A journalist’s account of what happened after she was whisked away from Red Fort and thrown onto a bus with Umar Khalid
It was a crazy day. What was supposed to be a day reporting on demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi turned into a confrontation with the police, my eventual detention along with a group of protesters, and a long joyride in a luxury bus to Nangloi. Among the protesters on my bus was the student leader Umar Khalid.
Coincidentally, December 19 is when freedom fighters Ashfaqulla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil were hanged in 1927 for revolting against the British Raj. Just shy of a century later, Bismil’s slogan echoed on Delhi’s streets: “Dushman ki goliyon ka hum saamna karenge, hum azaad hi rahe hain aur azaad hi rahenge.”
I was assigned to cover the Red Fort protest for Newslaundry. A march from Red Fort to Shaheed Bagh was to start at 11 am. When I got there, an hour before, the area had been heavily barricaded by the police. Already, protesters had started arriving in groups from across Delhi. There were around 300 people from Yamuna Park Khureji and twice as many from Sundernagiri. Since protesters were coming in groups, the police had an easy time controlling them. A dozen buses were quickly arranged and filled with the first lot of the people who arrived.
It was actually quite easy to get detained. You didn’t even have to indulge in sloganeering. If you were spotted just standing around and the police assumed you had come to protest, they hauled you onto a bus and sent you off to a location away from Red Fort. Only journalists carrying clearly visible credentials were spared. But I didn’t have a cameraman with me or a microphone with a company logo.
It so happened that while I was being detained, a commotion broke out nearby. Next thing I see a sloganeering Umar Khalid being dragged towards my bus.
On the bus, everyone started wondering where we were being taken. The only response we got was, “Everybody is being taken to the same place.” Meanwhile, we learned that the political leader Yogendra Yadav had been detained and was being taken to Bawana, in northwest Delhi. So, we assumed we were heading to Bawana as well.
One very noticeable thing about the protesters on this bus was a “come what may” attitude. Juveriya Khan, a content writer, told me, “We are here for something right. It is a matter of our existence and we have no choice but to come on the streets. If students in Jamia can take that level of violence we can take it as well.”
Amidst the packed bunch of people on the bus were three young girls who were sitting calmly. They seemed a little anxious. I went up to them and enquired whether they were worried.
“This government is against the people,” responded one girl, who later informed me that she was an 11th grader at Tagore International School. “We can’t raise our voices. We can’t express our discontent. We are not scared, but by detaining us, it seems like the government is scared of us.”
“Actually, this is a very comfortable bus,” piped in another girl, drawing a light chuckle from people around. “We are getting a free bus ride.”
I made my way to speak to Khalid to ask him what he thought of the situation. “Our application for protest was rejected late at night and we were asked to shift our venue,” he told me. “We were informed at the last minute that we can’t change our venue. Now they have blocked the internet in and around Red Fort and have detained us. They might be successful in stopping this march but protests will continue.”
The other detainees I spoke to seemed to firmly believe that the new citizenship law would infringe on the basic value of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. “Let me admit that me and my family have all the required documents,” said Umar Jamal, a resident of Jama Masjid area. “But this is not just about me and you. It is about everyone. We have to come and protest out for them. ”
Most of the detainees I spoke to were worried about the dangerous combination of the law with the National Register of Citizens. So was Jamal. “If Muslims are unable to provide the required documents, they will straight away be taken to a detention centre, unlike people from other religions who will come under the persecuted minorities category,” he said.
While I was speaking to the people on the bus, their discomfort was very evident. I felt it too. We still had no clue where we were being taken. One of my colleagues called me and told me to share my live location on Whatsapp so that the office could figure out where we were headed. Turns out the bus was veering away from Bawana and going further east towards Rohini.
The detainees started singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Hum dekhenge” and Habib Jalib’s “Dastoor”, to overcome their discomfort.
Amir, another detainee, told me how this was a question of his wajood. “It is a matter of existential crisis now. This land is for everyone. Why have they kept only three countries in the act? The persecuted Ahamadiyas and Shias in Pakistan, the Hazaras in Afghanistan have not been included in the list.”
After around 45 minutes on the road, the bus finally stopped at Nangloi near Maharaja Surajmal Stadium metro station. I checked the map and realised the police had taken us 22 km away from Red Fort.
At the stadium, there were already some 50 people. They had organised their own little protest and were sloganeering against the citizenship law, the NRC and the central government.
Filmmaker Avijit Dutt was one of the detainees. I asked him what he thought about mainstream Bollywood celebrities being criticised for not taking a position on the issue. He said it was about time they spoke up. “I am happy that some celebrities have already taken a stance,” he told me. “But when you say ‘mainstream’, you mean the three Khans who might not be speaking because they have a lot at stake. But the fact is they don’t have anything at stake and the people who are speaking still have everything at stake.”
The protesters at the stadium had started singing songs and, intermittently sloganeering. The Delhi police brought out bananas and dates for them.
“We were silent when Ayodhya and Kashmir happened,” Mumeira Khan, a resident of Uttar Pradesh told me. “But it is about our existence this time. Today, they might be successful in dismantling our protest but it is a movement and we will protest till we are heard.”
At least three more buses, full of detainees, were emptied at the stadium. The gathered protesters voiced their dissent wherever they went, only to pause once and offer Namaaz in the afternoon.
At around 5:30 pm, the detainees started getting visibly restless. Everyone was wondering when they would be allowed to go home. After a while, the police seemed to have decided that we would be released. They asked us to give our names, fathers’ names and addresses before leaving. This led to an argument between the detainees and the police.
There were senior citizens and minors among the detainees. After a point, the police relented and made a quick list. They didn’t insist on any details except for the name.
All the detainees were left to fend for themselves in some corner of northwest Delhi. Most of the detainees were tired and headed back home, a few including Khalid left to join the Jantar Mantar protest while the remaining headed towards Jamia. As the crowd dispersed, they took selfies with police officers, thanked them for cooperating, and bid farewell.