Targeted harassment

Print edition : April 10, 2020
Muslims are made to suffer and are being blamed for the violence that had been unleashed in a targeted manner.

More than three weeks after the targeted violence in North East Delhi, graffiti on a wall in Khajuri Khas, one of the affected areas, speaks volumes about the residents’ plight. It reads: “Revolution loading...who do you call when the police murders”. While it conveys the helplessness of the common man in the face of organised violence, it also speaks eloquently of loss of faith in the institution meant to safeguard lives. Indeed, throughout the period of pogrom, allegations flew in thick and fast of policemen acting in collusion with attackers. Nothing has changed since. The proof comes from the lanes of Khajuri Extension, Chand Bagh, Mustafabad, Shiv Vihar, Jafrabad and Kardampuri, where the residents face what the noted human rights activist S.R. Darapuri calls “a double jeopardy. First they were attacked and killed. Now the survivors face arrest.” The locals allege: “There is not a lane in Muslim-dominated areas from where nobody has been arrested.”

Their faith in the local police shaken, men in North East Delhi take turns to guard their lanes every night. After the last prayer of the day until early morning, they stay awake, calling out to each other just in case the man next door dozes off. With their houses looted and burned, 19 mosques either reduced to ashes or damaged, and dozens killed, what are they seeking to protect? They are guarding against policemen, not rioters. Every night descends with a pall of fear and foreboding. Residents allege that policemen swoop down without warrants on Muslim men in the 18-25 age group and arrest them.

The arrests started as soon as the violence abated and came to a halt only around March 15. While most of those arrested were released within a few hours, some are still in detention and their families have little clue about what is happening to them. Residents of Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad believe that close to 3,000 men were picked up by policemen. Shabbir Ahmed, a resident of Shiv Vihar, said: “It could be anybody. It could be a man talking to another on the streetside or simply a man parking his bike outside a shop. A policeman, usually in civilian clothes, would point a pistol at the man and ask him to accompany him. The men are taken sometimes to the local thana. Often they are sent to a faraway station. Why they are picked up, nobody knows. Their families are not informed.”

Sajid Ali, a resident of Mustafabad, who is in food catering, said: “Four or five boys have been picked up from every lane. They [police] just ask the name and put the boys under detention. Charges are fabricated to implicate the innocent.”

Dilshad Ali, father of Shadab Alam, who was picked up from the Samrat Medical Store where he worked, said the same thing. On the afternoon of February 24, Alam returned from a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Qasabpura and then went to the medical store. Violence was raging in some parts of the city at the time. Ali said: “The chemist showed the police CCTV footage of Alam being at work at the pharmacy. But he was still arrested, though the arrest was shown from a different location.”

Altaf Hussain, a resident of Mustafabad who was helping out with the relief exercise, said: “Until March 12, dozens, even hundreds, of boys were picked up. The modus operandi was similar. Police would catch boys in the 18-25 age group. Usually the boys were picked up from the roadside or even their shops. A policeman would just take a boy aside, ask his name, then ask him to sit in the jeep. Most of the boys returned after some five or seven hours and they did not complain of violence at the station. Some, however, were sent to another police station far away, even as far as Sunlight Colony which is some 24 kilometres away. In the initial days, the police picked up boys who had been involved in some stray cases of chain snatching or picking pockets in the past. Later, they started picking up boys at random. The police claimed that the boys were detained on the basis of videographic evidence. Like, if the boys were seen in a video of the days of violence, police picked them up.”

That is how Usman Saifi, who stood guard at Nehru Vihar’s Ram temple in a Muslim-dominated area in Mustafabad, was picked up though the video showed residents on a vigil to protect the temple. Saifi was aware that there could be repercussions of the attacks on mosques in the vicinity and decided to patrol the lane to protect the temple. He stood, along with others, both Hindus and Muslims, at the beginning of the lane to ward off attackers. On the night of March 8, a Sunday, the police arrested Saifi for rioting and took him to Dayalpur police station. The temple’s guard put in a word in Saifi’s defence but the police were not convinced. Then the local Shri Ram Dharmik Samiti stepped in and wrote to the magistrate appealing for his release. “In our area, Hindus and Muslims have maintained unity,” the samiti said, hailing Saifi’s role in protecting the temple. “Kindly release this person on bail. Aapki ati kripa hogi [it would be extremely kind of you],” the letter read. But even this did not secure Saifi’s release. Their only consolation was that Saifi was not alone. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim men in a similar situation. Among them were people whose homes had been burnt down. They were arrested when they returned home after spending a few days at a relief camp in Eidgah. In one case, a man was picked up because a video of his house being set on fire went viral, and the man himself was accused of doing it.

The noted activist and author Harsh Mander, who helped with relief work, said: “People are living in fear. The arrests are all part of intimidation tactics. The idea is that the victims should not seek justice as equal citizens of the country. Make sure no FIRs [first information reports] are filed naming any culprits. That’s why no guilty person will be nabbed.”

Comparing the situation to the 2002 Gujarat carnage, Harsh Mander said: “I would like to say we should go to the National Human Rights Commission and other similar bodies. But there are hardly any institutions left for redress today. When the 2002 violence happened we had the media and various rights-protection bodies that were ready to support. This time who do we turn to?”

Darapuri, however, felt that legal redress might provide the answer. Not mincing words in indicting the police, Darapuri, himself a retired policeman, said: “What the police are doing today amounts to persecution of the Muslim community. Those who suffered in the violence are being targeted. The victims are being booked in false cases. It is double injustice. We know about the role of the police during the riots. The police acted as colluders to support the rioters. The police destroyed the Farooqia Masjid. First they demolished the CCTV cameras, then burned the mosque. The local Hindus issued a statement asking why they should be blamed. It was the policemen who had done it! The way forward is these arrests should be through courts. The court should be asked to restrict the police from arbitrary arrests. I know of the case of Khalid Saifi, a human rights activist. He was called by the police to the Khureji anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] protest site and arrested. Later, we saw his photographs with both his legs heavily bandaged. With such actions of the police, it is the Muslims who suffer. Earlier the violence took place in connivance with the police. Then, too, the police used weapons not to control the rioters but against Muslims seeking to defend themselves. Now the police are doing what the rioters did. They are persecuting the innocent under the garb of police action. The boys are picked up and sent to other stations. Then one by one, they are booked under various provisions. It is done at the time of terrorism cases, too.”

Do these arbitrary arrests not open up the possibility of disaffected young people taking to violence in the future?

Darapuri said: “Not everybody is rational. Some young people cannot bear injustice. They can go for retaliation. When you push a community to the wall, what do you expect? Having said this, we should look closely at the role of Delhi Police. The police are the power arm of the state. In the case of Delhi, the police force reports directly to the Union Home Minister. Amit Shah said at the time of the violence that he was monitoring the situation from the control room. It was both monitored and directed. The same thing had happened in Gujarat. The gentleman was sitting in the police control room when the pogrom was going on. It is tragic, but if we want justice we have to fight at various levels. We have to go to the courts.”

To begin with, hundreds of boys have to be released. “There can be no peace without justice,” he said.

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