Illustrations: Aroop Mishra/The Quint
"Many harass me inside the jail, call me a terrorist. Ever since Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha got bail, they look at me with disgust and say, 'if 'terrorists can get bail, then why can't those who have committed comparatively less serious offenses get bail'. The hate is a constant."
Defiant in the face of constant taunts, these are the words of Ishrat Jahan whose bail under FIR 59 is currently being heard in Delhi's Karkardooma court. A graduate in political science who went on to study law, Ishrat is the first of her family to join politics when she campaigned and subsequently won in 2012 from the Ghondli municipal constituency in East Delhi. Her win in 2012 was especially unique because it was from a seat where Hindus are close to 80 percent and that no Congress candidate had won from there before. This win changed her life and set her on the path of the public life, which eventually brought her at the centre of the anti-CAA Khureji protest site in January 2020.
A month after the protest began, she was arrested from the same area on 26 February while communal violence-ravaged parts of northeast Delhi. Initially, she was charged under FIR 44 lodged at the local Jagatpuri police station for attempt to murder, a charge the judge found 'debatable' and granted her bail. However, the same day, on 21 March 2020, she was arrested under the dreaded FIR 59, which deals with the alleged conspiracy behind the violence in Northeast Delhi that claimed the lives of 53 people, two-thirds of whom were Muslims. All the accused under this FIR have been charged under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, under which getting bail is nearly impossible.
Her lawyers believe they have made a strong case in court, and by the end of the arguments, they will see the verdict in their favour despite the Delhi Police challenging the recent grant of bail to three other UAPA accused in the case.
As she completes over 500 days in jail, we spoke to her friends and family to understand who Ishrat Jahan is beyond being a UAPA accused and how they built a case for her in court. To begin with, it was her good standing in the area of Khureji that led to a Hindu man going out of his way to help her get crucial evidence for her case, her family tells us the sequence of events.
We sent queries to the Director General of Delhi Prisons Sandeep Goel and waited for over a day for a response to the allegations made by Ishrat and her family. The copy will be updated if and when the response is received.
Building a Defence: How a Hindu Man Helped Ishrat Get Evidence in Time
Ishrat had been jailed and her family and counsels were relentlessly trying to build a case to move the court for her bail. However, Ishrat's family says that they faced a problem in getting evidence because of how Delhi Police was seen destroying several CCTV cameras in the area. There are videos of this as well. "This is the first time it hit us how we were against an entire system," Ishrat's husband Farhan says, as they scrambled to find footage to prove Ishrat's innocent.
As the family was anxious while combing the area for any evidence they could get, they explain how there were heightened tensions in Khureji. "Imagine heavy police personnel everywhere, riot gears and people barely stepping out of their homes. This while the police were picking up people in different FIRs, the fear was palpable. Many had left their homes and gone to live with relatives and villages," Hashmi, who was Ishrat's fiancé then, explained. Repeated attempts to get people to help were falling on deaf ears, "During the time everyone was shocked and scared that if an ex-councilor of the area (Ishrat) had been arrested, then what guarantee did they have that they would not be dragged into a case? No one was willing to provide any evidence or any help to us," Hashmi said, sounding dejected.
Ishrat's sister, Sarwer, also explained how difficult it was. "So many CCTV cameras were broken already. Everyone told us that they saw police breaking the cameras down. They did this to come up with their own narrative, and simultaneously making it nearly impossible for us to come up with a defense." Sarwer is also Ishrat's counsel.
But things changed when someone from the Hindu community (whose identity we cannot reveal, let's call him, A) came forward and reached out to Jahan's family. "It was literally this man's initiative which gave us hope at the time. He knew Ishrat and the good work she had done in the area. What he did was priceless."
Sarwer and Farhan went on to explain that not only did A get the message to the family that there were a few CCTV cameras that had not been destroyed yet, but he also went and met this Muslim family where the cameras were over days to convince them to share the footage. "A spoke to the Muslim family, made him understand that it was their responsibility to help Ishrat. He knew that she was not deserving of languishing in jail. It took A a couple of meetings, done very smartly and discreetly as cops were everywhere. Phones were avoided and meetings took place in open, busy places," Farhan said.
