When women in her neighbourhood protested against changes in India’s new citizenship law, it caught the imagination of MBA graduate Gulfishan Fatima. She’s been in jail for 84 days, and, despite a seeming lack of evidence, she faces 34 criminal charges, including four related to terrorism.
New Delhi: Aqil Hussain waited for more than a month to tell his parents that their daughter, the eldest of three children, 28-year-old Gulfishan Fatima, was in prison.
One morning, when his father was about to leave for the grocery store that he has run for more than four decades in northeastern Delhi’s Seelampur area, Aqil sat his parents down and finally shared the grim news.
Baaji (elder sister), said Aqil, had been incarcerated for her alleged involvement in riots that raged through northeast Delhi between 23 and 25 February 2020, leaving 58 dead, 38 of them Muslim.
He explained to his sobbing parents that it might take a few months for “Gul” to be released but that they need not worry, she had done no wrong.
Fatima was the most educated one in the family. She was interested in Urdu literature, did a course in radio jockeying, followed by a Masters in Business Administration and was readying a second attempt to become a college lecturer.
Her parents and her younger brothers Aqil and Junaid, a welder in Gokulpuri, in northeast Delhi, supported her whole-heartedly.
It has been 84 days since the Delhi police arrested Fatima. She faces 34 offences, including four under sections of the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA), 1967. She is among at least 14 opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, arrested during the nationwide lockdown when the criminal justice system partially collapsed and courts only heard urgent pleas.
According to the police, Fatima and 13 co-accused “orchestrated riots in northeast Delhi under the guise of anti-CAA protests”.
So far, none of Delhi police’s more than 750 first information reports (FIRs) and more than 100 chargesheets have named any BJP leaders whose videos—inciting crowds and shouting “shoot the traitors”—are in the public domain.
Documents with Article 14 show that despite the lack of concrete evidence proving Fatima’s involvement in or abetment to violence, Delhi police has not only invoked the draconian anti-terror law against her, but also managed to get her judicial custody extended on the ground that it is investigating the links of the ‘larger conspiracy.’
The Curious Case of FIR 59
The Delhi Police arrested Fatima on 9 April on the basis of FIR 48, allegedly for leading a crowd of around 300 people holding anti-CAA protests on the night of 22 February beneath the Jaffrabad metro station in northeast Delhi without official permission. The police named 14 people under eight sections of the IPC.
On 1 May, during Fatima’s bail hearing, police told the metropolitan magistrate that she was also booked under FIR 59, the FIR that the Centre seemingly is using to target critics of the modified citizenship law.
Originally filed on 6 March, FIR 59 named two people, student leader Umar Khalid and Danish, a resident of northeast Delhi, for planning riots and delivering provocative speeches on the pretext of opposing the CAA. The FIR mentioned four IPC sections, including unlawful assembly, rioting and being armed with a deadly weapon.
The same FIR mentions 14 accused, including Fatima, Jamia Millia Islamia scholars Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haidar, former Congress party councillor Ishrat Jahan, and member of the United Against Hate campaign, Khalid Saifi. The charges against them range from bailable offences to murder, terrorism and sedition.
On 13 May, the additional sessions judge granted bail to Fatima in FIR 48 but she remained in custody in connection with FIR 59. On 28 May, Delhi Police was successful in getting her judicial custody extended for around 30 days.
On the completion of this period, on 25 June, police argued for another 180 days’ extension of judicial custody because “the key conspirators are yet to be arrested.”
A reading of the police’s status report shows that in more than two months, it has not been able to gather any critical evidence which would establish Fatima’s link to violence.
“Investigation regarding the suspicious fundraisers, their fund sources and examination of other connected persons is going on but due to unavoidable situation in view of pandemic, process of getting details from banks has been slow. Apart from that, persons/suspects residing outside Delhi couldn’t join the investigation due to the lockdown,” the Delhi police argued.
Regarding specific allegations against Fatima, the application notes that the police is in the process of analysing “huge data” in the form of WhatsApp chats, photos, videos of riot sites to ascertain the specific role of the accused in the conspiracy/riots in order to file an impartial and fair chargesheet.
Critics Are Terrorists?
The central government has drawn flak for the new citizenship law (passed in both houses of the Parliament) as well as for its handling of any opposition to this law.
“Previously, anti-terrorism laws such as POTA and TADA were used in conflict zones or bomb blast cases,” said Sarim Naved, a Delhi lawyer, explaining the use of UAPA. “This is perhaps the time that such a stringent law is invoked in the trial of protesters. If you are holding a protest which somehow results in violence, the assumption is that you were conspiring for riots. If the government expands a criminal law like this, I don’t know who will remain safe.”
