Earlier this month, Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student of the Persian language at Jamia Millia Islamia University, an inmate of Tihar Jail since May 2020, was given special permission to write his final year examination at a hotel in Delhi. The 25-year-old had just started working on the open book test when he received a text with just two words: “bail granted.” Even as the weight of those words shook him to his core, Tanha kept writing.
“I have this ability to stay calm not just when things are really stressful or painful, but even in moments of great joy,” said Tanha. “At that moment, it was really important that I finish the exam. My future depends on it.”
In fact, Tanha says that he won’t go home to Jharkhand until he writes the last of three exams on 26 June in order to finish his undergraduate degree and planning his postgraduate studies; exams that he could not successfully complete after he was arrested in connection with the Delhi riots. In the chargesheet for FIR 59/2020 of the Delhi Police Crime Branch, the so-called conspiracy case of the Delhi riots, the Delhi Police say that Tanha and other leaders of the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), including Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi and Umar Khalid, were responsible for inciting communal violence in the national capital. 53 people, 40 of them from the minority community, were killed in the communal riots that ravaged northeast Delhi in the last week of Feb 2020, as per a Delhi Police affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court in July 2020.
On 15 June, while granting bail to Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Asif Iqbal Tanha, the Delhi High Court said that the Delhi Police had failed to make a prima facie case under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA), 1967, against the three student activists, and that dissent was not terrorism.
The Delhi Police has moved the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court order, challenging its interpretation of the UAPA law and bail for the three student activists. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the matter today.
A struggle for mental peace
Tanha, who was coming into his own as a student activist at Jamia Millia Islamia University when he was jailed, emerged from its confines as a subject of national headlines. And while he expects to recover from the physical toll this past year has taken on him, Tanha says that it won’t be easy for him to find a semblance of mental peace.
“One can recover physically after a while, but the mental wounds don’t heal easily. Those are lasting and deep. What I want to do first is find some mental stability and peace. Only then can I move forward as a person and also help others,” he said. “There are so many people I have not spoken with. I want to reach out to my friends and family.”
One can recover physically after a while, but the mental wounds don’t heal easily. Those are lasting and deep. What I want to do first is find some mental stability and peace.
In the days and months ahead, Tanha said that he planned to focus on his studies, and campaigning for the release of other activists jailed in connection with the Delhi riots.
The first slogans he raised after stepping out of jail, before a swarm of reporters and his supporters, were to call for the release of the other activists who have been jailed in connection with the Delhi riots.
The anti-CAA movement, Tanha believes, would have continued had it not been for the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic that has convulsed the world and India for over a year. If the sceptre of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was raised in a manner that was unjust, Tanha said the Delhi High Court had now confirmed his constitutional right to protest against the CAA-NRC.
“This judgment stands like a wall, not just for the three of us, but for all those wrongfully accused and jailed by the state. It is a judgment for the country and for the future,” said Tanha.
This judgment stands like a wall, not just for the three of us, but for all those wrongfully accused and jailed by the state. It is a judgment for the country and for the future.
As for the Delhi Police challenging the Delhi High Court judgment, and whether it makes him nervous, Tanha said, “I have faith in the Indian judiciary. It is the Supreme Court that has said, ‘bail not jail.’”
When this reporter asked him if he was at all afraid of the Delhi Police succeeding in getting the three student activists back in jail, Tanha said, “That is what going to jail does to you. You stop fearing jail.”
Jahanara, Tanha’s mother, said that she wanted Tanha to finish his exams, and that she would travel from Jharkhand to Delhi with his father, who was in extremely poor health. “We will travel with all his medicines but we have to make sure that he does not get infected with the coronavirus (Covid-19),” she said. “It came late, but I thank god and the judges for doing right by my son.”
Tanha said that the events of the past year had reinforced how important it was for him to study.
“If you don’t study, if you don’t have an in-depth knowledge of subjects, then you can’t speak to people and you can’t make them understand,” he said. “I want to focus on my studies.” He added, “I want my mother to come to Delhi.”
While he had found love and support within the confines of Tihar, and it was heartbreaking for him to leave behind the inmates who had become his friends, Tanha said that he had also faced bigotry and hateful words that have wounded him deeply.
“‘Terrorist, jihadi, traitor.’ What have I done to deserve such words,” said Tanha, his voice breaking. “I’m convinced that the CAA-NRC is wrong. I was exercising my constitutional right of free speech and protest. How does questioning the government make me a terrorist and jihadi. It is this kind of mental torture that breaks you.”
How does questioning the government make me a terrorist and jihadi. It is this kind of mental torture that breaks you.
What the Delhi High Court said
In the judgment granting Tanha bail, the division bench of Justice Mridul Siddharth and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani said that “there is complete lack of any specific, particularised, factual allegation, that is to say allegations other than those sought to be spun by mere grandiloquence…”
The Delhi High Court observed, “Foisting extremely grave and serious penal provisions engrafted in sections 15, 17 and 18 UAPA frivolously upon people, would undermine the intent and purpose of the Parliament in enacting a law that is meant to address threats to the very existence of our Nation. Wanton use of serious penal provisions would only trivialise them.”
In Tanha’s case, the High Court said that it had been able to “discern only one specific, particular and overt act that the appellant is stated to have committed” — the handing over a SIM card given to him by someone else to a co-conspirator and co-accused. “Other than this one action that is specially attributed to the appellant, this court is unable to discern any other act or omission attributed specially to the appellant,” the High Court said.
Faizan Khan, the SIMs salesman, was granted bail by the Delhi High Court in October 2020, with Justice Suresh Kumar Kait observing that the UAPA case (FIR 59/2020) against Khan was built on “bald statements,” did not appear to be prima facie true, and did not meet the stringent conditions of denying bail.
Safoora Zargar, a sociology research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, who was pregnant when she was jailed in FIR 59/2020 in April 2020, was granted bail by the Delhi High Court on “humanitarian grounds” in June 2020.