Communalism

Delhi Riots 2020: The Curious Case of Tahir Hussain and Ankit Sharma

The full facts in what has come to be the most high profile case to emerge from the Delhi violence do the Delhi Police little credit.

This is the third article in a five-part series on the communal violence which occurred in Delhi in February 2020. See also:  Part 1| Part 2

What we have documented comprehensively so far in the first two articles of this series is the complete failure of the Delhi Police to act on early reports of impending trouble in north-east Delhi as they came in on February 23 or intervene decisively once violence broke out on February 24 and lasted three whole days.

Instead of introspecting over its own failures and making efforts to join the very obvious dots between the inflammatory speeches delivered by BJP politicians, the subsequent outbreak of violence and then the systematic way in which violence was organised and directed, the Delhi Police have sought refuge in the theory that the riots were the product of a conspiracy hatched by those protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. And the ‘mastermind’ of this conspiracy, according to the police chargesheet is the former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussein, whom the police have sought to implicate in the February 25 murder of Ankit Sharma, an employee of the Intelligence Bureau, who lived nearby.

One leg of this official narrative has already come unstuck, thanks to some deft reporting by Aishwarya S. Iyer of the Quint. Hussain is supposed to have launched his conspiracy with a view to embarrassing the government during the visit to India of US President Donald Trump. But the police say the meeting where Hussain and his accomplices supposedly conceived of their plot happened on January 8, whereas the first news or announcement of Trump’s visit to India only came five days later, on January 13.

The second leg of this conspiracy theory rests crucially on erasing what is common knowledge about the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest – that it was a peaceful movement aimed at upholding the constitutional principle of the equality of citizens – and creating a new narrative of the protestors as ‘anti-Hindu’ ‘jihadis’ and ‘Naxals’ bent upon violence.

Maligning Shaheen Bagh 

Given their ideological provenance, it is hardly surprising that this is precisely the line taken by the two recent reports on the Delhi violence submitted to the Union home ministry.

The ‘Group of Intellectuals and Academicians’ (GIA) report portrays the anti-CAA protesters as acting at the behest of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is a banned organisation in India. By dovetailing the anti-CAA protests – which it calls the “Shaheen Bagh Model” – with the activities of a banned organisation, the GIA report has given the establishment an ideal pretext for arresting and detaining anti-CAA protesters under the most draconian of laws in the country, namely the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The GIA report also gives a vivid and accurate description of the ‘Shaheen Bagh Model’ of protests but for the insertion of the word “jihadi”:

“The content of most of these protests was a mixture of Leftwing Jihadi and anti-CAA, NRC, NPR activism. Slogans had a content of anti-Amit Shah, anti-Modi, anti-Fascist rhetoric. Most of these sites still have ‘revolution’ slogans painted on the walls. Azadi, anti-government rhetoric, dangers of Fascism slogans are raised on public address systems and painted at protest sites. Songs from the Italian folk tradition like Bella-Ciao are sung daily. This is the ‘Shaheen Bagh Model’.”

One wonders what was so “jihadi” about these activities: raising “anti-Amit Shah, anti-Modi, anti-Fascist rhetoric” is a legitimate form of protest in a democracy. Painting and raising slogans about ‘revolution’, talking about ‘azadi’ and the ‘danger of Fascism’ are all intrinsic to democratic forms of dissent – although such progressive actions are being dubbed as “Leftist”. Raising or painting ‘anti-government’ slogans at the protest sites cannot be construed as ‘anti-national’ activity either.

In a bid to give a communal twist to the Shaheen Bagh protest, which has essentially been multicultural and secular in its approach, the GIA report says:

“It is observed that the slogans and posters at Shaheen Bagh had a deliberate provocative, anti-Hindu content. Images of the holy Swastik, Om were depicted in a derogatory manner. Ma Kaali, the Hindu goddess and women wearing bindis were shown in burkhas. While on the one hand Islamic slogans were raised repeatedly, locals also reported ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans being raised. All this was being done with the Constitution and the Indian National Flag in the backdrops.”[para 9, pp.1-2 and p 45]

However, as the fact-checking website Altnews noted,

“The symbol on the poster is not the ‘Swastika’ but the hooked-cross [Hakenkreuz] adopted by the Nazi Party. The most visible feature in the usual depiction of the Hindu Swastika is the four dots between the arms of the cross which are absent in the Nazi symbol. Furthermore, the Nazi symbol is rotated at an angle of 45 degrees.”

