Gulfisha Fatima, who was arrested in connection with the Delhi riots on 9 April, taught Hindi and English alphabets to the women who came for the anti-CAA protests.
NEW DELHI — Atiq Hussain was asleep when his phone rang at eight in the morning. A policeman was on the line, telling him that his sister Gulfisha Fatima had been arrested. The policeman handed her the phone. They spoke for ten seconds.
Hussain said, “Her voice was calm. Baaji has never been one to get emotional about things. All she said was to tell abba and ammi.”
Twenty five days passed before Hussain mustered up the courage to break the news to their father, a kirana store owner in northeast Delhi, and mother, a homemaker. Both of them suffer from depression, he said.
Hussain laid the groundwork by telling them about the arrests of other students and activists who had protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act and were getting arrested in connection with the Delhi riots in February. Hussain tried explaining away why she wasn’t visiting or phoning home, but eventually ran out of excuses and told them the truth.
“It was a terrible shock but what can one do? What do you do after you stop crying? You try and cope with it. This is the only thing on their minds but they have stopped talking about it.” he said in a recent conversation with HuffPost India. “My father is silent. My mother too but she still bursts into tears all the time,”
As of date, Fatima, a 28-year-old MBA graduate, has been booked in four First Information Reports (FIR) accusing her of terrorism and murder, and has been held for 132 days in Tihar Jail.
“Her phone calls last for five minutes. There is only time to ask about her health and say we are okay,” said Hussain. “The depression my parents suffer from has worsened. Their faces have changed. They have become so thin.”
All she said was to tell abba and ammi.
In an affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court on 13 July, the Delhi Police, which reports to Amit Shah, Home Minister in the Narendra Modi government, claims leaders of the anti-CAA and NRC movement, many of them Muslim, are responsible for the Delhi riots. The same affidavit notes that the overwhelming loss of life and property was suffered by the Muslim community.
The CAA allows only non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, living without documents in India, to apply for Indian citizenship. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is an exercise that would identify people living without documents in India.
The Delhi Police is yet to register an FIR against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra who can be heard here making an instigating speech and issuing an ultimatum to the police — in the presence of a Delhi police officer — to clear the roads of protesters a few hours before violence erupted in northeast Delhi. Other BJP leaders also made hate speeches in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly election ahead of the riots, including Union Minister Anurag Thakur who can be heard yelling “shoot the traitors” at a rally.
In its affidavit, the Delhi Police has ruled out investigating BJP leaders Mishra and Thakur.
Four months after Delhi Police personnel were caught on camera assaulting and harassing Muslim men, one of whom later died, followed by sustained outrage in sections of the media and civil society, and the fact that a video recording of the incident is on the Internet, the Delhi Police told a district court that “efforts were on” to identify the men.
Prominent citizens have written to the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government and the President of India Ram Nath Kovind with concerns about the Delhi Police’s investigation into its own role and of the BJP leaders in the riots.
The Delhi Police has previously said that it is carrying out an impartial investigation.
BJP’s Mishra is reportedly a front runner in the three general secretary posts in the Delhi unit of the BJP.
Fatima, the oldest of three siblings, was a quiet child who grew up into a reserved young woman, who only asked that she be allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fatima pursued her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Urdu at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College, and an MBA from the Institute of Management Education in Ghaziabad.
Even in the throes of the anti-CAA protests, Hussain said that his sister was giving job interviews and preparing for a second time for the National Eligibility Test to become an assistant professor, having missed qualifying by two percent a year earlier.
While sharing a video of his sister teaching women the English and Hindi alphabets at the anti-CAA protests in Seelampur in January, Hussain said, “I once heard baaji say that she wanted to do a PhD after her MBA. I heard her say that she wanted Dr. in her name and that she wanted to be a professor.”
For the Delhi Police, the MBA graduate appears to be a terrorist who was trying to foment religious violence and overthrow the Modi government.
It fell on Fatima’s 26-year-old brother to find a lawyer and start piecing together a plan to mount a defence.
With the Delhi Police booking her in one case after another, and the courts denying her bail, Hussain realised there was not a lot he could do but try and keep track of the court dates.
“We know that with the UAPA it would take time, six months or one year before she gets out,” he said, referring to the India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which has been invoked against several anti-CAA protestors who the Delhi Police has accused of instigating the Delhi Riots.
“We don’t understand what is going on. So many women were going to the protest. She was one of them,” said Hussain. “We have to keep faith that our courts will unearth the truth. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
I once heard baaji say that she wanted to do a PhD after completing her MBA.
UAPA and murder
The Delhi Police first arrested Fatima on 9 April under FIR 48/2020 (24 February) of Jafrabad Police Station, now famous as the “roadblock case,” for multiple crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including rioting and assaulting a public servant. Even before she could apply for bail in this FIR, Fatima on 11 April was booked in a second FIR, FIR 59/2020 (6 March) of the Crime Branch, the “conspiracy case,” which invokes the IPC, the UAPA, the Arms Act and Damage to Public Property Act.
