Delhi Riots 2020: What Were Amit Shah and the MHA Doing When Violence Raged in the Capital?

One of the most significant aspects of what happened in Delhi was the delay in the deployment of Central forces and the prolonging of the communal violence despite the home minister’s claim that it ended at 11 pm on February 25.

This is the second article in a five-part series on the communal violence which occurred in Delhi in February 2020. The first part can be read here.

As evident from the timeline of violence outlined in Part 1, by the afternoon of February 24, the Delhi Police top brass were well aware that the situation in north-east Delhi was going out of control. It is hard to believe that they would not have shared that information with their bosses in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which is the nodal ministry for law and order in the capital and not any department of the Delhi government.

Under these circumstances, why were the concerned MHA officials not ordered to deploy the Rapid Action Force (RAF) in sufficient numbers and at the requisite places to prevent the escalation of violence and bring the situation under control without any further delay? It may be recalled that RAF units were specifically created under the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in 1992 as a “specialized force….set up to deal with riots and riot like situations, to instill confidence amongst all sections of the society and also, handle internal security duty.”

Moreover, what set the RAF apart was the fact that it “is a zero response [time] force which gets to the crisis situation within a minimal time, thus enthuses an immediate sense of security and confidence amongst the general public.”

Why then was the RAF not deployed on time and in sufficient numbers in the affected areas in the afternoon of February 24 itself to contain the situation and prevent further violence? (There were sufficient indications from 14.00 hrs on February 23 onwards that the situation was deteriorating.) Was there a specific reason for allowing the situation to deteriorate further, leading to an escalation of communal violence?

In a report on February 27, the Times of India noted some of the lapses on the part of the police:

  • “…what unfolded on Monday [February 24] showed that police were ill-prepared to tackle the violence.”
  • “Inadequate deployment, police mute spectators to stone pelting, no clear instruction from brass.”
  • “No preventive arrests made, no scanning and sanitisation of roofs using drones.”

 Use of drones

There are two contradictory news reports regarding the use of drones during the violence:

  • One has a photograph to prove that drones were used on February 25 [photo-5/25] to monitor the developments during the violence.
  • The other report dated February 27, laments the fact that drones were not used to scan and sanitise the roofs of buildings in the violence-hit areas.

Thankfully, MediaNama, a Delhi-based organisation that is a premier source of information and analysis on digital policy in India, filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, on February 25, 2020, before the Office of the Public Information Officer, North East Division, Delhi Police.

Also Read: ‘Tear Them Apart’: How Hindutva WhatsApp Group Demanded Murder, Rape of Muslims in Delhi Riots

The information provided to its RTI application is very revealing. According to MediaNama’s report dated March 31, 2020:

“… the Delhi Police’s North East Division said that the department “hired” drones from the “open market” under the competency of HOO (Head of Offices) through concerned SHOs [Station House Officers].

Hiring drones from the “open market” instead of procuring/buying them means that the Delhi Police doesn’t have to issue a request for proposal, which would otherwise contain technical specifications of the drones. In the absence of such a document, it is difficult to ascertain the kind of drones the Delhi Police used, and what their capabilities were. This suggests a lack of transparency in the entire process. The hired drones would also have to be returned to respective companies, which is highly problematic since those companies could have access to the footage the police recorded.”

MediaNama’s report further noted:

In response to our request for a copy of authorisation orders given for the deployment of drones by the Delhi Police in the last 6 months, or 12 months, the North East Division replied that no such orders were issued in writing. Not issuing written orders before carrying out surveillance using drones suggests that there is no accountability when it comes to usage of drones by the Delhi Police, and the police can potentially use them arbitrarily….

Earlier this month, Home Minister Amit Shah had revealed that the government used a facial recognition software to identify perpetrators of the Delhi riots. However, he did not specify whether the footage recorded by Delhi Police’s hired drones was also fed into the software for identification of people. In an earlier RTI filed by MediaNama enquiring about the usage of drones by the Delhi Police to film people protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, the Delhi Police had denied using drones even though there were at least a couple of reports suggesting that they did use drones.”

