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This article, first published on October 10, 2022, is being republished on February 24, 2023, which is the day the violence began in northeast Delhi three years ago.
New Delhi: A fact-finding committee on the February 2020 communal riots in north-east Delhi headed by former Supreme Court judge Madan B. Lokur concluded that the Union home ministry conspicuously delayed deploying additional forces in the violence-hit areas, even as the communal riots continued unabated between February 23 and 26, 2020.
The committee found that despite Delhi Police leadership receiving at least six internal alerts from the Special Branch and the Intelligence units on February 23 – the day when riots began – additional forces were deployed only on February 26. The alerts did warn that violence between the communities could escalate.
The alleged lackadaisical attitude shown by the home ministry indirectly helped the rioters go unchecked, organise better, and unleash targeted violence for three continuous days, the committee held.
The committee’s claim was backed by Delhi Police’s own chargesheet produced in the court for the first information report (FIR)-59 that invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against activists like Umar Khalid, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jahan, and students like Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and others.
The chargesheet states that the number of Delhi police and Central Armed Police Forces’ personnel were under 1,400 on the first three days of the violence when maximum distress calls were made from the affected areas. The deployment of forces was increased to over 4,000 only on February 26 when violence was largely contained in many parts of northeast Delhi.
“In fact, on February 24, the numbers of both civil police and paramilitary personnel were less than on February 23. It was only on February 26 when there was a perceptible rise in deployment – the day that the National Security Advisor declared the situation ‘under control’,” the report said.
In one of the most detailed reports on the 2020 Delhi riots, the five-member committee – comprising former Supreme Court judge Madan B. Lokur, former chief justice of Delhi and Madras high court A.P. Shah, former Delhi high court judge R.S. Sodhi, former Patna high court judge Anjana Prakash, and former Union home secretary G.K. Pillai – concluded that the “Union home ministry’s careless response, Delhi Police’s blatant complicity in the violence, a divisive media narrative, and Bharatiya Janata Party’s hate campaign against Muslims who had been protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) for over two months are collectively responsible for Delhi’s communal riots”.
Together, these factors deliberately shaped a “Hindu-Muslim binary” that eventually led to violence, the committee held.
Union home ministry’s role
Perusing media reports and testimonies over a period of more than six months, the committee in its report said that the Union home ministry gave a false impression that the “situation was under control”, even as parts of northeast Delhi witnessed unprecedented communal violence between February 23 and 26.
The committee notes:
“On the evening of February 24, Ajay Bhalla, the Union Home Secretary, told a TV news channel that the situation was under control with sufficient deployment of security forces on the ground. Later, G. Kishan Reddy, the then Minister of State for Home, shared his view with the press that the violence in North East Delhi ‘was orchestrated’ coinciding with President Trump’s visit to India (the primary conspiracy theory that the Delhi police has sought to advance in its chargesheets).
He suggested that the Congress party and the anti-CAA movement should be the ones to answer for ‘who is responsible for damaging the image of India’. On the night of February 24, the Home Minister convened a meeting with Delhi Police Commissioner, Director of Intelligence Bureau, Union Home Secretary Bhalla and others to take stock of the situation in North East Delhi. While it is known that the meeting lasted more than two hours, the deliberations are not reported.”
Delhi Police’s complicity?
The committee held that the Delhi Police was not only found to be “complicit” in the violence against Muslims, coming across as an active party in the riots, but also showed its lack of professionalism in the way it advanced the ruling BJP’s political narrative against anti-CAA protesters in its multiple chargesheets that echoed without commensurate evidence the prejudices of Hindu majoritarian forces that were at play during the riots.
Of the 758 FIRs, the committee reviewed 752 FIRs and found that “the police response” to anti-CAA protesters, of whom a majority were Muslims, and the Hindutva activists opposed to CAA was “inconsistent” and partisan.
