.

We were aware right away that the students were innocent of any wrongdoing. Only three pieces of evidence were supplied by the police: the mobile network location obtained by a CDR (Call Details Record), student films and photos, and proctors’ and other university officials’ testimony.” Sabbaq explains that none of the pieces of evidence was particularly strong enough to put the students in danger.

He claims that the students may be seen in the footage at least four hours before the violence occurred. Students may be seen protesting and chanting in the footage, but there was no violence involved. “You may describe the protest as forceful, but was it violent?” It wasn’t, he affirms.

For the second piece of CDR proof, the range is between two and three kilometers for one mobile tower, Sabbaq submits. The majority of Jamia Millia Islamia University students can be found on campus, in the library, or in the Abul Fazal Enclave neighbourhood. How does that demonstrate their presence, he questions? No faces can be seen in the violent films, and the students never disputed taking part in the demonstration, he points out.

Sabbaq was also a member of the Fact-Finding Committee on the Northeast Delhi Riots of February 2020 constituted by the Delhi Minorities Commission that provided a thorough report on the riots (which, to be clear, happened two months after the Jamia violence).

Umair Ahmad’s predicament

Umair, too, had to handle the case on his own before the Delhi court came to his rescue.

Umair joined the anti-CAA movement like several other Jamia Millia Islamia students. He acknowledges that he was demonstrating in the streets. “However, I was horrified and terrified when I found out that I was named in the case. It was long after I had even lost track of the case.” The case was under speedy trial, so there were regular hearings. Since Umair was studying law from Mumbai, he would have to manage his college there, and at the same time, be in Delhi for the case. 

And he was not exempted each time he would wish to not attend the case hearing.

I had attentively observed the suffering of the residents of my neighbourhood. I had observed the way dissident students were handled. All of this in some way motivated and inspired me to read more, educate myself on my rights, and give back to my community. I am now pursuing law not only for the reasons which I had in the beginning but also because I am aware of the struggle that awaits us,” says Ahmad. He began studying law in 2021, has been learning and interning with human rights activists, and plans to continue engaging in court cases in the future. But his memory has been clouded by the frequent trips from Mumbai to Delhi over the last year-and-a-half due to the case.

During Covid times, when I returned back to Delhi from my village, I was told by a senior that my name came up during his interrogation, and that the police was looking for me. Scared, I had to return back to my village where I started receiving calls from Delhi police. When I finally spoke with them, my father was also present. And they called me a rioter in front of him,” narrates Umair as he remembers the day when he got to know that his name was among the accused.

What if he was arrested? This was a concern his father had at every hearing as he kept dreading that something horrible was about to occur. “I had made sure that neither my family nor my schoolmates were aware of the situation. My dad would always tell the neighbours that he is travelling to Delhi for work to protect me from ostracism and ridicule. But I am confident that if my relatives or neighbours had known about the situation, my school friends would have cut off all contact with me. Even after the court’s order, relatives who eventually learned about the matter make fun of me and my family,” he says.

I knew my lawsuit would take years to resolve,” he continues. “So even though it came quite late, the court’s decision was a big relief. But I think our joy is short-lived. I’m not sure what will happen to us if the State appeals against the order in a higher court. What should I tell Ammi now, really? When I told her what the judge had ruled, she was relieved. She’ll be devastated if I tell her about the plans of the police to take the case to the high court.”

Mohammad Qasim’s trauma

Mohammed Qasim is a twenty-six year-old journalist. He says that the traumatic experience of the case “made it difficult for us to work. This was like an extra load that we had to take for no reason at all. We were students and when we were going to court, we would wonder why we needed to be there. We were forced to wonder for three years why this was happening to us. There were worries about my career and apprehension about what would eventually happen.”

Some accused me of being a police informant: Mehmood Anwar’s agony

Thirty year-old Mehmood, born and brought up in Delhi had a very simple life until the moment he was named in the Jamia case FIR. Apart from being a PhD student, Anwar is a social activist and has been providing free education to underprivileged students for the last eleven years.

What do you expect my mental state to be after hearing that I had been named in the FIR?” He asks. After taking a deep breath, he continued, “like any middle class family, we were a very simple family until the point when I was summoned and called for investigation by the crime branch.”

It affected my mother more than anybody because she is a blood pressure patient and to have her kid make rounds of the crime branch so often and to see her son charged under so many sections of the Indian Penal Code made her worry a lot. Nevertheless, I always had my parent’s support,” Anwar added.

“Things did change for me. My parents were so scared that I was asked not to take part in any more activism or protests. Some of the Jamia Millia Islamia friends levelled serious allegations against me.” These allegations have led to serious mental health issues for Anwar and till date he gets shivers. “They said, I am a police informer,” Anwar says tremblingly. Even his Jamia friends no longer had his back after the case was filed against him.

Anwar is currently pursuing PhD in civil engineering from Jamia Millia Islamia. He is very disappointed with the progress in his work and completely blames the case that occupied his mind, time and years. “It was not just the case but the amount of times I had to visit the crime branch for interrogation, the preparation for the next hearing, the condition at home, the mental trauma and the fear of getting trapped in another legal battle. All this was a vicious cycle I was stuck in and like me there were seven other students.”

“Taking this case back to the high court is a waste of our time and money,” notes Anwar while hoping that the Centre doesn’t start yet another legal battle for him.

Of the discharged eleven, Imam will, however, continue to be detained because he is charged in connection with a ‘bigger conspiracy’ case involving the 2020 Delhi riots. In the case, which involves charges under the stringent Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, Tanha and Zargar are also charged, though the latter two are out on bail granted by the Delhi High Court.