New Delhi: Ever since communal riots broke out in various parts of north-east Delhi in the month of February, supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party have tried to paint the violence as one that was entirely organised by so-called “Muslim mobs”. They deliberately overlooked the BJP-led, high-pitched communal campaign that preceded the Delhi assembly elections.
In the violence which lasted three days, a majority of the 53 people who died were Muslims, and the minority community saw not just the maximum economic damage in the violence but the deliberate desecration of its places of worship. Yet, BJP spokespersons and sections of the big media linked the nationwide protests against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) which began in December 2019 with the violence that unfolded in the national capital two months later.
Without a shred of evidence, the democratic protests at Shaheen Bagh, Jafrabad, Khajuri Khas, Hauz Rani, etc – which had been conducted peacefully in the preceding two months – were projected as anti-national, and as breeding grounds of terrorism.
Even as the nation grappled with the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the Delhi police took time out to whitewash the graffiti-filled walls of protest art and demolish the makeshift tents at protest sites. A wider narrative to demonise one of the biggest protest movements in Indian history gained further currency when the Delhi police arrested several anti-CAA activists, including students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, in cases related to the Delhi riots. At the same time, BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra and Union minister Anurag Thakur – who openly called for violent action against the anti-CAA dissenters – roamed around free.
The Delhi police has, throughout, steered its probe in a direction that has only facilitated the BJP’s Islamophobic campaign against CAA dissenters. Despite widespread criticisms against its allegedly partisan role, it has not budged an inch. Rather, it has gone ahead and slapped stringent charges like sedition and terror under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against anti-CAA activists.
Last week, the police filed seven charge sheets in connection with the cases related to the communal violence in the national capital. A breakdown of the charge sheets by the web portal, Quint, show that allegations the Delhi police have made against arrested activists are based more on conspiracy theories than concrete evidence.
“Well-hatched conspiracy,” really?
Among the seven charge sheets, the first four are against anti-CAA protesters and alleged rioters belonging to the Muslim community. Two have been filed against alleged rioters from the Hindu community.
In two of these charge sheets – one related to the Chand Bagh violence (65/2020) and the other to the murder of Intelligence Bureau official Ankit Sharma (101/2020) – the Delhi Police claims that AAP councillor Tahir Hussain, former JNU student Umar Khalid, and United Against Hate activist Khalid Saifi planned a conspiracy together to carry out a “big blast” during US president Donald Trump’s visit in February 2020.
This theory is the basis of the police’s larger claim that the Delhi riots were part of a “well-hatched” conspiracy.
However, the number of gaps in this conspiracy theory is astounding.
The police claim that the three activists met on January 8 at Shaheen Bagh, and that Khalid Saifi organised a meeting between the alleged key conspirators Umar Khalid and Tahir Hussain. The details provided in the charge sheets say that in the meeting, Umar Khalid claimed that financing the operation would not be a problem as the Islamic political group the Popular Front of India (PFI) could fund it and take care of the logistics.
It further said that the idea of the “big blast” was decided “so that the Central Govt. could be shaken on the issue of CAA/NRC and so as to defame the country in the international arena.” The police said that “all necessary logistics and manpower were arranged prior to these riots and a number of people from U.P. West had been called before these riots for the purpose of riots in Delhi at a large scale”, and added that this aspect is being probed in a separate case by the Special Cell. Para 65 of the chargesheet in FIR 65/2020 notes:
“These riots were planned to be happened [sic] during or prior to the visit of US President Donald Trump in the month of February, 2020. For this, all necessary logistics and manpower were arranged prior to these riots and a number of people from U.P. West had been called before these riots for the purpose of riots in Delhi at a large scale.”
However, as Aditya Menon and Aishwarya S. Iyer noted in The Quint, the “first reference to a possible Trump visit to India was only on January 13, five days after this alleged meeting took place”. The first media report that came on Trump’s possible visit was on January 13 in The Hindu. There too, the daily mentioned only tentative dates and attributed the information to unnamed sources.
