That Act Was Not in the Play

Indulekha Aravind | Bidar

District Jail, Bidar. When Najbunnisa’s daughter came to visit her, the 11-year-old was worried about how her mother was managing in the prison. “She told me not to be tense, to look after my health, to eat well — things I should be telling her,” says Najbunnisa. But when it was time to leave, the girl could not bear to be parted from her mother. “She was sobbing. She didn’t want to leave. But what could we do? I can’t keep her here with me,” says the anxious single mother.

Najbunnisa has been incarcerated along with Fareeda Begum, the headmistress of Shaheen Urdu Primary School, where the former’s daughter studies, in the north Karnataka district bordering Telangana. It is hard for the two middle-aged women one a struggling widow, the other a mother of two girls and a teacher for close to three decades — to wrap their heads around the fact that they have been accused of sedition, that, too, over a play performed by young students like Najbunnisa’s daughter. The charge of the colonial era Section 124 A carries a maximum term of life imprisonment.

“When the police took us from school, they did not tell us we were being arrested. They said it was for more questioning,” says Fareeda Begum. That was on January 30. They have been in jail ever since.

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The play — performed at the school on January 21 — was about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). “Part of the National Curriculum Framework is to create awareness about current social subjects. This was just another assignment given to students,” says Thouseef Madikeri, CEO of Shaheen Education Foundation. The school in Bidar is one of the 43 it has across nine states and is well-known in the district and outside, particularly for the success of its students in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET). The corridors of the school, much of which appears as if it’s under construction, have pictures of successful students and display cases with newspaper clippings on its initiatives. “This is a minority institution but 50% of the students are from other communities. Many come from impoverished backgrounds and we give scholarships of up to 100%” says Madikeri.

The children, teachers say, were given two days to prepare and they presented a 10-minute sketch for which they themselves wrote the dialogue. In the play, the 11-year-old, who plays an old woman, says she does not have any identification papers and would hit with slippers the person asking for it. (An English translation from Dakhini, a form of Urdu spoken here, says, “The person who was selling tea is now asking for our papers. Where are his papers?”) What was meant to be a routine school activity turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare after the play was live-streamed on Facebook by one of the parents, based on which a police complaint of sedition and insulting the prime minister was filed the next day.

The complainant, Nilesh Rakshal, told ET Magazine over the phone: “Young schoolchildren were using words against the PM, which I found objectionable. I felt it was against the Constitution that respects the post of PM.” The 35-year-old says he filed the complaint as a “citizen and social worker”. When asked if he had been a member of the Bajrang Dal (a 2015 court verdict describes him as a district convener of the Dal), he insists that whatever he was in the past, he is not a member of any party now. He adds that he did not mention sedition in his complaint.

The police swung into action after Rakshal’s complaint, with groups of them reportedly arriving to question the young students and staff repeatedly for five days thereafter. “They kept asking us the same questions 20-25 times, telling us we were teaching the wrong things and made the children re-enact the dialogue. They even asked us, had the prime minister been a Muslim, wouldn’t you have prevented this,” says one of the teachers, who was interrogated. The first day, in contravention of the Juvenile Justice Act, the policemen reportedly came in uniform, unaccompanied by members of the Child Welfare Committee. Following a furore, the policemen started coming in plain clothes but the administration says they took children to parts of the school that were not in the range of CCTV cameras.

“They asked me the same questions many times,” says the 11-year-old who had allegedly said the controversial line. She refuses a biscuit, saying she has an upset stomach, but otherwise speaks bravely, and says she has been to see her mother twice. Firdaus, the neighbour who had been looking after her, says the little girl has not been eating much. “She hasn’t been well, she keeps asking about her mother at home. We looked after her because there was no one else,” she says. Najbunnisa had moved to Bidar from the village of Hallikhed just three months ago, for the sake of her daughter’s education and the two were getting by with what little money she got from renting out some farmland.

According to the FIR, the police say the headmistress was present when the play was staged and that they “felt” it was on her instruction. “There is no evidence. They just say they ‘felt’ this was so,” says Keshavarao H Srimale, one of the lawyers who moved the bail application for the two women and filed anticipatory bail for the trustees of Shaheen, who are also mentioned in the FIR. The mother was held because she allegedly told her daughter what to say, a charge Najbunnisa denies. Nagesh DL, SP of Bidar who took charge on February 1 after his predecessor was transferred, earlier told ET that the police had booked the case based on information received and that they had been following the Supreme Court order on filing FIRs.

Divided City

In a sign of the polarisation the case has created in Bidar city, Srimale says about 30 lawyers tried to pass a resolution at the Bar Council, saying no lawyer should represent the two women and the management of Shaheen group because they had insulted the prime minister. The motion was defeated but they then moved a third-party application in support of the complainant, saying they wanted to assist the public prosecutor. “We take such measures only in the rarest cases that go against society. They were talking against the PM and NRC. The teachers should not have taught the students such things,” says Anil Kumar Karanji, a lawyer who supported the motion. However, he adds that Shaheen institutions have a good reputation.

Activists in the city, which was the capital of the powerful Bahmani sultanate of the Deccan in the 15th century, says sedition was slapped as a reaction to the anti-NRC protests in Bidar. “There was a huge rally of 50,000 people in Bidar on December 23. Sedition charges have been slapped to create panic among protesters and to suppress free speech,” says Mubashir Sindhe, cofounder of the Secular Citizens Forum, an umbrella platform of 26 organisations protesting against the CAA.

The case has sparked outrage in the city also because of the popularity of the school. “Earlier, if our children wanted to study science or get training for entrance exams, they would have to go to Kalaburagi or Bengaluru. But now, we have Shaheen where students get first-class education,” says Swamidan Mudhale, a Dalit rights activist. “This case is just to tarnish their reputation.”

Activists, family members and the Shaheen school management are now waiting for the bail hearing on February 11.

The 11-year-old girl hopes she can finally be reunited with her mother.

CCTV images, provided by school administration, of students being interrogated by the police