This footage is a part of Ishrat's bail plea as well.
Sarwer says because of this footage, Ishrat can be seen on a stage on 23 February saying she is against the chakka jam, "We have shown videos in the court in the ongoing bail trial, where she is saying one should not do the chakka jam (road blockade) or do anything that would affect the public and carry the protest on peacefully as has happened in 45 days. She says in this video, "I am a lawyer, as I am responsible, I know there can be consequences of your actions. These boys are not showing you guys the right way, and if you want to do a chakka jam I am leaving from here. These are not correct values, (these are) against my principles and I am leaving this protest."
Why this is relevant is because the police keep harping on the fact that this call for a chakka jam is what led to the rioting, while that itself is debatable and more about it can be read in the link below, her family says she was never for it to begin with. "She is clearly saying that she is against chakka jams, which she always was. The reason she would be there was that she was fulfilling her duty, that is literally it."
Sarwer says all this has happened cause one Hindu man decided to help out. "We do not try and contact him as we do not want any issues for him ever. A has done more than what was expected of him, he has done more than many did, for no reason," Sarwer says as her smile and eyes show reflect how grateful and touched the entire family feels by A's actions.
After making this speech on 23 February, Ishrat's family says she did not attend the protest site till 26 February. "People called and told her that the police was breaking the protest site, please let it be known that there was no rioting in the area. She was arrested when she landed there to mediate with the police on charges of attempt to murder."
The police has argued that she had incited a mob that threw stones at policemen.
Additional Sessions Judge Manjusha Wadhwa said that “no overt act has been imputed” to Jahan on allegations that she incited the crowd. The court said that invoking Section 307 against her was debatable since there was no allegation that she used the country-made pistol that had been presented as evidence.
The video from 23 February and 26 February, could come in the hands of Ishrat's counsels because of A's initiative and thoughtfulness, the family says.
The UAPA Marriage: From an Interim Bail Wedding to Cold Coffee Dates
The same day that she was granted bail, on 21 March 2020, Ishrat was issued a production warrant under FIR 59. "We met her at Patiala House Court and she had her production warrant in her hand. She was shocked and wondered what she had done to go through this," Farhan said.
Ishrat, who was in Mandoli jail all this while, was taken into police custody at Delhi Police special cell for about 15 days and then returned to Mandoli jail in early April. "She even told me to think over getting married as now she was in a mess, I told her, 'to hell with the mess, if we have to share good times together, we will share this bad time together too.'
They got married on June 12 last year, which The Quint got exclusive access to cover. Out for 9 days on interim bail granted by court, Farhan says he was heartbroken when he went to drop her back in jail on the evening of 19 June. "The worst thing was, dropping my newly wedded wife to jail. I went inside the jail gate and bid her farewell as she had Mehendi in her hands and feet," he says, sighing deeply and smiling courageously.
He says for those ten days on interim bail they did not discuss the case at all. "When a bizarre UAPA case is slapped against you, what defense can you even fathom to work on? All you can do is wait and see what the Delhi Police has to say," he says.
Ever since, their marriage has grown over meetings and calls that keep getting disrupted considering the first and second wave of COVID-19. "Between October 2020 and March 2020, we started meeting again, even though the number of meetings had reduced due to precautions. You have to call on this number and ask for an appointment. It is not easy by the way, one has to call 40-50 times before someone picks up. I would get the people working with me to also get on other phones, everyone would be calling constantly and I would talk if we got through," his face betraying the eagerness of wanting to see his wife from across a window and rods. As the day would arrive, both Ishrat and Farhan would look forward to it with butterflies in their stomach.
"I would wake around 7:00 am, she would wake around the same time. What she would do is she would buy milk and coffee from the canteen. Then to melt the sugar properly and ensure the froth is there, she would keep shaking it for about two hours to make good coffee because 'my husband is coming to meet me'. I used to go empty stomach from here because I wanted to meet my wife and have the cold coffee that she would so lovingly make for me."Farhan explains lovingly.
Farhan is a perfect picture of a doting husband, who smiles and gets shy at every other query about how they became friends and decided to get married.
He had popped the question after being her friend for a few years. "We were both in the Congress party, we would meet each other during party protests from 2013 onwards, then dua salam happened, we both were in the media panels too so I would take advise from her. We shared a cool, 'good friends' kind of bond."