The committee also said that the police participated in the violence that was led by the Hindutva activists to dismantle the sites of anti-CAA protests in multiple locations of northeast Delhi. It also said that in many incidents, Delhi Police personnel were found to be targeting Muslim residents of north-east Delhi and expressing their anger against anti-CAA protests in the same fashion as the BJP leaders and their supporters who formed the rioting mob.
The report notes as an instance to illustrate its assumption:
“In Kardampuri, on February 24, a glaring incident of police brutality against five young Muslim men was reported, resulting in the death of one of them, Faizan. As news of the violence at the Kardampuri protest site spread around the neighborhood, three of the five men – Faizan, Wasim and Rafiq – left their homes to search for their mothers, who were at the protest site. It appears that they were rounded up by the police, along with Mohammad Farhan and Kausar Ali. A video of the police assault went viral. The clip shows the men lying slumped on the street, being beaten by the policemen who order them to sing the national anthem and vande mataram, while other policemen capture this on video. The men can be heard begging for mercy, pleading that they are Indians too.”
Faizan later died because of his injuries.
Similarly, it cites the testimonies of Jamia Millia Islamia University students and CCTV video clips to comment on the Delhi police’s partisan action. In the days preceding the riots, the committee said, “The police entered the (Jamia) campus and, for over two hours, vandalised the campus and assaulted students.”
“The police also hurled several rounds of tear gas shells inside the library and mosque situated inside the campus. About 200 students were injured. Student testimonies recorded that the police made pejorative, communal remarks like, ‘recite the kalmia (last words)’, and ‘go to Pakistan’, while rounding them up,” the report noted.
The report drew comparisons between how the Delhi Police responded differently to the anti-CAA protesters and the Hindutva activists and BJP leaders who whipped up hate during the riots and in the days preceding the riots when they systematically attempted to equate anti-CAA protests as ‘acts of terrorism’.
“The police response to the two groups was inconsistent. The first few days of the protests against the CAA saw police action and the use of force directed against protesters and protest sites. This ranged from the denial of permissions to organise protests, allegations of police firing, assaults and beatings, and vandalism of a university campus. Prohibitory measures such as Section 144, CrPC were repeatedly imposed to stop anti-CAA protesters from gathering. Internet shutdowns were also reported from parts of Delhi, and limits were placed on public transportation to prevent people from congregating at the protest sites,” the committee reported about how the Delhi police dealt with the anti-CAA protests.
“The Delhi Police, however, did not interfere with demonstrators or ruling party leaders in support of the CAA, even as many of these demonstrations based themselves on slogans which advocated violence,” the report said on the contrasting attitude of the Delhi police.
Questionable probe – process as punishment
The committee notes that the investigations into the riots have been blatantly communal in favour of the BJP and its supporters, even as the chargesheets filed by the Delhi Police leaves glaring loopholes in trying to establish its primary claim that the riots were a conspiracy by the anti-CAA protesters to defame India at an international stage. The claim made by the Delhi Police also happens to be the contention that the BJP leaders have advanced in the public realm.
The committee said that despite filing over 700 cases, the Delhi Police has filed chargesheets only in six cases between October 2021 and January 2022. It said that a number of factors point to the possibility that many of the charges slapped on the anti-CAA activists appear to be “fabricated”.
The report noted that “unaccounted delay by police witnesses in naming and identifying the assailants”, “belated statements by police witnesses”, possible tutoring of witnesses, failure of the police to record relevant information in the police station diaries, contradictions emerging in the Call Detail Records and CCTV footages point out that the evidence produced in the courts was “incompatible with the prosecution’s narrative”.
The report said:
“In many cases, courts have found that the Call Detail Records (CDR) location of the accused contradicts the prosecution’s claims regarding the presence of the accused at the place of the offences…In some cases where CCTV footage or videos have been submitted by the police, courts have found them unreliable as the police have presented footage where the accused is not visible. In other cases where the accused is visible in videos and CCTV footage, the footage presented does not show them carrying out violent criminal acts, or inciting violence.”
