Revisiting Northeast Delhi a year after the February 2020 pogrom

Senior activists, lawyers and experts working on-ground with Delhi pogrom survivors discuss with SabrangIndia the progress, or the lack of it, in the case of communal attacks in Northeast Delhi

Delhi violence

People from varying sections of society must mobilise to hold both the central and Delhi government responsible for the ordeals of February 2020 riot survivors from Northeast Delhi, said a diverse panel of speakers during a virtual conference titled Delhi Carnage: One Year Later organised by SabrangIndia. The discussion was held to mark the first anniversary of the brute violence.

Supreme Court Senior Counsel C. U. Singh, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, social activist Aasif Mujtaba and renowned journalist Teesta Setalvad discussed on February 24, 2021 the legal and overall accountability of the State, the judicial response to the incident, reparation and compensation provided to survivors.

Singh, who independently released a fact-finding report, collating all the available and published data around the Delhi pogrom, said there were aspects of the judicial response that were seriously disappointing, particularly the attempt to create a mythical conspiracy and to make one central FIR – number 59 – into a “conspiracy FIR”. He said the administration reverse engineered by working backwards from a pre-conceived concept that pogrom victims planned and perpetrated the attack on themselves and suffered huge fatalities, injuries and horrific loss of property.

“It’s a real Alice in Wonderland situation where everything is exactly the reverse of what it was,” said Singh.

He expressed disappointment that the judiciary has been compliant and very hands-off on the whole thing, despite seeing this unfold right from the start. He pointed out that even a year after the incident, people continue to get roped in, arrested and then ultimately get bail due to complete lack of evidence, long after severe punishment. Ordinary bail orders have just begun to get passed amounting to a serious breach of personal liberties.

However, he said there are rays of hope from every now and then when magistrates and session courts do “remarkable work in individual bail cases.” Further, he advocated the use of civil reparation through civil suits against the powerful perpetrators and guilty policemen, that should run parallel with criminal cases.

Similarly, Ms Karat talked about total State culpability while focusing on three aspects: role of Delhi police and the Home Ministry, the dismissal of evidence and the delay in court hearings.

“The Delhi police and the Home Ministry were complicit in allowing a lot of the violence. There was a deliberate delay or lacunae in police deployment. The fact that decisions were taken or deliberately delayed, for example the imposition of curfew, and Section 144 is stark. Besides the content of the infamous chargesheet in FIR 59 is shocking,” she said.

She stressed that the local police received over 13,000 distress calls from citizens but officials simply did not answer any of them. Obviously, they were instructions not to, as these are elementary standard operating procedures. The Police said, in their defence that they could not respond because they were overstretched. At the same time, their data shows “it was a deliberate ploy” said Karat.

Aasif Mujtaba, an engineering graduate from IIT closely involved in the relief and rehabilitation was one of the speakers. He felt both, anguished and bitter. He sharply addressed the question on nomenclature and demanded that the attack be referred to as a “pogrom” and not a “riot”.

“We should start calling it a full-scale pogrom,” he said referring to data from February 23, 2020 to February 24, 2020.

Having been present in the area on February 25, he recounted moments when Muslim men said they were forced to take off their pants off to prove they were Muslims. Many people were driven out of their homes while as many as 19 places of Muslim worship were damaged.

A boy living in the area gave Mujtaba a recording of him calling the local SHO a Karawalnagar who told him, “You wanted azadi? This is the azadi we are giving to you.” Further, the activist talked about videos where police were seen participating in the violence.

Brinda Karat has taken several steps in connection with the hate speech, build-up and police manipulation of the charge sheet related to the Delhi pogrom. This has ensured that official date has become available through the police affidavits filed in response. Ms Karat has filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, praying for directions for the implementation of Section 141 of the CrPC asking for details of those people arrested and regarding the role of police. By July-end, she received an answer that the court has not found any evidence to substantiate the claim that police were in collusion with the violence against minority communities. This, despite the fact that Karat talked of videos and other evidence that was not heard in court.

Ms Karat had also approached the police and magistracy for filing an FIR under section 153 of the CrPC on the hateful and inciteful speech of Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma, all office bearers and even ministers in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Though first such steps were taken in January 2020, there has been a tardy and delayed response a year later. “It is his delay, deliberate delay that is shocking,” Karat asserted.

