Delhi Riots: What the State Government Must Do

An immense deal can be achieved by the administration to help victims of violence, if it musters political courage and morality and is driven by public compassion.

A monumental nightmarish human tragedy continues to unfold, in real time, in the capital city of Delhi – a human-made tragedy, hewed through the malevolence of engineered hate, and of malign governments and institutions of the state which have comprehensively let the people of this city down. Homes, families, small businesses, dreams, hopes, trust, all stand destroyed.

In such times, what should and what can the state administration do? Especially one which has no control over the police force which has criminally enabled the deadliest episode of Hindu-Muslim violence to unfold in the capital city since the Partition. An immense deal, if it musters political courage and morality, is driven by public compassion and stretched to its limits the sinews of its administrative capacity.

As hate was being spewed by senior political leaders of the BJP, threatening and inciting violence, the leadership of the state administration should have first expressed its anxiety and concern to the Lt Governor and police commissioner, alerting them to the mounting probability of communal violence. It could have asked its district collectors to collect intelligence of the build-up of weapons and crowds and kept the pressure high on the police to act.

Also Read: Delhi Violence Exposed Holes in Healthcare System, Political Representation

Once the violence actually broke out, the entire leadership of the state administration – the ministers, MLAs and influential leaders – should have been resolutely and visibly on the streets. Stories are told of Nehru himself jumping between rioting mobs during the Partition carnage, separating violent crowds and saving lives. As district magistrate, I have done this on many occasions myself. This is not heroism: it is the elementary moral duty of leadership. I have found that this has an intensely salutary effect, dissuading angry mobs, shaming the police to act, and above all building the morale of the terrified innocents who are facing the mobs. There are risks, of course, but then leadership is about the willingness to accept these risks when a catastrophe is to be confronted.

Smoke rises after a shop was set on fire during riots at Karawal Nagar area of East Delhi, February 25, 2020. Photo: PTI

Organise rescue operations

The next priority of the state government should have been to organise rescue. A control room should have been set up in the Northeast district, requisitioning the best officers from across Delhi state, and the numbers widely publicised through social media. A large number of mobile rescue teams should have been set up, with young officers and medical personnel, as well as ambulances, and the state government should have demanded police protection for each of these. These should have moved as soon as every distress call was received, mapping the exact locations. Each of these rescue teams and ambulances should have been GPS-enabled, to allow their movement to be tracked in real time.

There should have been a high alert call in all the hospitals run by the Delhi government, and the mohalla clinics in the area. The services of all doctors and other health personnel who report to the state administration, including all the private doctors who work in mohalla clinics, should have been requisitioned and deputed at the various hospitals to deal with the emergencies of wounded persons arriving at these hospitals. Doctors should have been held responsible for doing their utmost to save every life. They should also have been instructed to conduct all post-mortem investigations in the presence of the families and these should have been video-taped, to reassure the families that no evidence of the crimes would be destroyed. The mohalla clinics should have been converted to emergency health posts.

Relief camps

Parallel to the rescue work, the state administration should have made arrangements for relief from the first day when the violence broke out. Each of us who work in the civil service is trained to respond with utmost alacrity to such an eventuality. We need to rapidly create places of safety where terrified, injured and battered women, men and children fleeing mobs are assured security and protection by the state. Even in small district towns decades earlier, we were able to speedily create such spaces, which we call relief camps. In Delhi in 2020, it is even more uncomplicated to do so. The state administration could have requisitioned stadiums, colleges, schools or office spaces close to the affected area for this. The rescue teams should have brought the escaping people to the relief camps. The camps should have had the capacity to receive massive numbers, provide them with food, clean water, sanitation, clothes and words of kindness and care.