The committee also said that invoking the UAPA in FIR 59 was unjustified as the police have failed to produce any evidence that “justifies” the use of the anti-terror law. UAPA has only helped the police to keep several accused persons incarcerated despite having failed to produce concrete evidence even after two years of the riots, the committee commented on how the process of justice has become a punishment for many anti-CAA protestors.
Moreover, the failure of the investigation agencies to probe BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma, or Hindutva leaders like Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, Ragini Tiwari and others who publicly incited violence in their speeches establishes quite openly the biased nature of the probe.
“…we find that the substratum of the prosecution case, i.e., the allegation of an overarching premeditated conspiracy, is based on grossly belated statements which are inherently unreliable in law. Other features of the investigation such as identical disclosure statements, inconsistencies between the investigations in FIR 59 and the IPC FIRs, and the non-examination of crucial witnesses only strengthen the suspicion of fabrication,” the committee said.
Political narrative preceding the riots
The committee dealt deeply with the hate campaign against Muslims in the days preceding the riots. It felt that the tensions between the communities were deliberately created in a concerted fashion. It said that some of the television news channels colluded with BJP’s social media machinery to shape a toxic “Hindu-Muslim binary”.
The report said:
“The period from December 2019 to February 2020 witnessed events and developments which signaled a growing and incessant vilification of the anti-CAA protesters and, thus of the anti-CAA sentiment as a whole, by both state and non-state actors. This was amplified in the BJP’s campaigning for the 2020 Assembly elections. Public hate speeches, a divisive Hindu-Muslim narrative, violence against anti-CAA protesters, and partisan institutional responses emerged as connected features of this period. Oversight institutions such as the courts and Election Commission did not intervene resolutely to prevent or halt the spread of hateful content at the heart of the polarising narrative. It can be argued that these factors facilitated the build-up of an enabling environment for violence, shaped by hate and deteriorating community relations. These patterns are a crucial link between the contestation against the CAA and the communal violence that followed.”
The report singled out four mainstream television channels – Zee News, Republic TV, India TV, Aaj Tak – which actively colluded with the BJP that sought to criminalise the peaceful anti-CAA protests across the country since it began in December 2019. The committee also said that these television channels amplified the hate speeches of saffron leaders like Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma and others. These speeches “involved repeated appeals to unite on the basis of Hindu identity, layered with rhetoric to protect the CAA”, the report noted while pointing out the police’s failure to prevent escalating communal tensions in north-east Delhi.
“The uncanny similarity in rhetoric, messaging and even semantic style across these shows/channels is revealing. Whipping up an enraged environment, planting ungrounded fears of the anti-CAA protests, and creating vindictiveness against the Muslim community, where a forceful end to the protests may appear valid, appear to be the larger outcomes being pursued,” the committee said about the television coverage during the riots and in the days leading up to the violence.
Such a one-sided media narrative devoid of facts, the committee held, makes the media channels “a party to the conflict” and “encourages an environment of vigilantism or even creates permissive conditions for high-handed state responses”.
While recommending a review of the “much-abused” UAPA and a court-monitored probe by an agency outside the direct purview of the Union home ministry, the committee said, “The February violence emerged as the ultimate culmination of a larger communally divisive project that was set in motion before the eruption of violence.”
“Once it broke out, while the violence was perpetrated through the mechanics of mob involvement on both sides, Muslim identity was singled out as a target to be attacked. Through the days of violence, not just individuals, but Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship were systematically targeted. The extent of police complicity in allowing, or participating in this, adds another important layer to the nature of violence,” the report said.
“It is our view that engineered hate, enabled by the complicity of state actors, culminated in violence towards cementing a firm sectarian divide. In this attempt to alter social relations, Muslim identity and agency stand noticeably diminished. This is an inevitable outcome of a politics of hate becoming embedded in the social fabric.”