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Caught in crossfire?

The Bijnor police are unable to give consistent versions of the incidents in which two young men were shot – one fatally

At Om Raj Singh’s freshly cemented home in Nehtaur in UP’s Bijnor district, family members sat on the dimly-lit verandah. Singh was recovering from injuries in a Meerut hospital. His brother, Rajvir Singh, 32, his wife, and other relatives were home.

“My brother was returning from the jungle after collecting vegetables on December 20,” Rajvir said. “There were disturbances in Nehtaur, and I heard there was firing. The crowd was chiefly composed of Muslims, and they had clashed with the police. When he reached a nearby flour mill, he was shot. We don’t know who shot him, but others tell us that he was caught between the Muslim side and the police. I have heard that my brother might have been shot by someone on the Muslim side.”

“He did not have enmity with anyone,” a female member of Om Raj’s family added. Rajvir concurred: “Maybe there was an old enemy, who knows. But we didn’t know of any enmity he had with anyone in recent times.”

The family said relations between Nehtaur’s Hindus and Muslims were good. “We go to their house and they visit ours,” Rajvir said, assuredly.

Could his brother have been harmed out of communal malice? “No, not really. It is possible he had personal enmity with someone, though I can’t confirm it,” Rajvir said, reiterating that the clash was between the town’s Muslims and the police, not Hindu and Muslims.

Rajvir, who earns his living as a labourer, said he returned from Meerut after visiting his brother in hospital on December 22. “The doctor told us he needed to be operated upon,” said Rajvir.

At Nehtaur police station, several police officers sat around a small bonfire. Upon our request, the senior sub inspector readily directed his colleagues to hand us a copy of Om Raj’s FIR, numbered 453. As one of the officers tailed off to the station’s IT room to procure the document, one of us followed him inside.

About 30 seconds had passed when one of the other officers told the SSI that “We can’t give them the FIR”. He walked up to us and asked us to leave the IT room.

“We can’t give you the FIR right now,” said the officer. “The computer has hung, and it’ll take us an hour to fix it.” No problem, we said, we can look for it on the UP COP app, a digital database of all FIRs in Uttar Pradesh.

Upon entering the FIR details provided by the police, the app returned a “no records found” error. The officer said since there was an internet shutdown in Bijnor between December 20 and December 23, the FIR might not have “synced” on the app.

When we asked the SSI to confirm the FIR number, he told us he did not remember it. What about the FIR date, could he confirm that? Again, he did not know. He had shouted the FIR number across the station only minutes before, and his SP had supplied us the date barely an hour ago.

Conflicting versions

Another casualty was Suleman, whose father Zahid Hussain claimed that his son had gone to a nearby mosque for prayers on December 20. He was ill. The police took him away from outside the mosque and shot him about half a kilometre away, Hussain alleged. When the family found Suleman’s body, his shirt was missing. He had been shot in the chest.

Pradeep Sharma, a neighbour of Suleman’s family for 35 years, said Suleman was “a very promising boy”. “He rarely had a fight with the people around him.”

The Bijnor police have admitted that Suleman was shot by a service pistol, but it was in ‘self-defence’. The police’s description of this incident, however, is constantly changing.

On Tuesday, Tyagi arrived in Nehtaur with Additional Director General, Bareilly, Avinash Chandra. “A miscreant snatched a pistol of one of our officers and ran away,” Tyagi told the media. “When constable Mohit Kumar chased him, Suleman opened fire at him. Mohit fired at Suleman in self-defence and he died as a result. Mohit’s treatment is still going on in Meerut.”

However, another evening, Chandra gave the media a conflicting version of Suleman’s death: “He aim-fired at SP saheb [Tyagi]. In fact, the constable came in the middle all of a sudden. That’s when he was shot and then he retaliated. The SP and the DM were present at the site when the pandemonium occurred. Our constable is still in the hospital in an injured state.”

It was the first time that the police had offered this version of the story

Importantly, it contradicted Tyagi on two counts. First, it was very different from the account he had given to the Indian Express on December 23. He had told the newspaper that when a mob in Nehtaur snatched a constable’s pistol, a few policemen chased the mob. “When Mohit got close to Suleman,” Tyagi was quoted as saying, “the latter opened fire with his country-made pistol. A bullet hit Mohit’s stomach. In reply, Mohit also fired from his service pistol and the bullet hit Suleman’s stomach.”

Second, the version Tyagi had given to the media, he told Newslaundry, was not his own, but obtained from eyewitnesses. This implies that he was not present when the shots were fired. But if Chandra is to be believed, Tyagi was Suleman’s target and, thus, present at the scene of the killing.

Tyagi had also told the Express that Mohit Kumar, the injured constable, was undergoing treatment in Bijnor. He told Newslaundry he was now admitted in a hospital in Meerut.

‘Sense of revenge’

Besides arresting 10 people, the Bijnor police have registered a case against 2,500 unknown people in Nehtaur. As a result, many people have left their homes.

A man who returned home four days after the protests said the police were acting “with a sense of revenge”. “It seems that they can also implicate the innocent. That is why I left my home and returned today,” he said.

Newslaundry found many homes in the neighbourhood locked. We were told they had gone away for fear of retribution from the police.

Asked about this, Tyagi said, “To end the fear among people, we have held street meetings with them. We have told everyone that no one needs to be afraid.”

As if Suleman’s killing was not tragic enough, his family claimed to have suffered humiliation at the hands of the Bijnor police. They hadn’t been allowed to file an FIR for Suleman’s death, they said, nor been given a copy of his post-mortem report. The police did not give them permission even to bury Suleman in their graveyard in Nehtaur, citing “communal sensitivities” and the presence of
“anti-social elements”.

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