The manner in which the Nazi symbol is depicted is well-known the world over and there is no room for confusion on that count.

Also Read: What Were Amit Shah and the MHA Doing When Violence Raged in the Capital?

The GIA report also objects to a poster depicting women wearing burkhas, with bindis on their foreheads, though why that should be objectionable is hard to understand. In fact, the blurring of religious identity of the female figures in the poster was deliberate – it sought to challenge Narendra Modi’s claim that the identity of persons could be established by their appearance. The anti-CAA protesters had carried out a specific campaign in this regard, too.

Moreover, it needs to be stated that whenever an attempt was made to raise any controversial issue at the protest site that was not in conformity with the spirit of the Shaheen Bagh Movement, the organisers took immediate steps to disassociate the movement from such unwarranted utterances. However, these facts have not stood in the way of the  GIA report authors peddling innuendo:

“Such protests also seem to have links with International Islamist Organizations. The high visibility protests also indicate the presence of huge foreign funds. The impeccable planning indicates the hands [sic] of foreign agencies.” [para 2, p.37].

The questions these allegations raise are commonsensical:

  • Why or how does it “seem” that the anti-CAA protests “have links with Internationalist Islamist Organizations”?
  • Why or how do “high visibility protests…indicate the presence of foreign funds”?
  • Why or how does “impeccable planning indicate[s] the hands [sic] of foreign agencies”?

These uncorroborated accusations are intended to cloud the minds of unsuspecting readers with preconceived notions in the hope that they would accept the narrative of communal polarisation.  The authors of the GIA report seem to be hoping that some of the mud they have been throwing at the anti-CAA protest movement will somehow stick.

In search of scapegoats

Unable to justify the delay in the deployment of an adequate and well-equipped police force in time to prevent the outbreak of riots and the subsequent 72-hour delay on the part of the MHA in bringing the violence to an end, the authors of the GIA report and the similar Citizens for Justice report have chosen to look elsewhere for scapegoats.

The GIA report targets students of universities in Delhi. According to it:

“There is evidence of an Urban Naxal-Jihadi network that planned and executed the riots: The Delhi riots are not genocide or a pogrom targeted at any community. They are a tragic outcome of a planned and systematic radicalisation of the minorities by a Far left-Urban Naxal network operating in Universities in Delhi.” [para 2, p.45]

What that evidence is, nobody seems to know. However, claiming that there is evidence appears to be sufficient for the police to frame very serious charges against a number of students from Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as well as a number of other anti-CAA activists.

The CFJ Report, on its part, says:

“…the anti-CAA radical groups were losing ground amongst the public and therefore, to keep the issue burning, a series of narratives using multiple platforms, targeting different classes of the society, were spread in a synchronised manner which ultimately pushed the Muslim community into a corner and then, through mobilisation of resources, financial, manpower [and] others in a concerted manner, Muslim[s] in the North East were pushed into riots.” [p 1]

In addition, it emphasises that:

“The role of AAP Leader Tahir Hussain in the riots also cannot be ignored. Several in-riot and post-riot videos surfaced on the social media and the news media which showed that his house was used as a base for attacking the nearby localities through petrol bombs, sling shots, and catapults. Videos also showed scores of men gathered on the roof of his house and packets of acid were also recovered from his house.”[para 9.2(iii), pp.52-53]

The case against Tahir Hussain

The Delhi Police have implicated the Tahir Hussain as the main conspirator in the chargesheet they filed on June 2, 2020. According to India Today, “Police said that on February 25, a case was registered against Tahir Hussain.” Quoting police sources, the report further added: “This case was registered for the riots that took place at about 2:15 pm on February 24 outside Tahir Hussain’s house in Khajuri Khas.…”

As noted in Part 1 of this article, India Today had at 5.57 pm on February 24 reported that Tahir Hussain’s house was under attack.

