Resistance Against Repression: How Rihai Manch, A Human Rights Group, Is Trying To Fight Against Prejudices In Matters Of Terror Suspects, Illegal Detention
Till date, the Manch has helped 14 people charged with terrorism be acquitted.
Six serial blasts had rocked Lucknow, Varanasi, Faizabad and Gorakhpur’s courts in Uttar Pradesh on the afternoon of November 23, 2007, in a span of twenty-five minutes. Several people died in Varanasi and Faizabad, but there was no casualty in Lucknow. The Bar Council of Uttar Pradesh went on strike against terrorist activities in the court premises, and many bar associations in the state put restrictions on appearing for the terror-accused in court.
Mohammed Shoaib, a Lucknow-based lawyer and now president of Rihai Manch defied this restriction and decided to appear for the terror suspects. For Shoaib, fighting cases on behalf of terror suspects is a matter of principle. He says, “Every person is innocent until proven guilty.”
He adds, “The Bar Association is not always right. We should know our duty. Lawyers must help helpless people on humanitarian grounds. Let the court decide if the accused is innocent or guilty.”
Shoaib fought the case for Aftab Alam Ansari after the restriction and disproved the police theory that Ansari was affiliated with Harkat-Ul-Jehad-Al-Islami and his involvement in the serial bomb blast case.
The Special Task Force of Uttar Pradesh had earlier made Ansari an accused in the case. Later, however, the police declared that it was a case mistaken identity and Ansari was released after spending twenty-two days in jail. This case made Mohammed Shoaib popular among terror-accused. Following that, he appeared for two other accused, Khalid Mujahid and Tariq Qasmi from Azamgarh in the same case.
While both were shown as arrested on December 22 that year from Barabanki Railway station with RDX and other weapons in official records, family members said that Qasimi and Mujahid were detained from their home and were forced to confess to the crimes.
A movement began after the involvement of Rihai Manch in the case. Under public pressure, then-Bahujan Samajwadi government led by Chief Minister Mayawati formed a judicial commission headed by RD Nimesh to investigate charges against Qasimi and Mujahid. The Nimesh panel submitted its report in 2012.
“Initially, the Akhilesh Yadav government was hesitant to accept the report. We sat on protest for 121 days, demanding the report to be accepted and to make it public. The government tabled it during the monsoon session,” said Shoaib, adding, “The Nimesh panel report confirmed our fears: overzealous police had implicated both. But Qasmi had been awarded life imprisonment then, and Mujahid died in police custody soon after the report was submitted.”
The report forced the new Samajwadi Party government to recommend a CBI enquiry into the case.
Rihai Manch is a group of lawyers and human rights activist who provide legal assistance to people trapped by police deceit. They describe their organisation as “Resistance against repression”. It works on scores of issues that afflict the marginalised. Apart from giving legal assistance, Rihai Manch also strives to make information such as this part of the public discourse. The group holds public hearings “Jansunvai” to help people understand their rights. They highlight the loopholes in the arguments made by the police and the state on social media in such cases. A mob of Hindutva goons attacked one such public hearing says Rajeev Yadav, the General Secretary of the group.
Shoaib has a tough job. He received several threats from his colleagues. He was attacked by a mob of lawyers at the Faizabad and Lucknow courts while appearing on behalf of the two accused in the serial blasts. “But I refused to double down. I approached the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court with a petition to transfer the case to another district. Later, following the requests from the families of accused, I took up their cases again as I knew they couldn’t find another lawyer.”
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union soon asked Shoaib to visit them. There he met Rajeev Yadav. “We decided that instead of fighting these cases on a personal level, we should organise the fight. A few years later, in 2012, the name Rihai Manch was officially adopted.”
Till date, the Manch has helped 14 people charged with terrorism be acquitted. Shoaib says that the narrative then was simple: “You could not question the police if it had labelled someone as a terrorist. In their view, they did not merit a trial. But change is visible, a counterview in the society has been established.”
A native of Azamgarh, Yadav says, “Initially, it was a fight for my identity. These incidents were painting Azamgarh as “Atankgarh” — a term first used by now-Chief Minister of the state Yogi Adityanath. Now our agenda is to take on the harbingers of hate in court”.
Rihai Manch has been demanding a policy change in the matter of terror suspects and illegal detention. Yadav believes that a Judicial Committee must be set up in every such case. He also feels that intelligence agencies should be held accountable.
Yadav’s activism goes back to his students’ life at Allahabad University and as a student of journalism at the India Institute of Mass Communication. In 2005, when riots broke out in the district of Mau, he observed that the riot had similarities to that in Gujarat in 2002. He found the involvement of Yogi Adityanath’s organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. “It was the first time I encountered Hindu Fundamentalism,” he tells NewsCentral24x7, adding, “Since then, I began following Yogi Adityanath and recording his speeches. We made a documentary, Saffron War, to capture the face of hatred.”
The State’s anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit tactics
“The Yogi government has changed its tactic of targeting Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Castes. Draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and the National Security Act (NSA) has been used against them, in low-intensity communal violence. However, Hindutva activists involved in the violence get off lightly,” he says.
In 2018, in a low-intensity clash over procession for a Durga Idol immersion in the Bharaich district, which borders Nepal broke out. 200 Muslims were booked under UAPA, while no FIR was lodged against anyone from the Hindu community. “Isn’t it strange?” he asks.
“Yogi Adityanath’s government has detained 200 people under the NSA. Unfortunately, most of them are either Muslims or Dalits. The NSA was invoked against only three upper castes Hindus, which was revoked just after a few days,” informs Yadav.
A person detained under the NSA can be under police custody for 12 months. In these cases, “no lawyer, no plea, no appeal” is the norm. The order can be made by a district magistrate or a commissioner of the police under their respective jurisdictions, but the detention must be reported to the state government along with the grounds on which the order has been made.
He raised concern over the recent amendments, “The recent amendment the UAPA and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) could be used against minorities, especially Muslim youth. Now, this act will allow the government to declare individuals as a terrorist.”
He adds, “Now even we will not be allowed to have a conversation like this”.
SR Darapuri, a retired IPS, tells NewsCentral24x7, “Dalits are underrepresented, and Muslims even less so. There is over-representation in the police of one particular section. It’s not difficult to understand why the police force remains prejudiced against minorities and Dalits. He further expands on this, “Casteism and communalism are deeply rooted in the police force. In earlier regimes, they still had a fear of being held accountable. But this chief minister says, ‘thok do‘.”
Uttar Pradesh’s government racked up 1,200 police encounters in 10 months to “control law and order”. Yadav says, “If you closely look at these encounters also, most of them are Muslims, Dalits and OBCs. Yogi’s government’s bullet is specifically targeting them. This shows the government’s ‘Manuvadi’ agenda. The BJP government is trying to prove a large number of Muslims and Dalits are a threat to national security”.