Farhan says for two years he could not tell her that he loved her, then in 2018, he asked her, "One day I asked her what her plans of marriage were, she said she had never thought about it, I asked her what if I told her that I wished to marry her, she smiled and that is how it all began. She said please send your family to my home."
Meet Ishrat: From The Eyes of Her Best Friend, an RSS-BJP Supporter
Other than her partner The Quint also interviewed Ishrat's best friend for 15 years.
"She used to call me her RSS chuddy buddy and I would tease her that aana toh BJP ko hi hai (BJP is only going to win the elections," Delhi-based advocate Vikas Sharma, says.
They sat together in college while studying LLB from a University in UP.
The conversation with Sharma started with him saying, "I do not like certain publications (referring to The Quint) but I am speaking to you for Ishrat, she is family and she considers my family hers. My father is a fatherly figure to her. Unlike other people, she is not anti-national," he says. The interview went on for a while after that initial confession, where Sharma felt comfortable about sharing several anecdotes about his 'best friend'.
"I used to pull her leg about attending the anti-CAA protests, why are you doing all this, this is useless. She used to say she will do her duty. She never prejudiced her personal relations with me because of all this. That is why we were all her fans. She knew that I do not associate with her ideology. She was anti-CAA, I was pro-CAA, still, we were friends. She called me her RSS chuddy buddy. Someone who is so tolerant and accepting, a former Congress leader, why would she then become a conspirator? She did not hold that kind of poison, anger, or frustration in her," he says with a deep sense of loyalty for his friend.
Sharma does believe some of the accused in the case could be responsible. "To be very frank, this riot started because of Hindu-Muslim hostility and there are people who are accused who I believe to be really culprits. They are anti-national people, but not Ishrat."
When asked what he meant by 'anti-national people', Sharma said, "By anti-national I mean people who say stuff like "Bharat tere tukde honge, inshah allah inshah allah (India, you'll break into man pieces) and Afzal, hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hai' (Afzal, we are ashamed that your killers are still alive)"
Sharma says that Ishrat is not one to make issues dividing Hindus and Muslims, "She has a high stature, she is highly intelligent and educated, not like illiterate people who make such comments. Her mental level is on some other level only (sic). She is not one of those who are getting funded, getting money for chanting anti-national slogans, she has to be separated from them."
Sharma, who is also helping with the case, says the evidence against her is made up. "Vo kehte haina, gehu ke saath ghun bhi pista hai, matlab gunehgaar ke saath rehne wala nirdosh bhi kasht pata hai. (With an accused, innocent people often end up suffering,) Vikas, who is a supporter of BJP and RSS and defines his ideology as India first, said.
He says Ishrat drove a Safari, would go on trips, study hard and had the best sense of humour. "I can vouch for her intelligence, she cleared UP prelims judiciary exams, she used to study 17 hours a day. I have seen it," he says.
"Ishrat is a reflection of her father, he was a great man. Traits of her father are in her personality, she is helpful and humble just like him. I have seen her help people all the time. She paid the fees of a class mate who was struggling to pay the fees, she would meet parking lot guards and give them clothes. The entire family believes in charity," he says. Ishrat's father Naeem Ahmed, a contractor by profession and a long time supporter of the Congress, passed away in 2010 at the age of 56.
Speaking about her father, he says, "Ishrat's father was a real gentleman. Once I was in need of some legal help, when I was a student, and Ishrat took me to her father. He met me and assured me that nothing will happen and only these words made me feel courage," Sharma recalls.
Ishrat: The Congress Councillor
Her family and friends tell us that it was the goodwill he had created in the area, as a known and respected supporter of the Congress, that Ishrat was able to win a seat that no Muslim or Congress member could ever win.
But few know that Ishrat was more interested in giving her judiciary exams, rather than become a politician.
"Ghondli was a seat reserved for women. Few of her lawyer friends told my brother that this was a ladies' seat and since Ishrat often participated in bar elections and her father has a superlative reputation in the area, she could stand and win the polls. She did not want to get into politics as she wanted to give her all to the judiciary, but my brother persuaded her. Twenty-odd lawyers went to the then Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit and put forward the case, Dikshit agreed. Never ever has any Congress leader won a seat from here. She won by 3200 votes, which was a big margin," the proud sister, Sarwer, says.
