Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Athar Khan: A ‘forgotten hero’ of anti-CAA protest languishing in jail

Among these 18, the name of Athar Khan is among the least talked, heard and known. 

25-year-old Athar Khan from Delhi’s Chand Bagh was detained by the Delhi Police on July 2nd, 2020 and has been imprisoned under draconian UAPA in Delhi violence conspiracy case for more than a year now. The incident had left his loved ones distraught and shaken.

“It was a very difficult time. I would not know when it was night and when it was a day. I did not sleep, cook or eat. I was heartbroken,” Khan’s mother Noorjahan recounted while breaking into tears. 

Collecting herself back, she said, “We must not forget the sacrifices of all those who are jailed. We must stand firm against the oppressive Citizenship law, we cannot fail those who stood for us. We need to be strong.”

Khan is the oldest among the younger generation in his extended family. After his father’s embroidery business had to shut down in 2014, he took up distance education (BBA) at Sikkim Manipal University (SMU) and started a small business. However, he suffered great loss due to GST and demonetisation, according to his mother. He quit and joined a telecom company so that he would have a stable income to sustain his family. 

Ather Khan’s father and younger brother in at their shop.

With Khan in jail for over a year now, his younger brother and father run a small spices store. His two other younger brothers are studying. “Whenever we talk to him over a video call, he asks everyone to be there. ‘I want to see all of you’ he’d say,” Noorjahan told Maktoob. 

“It is important to be there, mother. I’m doing this for all of us”

Khan was active at the Chand Bagh anti-CAA protest site in Delhi. He was initially drawn towards the movement after he was disturbed by the horrific incidents at Jamia Millia Islamia where peaceful protestors were beaten up. He began to take part in the protests at Jamia every Sunday, where he understood the discriminatory nature of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that fast-tracks nationality for non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries but excludes Muslims.

He started spending more time at the protest sites, including the one at Chand Bagh. “Most people here are not very well-educated. When they recognised that Athar was educated and zealous, they told him to take care of police permissions for the protest, coordination with anchors at the protest site and other such tasks,” Khan’s uncle Najmuddin told Maktoob. 

“He started spending the entire night and day at the protest. I and my husband were worried, we told him he has to come back home at night,” Noorjahan said.  But Khan convinced them. “It is important to be there, mother. I’m doing this for all of us”, he told her. 

A forgotten hero

Last year in September Delhi police filed a 1700-page charge-sheet, followed by two additional charge sheets in connection with the Delhi pogrom against 18 people, mostly young Muslims who all happened to be Anti-CAA protestors. The charges were made under draconian law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act UAPA, various Indian Penal Code sections and Arms Act for larger conspiracy in the February carnage that resulted in the death of 53 people, mostly Muslims.

Among these 18, the name of Athar Khan is among the least talked, heard and known. Five of them got bail.

“Have we heard of Athar Khan along with the more famous Sharjeel, Umar, Khalid, Devangana and others? No. Why? Because he comes from a family that can’t afford expensive lawyers as his father runs a small spices store,” Muzzammil Imam,  brother of jailed anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Imam had said. 

Khan hails from an economically lower-class family. His family has not applied for bail even once. 

“In this world full of glamour, we have actually discriminated among our frontline activists on the basis of social and economic class. No wonder, an activist who has no social or economic capital and who has no organizational support never trends on social media. Nobody writes about him,” Imam had added. 

‘Athar and Asif were in the same jail. Athar will be back too’

“After Asif’s release, we are hopeful. It is all we talk about during our 5-minute conversations over the past few days,” Noorjahan said. “Athar and Asif were in the same jail. Athar will be back too.”

On 15th June 2021, the Delhi High Court allowed bail to anti-CAA activists Asif Iqbal Tanha, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, while noting that “the right to protest is not outlawed and cannot be termed as a ‘terrorist act’.

Ather Khan

Khan’s uncle, Najmuddin, handles all his case-related proceedings and visits him at Tihar jail. He last met him in February.

“The next hearing is on 18th July, it will be online. Athar is innocent of all the charges against him. These are baseless allegations. They say he was responsible for looting a showroom, but he wasn’t even in that area at that time. They have also accused him of being involved in the death of police constable Ratan Lal. But here too, he wasn’t at the place where it happened,” Najmuddin said. 

Najmuddin knows Khan as being caring and responsible. “He was the eldest in the family, everyone looked up to him.” 

Khan contacted his family 20 days after his arrest. “Those 20 days felt like years, it was terrible,” his mother recounted. “After about four months, we started talking regularly. I have full hope in Allah. Until now I have hoped only from Him. Only He can help us.” she said. 

Rushda Fathima Khan
Rushda Fathima Khan
Rushda Fathima Khan is a journalist based in Bengaluru.

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