Field Notes: A Phone Call To Tihar Jail


I could not help but feel guilty.

Shifa-ur-Rehman’s family allowed me five minutes to talk to him during their weekly phone call from Delhi’s Tihar jail. Stealing even a minute from those five minutes seemed like a lot—after all, those five minutes are all the time they are allowed every week. 

I waited for a month before I had that call with Rehman, one of the anti-CAA protesters accused of instigating the Delhi riots and incarcerated in Tihar jail for the past 22 months. The last time that I saw Rehman was more than two years ago in December 2019 at the Shaheen Bagh protest site, holding hands with others opposed to the CAA, the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019. 

Now, Rehman, a builder and president of the alumni association of Jamia Millia Islamia University, was a voice over the phone. 

I approached Rehman’s family in January, requesting an interview and explaining why after close to two years in Tihar, he should share his thoughts and experience. 

A month later, his family arranged the interview. Once they received the call from a landline number in Tihar jail, they patched me in. 

When I had suggested a video call in January, Rehman’s wife, Noorien Fatima, was reluctant. “It would break me to see him like this, and it would break him to see my health suffering because of him being away,” she said.

In our first attempt on 15 February, we encountered a patchy network and the call disconnected. I waited for another week to interview Rehman. Just like at Shaheen Bagh, he expounded the ideas of justice and democracy in the five minutes that we spoke. Rehman spoke of the India he grew up in, Islamophobia today and the biased application of laws that kept those accused of protest in jail without trial or bail. 

Just over two years ago, in December 2019, India witnessed one of its most creative and popular movements by people who understood how the CAA could render undocumented Muslims irrelevant and what this might do to the secular and pluralistic values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. 

Some of the activists who spearheaded these movements were arrested following the Delhi riots in February 2022, accused of using the anti-CAA protests as a front for instigating communal violence in the city. Rehman among others was accused of collecting funds for engineering the riots.  Of the 53 people killed in the riots, two-thirds are Muslim. Of the 18 accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, 16 are Muslim.

In the interviews that I have done with two of the anti-CAA protesters lodged in Tihar, Rehman and Sharjeel Imam, I was struck by how they related resistance to the very existence of Muslims in India.

Do read my interview of Rehman below.

(Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)

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