"Even during the whole campaign, people would come up to her and repeatedly say Naeem bhai or Naeem thekedaar (father was into construction business) ki beti hai. (She is Naeem's daughter). It was his goodwill that made her win. He was highly reputed, she missed him so much that time."
In 2012, Ishrat won and stayed on for 5 years, and her aspirations to be a judge took a back seat.
"She got a maternity home constructed on a vacant piece of land in Ghondli village. That land was just being used for garbage and pastures. In Khureji, she constructed a three-storey hospital which is still there and has her name on the plaque," Sarwer says.
However, when the chance to give a ticket in 2017 came up, Ishrat was not given one. "She was not given a ticket by the Congress, it was a consequence of internal politics. She did not want to leave the party so decided to not contest independently and hurt the Congress' prospects. She gracefully accepted it and let it go," she says, adding that Ishrat held the post of general secretary DPCC (Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee) and a member of the AICC (All India Congress Committee) in Congress.
It was this sense of responsibility to the party and the people of the area that drove her to the Khureji protest site on the fateful day of 26 February, despite having walked away from the protest site on 23 February. "After she said she will not be involved in the protest if a blockade happens, many women came to our home to meet her. They told her, and I witnessed this, that they did not know better and needed her as they trusted her. So she told them she was not going to come, but she would be there if they faced any problems. When the call came from locals about the protest site being vandalised, Ishrat responded to that sense of duty and went to the spot on her own in her Santro. How is going to a spot to mediate, a crime?," Farhan asked.
The family is upset that there has been no public display of support from the high rungs of the Congress party. "They could have at least called us once? It does bother me," Farhan said.
Not only was Ishrat's father Naeem Ahmed a loyal and important supporter of the Congress, but Farhan's father Parvez Hashmi has been a four-time MLA and two-time MP from the Congress. "It is fine, we do not need anybody," Farhan says, betraying disappointment.
Ishrat's Sister: She Has Been Disallowed From Making Rotis, Teaching in Jail
While her family deals with feeling betrayed by political leaders outside, inside Ishrat has spent her time doing Yoga. "Since the last few days, I have started teaching Yoga as well. Before that, I had requested the authorities let me make rotis, but they did not allow it. I was also willing to teach the kids in the creche, wrote an application about it too, but that was also not allowed. They gave me no reason," Ishrat said. Sarwer added that internally Ishrat thinks that the reason is that they are against her as she is a UAPA accused.
"Someone inside the jail tried to spit on me during the sehri time during Ramzan. My harassment knows no bounds. The one and a half years in jail have been filled with several instances of discrimination, but because I have done nothing wrong, I know I will be out."Ishrat Jahan said sounding calm and resolved.
Other than being called a terrorist by inmates and staff, they also say that Ishrat has come to jail after killing many Hindus. "One time the inmates had threatened to kill her, the second time they bashed her up, tore her clothes, banged her head against the wall," Farhan said, adding that there have also been inmates and staff members who have shown kindness to Ishrat.
"Being a Muslim UAPA accused in jail, discrimination is always there, while few have harassed her horribly, most have been good to her. She has been called a terrorist, a prostitute and subjected to unspeakable language. Since she is a Muslim it makes it easy for her to be discriminated against," Farhan, who has spoken to her or met her every single week since her arrest, said.
Ishrat also told her family how she was accused of 'provoking and inciting' people in jail. "Ishrat had written an application to the DG Prisons asking for water in the coolers inside the jail, as it was really hot. It was signed by all inmates, but the narrative changed that my sister was inciting people in the jail. So she tried to defend herself and said that she could get what she needed via courts as she is educated, but was doing this for everyone. Despite this, she was told she was provoking them and was therefore isolated," Sarwer said.
Ishrat says she spends her time offering the namaz every day. She also reads a lot, from the library and from the books her family brings for her. She feels unheard in jail.
"She has written to DG Prisons but not once has she got a response, she does not know if it even reaches them or not. There is a box you have there, called the DG BOX, but she has never been called," Sarwer says.