On February 27, 2020, Republic TV uploaded a video of the goings-on in Tahir Hussain’s house on YouTube. This 4’45” video, which has two distinct parts, was accompanied by a deceptive commentary in the background.

Contrary to the commentary, nowhere in the video are Hussain or any of his associates seen indulging in any kind of violent acts. Moreover, the terrace on which Hussain is seen standing, is bereft of stones, acid bottles or other incendiary materials as is being alleged in the commentary.

The first part of the video appears to have been recorded in the evening on February 24, 2020. It could only have been done by someone who was keeping a close watch over Hussain’s movements.

However, in the next part of that video, which starts at 2’27”,  raising questions about when it  may have been recorded, a reporter is seen pointing to stones, acid bottles, petrol bombs, etc., claiming that the same were found on the terrace of Hussain’s house and accusing him of having used them during the riots.

The reporter has very conveniently tried to conceal the fact that such crude weapons could have been placed there and used by rioters after Hussain was forced to move out of his house on February 24 around 11.30 pm to a safer location.

Screengrab from a video shared by Tahir Hussain with journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, purportedly showing men protecting his doorway from being broken into.

As will become evident in the following video, Hussain, whose four-storied house was under attack reportedly from 2.00 pm onwards, spoke to the India Today / Aaj Tak correspondent Sushant Mehra on his cell phone at around 6.30 pm on February 24. A 49-second long video recording of the same was forwarded via Whatsapp to AAP spokesperson Deepak Bajpai at 6.44 pm the same day, in which Hussain is seen urging the police to save him and his family from the rioters. In the video, he says he has been repeatedly calling up the local police officials but they had not yet come to his rescue.

Alt News has confirmed that that the video is authentic: Unlike the claim on social media, Alt News could not spot any signs of the video being edited in the high definition version. In conclusion, the video of AAP councillor Mohammed Tahir Hussain appealing for help was sent out on February 24.”

Police ties itself in knots

According to The Indian Express:

“Police claimed in the chargesheet that 12 PCR calls were made by Hussain on February 24-25. The emergency officer who attended the PCR calls was examined. It was found that police could not reach on time due to a large gathering of rioters. They reached only late at night and found Hussain present in front of his house, some adjoining houses — but not his building — damaged, and his family members without any injuries.”

Thus, it is undisputed that Tahir Hussain had made numerous calls to the police for help while large scale rioting was taking place in the area. The police only moved in when the situation was relatively quiet. After reaching his house, the police inspected the building. If they had found any incriminating materials inside the building, nothing could have prevented the police from arresting him there and then.

Earlier, a slightly different version had been put out by Additional Commissioner of Police (ACP) Crime Branch, A.K.Singla. On March 3, 2020, at a press briefing, he told reporters:

“After getting a stress call from Tahir Hussain, a team of police went to the building belonging to him. He refused to come out of the building without a police escort after which he was taken out by a team of police.”

However, within an hour of Singla’s press meet, the PRO of the Delhi Police held another press briefing to contradict his senior officer’s statement: 

“The facts are that on the intervening night of February 24-25, 2020, some men informed police deployed at Chand Bagh that Tahir Hussain was trapped as crowd had surrounded his house. The police verified the same to be incorrect and Tahir Hussain was found available in his house.”

It is not clear if the Delhi Police has taken action against ACP Singla for giving out allegedly wrong details to the media about rescuing Tahir Hussain on the night of February 24-25. A day later, on March 4, the Police Commissioner avoided answering pointed questions in this regard.  

Interestingly, on March 3, 2020, following ACP Singla’s press conference, CNN News 18 correspondent Saahil Murli Menghani tweeted his February 27 interview of Tahir Hussain in which the latter had given his version of the developments, saying that the police came to his rescue around 7.30 pm after AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP, Sanjay Singh, had intervened on his behalf around 4.30 pm on February 24.

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

Hussain had also mentioned in the interview that  ACP Singla had arrived at his house around 11.00 pm on February 24 and it was in the police officer’s presence that his building was thoroughly searched to ensure that no rioters had infiltrated the building.

