Police Brutality and Fear Grips Muslim Neighborhood in Haldwani

Nuzhat Khan, TwoCircles.net

On the evening of February 10, Mehreen, 21, and her husband Arif, 24, who works at a local hardware store, were startled by screams from the street outside in their small neighbourhood of Malik ka Bagicha in Banbhoolpura, Uttarakhand’s Haldwani. Moments later, at least four policemen forcefully entered through the front door. 

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The police began detaining Arif for allegedly being involved in the violence incident that occurred in their town just two days before.

Mehreen said that she was brutally beaten by the police while her husband was detained and that four male policemen allegedly assaulted her on her hand and thigh despite her pleas of innocence. “I pleaded with them, telling the officers that he is innocent, but they still arrested him,” she said.

Others in the neighbourhood, concerned for their safety, locked their doors from the inside. 

The town’s municipal authorities demolished a mosque and a madrasa in the same neighbourhood on February 8, claiming they were illegally built. At least six persons were killed, five of them Muslims, in mob violence and police shooting, while 68 have been arrested. At least two dozen people and over 100 police personnel sustained injuries and numerous police vehicles were burnt. 

The roads leading to the locality are heavily barricaded while the area is continually under the watch of police personnel. The residents of the Muslim-majority locality of Banbhoolpura, which serves as a source of skilled labour for the city contended that the recent police crackdown has unfairly singled them out.

On February 8, the day violence erupted in Haldwani, Mehreen says she and her husband were observing a fast. “When I learned about the unrest, I made sure my husband stayed home. He had already taken a day off from work due to fasting,” she recalled. 

Mehreen’s husband had undergone surgery eight months prior, leaving him unable to engage in physically demanding tasks like running. She had a major operation three months ago after falling down the stairs at home. “While they were assaulting me, my mother pleaded with them to stop, fearing for my life. But they paid no heed and continued their attack,” she alleged.

“In the police station, my husband went through such severe beatings that his entire body is now bruised and swollen,” remarked Mehreen, noting that he was coerced into chanting the slogan “Jai Shree Ram.” When he refused, she said, the beatings intensified even further.

The police action was ‘unfair’: Local journalist

Saleem Khan, a local journalist, resides just a few kilometres away from Banbhoolpura. While he was away on assignment, his wife and daughter, who is a lawyer, were at home. Khan received a distressing call informing him that the police had begun raiding homes in the area.

Shortly thereafter, his elder daughter reached out to him, frantic about the police barging inside their home. Khan advised her to cooperate, reassuring her that they had done nothing wrong and lived at a distance from the trouble. 

Once inside, the police allegedly began assaulting Khan’s family members without any attempt at dialogue. Khan expressed his frustration, questioning why innocent locals like his family were subjected to such brutality when he had specifically instructed his daughter to support the police, understanding that their personnel had also faced violence.

“They should go after the actual perpetrators of crimes rather than resorting to harming the innocent people who played no part in this,” he said. 

‘The entire city has come to a standstill’

In addition to Mehreen, numerous other houses in Malik ka Bagicha faced a similar fate, with police allegedly barging in and vandalising furniture, coolers, and other belongings.

An activist based in Haldwani informed Two Circles that the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Banbhoolpura has been barricaded. Residents are unable to leave, and outsiders are barred from entering, with only brief relaxation periods granted.

“This situation has resulted in the closure of businesses. The entire city has come to a standstill. Many skilled workers, who rely on day-to-day earnings, belong to this area. The halt in furniture making, construction, barbering, carpentry, welding, and motor vehicle repairs is evident. Their strategy seems to be aimed at preventing any suspects from escaping. Where does this happen in India?” he remarked anonymously, fearing reprisals.

He further noted that residents are apprehensive about potential phone tapping, leading them to avoid communication with anyone, including lawyers.

Journalists stopped from reporting on the ground 

During the recent incident of violence, there have been reports indicating that several journalists were obstructed from carrying out their reporting duties. Among them, a 48-year-old photojournalist was reportedly “almost killed” in mob violence. Instances have emerged where journalists were denied entry, purportedly under the pretext of a curfew, and allegedly faced threats aimed at discouraging them from covering events.

“I went to Haldwani for reporting. There was barricading from all sides. A policeman came; he took out his lathi (baton), hurled abuses at me, and asked me for my press card,” an independent multimedia journalist told Two Circles on the condition of anonymity. 

The journalist was allegedly warned by the police to comply with their directives or face imprisonment, with an ultimatum to vacate the area. “I feel like there is very little press freedom left in India. The time has gone when you could report from the ground,” he said.

‘Human rights violations in the area are uncontrolled’: Fact-finding Report 

Recently, a fact-finding report ‘Bulldozing Peace: State Violence and Apathy in Muslim Settlements of Haldwani’ by the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, a rights advocacy group stated that, “People are being apprehended by the police and brutally beaten at the site of their arrest resulting in severe injuries. Malik ka Bagicha as a consequence now lies deserted with residents seeking refuge elsewhere due to fear of police brutality. Human rights violations in the area are uncontrolled. The “shoot at sight” order remains in effect with people unable to access basic medical care.” 

Additionally, the report alleged that the police have established detention centers that resemble torture chambers, where a number of people, including those from Haldwani who were away in other cities for various reasons, are being held captive.

Two Circles reached out to Senior Superintendent of Police Nainital P.N. Meena for a comment. This story will be updated when he responds.

Mehreen remains concerned for her husband’s safety, fearing that the authorities would arrest him again at any time. “We did not even step out of our house that day, then also this happened to us. Why were we punished for something we did not do?” Mehreen lamented.