On 12 December 2019, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 – rightly referred to as India’s Nuremberg Law – was passed, leading to widespread protests across the country. Millions of Indian citizens are protesting against this fundamentally discriminatory law and many, including students, have been met with severe repression and criminalization at the hands of the Police, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
The brutality of State violence is most visible in the abuse of 41 minors, who have been detained and subjected to custodial torture, criminalization and post custodial coercion in UP. The report Brutalizing Innocence jointly produced by Quill Foundation, Citizens Against Hate and HAQ: Centre for Child Rights documents the police action against minors, the methods and patterns of violence inflicted, the various violations of national and international laws and the inaction of human rights institutions. Based on fact finding missions conducted across various districts in UP between 10 and 24 January, along with verified media accounts, this report records the testimonies of minor victims, witnesses, police officials and photographic evidence of the abuses as well as cases police FIR.
Joining us today to speak about the patterns of State violence, the nature of abuse suffered by the minors, the importance of documenting this evidence and holding the institutions and the State accountable are Bharti Ali and Nidhi Suresh, who were part of the team that put this report together.
Bharti Ali is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights with nearly 28 years of work in the development sector, focusing on gender and child rights issues.
Nidhi Suresh is a programme officer at Quill Foundation, a human rights research and advocacy organization in New Delhi. She also works as a freelance journalist, covering stories on human rights. She is a recent graduate from Utrecht University, Netherlands, with a Masters in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. Previously, for a year, she worked as a reporter in Kashmir based out of Srinagar.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.*
Suchitra Vijayan: I was wondering if we could first start with how this report came about?
Nidhi Suresh: After the CAB, the Citizenship Amendment Bill had become CAA, there was almost an immediate explosion of protests across the country and, along with that, came arbitrary detentions and criminalization of students and protestors. As civil society organizations, for us, it was really difficult to keep track of everything that was happening. The current government seems to be functioning in a manner where the aim is to ensure complete induced fatigue.
The rate of justice delivery itself seems like can’t keep up with the rate of violence. On 25 December we got a report from the Huffington Post – they did a story where they documented the narratives of about five children who’d been detained in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh and ironically this violence had been subjected on the children just a few days after Chief Minister Adityanath proclaimed how he would actually “take revenge” on the protestors of CAA in Uttar Pradesh.
This was actually an opportunity for him to call peace but, instead, he chose to incite violence. I think it is at this point that it became fairly clear to us that no matter what kind of violence it was, that was being subjected to people, peaceful protestors or students, when it came to children, the question of whether something had to be done was almost non-negotiable.
And, so this was not something that could afford to get lost among all the other horrific news that was coming out of Uttar Pradesh or across the country. And from here we slowly started investigating and uncovering the process of this torture and nature of reaction from the Police and the State; we were actually shocked at the level of apathy that was coming from all these institutions that were supposed to take care of children and ensure peace. Eventually, this led to the idea of collating a report on just the violence against children in Uttar Pradesh. So, we have to note that this isn’t even violence against children across the country. This is just Uttar Pradesh. And that’s how the birth of the report happened.
Could you also tell us who was on the ground and who are the various organizations and members who put this together?
NS: The report is done by three organizations primarily — Quill Foundation, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and CAH which is Citizens Against Hate. For this particular report, most of the groundwork was done by HAQ and CAH so maybe Bharti Ji could elaborate more on the fieldwork experience whereas at Quill we did the collation of the JJ Act (Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015), looked at violations that have happened as per the JJ Act, UNCRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) and put the report together physically.
I would really like you to talk about what it means to work on a report like this given the precarious situation in UP?
Bharti Ali: As Nidhi said, we planned this report but often we don’t really get enough time to strategize and plan. We were focusing on collecting as many testimonies as possible from the field and when we got that opportunity, we just jumped at it. Also, as far as we are concerned the focus was on violations of child rights. We had witnessed after the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir — a lot of children have been illegally detained. A case was filed in the Supreme Court of India, but the Supreme Court just sought a report from the Juvenile Justice Committee and unfortunately that report was based on the report received by the Committee from the Police, which as expected, said that no such thing had happened.
So, we were in a way prepared for something similar here as well – that the Police are not going to accept that these were illegal detentions. But we were more concerned about people because there was a lot of fear and we were not sure whether they would open up despite the connections that we found. It wasn’t easy. Some did open up. Some looked at us with great mistrust as expected. When we went and said we are looking at the issue of minors and rights violations of minors, people said they needed assistance for everybody, irrespective of whether it was an adult or a minor. So, there were those issues.
As far as children’s rights are concerned, I don’t think we have ever really paid much attention and illegal detention of children. Often, even when in conflict with the law, it’s a regular phenomenon that the Police pick them up and keep them in custody, in lock-ups despite the law not allowing that. Would question them in different ways. Invariably they register an FIR a day or two later.