No mention of Trump visiting India was given by either the Ministry of External Affairs or the Press Information Bureau until then.
The Hindu in its January 13 report said thus:
“Security and logistics teams from Washington are expected in Delhi this week to prepare for a possible visit by U.S. President Donald Trump, multiple sources have confirmed to The Hindu. The visit, which has not yet been announced, would bring the U.S. President to India a year after he declined an invitation to be chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, and will go ahead at the end of February as long as dates don’t need to be changed to accommodate the impeachment process in the U.S. Senate”.
“Sources said the decision to visit India, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation, was discussed during a telephone call between the leaders on January 7. According to the sources, Mr. Trump is “keen” to visit early in the year, ahead of elections in November, and both sides are working towards a visit in the last week of February.” .
“Mr. Trump’s visit will be a diplomatic boost for both leaders and will likely coincide with the U.S. Congress’s impeachment process, and the date of the visit, currently scheduled around February 24 may have to be shifted to accommodate the Senate vote on his impeachment motion.”
Other newspapers like the Hindustan Times followed with a similar story with the headline: India, US in talks to finalise dates for Donald Trump’s state visit.
The police, however, have not given any information on how Hussain, Khalid and Saifi got to know about Trump’s visit to India at a time when the Union government itself was not sure about it.
The other possibility can only be that the police made an error in the charge sheet. However, when The Quint spoke to inspector Amleshwar Rai, the investigation officer-in-charge of the Ankit Sharma murder case and the primary signatory of the charge sheet, he had the following to say, “It was probably decided on 8 January or even before that. However, the Special Cell is better placed to explain this to you.”
Satish Tamta, a renowned criminal lawyer in Delhi, said that it was evident the police were claiming that the planning of a conspiracy happened during the January 8 meeting. “However what is rather problematic is that while the police is making this claim, they have to also mention in the charge sheet, who these details were disclosed by and what was the evidence. Here there appears to be no evidence at all. This is their own thinking,” he said, adding that the police’s claim does not stand its ground as there was no evidence to back it.
“A story is being narrated and attempts are being made to make the charge sheet interesting while finalising it – while there is no evidence to back this claim yet, even if an accused or a alleged conspirator has made this statement, it can only be relied upon if it leads to recovery of material/article. Otherwise, the statement is not admissible as evidence,” he told The Quint. On being asked whether the police could modify the charge sheet, Tamta said that he has not heard or seen any such instance when the police have gone back on its claim.
Umar Khalid, one of the accused, has told The Wire there is no truth in the police charge sheet. Allegations against him in the Delhi riots were first mooted on social media by the BJP and its supporters when they circulated an edited clip of his speech in Amravati, Maharashtra. Union home minister Amit Shah also backed the allegation against Khalid and the civil society group United Against Hate. Shah told the parliament, “United Against Hate – the name sounds so pious but look what they advocated. They said, ‘(Donald) Trump is about to come, we should block the streets’.”
The edited clip was taken out from this portion of Khalid’s speech, “…on the 24th (of February), when Donald Trump comes to India, we will tell that the Prime Minister and Government of India are trying to divide the country; they are destroying the values of Mahatma Gandhi; and that the people of India are fighting against the rulers. If the rulers want to divide India, the people of India are ready to work towards uniting the country. We will come out on the streets. Will you people come out.”
Even this clip, however, contains nothing that could be interpreted as incitement of violence.
A contrasting picture
When it comes to accusations against the alleged Hindu rioters, it appears that the Delhi police is more interested in justifying their side of violence than producing any concrete evidence. Differences between the two sets of charge sheets indicate the line of the Delhi police’s investigation. The Hindu side of violence is seen by the police as “retaliation” to the “provocation” by the Muslim mobs.