Based on the response of Delhi Police to Medianama’s RTI, this much can then be said with certainty:

  • The Delhi Police “hired” drones from the “open market”, i.e., from private sources.
  • Technical specifications of the drones used are unknown to the public. It is possible that drones with high resolution cameras may have been used.
  • There was lack of transparency in the hiring process.
  • Private parties would have access to the footage recorded by the police.
  • No written orders issued for surveillance using drones.
  • No written record of the information collated through surveillance.
  • No information on whether the riots/pogrom was completely covered or only partially and selectively covered. This raises questions about the possibility of arbitrary and selective use of information collated through the use of drones.
  • Vital information obtained through drones by the Delhi Police is not being revealed.

Questions about RAF deployment

According to the Times of India report of February 27, 2020, it was only on February 25 that RAF contingents finally arrived in Kardampuri, Karawal Nagar, Bhajanpura, and Chand Bagh (riot-hit areas of north-east Delhi). Whether the RAF was actually deployed for duty even on that day in the affected areas is not clear as according to the Delhi Police’s own log, in at least two police stations in the violence-hit areas, as noted by NDTV, appropriate action in response to SOS calls was never taken even until the late evening of February 26.

The continuation of violence from the afternoon of February 24 until midnight of February 26 resulted in wide-scale arson, looting and bloodletting. At least 53 people were killed during those three days of communal conflagration. From available accounts, it is evident that what may have started as a riot or clash between two groups of people possibly lasted until the early evening of February 24; for the next two days, until the late evening of February 26, it appears it was just nothing but an outright pogrom.

While the riot/pogrom effectively went on for at least 72 hours, Union home minister, Amit Shah, made a misleading statement in Parliament that the “riots” lasted only for 36 hours, as though allowing the violence to continue for 36 hours was justified! According to Arnab Goswami’s Republic World, during his reply to the debate in Parliament on the Delhi riots of February 2020: “Shah has said that not a single communal riot took place after February 25….the home minister lauded Delhi Police’s effort in quelling the riots within 36 hours.”

That Shah’s timeline is suspect can be gleaned from even the GIA Report [para 4, p.1] submitted to his ministry: “Rioting continued in the area from 24 February till 26 February 2020.”  As for the CFJ report, its title itself is self-explanatory: ‘Report of Fact Finding Committee on Riots in North-East Delhi During 23.02.2020 to 26.02.2020’.

The CFJ Report categorically states: “The events leading to the riots started from 22.02.2020 and continued till 27.02.2020.”[p.38] [Emphasis added]

Questionable claims made in parliament

In fact, the home minister’s claim that there was “no rioting  incident since 11 pm, February 25”, has been contradicted by Naresh Gujral, an MP from the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

In his written complaint to the Commissioner of Police on February 27, 2020, an exasperated Gujral slammed the Delhi Police for its inaction in controlling the violence:

“Last night [February 26] at around 11.30 pm, I received a desperate call from an acquaintance that he and 15 other Muslims were trapped in a house near Gonda Chowk in Maujpur, and that the mob outside was trying to break into the premises.

“I immediately called 100 to lodge my complaint, and gave the police officer the number of the gentleman who had called me. I explained the urgency of the situation and told the operator that I am a Member of Parliament. At 11.43 pm, I received a confirmation from the Delhi Police that my complaint had been received, along with the reference number 946603.

“However, much to my disappointment, no action was taken on my complaint and those 16 individuals received no assistance whatsoever from the Delhi Police. They fortunately managed to escape only because some Hindu neighbours came to their rescue. If this is the situation when a Member of Parliament makes a complaint personally, it is not surprising that some parts of Delhi continue to burn while the police stands by apathetically.”

Naresh Gujral’s written complaint makes it clear that:

  1. Contrary to Amit Shah’s claim that the “riots” ended at 11.00 pm on February 25 (at 3.50 minutes of the video recording), the violence actually continued at least until 11.30 pm on February 26.
  2. The police did not take any action to safeguard life and property in response to repeated SOS calls from terrified residents in the affected areas (from February 23 onwards) to at least until 11.30 pm on February 26.
  3. While the RAF may have arrived near the “riot” affected areas on February 25, it was not actually deployed to stop the riots/pogrom even as late as 11.30 pm on February 26.