But this was a situation where they had been picked up en masse. Interestingly, when the person was evidently a minor, they had not brought that person on record. These children have been detained and tortured, some for two days, some for ten days, so that varied. Minors were not aware of their rights as to what they are supposed to do in such situations. Even before releasing minors who were detained illegally and not brought on record, the Police have taken signatures from adults in the neighbourhood but nobody knows what the signatures were for.
There is a lot of fear and it was not easy to get into the field, gain the trust of people.
Can you talk about how prevalent this was? I know you were only on the field for a short time but were you able to get a sense of how prevalent this practice was across UP?
BA: So, we had gone in following the media reports that were already there and we first went to the areas where we did have some reports available and then got to know of other places as well. Then we decided to go to those places as well, get a feeling of what’s going on and we discovered much more than what we had thought. For instance, there were large posters put out in public asking people to identify the faces. There were multiple photographs on the poster saying “identify them”. If you find them bring them to us and you would be rewarded. And those included pictures of minors as well. So those were new things that we discovered while we were in the field. We deliberately didn’t want to stretch the field visits for a longer period because that could have brought the authorities into action against the people. That was the kind of situation at that point in time. We spent two days, a maximum of three days in a place but no longer than that. As per our report, the number of children we have been able to look at is 41. 41 children have been violated by the Police, by the State and this is just the number on record.
We are still receiving news reports, for example, yesterday we received a report that eight minors have been released in Sumbal after forty days of detention. So, the process is just on-going. We are still unravelling how many children have been tortured, how many have been violated and the scale seems to be quite massive.
Nidhi, would it be right to argue that we need far more media attention and presence in UP than what we are currently seeing?
NS: Absolutely. I think that the most shocking silence has come from the State, and from independent child rights organizations. Most of the work has been done by the media, I think whatever they can they have done but that doesn’t seem to be enough. The scale of justice delivery is just not able to catch up with the scale of violence that’s been inflicted in UP.
Definitely, there is a huge amount of silence.
Any sort of media or information dissemination is coming from journalists who are committed to going into Uttar Pradesh. Very few fact-finding teams that have gone to UP. And maybe because of the violence in UP itself is so much that it’s getting difficult to focus on one or two aspects so we are also struggling with the amount of things that the State is feeding us every day.
Nidhi, I want to quickly go back and talk about the methodology of the report and could you layout for us how the report was put together?
NS: So the methodology for us was fairly simple. We started by looking at the media articles. I got in touch with some of the journalists to get a sense of how it was for them on the ground. What is it like to go back now and meet these families again? And then how can Citizens Against Hate split themselves and go to Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar, Firozabad, and Lucknow.
We spoke with as many people as we could but we have to remember that there was a lot of fear in the air during that time. Meanwhile, at Quill, we started scanning through the JJ Act. We started looking at the principles laid out by the UNCRC which is the United Nations Child Rights Convention. We realized that all the principles and laws laid out by the Juvenile Justice Act and Convention on the Rights of the Child have been grossly violated by the UP Police.
We also very consciously did not approach the Police and the State for quotes. So a lot of media organizations asked us this: “You have taken the narrative of the children and the family, why have you not reached out to the Police?” But there is a very specific reason why we didn’t do this. When I spoke to some of the journalists they said that when they approach the Police [for comment] the Police, in fact, turned around and asked the journalist: “Give us the names of these families and children.”
Let us go “ask” them. And I say ask in double-quotes because this really means more intimidation, interrogation, and torture. And also, the families told us that, “You will come here and ask us questions but once you’re gone we are at the mercy, or at the merciless hands of UP Police.” And that was a risk that we were not at all willing to take.
But of course, we intend to take this matter to court where the State and the Police will have ample space and time to prove their side of the story. And in fact, when one of the news organizations which covered our report, The Quint, reached out to Sanjeev Tyagi, SP in Bijnor, he very clearly, outright, said that this is all false and none of this happened.
So, this was our methodology — it was focused on looking at the narratives of the family, narratives of the children and we are still doing follow-ups. So, we are planning more trips to UP, to go back and talk to the families. It is getting difficult to petition because none of the families are willing to come forward and say this happened, and we want to fight this out because they have already been exhausted by the amount of violence that has been inflicted on them.
I want to talk about the pre-history of violence that happened in the UP state and perhaps explain how this pre-history of violence has actually enabled the current violence and made all of this torture and other extrajudicial acts possible?
BA: Well, unfortunately, the state of Uttar Pradesh has always topped in the list of communal violence and that is the Home Ministry’s own admission. They filed a response in the Parliament of India giving statistics about communal violence in 2017, stating that UP tops the list. The state actually has witnessed a range of riots, small and big. I recall the 1987 Meerut riots when the provincial armed forces were used to pick up men, young boys and women, and they were shot dead and dumped into the Hindon river and the Ganga canal. The bodies came floating right up to Ghaziabad near Delhi. So, those times have left memories which can’t be washed out of people’s minds. Then the Babri Masjid happened so that again has left people in fear. And so there has been a systematic way of building hatred against a certain community, on religious lines. We have seen the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 and we have also got reports now of lynching and cow vigilantism – again UP topping the list.