One ground for Fatima’s bail in FIR 48 getting rejected on 3rd May was that she was booked in FIR 59, according to the Habeas Corpus writ petition her lawyer Mehmood Pracha filed in the Delhi High Court in June. Fatima eventually got bail in FIR 48 on 13 May, but was held in FIR 59.
In July, Pracha said, Fatima learnt that she was booked under a third FIR, FIR 83/2020 (23 February) Seelampur Police Station, which invokes bailable offenses, and got bail on 20 July.
On 26-27 July, Pracha said, Fatima learnt that she was booked under a fourth FIR, FIR 50/2020 (26 February) of the Jafrabad Police Station, which invokes murder (Section 302 of the IPC).
FIR 50/2020 says an 18-year-old Muslim man named Amaan was killed in the violence near Crescent Public School, Jafrabad on 25 February. The FIR was registered on 26 February.
A chargesheet against some of the accused was filed on 2 June.
Fatima, her lawyer, pointed out, was booked five months after the FIR was registered, and close to two months after a charge sheet was filed in the case.
The Delhi High Court in June rejected the Habeas Corpus petition against FIR 59, and Pracha’s argument that matters of bail and judicial remand in UAPA cases could only be heard by a special court set up under the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act, as a “red herring.”
Pracha filed a Habeas Corpus petition in Supreme Court against FIR 59 on 26 July, 2020.
“The Delhi Police are trying to keep her behind bars,” he said. “This is an orchestrated exercise to crush the CAA-NRC movement.”
Hussain said that he loved his sister but despite there being only a two year age difference between them, they were never confidantes.
“She was always in her own head,” he said. “She was always in her own world. She had a few friends. She would not even get sucked into family problems. She just wanted her books and a roof over her head.”
But the few things he knows that she likes are studying, novels with freedom fighters as the heroes, rousing poetry, painting, and going to the library.
Her favourite poet is Mir Taqi Mir, an 18th century poet regarded as a maven of the Urdu language, and she represented Kirori Mal College in Urdu couplet competitions at Delhi University, he said.
Fatima, Hussain said, came into her own in college. Along the way, she picked up a few trophies for reciting Urdu couplets and even did a course to be a Radio Jockey.
“I still know more about her than anyone else because whenever she needed something, she would come to me,” he said. “It was not that she was afraid of speaking to our father but she felt shy. So, I would go and say that baaji wants to do this.”
When she did not want to get married after finishing her undergraduate degree, Fatima asked her brother to speak with their parents. When she completed her Master’s and wanted to do an MBA, Fatima confided in her brother.
The one thing that baaji asked my parents was, ‘Please let me study as much as I want to,’ and they agreed to it,” said Hussain.
His family, he said, was conservative but not dogmatic. When Fatima decided not to wear a burqa, no one told her to. Where they live, he said, it was unusual for a 28-year-old woman to not be married. A love marriage too was unusual.
But when they asked her if there was someone in her life whom she wanted to marry, Fatima, Hussain said, first said, “no,” and then said, ‘I will marry anyone you want me to, but please let me study as much as I want to.’”
They had been looking for a suitor for three years and when they found someone that Fatima liked, Hussain said that she turned him down because he wanted to move abroad. “She said, ‘I want to live in India,’” he said.
Even in their conservative surroundings, Hussain said that relatives and neighbours too were nothing but supportive after she was arrested.
“It is not that they said things behind our backs,” he said. “Everyone knows what is really happening. All she did was raise our voice over something she did not agree with. We are not ashamed of anything she did.”
The one thing that baaji asked my parents was, ‘Please let me study as much as I want to,’ and they agreed to it.”
Anti CAA protests
At his home in northeast Delhi, Hussain says the air is thick with a sense of dread. While Hussain and his father go to work, his mother is plagued by loneliness and worry when left on her own. To alleviate some of her misery, Hussain, who was engaged to be married, decided to bring his marriage forward and tied the knot in August.
Fatima was not living with her parents when she was arrested, having moved into a Paid Guest (PG) accommodation in north Delhi in August 2019, but she would visit them twice a week.
To the best of his knowledge, Hussain said that she saw the anti-CAA protests not far from their neighbourhood when she visited and started attending the gatherings.
“Shaheen Bagh was far away. Our parents would not have allowed her to go that far. She sometimes went to the protests in Seelampur,” he said.
While several media outlets reported that she was a member of the women’s collective, Pinjra Tod, her lawyer and brother have denied it.
Two co-founders of the group and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, have also been arrested and jailed in connection with the Delhi Riots.
There were no long-winded discussions about the CAA in their house and no one felt there was any reason to stop Fatima from going to the protests.
Even if they had tried, Hussain added, behind Fatima’s quiet demeanour was a sense of determination, and trying to stop her would have been pointless.
“Baaji told us that she wanted to take a stand,” he said. “They were there fighting for the Constitution and the Constitution gives them the right to be heard.”