Subsequently, as per Hussain’s anticipatory bail application, which the Indian Express has quoted:

“The factory and house were both locked, and the key was handed over to the police. All night and the whole of the next day, that is February 25, the applicant was at his friend’s house, except for a short while around 8.30 am on February 25 when he went to his house to collect clothes for himself and his family, but was unable to do so due to the presence of a crowd outside the premises. The present police officers advised him to leave and the applicant did so in their presence”. 

From the above-mentioned facts what one can establish is this:

  • On February 24, Tahir Hussain did complain to the police no less than 12 times that he and his family were under attack by rioters. Even if there was an unavoidable delay on the part of the police in reaching the affected area, nothing prevented the police from deploying drones immediately to monitor the situation around Hussain’s building. About the information collated by drones, nothing has come out.
  • The police had visited his house around 7.30 pm on February 24, i.e., nearly five and a half hours after he had made his first distress call, which effectively meant that the rioting continued for nearly five and a half hours.
  • The police must have witnessed tell-tale signs of the rioting that took place around Tahir Hussain’s four-storied building between 2.00 pm and 7.30 pm on February 24. (If they did, what preventive steps did the police take to ensure that the same did not recur in the area?)
  • A team of senior police officers also visited his house and after conducting a thorough search of Hussain’s building at around 11.00 pm on February 24, did not find any incriminating materials (trays of stones; slings; acid bottles; petrol bombs, etc.) purported to have been stored there.

The police, by withdrawing its force from the communally sensitive area at around 4.00 pm on February 25 (as Hussain has alleged) had completely failed to prevent escalation of violence from the evening of February 25 till February 26 in the very same area.

These facts become very relevant in the context of the chargesheet that was filed against Tahir Hussain on June 2, 2020.

According to the Indian Express, June 4, 2020, the charge-sheet also alleged that: “From the circumstances, it seemed that the accused persons/rioters were known to Hussain and he was present with the rioters at his house and had deliberately made PCR calls to save his skin from legal complications in future.” Indeed, if the police had such insight about Hussain’s intentions, what prevented the police from promptly coming to the rescue of Hussain’s alleged victims? Instead, the said charge-sheet itself admits that the police turned up [five and a half hours later] to rescue Hussain’s family [from the rioters]!

The relevant point to be noted in this regard is that the PRO of the Delhi Police, during the “clarification” issued on March 3, 2020, never mentioned anything about any case being filed against Tahir Hussain on February 25. In fact, the PRO clearly said that Hussain was present in his house on February 24 when the police had gone there in response to calls to rescue him from rioters. The police did not make any claim of finding incriminating materials in his building at that time.

Therefore, the question is on what basis has the chargesheet naming him as the main conspirator for the riots on February 24 been prepared?

Hussain and the Ankit Sharma murder case 

There have been concerted attempts to implicate Hussain in the gruesome murder of Ankit Sharma, a 26-year old security assistant with the Government of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) as well. Hussain, whose house was situated close to Sharma’s, has repeatedly maintained that he was not present in his house from around 11.30 pm on February 24 and that he tried to visit the place briefly at around 8.30 am on the morning of February 25 to pick up a few essential items but the police sent him back due to the presence of a hostile crowd. The key to his building remained with the police.

While the police presence from 7.30 pm onwards on February 24 had ensured that relative calm prevailed in the area around Hussain’s house, the decision to withdraw its forces from there at around 4.00 pm on February 25,  left the area, including Hussain’s building, unprotected. The spree of looting, arson and bloodletting was soon resumed by the rioters. Rioters used the opportunity to occupy Hussain’s building.

The statement of Ravinder Kumar, father of Ankit Sharma, says that Ankit was murdered sometime after 05.00 pm on February 25. According to The Quint, “… Ravinder Kumar said that Ankit had stepped out of their home around 5:00 pm on 25 February evening but never returned.” After an extensive search, Ankit’s body was discovered in a nearby drain the following day.