In addition, the inference that could be drawn from Gujral’s letter is that those indulging in the violence were mostly “Hindutva” mobs, roaming unhindered in north-east Delhi at least until 11.30 pm on February 26. As late as 11.44 pm, Hindutva goons were announcing on one of their WhatsApp groups that they had just killed two Muslims in Bhagirathi Vihar. Sure enough, the bodies of their victims were recovered from a drain the next morning.

Role of the home minister

In the light of Naresh Gujral’s complaint, it would be pertinent to trace Amit Shah’s activities in the crucial context of the riots breaking out and the subsequent prolonging of the riots/pogrom until the night of February 26. While making a statement in Parliament about his movements during the Delhi riots, Amit Shah said:

“I went there [Ahmedabad] a day before [on February 23] when there were no riots. I came back [to Delhi] at 6 PM [on February 24]. After that, I did not attend the Trump event. I sat with Delhi police to ensure that riots do not spread….The next day [February 25], when the US President visited Delhi, I wasn’t present at any event. The whole time I was sitting with police officials….”

As explained earlier, the Delhi Police was well aware of the deteriorating situation at Jaffrabad Metro Station from 01.00 am onward on February 23 [see: GIA Report, p.8]. The first round of group clashes took place around 09.00 am on that day [see: GIA Report, p.8]. By 4.30 pm, after Kapil Mishra’s inflammatory speech, there was every indication that the situation would flare up.

Tension began to build up soon thereafter, resulting in repeated group clashes by late evening. The situation went from bad to worse from the early morning of February 24. The police’s Special Branch and Intelligence Wing had already on February 23 sent at least six alerts to the police headquarters about the worsening state of affairs.

Also Read: Delhi Riots 2020: A Critique of Two Purported Fact-Finding Reports

Moreover, concerned people from the area, apprehending trouble, had made at least 700 distress calls (on February 23) to the police. Why then did the police not take steps to quickly bring the situation under control in the morning of February 24 itself, especially in the wake of President Trump’s scheduled event in Delhi the very next day?

Why did it take Amit Shah 54 hours (from 6.00 pm on February 24 to 11.30 pm on February 26) to bring the riots/pogrom to an end, when he had all the means at his disposal to do so? By his own admission, Shah was personally monitoring the developments at least from 6.00 pm on February 24 until 11.00 pm on February 25.

Deflecting responsibility

In what seems to be a concerted move to deflect responsibility from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Delhi Police, the ‘Group of Intellectuals’ report states that there was a “planned conspiracy” by proponents of “Left-Jihadi model of revolution”[para 1, p.44].

The CFJ Report too has made similar allegations. According to it,

“…radical groups conspired to create a gigantic bang which could not have been possible without indulging in arson, looting, blazing, casting injuries and fatalities.” [p.8]

The CFJ Report further claims:

“… radical groups not only during the riots but also after riots continued with their mis-information campaign to shift the burden on government & Hindu community for planning and committing the attacks on Muslim community.”[p.67]

Allegations are not tantamount to facts. On the one hand, the impugned term “Left-Jihadi” itself is an oxymoron as, ideologically, “Leftist” and “Jihadist” orientations are at opposite poles and would always repel each other. On the other hand, by pinning the entire blame on the purported “Left-Jihadi” forces, the GIA report has made a convoluted effort to conceal the primary role of the “Hindutva” forces led by BJP leaders in perpetrating the communal violence – amply documented in the Caravan and elsewhere –  and the calculated manner in which the Delhi Police were made to remain mute spectators to the pogrom.

In fact, according to some of the complaints filed before the police in this regard, some senior police officials played an active role in perpetuating the riots. Reporting for the Caravan, the journalist Prabhjit Singh notes:

“At least one deputy commissioner, two additional commissioners and two station house officers of the Delhi Police participated in criminal intimidation, unprovoked firing, arson and looting during the violence that swept northeast Delhi in late February, according to complaints filed by eyewitnesses. One complainant wrote that she saw three senior officials in Chand Bagh—Anuj Sharma, an ACP at the Gokulpuri police station, Tarkeshwar Singh, who was the SHO of Dayalpur police station at the time, and RS Meena, the SHO of Bhajanpura police station—fire at and kill protesters.”

