Poet whose Uber ride ended at police station for espousing anti-CAA view: 'Can't normalise going to jail for having an opinion'

Soon after starting his trip on an Uber cab, while speaking to one of his friends over the phone, Bappadittya Sarkar was turned in to the cops by the cab driver over suspicions of him being a 'communist' and indulging in anti-national activities.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya February 07, 2020 19:20:53 IST
Poet whose Uber ride ended at police station for espousing anti-CAA view: 'Can't normalise going to jail for having an opinion'
  • Sarkar informs that the police told him not to wear a red scarf and kurta, and not carry the dafli because "mahaul kharab hai".

  • "Tum desh barbaad kardoge aur hum dekhtey rahenge? Main kahin aur le jaa sakta tha tujhe, shukr mana police station laaya hun," the Uber driver told Sarkar.

  • "We shouldn't normalise going to jail or be questioned for having an opinion, or perhaps having an ideology that is not populist or state-sponsored," Sarkar tells Firstpost.

When 23-year-old poet from Jaipur Bappadittya Sarkar booked a cab at 10.40 pm on 5 February after a long, tiring day at an anti-CAA protest in Mumbai, little did he know that he would embark on a horrific journey back home. Soon after starting his trip on an Uber cab, while speaking to one of his friends over the phone, Sarkar was turned in to the cops by the cab driver over suspicions of him being a "communist" and indulging in anti-national activities.

Bappaditya Sarkar was in Mumbai on an invitation to read his poetry at the Kala Ghoda festival. On Wednesday, late at night, after taking part in anti-CAA protests at Mumbai's Nagpada area (which has lately been christened ‘Mumbai Bagh’, inspired by Delhi's now-iconic protest venue, Shaheen Bagh), Sarkar booked an Uber cab from Juhu's Silver Beach to his accommodation in Kurla.

Poet whose Uber ride ended at police station for espousing antiCAA view Cant normalise going to jail for having an opinion

Bappadittya Sarkar in Mumbai Bagh. Image via Instagram.

"As I got in, I thought of calling a friend who had called me earlier in the day, but I couldn't talk to him because I was in Mumbai Bagh. I was talking to him about how there are different ways of protesting in different cities, how there is a difference in protest culture in different states. We were also talking about what happened in Shaheen Bagh (a burqa-clad infiltrator was caught in Shaheen Bagh). I was telling him how otherwise it would have majorly invalidated the movement, had she not been caught," recounts Sarkar, while speaking with Firstpost. "We were talking about people's discomfort with ‘laal salaam', and how we could make Jaipur's protests more effective," Sarkar adds.

Suddenly, the Uber driver stopped the car and asked if he could go and withdraw some money from a nearby ATM, to which Sarkar readily agreed. A few moments later, the driver returned with two policemen, and that's when Sarkar realised that the car was stopped outside Santacruz West Police Station.

"The policemen asked me where I was from, and why I was carrying a dafli. I told them I'm from Jaipur and that I was carrying the dafli because I was sloganeering at Mumbai Bagh earlier in the afternoon," the poet recalls. He further adds that the cab driver then said to the policemen: "Sir, aap isko andar lo, ye desh jalane ki baat kar raha hai. Bol raha hai main communist hoon, hum Mumbai mein Shaheen Bagh banadenge. Mere paas poori recording hai (Sir, you should arrest him. He was talking about burning the country and was saying that he is a communist. He said he will make a Shaheen Bagh in Mumbai. I have full recording [of his telephonic conversation])."

Describing the cab driver, Sarkar says that he was a lean, tall, fairly well-spoken guy in his early 30s or late 20s. "He kept on reiterating that I shouldn't think that he wouldn't understand anything [that Sarkar spoke over the phone]. I don't know where he was getting that from."

"I told the policemen to listen to the recording and arrest me if they find me saying 'Hum desh jala denge' or anything that is inciting, or can be perceived as anti-national. I turned to the Uber driver and said, 'Sir aapko kis baat ka bura laga, ye batao. Aap police station kyu le aaye ho mujhe itni si baat pe?' (Sir, tell me what exactly hurt you. Why did you drag me to the police station for such a thing?)"