In its review of the charge sheet filed regarding the murder of one car mechanic and painter Aqil Ahmed (FIR number 36) and an auto rickshaw drive Musharraf (FIR number 38) in Bhagirathi Vihar, The Quint showed how the Delhi police went easy on the Hindu mobs.
“Both the places of incident were not covered with any CCTV cameras. Based upon source information, it was revealed that some Hindu men had joined hands on 25th & 26th February, 2020, post the riots on 24.02.2020 in which Muslim mobs had done massive rioting in which large scale loss of lives and properties of Hindu community had taken place. The group was identified and some of the group members were picked up. During questioning, it was revealed that on 25th & 26th February, 2020, a ‘Whatsapp” group was created. This group had 125 members. Several members of the group were silent in the “Whatsapp” group. Subsequently, eye-witnesses were identified and examined. Bases upon oral evidences and the chat in the Whatsapp group, the identity of the perpetrators was fixed,” the charge sheet against 10 accused Hindu men who were arrested in the murder cases said.
While the conspiracy angle is the most prominent accusation against the arrested anti-CAA activists, the same is missing in the charge sheets filed against the Hindu side.
“For instance, the blocking of the Jafrabad road as well as the violence near Rajdhani School in New Mustafabad are accused of being part of a pre-planned conspiracy. However, the conspiracy angle is entirely missing in the charge sheets involving the other side,” the news portal reported.
In another charge sheet regarding the killing of brothers Amir Ali and Hashim Ali, the police have claimed that “revenge” and “retaliation” were the reasons the Hindu accused allegedly formed a Whatsapp group to respond to the violence perpetrated by the Muslim mobs.
However, in chargesheets where the anti-CAA activists are accused, the police have claimed that such WhatsApp groups were part of a larger conspiracy. For instance, in the Jafrabad case, a WhatsApp message has been used to allege a conspiracy.
The message that the police have used to accuse the two founding members of Pinjra Tod, Devnagana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, of conspiracy lists measures for women to defend their homes.
Selective mention of chronology?
Similarly, in the 1500-word long chronology of events leading up to the riots which the Delhi police have mentioned, the charge sheet has conspicuously omitted the controversial speech by BJP leader Kapil Mishra on February 23 at Maujpur. Mishra had given an ultimatum to the police that if it cannot remove the anti-CAA protesters from their sit-in, he and his supporters can do that on their own.
The police’s chronology, however, jumps directly from the road blockade by anti-CAA protesters on February 22 and 23 to the violent incidents during the Delhi riots. The violent turn of events is entirely pinned on the anti-CAA protesters.
The omission of Mishra’s speech is surprising as he had threatened the police in the presence of the deputy commissioner of police (DCP). It is interesting how the police have chronicled the events on February 23.
“On 23.02.2020, information was received that at 3.00 PM that some people demanding reopening of carriage way of 66-Foot Road at the Jafrabad Metro station would assemble in Mauj Pur Chowk, which is about 750 meters from Jafrabad Metro station,” the chargesheet in the Jafrabad case said. It added that the people from both sides then clashed with each other, pelting stones on each other.
It said that while the police then dispersed the crowd by using tear gas shells and lathi charge, the “situation continued to be volatile and tension started to spread to other areas like Welcome, Jafrabad, Dayalpur, Usmanpur, Bhajanpura, Gokalpuri and Khajuri Khas.”
“Incidents of stone pelting were also reported from Sherpur Chowk and Chand Bagh by Anti-CAA protesters,” the charge sheet said.
Curiously, in contrast, the police lists incidents of violence in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Friends Colony on December 13 and 15, formation of Jamia coordination committee to protest against on CAA on December 15, beginning of Shaheen Bagh sit-in on December 16, and other such protests, in its chronology of events leading up to the riots. All these events were separated by the riots by a period of two months and a distance of over 20 kilometres.
But it does not consider Mishra’s speech on the day when the riots broke out important enough to be included in the list of possible reasons for the riots.