LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — “You won’t believe this but there were a few police constables who picked up the burning logs and tried to attack the women with them,” said Shumbal, a 25-year-old college graduate, who requested that her last name not be published because she fears retaliation from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh.
“The logs were not on fire but there was still smoke coming from them,” she told HuffPost India over a phone conversation, explaining that peaceful women protesters in Etawah had brought the logs to light fight fires to keep warm in the night.
“My cousin sister was hit on the head with the log. My sister was hit on the head and back with a lathi. I was hit on the back with a lathi.”
Shumbal and her 23-year-old sister Mantisha, who also requested her last name not appear for the same reason, said they had witnessed the brute force with which the Uttar Pradesh Police broke up a peaceful protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on the intervening night of Tuesday and Wednesday in their hometown in Etawah district.
Their description of the event is similar to the account that women in Lucknow gave of the police constables swearing and beating them with batons after breaking up a peaceful protest in UP’s capital on 19 December.
The BJP government in UP, led by a Hindutva headliner who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, has orchestrated the worst crackdown on people protesting against the discriminatory law that makes religion the basis of citizenship and any future plans to identify people on the basis of their faith. Thousands have been arrested in India’s most populous state. Women and children have been beaten. Activists have recounted being beaten in police custody. Several people have been killed.
This week, Adityanath said, “If anyone will raise slogans of azadi in the name of protest, it will amount to sedition and the government will take strict action.”
As women in UP continue to come out and protest, weeks after the deadliest spell of violence in the state subsided, the police is booking them for violating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits more than four people from assembling, and slapping them with charges such as rioting, disobeying a public order and assaulting a public officer.
Women in Lucknow, and now Etawah, are asking a pertinent question: if Section 144 is perpetually imposed in the state, then why does the UP Police let the BJP and its allies carry out rallies in favour of the CAA, while crushing all efforts to oppose it?
“We said, ‘Sir, when BJP’s rally happened then also Section 144 was in place, but you gave them security. So why are you moving us. It is our right to carry out a peaceful protest.’ We told them that we are not moving,” said Shumbal.
In addition to the pushing, shoving, and beating, the sisters alleged that the male and female constables “touched the women in an obscene way,” and carried on doing it even after they yelled at them and complained to officials present at the protest site located near the Pachraha Kotwali in Etawah.
“I cannot even tell you the abuses they were giving,” said Shumbal. “The policemen have touched the women in an obscene way. The policewomen have also touched the women in an obscene way.”
“I was touched in an obscene way thrice, but when I fought back, they started pushing me into the police jeep,” said Mantisha. “They only stopped when many women came to my rescue.”
“It was a night from hell,” said Shumbal.
Protest in Etawah
A few hundred women gathered when the protest started at around 11 in the morning on Tuesday, and their numbers had swelled to around 1,000 as the day progressed, the sisters said.
“Etawah is a place where people almost never come and protest. We don’t like speaking against anyone, even the government. We always try to keep the peace. We rarely agitate. We always suppress our feelings to keep the peace,” said Shumbal. “But this time, we wanted to say something. This was the first time that we did something.”
It was around two in the afternoon when the police constables arrived on the scene, the sisters said. They were followed by a throng of officers including Circle Officer Vaibhav Pandey and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Jaswantnagar, Jyotsana Bandhu, who the sisters said were polite and heard them out.
The women, the sisters said, gave their word that they would not let their protest cause a traffic jam near Pachraha Kotwali and no ambulance or police van would be delayed because of it.
“We tried talking to them. They tried talking to us. We heard them out. They heard us out,” she said. “Then, I don’t know what happened. The police constables came so fast and really started pushing and shoving us. First, it was the men. Then, it was the women.”
When the UP Police attacked them, the sisters said the officers they had been speaking with were no longer at the protest site.
The UP constables, the sister said, not only beat them at the site, but also pursued them into the bylanes of their neighbourhood, located close by.
The pro-CAA rally held in Etawah on 11 January was treated differently, the sisters said. The police did nothing even when people yelled out slogans like Jai Shri Ram, “throw out the traitors”, and “the traitors should go to Pakistan.”
“What is the difference between them and us,” she asked. “Why are we treated differently?”
A video of the violence, which was circulating on Wednesday, showed the male constables pursuing women into a bylanes and hitting them with their batons. The women can be heard screaming.
The UP Police has reportedly booked 900 persons including 150 women for violating Section 144.
This follows close to 200 women getting booked in Lucknow and Aligarh for the same reason.
Shumbal said the police destroyed their blankets, mattresses and wooden logs to burn, throwing everything into nearby drains. She also alleged a few police constables “took” some blankets.
The damage, she said, was to the tune of Rs. 40,000.
The UP Police in Lucknow had also snatched away blankets from the women protesting near the iconic clock tower in the old part of the city, making it harder for them to withstand the cold in the night.
Modelled on the all-day, all-night demonstrations led and largely attended by women at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, the women protesting in UP are hoping the police will think twice before attacking women and children.
The women who were sitting on the road in Etawah, the police have claimed, were sent back home.
Mantisha recalls it differently.
“The policemen were hitting us with their batons even as we were running home. There were no street lights in the bylanes. The male constable followed the women till their homes, hitting us and using filthy language,” she said. “They said, ’chal ghus, ghar mein.’” (Go on, get inside the house).
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