To this, the cab driver responded saying: "Tum desh barbaad kardoge aur hum dekhtey rahenge? Main kahin aur le jaa sakta tha tujhe, shukr mana police station laaya hun (You think you will ruin the country, and we will just be silent spectators? I could have taken you elsewhere, thank your stars that I brought you to a police station)."

Speaking with Firstpost, Sarkar mentions how the last statement really scared him. "It felt very orchestrated — maybe when he was overhearing my conversation, he was thinking of how to turn me in. It wasn't instinctive, it was too planned," Bappaditya points out, adding what fueled his fear was the fact that while the cab driver reportedly threatened him, the police did not react in any way. "They were just silent spectators; they didn't say anything to him, they didn't reprimand him, nothing."

Sarkar informs that the police told him not to wear a red scarf and kurta, and not carry the dafli because "mahaul kharab hai (These are tough times)." To this, Sarkar responded saying if people are getting scared by a mere percussion instrument and slogans of freedom, then these are tough times indeed.

"We laughed it off. But because it was fresh, there was some kind of fear that had settled in," the poet adds. The Times of India reports that one of the policemen reportedly told that the driver was alerted because of Sarkar's attire, coupled with his conversation over the phone, where he used words like "protest" and "Shaheen Bagh". After a basic enquiry, they didn't find anything suspicious, neither could the Uber driver provide them with any recording of the said conversation.

They did, however, take both of them to the police station for a statement. Sarkar recollects that to be yet another bizarre experience. “They asked me about my ideology and the people I read. Then followed other absurd questions, which included unnecessary details like my father's salary, and how I sustain myself without a job; the kind of poems I write, my social media handles. They insisted I give them the email of the Kala Ghoda fest organiser, which I refused but agreed to concede the first name."

After giving his statement to the police — which was on the first floor of the Santacruz West Police Station — he came downstairs to see the driver still present there. "I just asked him if he'd eaten food. He said, "Haan haan, maine khana khaa liya hai (Yes, I have eaten)." He also told me that he ended the trip," Sarkar recounts, marking it as the last piece of correspondence with the driver.

He says his question came from a very humanitarian ground, as they were stuck at the police station in the middle of the night for two long hours. "After all, he is not my enemy. The fight is not against an individual here; it is against the mentality, the ideology. It is ideological warfare, which is supposed to be fought not with violence and guns, but with poetry and discussions," Sarkar opines. "The reason why I am protesting and I am on the streets is because I love people. I am not fighting against something, I am fighting for something."

With a sense of fear having crept in already, Sarkar says he called his friends and shared his live location with them. "I didn't want to travel alone that night, so I went to a friend's place and he told me I should relocate," he mentions, and adds that he was also scared because the driver already knew where he was staying. "I just wanted to be safe. I had a long day and I didn't want any more trouble."

When asked how this experience has changed him or affected him, Sarkar reflects: "It has made me more careful; it has made me want to equip myself in situations where if I might get detained, as to how much information can be given, what you can refuse... It is so dystopian for a young person... We shouldn't normalise going to jail or be questioned for having an opinion, or perhaps having an ideology that is not populist or state-sponsored."

Firstpost reached out to Uber, and their spokesperson replied saying, "As soon as the incident was brought to our attention, we took it up on priority. We are in touch with both the rider and the driver, and are reviewing the matter." Safety incidents are picked up in several ways: they can either be raised by rider or driver in the app, called in, or picked up from social media. Once an incident is received, Uber's safety response team analyses the situation and depending on the situation the necessary action is taken.

Before Uber begins its review, based on the nature of the incident, as a policy, the company might put the accounts in question on hold to ensure the safety of the platform. The safety experts speak with both the rider and driver to understand the situation.

Sarkar says Uber "proactively" called him and heard his side of the story, condemning what he had to go through and called it an outright "infringement of his privacy". When Sarkar was asked about his plan of action, he says he doesn't intend to file an FIR against the driver. "I believe in rehabilitation and reconciliation. I feel in fact Uber should sponsor his therapy, and I don't mean this to insult him or mock him in any way. Everybody needs therapy. There is so much normalisation around keeping things to oneself and then them piling up. I think therapy is important. For a person like him who went violent in a passive way, this definitely needs to be addressed."

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