In an report released in April titled “Shoot the Traitors”: Discrimination Against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy, Human Rights Watch described the CAA as “discriminatory and in violation of international human rights law.”
“In many cases, when BJP-affiliated groups attacked protesters, the police did not intervene,” said the report. “However, in BJP-governed states in December, police used excessive and unnecessary lethal force, killing at least 30 people during protests and injuring scores more. In Delhi in February, some policemen actively participated in the mob attacks on Muslims.”
On 26 June, UN experts urged India to release human rights defenders who have been arrested for protesting against changes to India’s citizenship laws. “Although demonstrations ended in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and India’s Supreme Court issued a recent order to decongest jails because of health concerns related to the pandemic, protest leaders continue to be detained. The reported spread of the virus in Indian prisons makes their immediate release all the more urgent,” the experts said, mentioning the names of Fatima and 10 more individuals.
Waiting For Gul
Around three months before her arrest, Fatima shifted to a paying guest accommodation near Delhi University campus to prepare for the National Eligibility Test, which is a prerequisite to apply for the post of assistant professor. Qualifying the test was crucial for her to pursue a career in academics. “Last year, she fell short of two marks,” said Aqil.
“She is the eldest, she is the only girl child, and she is the brightest among my kids,” said Gulfishan’s mother, handing me a bag. It has Gulfishan’s certificates and awards she won at inter-college baitbaazi competitions, an indoor game that tests one’s knowledge of Urdu couplets.
“I am the mother. When men in the family leave for their jobs, I am by myself. That is when I cry. I cry while cooking, washing clothes and even when I am sitting idle,” she said.
She is able to catch a glimpse of her daughter when the latter appears for court hearings through video conferencing.
In school, Fatima was not known to be a particularly outgoing or studious person. She appeared for her class 10th and 12th exams through open school. It was only when she began attending Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College, her parents and friends said, that she became more confident and articulate. “College changed her for the better. It was as if all of a sudden, a whole world of opportunities opened before her. She was very active in extracurricular activities. Everyone was happy for her and wanted her to succeed,” said Aqil.
After finishing her MA (Urdu) from Delhi University, Fatima completed her MBA from a private institute in Ghaziabad last year.
By January, as anti-CAA protests swelled across the country, the proposed changes in citizenship law and the vehement opposition to the same, particularly from women in Shaheen Bagh, caught the imagination of thousands of women including Fatima.
On the night of 22 February, she participated in a candle light march in Jaffrabad, located just one kilometer from her residence. “She was one of hundreds of women at the protest site. There is no denying that,” said Fatima’s lawyer Mehmood Pracha. “They (police) had to target someone to send a stern message to common citizens who are opposing the proposed citizenship law. They chose Gulfishan.”
Fatima’s father, who requested his name be withheld, said that the protest was the first time she was getting to know her neighbourhood. “It so happened that she did not venture out much here in this part of the city,” he said.
At the sit-in protest site in Jaffrabad, Fatima routinely taught English to elderly women apart from creating awareness about the CAA and National Register of Citizens.
“A 70-year-old came up with the suggestion that since we are here at the protest site 24X7, we should use this time doing something productive,” Fatima said in an interview to the NGO Karwan-e-Mohabbat. “I loved the idea and started teaching here.”
Next Stop: Supreme Court
Pracha filed a writ petition in Delhi High Court on 18 May for the issuance of habeas corpus. Pracha’s argument, on the basis of section 13 of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act was that Fatima’s custody was illegal because offences under the UAPA can be tried only by a special court constituted under the NIA Act.
The HC, in an order dated 22 June dismissed Pracha’s petition, ruling that as per the NIA Act, police establishments are equally competent to investigate cases under the UAPA.
“This position is also clear from Section 6(7) of NIA Act, which clears doubts, if any, by declaring that till the NIA takes over the investigation of the case, it shall be the duty of the officer-in-charge of the police station where the case is registered, to continue to investigate,” ruled justice Vipin Sanghi.
Pracha now plans to file the same petition before the Supreme Court. “I want to highlight technical flaws in this case without affecting Gulfishan’s right to bail,” said Pracha.
Fatima’s family is distressed, entangled in the legal process, which has become a punishment. Despite the trauma, they do not regret that she participated in the protest that night.
“My child has put up a fight to save India’s constitution,” said Fatima’s father. “This is a fight for a just cause. I was with her and I still am.”
(Danish Raza writes on social justice, culture and the intersection of society and technology. His work has been published in The Atlantic, Hindustan Times, Star Tribune and Firstpost)