Running with the wolves

Print edition : March 27, 2020

In North East Delhi’s Shiv Vihar on February 28, residents arguing with security personnel. Photo: ATUL LOKE/NYT

In Karawal Nagar, after the violence. Photo: DIVYA TRIVEDI

The iron gate separating Hindu and Muslim homes in a North East Delhi lane. Photo: DIVYA TRIVEDI

The police collaborated with the rioters in Delhi in most cases and apparently tortured anti-CAA protesters in custody.

Riot after riot in India has shown how political incitement can ferment chaos and police complicity can sound the death knell for the targeted community. The anti-Muslim violence in Delhi carried out over three days and nights was no exception. But here the similarity ends.

In a departure from past instances of communal violence, where occasionally the police assisted, turned a blind eye to or covered up a crime, here they participated fully with the Hindu mobs running amok in Muslim localities of North East Delhi. Several videos and eyewitness accounts, including those of journalists, exposed the role of the Delhi Police in the escalation of the violence.

They did not even pretend to control the arson and looting. In fact, they pelted stones, fired tear gas shells and threw hand grenades on Muslim homes while running with the Hindu mobs. An activist said that in one instance when a family was searching for their missing son, the police told them they had taken him to a hospital but refused to disclose which one. Later, the family reported that an eyewitness had told them that when the boy ran to the police for help, he was pushed back to the mob, which dragged him away. He has been missing since then.

Over the past month, sit-in protests against the unjust Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), mainly led by Muslim women, have mushroomed all over Delhi. These had become an eyesore for the voters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). From Shaheen Bagh to Seelampur, mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram” tried to create trouble near these sites by threatening the protesters. When BJP leader Kapil Mishra gave a communally charged speech near the Jaffrabad protest site and issued an ultimatum to the police to remove the protesters and threatened that if this did not happen “they” (Hindus) would take matters into their own hands, the Sangh Parivar cadres found justification in their “cause” and got the support they were looking for. In the pogrom that followed, the police put professionalism on the back burner and joined the mobs in beating back Muslims who were trying to defend their homes and colonies.

Under the garb of controlling the violence, the police destroyed all the protest sites in that part of the city and arrested several activists. Men and women alike were beaten and chased. The sites were burnt and pelted with tear gas shells. The anti-CAA protesters at Khureji Khas, 6.5 kilometres away from Maujpur, the epicentre of the violence, blocked the road on the second day of the onslaught. Khalid Saifi, a businessman active with United Against Hate (UAH), and Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand persuaded the protesters to end the roadblock. The next day, the police descended on the protest site and charged at the protesters. SOS calls were sent out to Saifi and others like the advocate Ishrat Jahan, a former Congress municipal councillor who was active at the protest site.

After arriving at the scene, Saifi walked over to the policemen and tried to talk to them. Videos and CCTV grabs show that the police snatched his phone and took him away. Another video showed how Ishrat Jahan was roughed up and bundled into a police van by male and female police personnel. Sabu Ansari and many others at the protest site were also detained. Soon after, a team of 10 or 12 advocates, half of them women, reached the Jagatpuri police station to enquire after the detainees, Akif Abidi of the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) told Frontline. Hostile policemen refused to let them meet anyone.

The lawyers made an application under Section 41 (D) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which enables lawyers to meet a detainee, but the police did not comply. An argument ensued, and a senior police officer in riot gear and carrying a semi-automatic weapon and one in plain clothes manhandled the group. They took photographs and videos of the female lawyers and pushed them. Mekhala Saran, a law student, told Frontline how she was slapped by a policeman outside the gates of the station when she was trying to videograph the police high-handedness. Saifi’s brother, who was standing nearby, was shoved to the ground and beaten with sticks by the policemen. A group of pro-CAA aggressors was standing nearby. Given the charged atmosphere, the lawyers decided to retreat.

Later in the evening, several people around Khureji Khas were picked up by the police, and their names were added to the first information report (FIR) retrospectively. Some people, such as Mohd Salim, were picked up from their homes. His family told Frontline that he was sitting just outside his home in the evening when the beat constable for the area, Yograj, pointed him out to a group of policemen, who took him away. His wife and son ran after them but were pushed back.

The police took Saifi, Ishrat Jahan and the other detainees late in the night to conduct their medico legal certification. People present in the courtroom reported that both Saifi and Ishrat Jahan had casts on their hands and legs. Along with the other detainees, they were remanded in judicial custody for 14 days in the Mandoli jail and charged under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (attempt to murder), along with other offences. The next day, the police barged into homes in Khureji Khas and arrested almost 20 more people in connection with the case, according to UAH.

Custodial torture

At the last hearing for Saifi, the investigating officer produced the medical report, which showed fractures on both his legs. “The video of his arrest shows he was walking on both legs and did not have any injuries. This amounts to custodial torture and goes against every Supreme Court guideline and law,” said Anas Tanvir of the ICLU and the advocate for Saifi. Ishrat Jahan, too, did not have injuries before being arrested. It was alleged that she had a revolver in her hand, but this was disproved in the video of her detention. A friend of hers said that what she had in her hand was just her phone. Additional Sessions Judge Naveen Gupta in the Karkardooma court rejected her bail application stating that “despite being a woman [she] does not deserve bail at this stage”.

He added that “when the protectors of law are targeted in the manner as reflected in present FIR and that too, in the gaze of general public, such actions lower the public confidence in the ability of police officers to do their duty”. The FIR accused Ishrat Jahan of instigating the crowd at the Khureji Khas protest site to keep sitting even when the police asked them to disperse from the “unlawful assembly”. She “instigated the crowd by saying that they would not remove themselves even if they die or whatever police officials do, they want azaadi [freedom]”, according to the FIR. It alleged that “Khalid asked the crowd to pelt stones upon the police, the police would flee away and they would obstruct the way in the same manner. One person from the crowd fired at HC [head constable] Yograj and he narrowly escaped.”

Protests against the CAA had been carried out peacefully for 49 days at Khureji without any complaint of criminal activity by the protesters. Ishrat Jahan’s lawyer argued that “it is one of the fundamental rights of citizens to protest and register their dissent against any unreasonable measure of the government”. He alleged that she was being falsely implicated since she was an advocate by profession and a former councillor associated with the Congress party.

The fact of the matter remains that the police did the bidding of the Hindutva crowd by facilitating the ouster of protesters across Delhi. The police pretext is maintenance of peace, but there was no violence at Khureji Khas until the police arrived.

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