In the absence of such camps, thousands of terrified escaping people flocked instead to relatives in other parts of the city, or to their villages. The community has shown extraordinary kindness which the state could not muster. We have found that ordinary, working-class people have opened their homes, taking in sometimes 20, sometimes 50 uprooted people, providing them food and clean clothes. Behind closed shutters, small restaurants are working tirelessly night and day to supply free food to those displaced. The gurudwaras and the splendid Khalsa Aid volunteers have also set up food supply. All of this is admirable, but public charity should complement and not substitute the primary duty of the state to protect its innocent citizens whose loved ones, homes and businesses are destroyed by rampaging hate mobs. They deserve the dignity of rights, not the dependence of charity.

We are told now, many days after the violence, that the state government has marked out nine homeless shelters as relief camps. This, to me, is appalling in multiple ways. These shelters are for homeless people, not for intensely traumatised persons hit by hate violence. Even when the homeless persons are shifted out, their total capacity would be less than 900, when the numbers displaced by the violence run into several thousands. How is the safety of people being assured in these shelters? The services of homeless shelters are extremely austere, insufficient and lacking in dignity even for homeless persons. Is this the best that a government based in the glittering city of Delhi can offer those displaced by hate violence?

Relief camps need to offer a range of services. They require clean water and sanitation, a 24-hour, well-serviced health outpost, safe private spaces for women and children, child-care services, and trained psycho-social counselling services. Standardised hits should be given to every family which has run away with only the clothes on their backs. These include sets of clothes and underwear, toiletries, sanitary napkins, milk powder and other items. For traumatised children, each camp should have therapeutic art and play activities, in addition to some regular studies to divert their minds and hearts.

A paramilitary soldier stands guard outside a chemist shop at a riot affected area after riots broke out in New Delhi, February 28, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Registering FIRs

Each of the camps must have legal assistance posts with trained lawyers supported by law students. Their task would be to file urgent missing person reports, as well as individual FIRs for each episode of violence. In our study of many past communal riots, the foundation for the denial of justice later is laid at the stage of the FIR. The victim is not enabled and supported to file FIRs detailing what was done to her and by whom. Instead, the police files omnibus FIRs combining tens, sometimes hundreds of crimes in one FIR, deliberately leaving out crucial details which could help identify the attackers and looters. Legal aid camps in relief camps and affected areas are the only guard against the assured impunity which flows from deliberately defective FIRs.

Because of the looming fear of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which seems to have submerged masses of disadvantaged citizen across the country, I was struck speaking to many victims that their most urgent lament, more than the loss of most valued belongings, is the destruction of their papers, such as Aadhar cards, voters’ cards or ration cards. The state government should set up camps to guarantee that the displaced victims get copies of these cards without cost in the camps or their new places of residence.

Parents and children are deeply worried because the violence prevents children from appearing in their CBSE examinations. In an appalling display of public callousness, the CBSE has not postponed the CBSE examinations for students based in Northeast Delhi. This needs to be remedied right away, and examinations rescheduled a few months later for those children who could not appear in the examination, after organising special summer teaching camps.

Also Read: Ground Report: ‘Normalcy’ Returns to a Corner of Delhi, But Fear and Grief Are a Step Away

I could go on. There are four stages of state duty after mass hate violence of the kind that Delhi has just witnessed breaks out. We can think of these as the 4 Rs: Rescue, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reparation. I have here just talked about the first two, Rescue and Relief. Rehabilitation and Reparation require a longer discussion to which I will return in another essay in this column. The principle of Rehabilitation and Reparation must be to restore people hit by hate violence to a better material condition than before they were stricken by violence; to rebuild social harmony and trust; and to create conditions in which it is possible for people to return to the mixed-religion habitations from which they were so cruelly uprooted.

This essay is not written to point fingers. It is written in anguish, but in friendship and in hope. The wounds left by hate violence, by the destruction of your loved ones and your life’s savings by the malign hate of your rulers and sometimes your neighbours are so deep that a lifetime can be too short to heal. It is only a truly caring state which can heal. Is that too much for the battered, defenceless citizens of our city to expect from the government they voted for with so much hope and trust?

Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.