 “There is a total subversion of justice. State culpability is being concealed by the fact that the government is confident that they are not answerable even to the courts of India,” she said. She has also called for an independent judicial commission inquiry into the attack. “Investigations have been delayed because all available evidence shows the political agenda of the ruling dispensation at play,” said Karat.

Drawing parallels between the Delhi 2020 pogrom and Gujarat 2002 pogrom, Teesta Setalvad referred to a part of Karat’s report that said junior intelligence officers wrote to higher echelons about the build-up to a communal atmosphere and asked for more personnel to maintain control. However, higher officials did not respond, which is what happened in Gujarat as well.

Aasif Mujtaba concurred asking, “In entirety the police were complicit with riots. So, a big question that comes to mind is who are we to call on when the police kill?”

Regarding casualties, he said that 39 out of 54 deaths were of Muslims while there are only two reported deaths of Hindus. More than 90 percent property that was damaged belonged to Muslims. Nearly 50 percent of people arrested were Muslims while of the 755 cases, police investigation is pending for 400 cases.

“Even when it comes to investigation, police are doing it with a biased mindset,” he said.

In turn, Singh said that the only way to expose this theory, is to test it on prima facie basis and then expedite the trial. This is why investigations are not being completed, he said.

“If you start with a premise that riots were a culmination of anti-CAA riots… then suddenly there is a reverse burden on victims to prove they were not a part of this conspiracy. All reports need to be collated and see if there is an overall pic that emerges,” he said.

Singh said that if the judiciary cares at all for this huge chunk of society, it will expedite trials to dismiss conspiracy theories against victims.

To this, Setalvad added that there is also a need for special prosecutors of higher integrity and calibre and a monitoring of cases by the constitutional courts.

Meanwhile, Karat stated that on top of silencing victims and selectively omitting statements that named BJP members, it was the Delhi AAP government had provided a pathetic rehabilitation package for residents.

“Rehabilitation is a sham. Widows say they want to earn their livelihood. The central government is not in the least involved in a single rehabilitation. The rehabilitation money is totally inadequate,” said Karat.

Adding to this, Singh said that compensation is given for the tragedy victims suffer, and should not be given on an earning capacity basis.

According to Mujtaba, all victims were to be given Rs. 10 lakh. However, he said that the government’s intention was to simply provide money rather than to honour people’s dignity. The money people received in-hand was far too little to deal with economic and health problems.

Convent schools in the area were at full capacity and private schools said they could not afford to lower fees following the coronavirus lockdown.

“Did Delhi government or the Centre bother to talk to these kids? The government never had intention to safeguard these people. Last year, a man at Jafrabad asked for my help to find his family. It took us six hours to get help from a single officer,” said Mujtaba.

Regarding administrative silence, Setalvad said that even the National Human Rights Commission panel remains silent on the issue of rehabilitation.

Similarly, Karat said that the question of relief is important to constantly make governments accountable. For example, Mohammed Waqeel, a man blinded by an acid attack last year was not included in the permanently disabled list of the AAP government, thus disallowing him due compensation. Further, a second survey showed that children of the affected area required financial help to get back in schools.

“People [residents of Northeast Delhi] keep on saying that they never had to face this communal hatred and this hate is manufactured,” said Karat.

Even today, police have to be called repeatedly to prevent hate-elements using premises of religious places of worship like the existing Hanuman mandirs in the area yelling provocative comments and inciting violence. Asif mentioned an instance that took place on February 23, 2021, where a section of the local people were talking about holding a ‘Vijay Diwas’ (Victory Day) on the occasion of the one-year anniversary.

“This is an example of a horrific assault on the Constitution of India… It has shown us a mirror of the future… If we don’t come together today for the issues of Northeast Delhi, I don’t know if we’ll be around tomorrow when the rest of India has to face this. This is an urgent battle. We need a bigger effort,” said Karat.

Setalvad concluded the event by remembering the many people from the Muslim community, who incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for standing up for their community: Umar Khalid, Gulfishan, Ishrat Jahan and others.

“This is like turning narrative on its head. To use UAPA at a time like this and to construct a conspiracy is very unfortunate because December 2019 and January 2020 was rife with politics of protest and love in the streets inspired by Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. And then we had to battle the politics of hate,” she said.


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