India police crack down on protests against Prophet remarks

The two teenagers were killed in Ranchi, Jharkhand state, as police fired shots to quell protests against insulting comments.

Protestors clash with police during a protest demanding the arrest of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Nupur Sharma for her comments on Prophet Mohammed, in Prayagraj, India
Protesters clash with police during a protest in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh state. [Ritesh Shukla/Reuters]

New Delhi, India – Two teenagers were killed in violence as police cracked down on protests that erupted across the country over derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad by two members of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The families of Mudasir, 14, and Sahil Ansari, 19, confirmed the deaths to Al Jazeera, alleging the police used disproportionate force against the protesters who marched in Ranchi, capital of eastern Jharkhand state, after Friday prayers demanding the arrest of two BJP officals.

Dozens of protesters were injured after protests turned violent. A senior police officer in Ranchi was also hurt, according to local media reports. A witness told Al Jazeera the situation worsened after Hindus organised counter protests.

Several calls to the police in Ranchi went unanswered.

The BJP suspended its spokeswoman Nupur Sharma for making insulting remarks against Islam’s prophet and expelled another leader, Naveen Jindal, for his anti-Islam tweet after a diplomatic backlash from Muslim countries.

The Hindu nationalist party said the offensive remarks did not reflect the government’s position and the comments were made by “fringe elements”.

Mudasir was shot in the head by police and he succumbed to his wounds at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences, his uncle Shahid Ayyubi told Al Jazeera.

Sahil’s brother Faizan said he was hit by a bullet in the back while returning home after prayers.

“The bullet ruptured his kidney and he died at the hospital after some time,” Faizan told Al Jazeera, adding his brother was not even part of the protests. Sahil ran a battery repair shop in the city.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify the claims made by the family. However, a local news agency confirmed they died of gunshot wounds.

A police officer in Ranchi told AFP news agency: “Police were forced to open fire to disperse protesters … resulting in the death of two.”

‘Job of police is to protect, not to shoot’

The bodies of Mudasir and Sahil were handed over to the families as the government imposed curfew-like restrictions, including suspension of mobile internet services in the city purportedly as a security measure.

“Mudasir was a child, barely 14 awaiting his matric exam result,” said Ayyubi, his voice breaking. “He took part in the protests and now he is no more between us. He was the only child of his parents. We are shocked.”

The family demanded the government put the “murderers of Mudasir in jail and give them strict punishment”.

Indian Muslims burn an effigy with portraits of BJP leader Nupur Sharma.
Indian Muslims burn an effigy with portraits of Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson of governing Hindu nationalist party [Bikas Das/AP Photo]

Ayyubi blamed the government for the violence saying police handled the situation “badly”.

“There are thousand ways to control civilian protests like water cannons, rubber bullets, aerial firing but they fire directly on the head and body,” he said.

Irfan Ansari, a Muslim legislator from Congress, which is part of the ruling coalition in the state, also slammed the government over the way the protests were handled. “The job of the police is to protect, not to shoot,” he said in a tweet in Hindi questioning the style of work of the city police chief.

Ansari demanded five million rupees ($64,000) compensation and a government job each for the families of the deceased.

Al Jazeera tried to call Anshuman Kumar, superintendent of police in Ranchi city, for a response but calls were not answered.

The Friday protests over the remarks against the Prophet were witnessed in a number of cities and states, including the northern Uttar Pradesh state, West Bengal, Maharashtra and the capital New Delhi. The protests in India coincided with huge demonstrations held in South Asia against comments seen as insulting to Islam’s Prophet and his wife Aisha.

The right-wing party, which denounced insults of religious figures, also asked its spokespeople to be “extremely cautious” on religious matters in “debates” on Indian news channels.

Police in New Delhi on Thursday filed cases against the two BJP members and others – including a Muslim parliamentarian and journalist – for “inciting hatred” and other charges.

‘Cornered and traumatised’

Protests turned violent in several places in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – as police used force to quell the protests.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj, videos that went viral on social media showed police beating the protesters with sticks while arresting a number of them. Similar scenes were reported from Moradabad and Saharanpur cities where Muslims took to the streets demanding the arrest of Sharma and Jindal.

Police in the state arrested more than 200 people, including Muslim community activists.

The data shared by police with Al Jazeera showed 48 people have been arrested in Saharanpur, 68 in Prayagraj, 50 in Hathras, 25 in Moradabad, eight in Ferozabad and 28 in Ambedkarnagar.

Police in Prayagraj, which was formerly known as Allahabad, conducted night raids at the home of student leader Afreen Fatima, arresting her father Mohammad Javed, mother and sister.

“First a police party came at around 8:30pm and took away my father and then they came at 11:30pm and detained my mother and sister. Third time they came at 2:30am to detain me but we resisted and since then the policemen have cordoned off our house,” Fatima told Al Jazeera over the phone.

“We are only women and children at home. We feel cornered and traumatised. The police have asked us to leave the house locked.”

Indian Muslims block road as they protest against the spokesperson of governing Hindu nationalist party.
The Friday protests over the remarks against the Prophet were witnessed in a number of cities and states, including the northern Uttar Pradesh state, West Bengal [Bikas Das/AP]

Fatima said the police are accusing her father of being the “mastermind of the protests in the city”, an allegation she rejected. “My father was not part of protests but he is active in civil society and a prominent Muslim voice in the city and that is why he is being targeted.”

She said the police did not tell them where they took her parents and sister. “I have no idea where my father, mother and sister are. I am worried about their safety. My father is a diabetic and he needs insulin injection every night.”

Muslim community leaders have denounced the “unbridled” use of force by police in Ranchi and Uttar Pradesh.

SQR Ilyas, president of the Welfare Party of India, said the police action is “unjustified” as protests are “a democratic right of people”.

He said Muslims came out on the streets because they were hurt by the insults against the Prophet.

“Instead of addressing the cause and arresting the culprits, the police have resorted to killing, arresting and bulldozing houses of poor Muslims,” Ilyas said, questioning the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the matter.

However, the ruling BJP justified the detentions as party spokesperson Alok Vats told Al Jazeera that protesters resorted to stone-throwing.

“Protesting is everyone’s right but you cannot throw stones,” he said, urging Muslims to have patience and let the law take its course.

Source: Al Jazeera