Ankit Sharma, the Intelligence Bureau employee who was murdered during the riots which took place in north-east Delhi from February 24-27, 2020. Photo: PTI

Another version of the circumstances leading to Ankit’s wanton killing was provided by the Wall Street Journal on February 26, 2020, in an article titled ‘India’s Ruling Party, Government Slammed over Delhi Violence’. Mentioning a telephonic interview with Ankit’s elder brother, Ankur Sharma, the article, stated:

“Mr.[Ankit]Sharma was returning home when a group of rioters started throwing stones and charged into the street near where his house is located, his brother[Ankur] said. ‘They came armed with stones, rods, knives and even swords; they shouted Jai Shri Ram [Glory to Lord Ram]; some even wore helmets,’ said Ankur Sharma, in a telephone interview. ‘They started throwing stones and bricks at residents, who rushed to Ankit to help them….Later, his body was found in the ditch’.”

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report on Ankit Sharma became the target of a furious campaign by the Hindutva brigade.  Ankit’s elder brother, Ankur Sharma, tried to distance himself from the article, claiming that he had not given any such interview to WSJ. A police complaint was also filed against WSJ.

In a response to questions from The Wire on February 29,Wall Street Journal spokesperson had said that the newspaper stands by its story. “We are confident in the accuracy of our articles. We remain committed to fully and fairly covering events in India,” the spokesperson had said.

The stakes were high as a number of TV channels had already begin to use Sharma’s murder to describe the Delhi violence as ‘anti-Hindu’ riots and a report in a reputed foreign newspaper suggesting he might have been a victim of Hindutva mobs did not sit comfortably with this narrative.

Also Read: Delhi Riots: Mosque Set on Fire in Ashok Nagar, Hanuman Flag Placed on Minaret

Upping the propaganda war, Prasar Bharati, the ‘autonomous’ corporation that runs the government-owned broadcasters All India Radio and Doordarshan tweeted that the WSJ bureau chief was being deported from India:

The Ministry of External affairs today asked the Indian Embassy in the US to look into the request for immediate deportation of @WSJ’s South Asia Deputy Bureau Chief @EricBellmanWSJ, who is based in India for ‘anti-India behaviour’.

The tweet was later deleted after the MEA clarified that “no such decision” to deport Bellman had been taken.

As right-wing outrage grew, the WSJ steadfastly stuck to its version. Even Republic TV  had to grudgingly concede,  “…the WSJ has stood by its report quoting slain IB officer Ankit Sharma’s brother – Ankur, stating that they have his quote’s recording.”

Push comes to shove, how hard would it be to verify the authenticity of the WSJ’s recorded interview?

Narrow reportage, muddled details

Newslaundry’s Ayush Tiwari painstakingly attempted to give an overview of the manner in which Ankit Sharma’s brutal killing was being dealt with. According to him:

“Despite the running commentary on Ankit Sharma’s gruesome death on television and Twitter, the details of his murder remain muddled. The discrepancies in ground reports on the most elementary facts prove this.

“Most importantly, most journalists did not reconstruct the setting within which the crime occurred — especially how two mobs bayed for each other’s blood, and that a Hindu mob was present outside Ankit’s street, looting and sacking Muslim properties.

“This does not automatically mean that Ankit was murdered by this mob, but the failure to bring out this context allowed a reductionist version of events to reach viewers. This was further contorted when the BJP IT cell ran an effective online campaign on Ankit’s death, chiefly meant to paint AAP councillor Tahir Hussain’s [sic] as the ‘mastermind’ of the riot.

“The vacuum that the Indian mainstream media’s narrow reportage created has allowed the state to intervene and weave its own stories — be it Prasar Bharati chasing Wall Street Journal or the Delhi police’s investigation into Ankit’s murder. One is a not-so-reliable broadcast wing of the Indian state, and the other an institution battling serious charges of apathy and collusion.”

In short, it seemed as if finding the killers of Ankit Sharma was not as great a priority as pinning the blame for his murder on political opponents!

Since then, Tahir Hussain has been conveniently arrested and incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a draconian act in which the normal laws of bail do not apply.

The simple truth is that if the Delhi Police had deployed adequate force in the communally sensitive area which had witnessed riots the previous day, the lives of Ankit Sharma and several others might have been saved.

N.D.Jayaprakash (jaypdsf@gmail.com) is with the Delhi Science Forum.