According to Caravan, the other two accused police officers named by victims were DCP Ved Prakash Surya and ACP Dinesh Sharma. Unfortunately, the Delhi Police have not yet registered these complaints as FIRs so far.

Covering up for the police

Pointing an accusing finger at the national international media and the Delhi Minorities Commission, the ‘Group of Intellectuals’ report has tried to imply that these agencies were attempting to distort facts regarding the role of the Delhi Police during the riots/pogrom. In this regard, the GIA report states:

“A section of the national and international media has squarely blamed the Police for not ‘taking action’ during the riots. Unfortunately, organisations like the Delhi Minorities Commission have blamed the Police for ‘allowing’ the riots to happen (as reported in the media)”. [p.35]

However, in the very next paragraph, the report says:

1. Riots were reported from 11 Police Station areas in North East Delhi.

2. The police was on ground in 88 sites in the district where the riots were spreading. However it was  outnumbered and ill-equipped.

3. The rioting mobs had access to a variety of locally made weapons and assembled flammable bombs like petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails. The Delhi Police was facing extremely violent mobs that were firing and stoning….

4. Why and how did the Intelligence network in Delhi fail to detect the massive movement of stones, people, locally devised armaments is something that locals are repeatedly asking. What led to conditions in which local residents of North East Delhi had to resort to self defense of life and property in the face of violent Jihadi mobs is a question that must be examined.” [pp. 35-36] [Emphasis added]

 The GIA report itself brings out the fact of an “outnumbered and ill-equipped” police in a context of “extremely violent mobs that were firing and stoning”, yet accuses the national and the international media, as well as  the Delhi Minorities Commission of trying to present the role of the Delhi Police during the riots/pogrom in a distorted fashion, by blaming “the police for ‘allowing’ the riots to happen”.

The question the GIA report shies away from is what prevented the MHA from sending adequate and well-equipped Central forces in the morning of February 24 itself to reinforce the “outnumbered and ill-equipped” Delhi Police, to avert the imminent clash between pro and anti-CAA protesters?

Similarly, the GIA report’s statement that “residents of North East Delhi had to resort to self-defence of life and property” itself corroborates the fact that the police force did not do anything as  looters, arsonists and lynch-mobs went on the rampage before their very eyes.

Can the Delhi Police, through its inaction, escape the charge of ‘allowing’ the riots to happen? Of course, the police force on the ground cannot be held responsible for being “outnumbered and ill-equipped” [p.35, GIA Report]. It is the authorities at the top who hold the reins of the police force, who are to be held accountable for failing to deploy an adequate and well-equipped police force in a timely manner in the most affected areas.

Was there intelligence failure?

The GIA report also posed the question, “Why and how did the intelligence network fail…”

It has very conveniently forgotten to mention that on February 23 itself at least six reports from the Special Branch and the Intelligence Wing of the Delhi Police were sent to the Police Headquarters to warn them of possible violence following Kapil Mishra’s inflammatory speech and about the need to step up deployment of additional police force.

Moreover, other than making a passing reference to the use of drones for keeping tabs on anti-CAA protestors at Seelampur on December 27, 2019 [p.7], the GIA report (as well as the CFJ report [p 19]) is totally silent on the use of drones (or on the failure to use drones, if at all that was the case), for intelligence gathering during the entire crisis period from February 23-26, 2020.

Are the so-called “Leftist” and “Jihadist” forces to be held accountable for the failure in intelligence gathering (if at all that was the case)? Or is the claim of intelligence failure merely a gambit to conceal vital information that had been gathered about the forces that had actually engineered the violence?

The lack of transparency in the entire process of the Delhi Police hiring drones from the open market, sans authorisation in writing, means a lack of accountability – as the Medianama report has pointed out. In such circumstances, one cannot help but wonder if CCTV footage is also being used very selectively.

These questions will be probed further in the third article in this series, which will also focus attention on the defamation campaign and on the ongoing witch-hunt against anti-CAA protesters.

N.D.Jayaprakash ([email protected]) is with the Delhi Science Forum.