Anti-CAA protesters: Victims twice over

Print edition : August 28, 2020

At Mourya circle in Bengaluru on June 3, a protest against the arrests of anti-CAA activists. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Even as interrogations, arrests and charge-sheeting of anti-CAA protesters as instigators of the February riots in North East Delhi continue despite the pandemic, more and more people feel that the inquiry is a ruse to target critics of the BJP government.

Usee ka shahr, wahee muddaee, wahee munsif Hamein yaqeen tha, hamaara qusoor niklega

(It's his city, he himself is the petitioner and himself the judge; I was sure, I'd be held guilty).

— Ameer Qazalbash (poet and lyricist)

An old Muslim man from the riot-affected area of Mustafabad in North East Delhi recited this couplet to a fact-finding team of the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) to express how the community perceives the February riots and subsequent investigations. In all, 11 mosques, five madrasas, a Muslim shrine and a graveyard were attacked and damaged in the violence that began on February 23 and continued in waves over the week. As many as 53 people were killed and property worth hundreds of crores looted and torched, including 226 houses and 487 shops.

According to the fact-finding report of the DMC, headed by M.R. Shamshad, Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court, the violence was “seemingly planned and directed to teach a lesson to a certain community which dared to protest against a discriminatory law. Attempts ever since are being made to shield the planners, instigators, leaders and perpetrators of that violence and turn the victims into culprits.”

Said Shamshad: “We stand at the threshold of a crucial stage. Most victims of the religious minority have stated stories and put forth illustrations reflecting religious bias against them, inasmuch as being treated as a separate and distinct community rather than citizens of the country. I have no doubt in stating that the same discriminatory bias and hate became reason for the minorities to take a lead in the protests against the discriminatory CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act]. The protests were legitimate and peaceful. Seemingly, to crush the protests, with support of the administration and the police, a retaliatory plan of pro-CAA protesters was worked out to trigger violence at a large scale which led to loss of lives and damage to hundreds of properties owned mainly by the Muslim religious minority.”

Even as interrogations, arrests and charge-sheeting of anti-CAA protesters, naming them as instigators of the riots, continue despite the raging coronavirus pandemic, more and more people feel that the inquiry is a ruse for political vendetta not just against Muslims but also against the critics of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The latest civil society activist to be questioned by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police in connection with the riots is Prof. Apoorvanand of Delhi University. On August 3, the Hindi professor was summoned under FIR no. 59/20 relating to the riots and questioned for five hours. His phone was seized for further probe.

Said Prof. Apoorvanand: “While cooperating and respecting the right of the police authorities to conduct a full, fair and thorough investigation, one can only hope that the probe would focus on the real instigators and perpetrators of the violence against a peaceful citizens’ protest and the people of North East Delhi. It should not lead to further harassment and victimisation of the protesters and their supporters, who asserted their democratic rights through constitutional means, while stating their dissent to the passage of the CAA and the decision of the Government of India to operationalise the National Population Register [NPR] and the National Register of Citizens [NRC] all over the country. It is disturbing to see a theory emerging which treats the supporters of the protesters as the source of violence. I would urge the police and expect their probe to be thorough, just and fair so that truth prevails.”

The Delhi Police has been summoning civil society activists, students and anti-CAA protesters and trying to ascertain their role in the violence. Former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president N. Sai Balaji has asserted that two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) close to the Sangh Parivar, through their fact-finding reports, had provided the script for the violence and the police were filling in the characters now.

The reports by the two NGOs, Call for Justice and the Group of Intellectuals and Academicians, named Pinjra Tod, the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia, the Popular Front of India (PFI), local politicians of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), JNU student Sharjeel Imam and the Bhim Army as instigators of the riots.

Until March 18, the Delhi Police had arrested 3,304 people in connection with the riots, according to Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishen Reddy. They include those named in the NGO reports—Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita of Pinjra Tod; Mohd Danish, Parvex Alam and Mohd Ilyas of the PFI; former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain; Safoora Zargar (granted bail) and Meeran Haider of the JCC; and Gulfisha Fatima, an MBA student. Khalid Saifi, a member of the organisation United Against Hate, and Ishrat Jehan, a former Congress councillor, too were arrested from the Khureji Khas anti-CAA protest site and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), like the others. JNU student Sharjeel Imam has been lodged in an Assam prison that also has the activist and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and other anti-NRC protesters. Both Sharjeel and Gogoi have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus.

Activists under scrutiny

The NGO reports point to the extensive use of social media in the riots. The Delhi Police has been specifically probing WhatsApp groups to arrest people.

One particular group that has come under the scrutiny of the Delhi Police’s Special Cell is the Delhi Protests Solidarity Group (DPSG). Several members of the group have been called in for questioning and more are likely to be summoned. Created in December 2019, the group was intended as a voluntary support group for anti-CAA protests. It is made up of prominent activists including Rahul Roy, Saba Dewan, Yogendra Yadav, Kavita Krishnan, Harsh Mander, Anjali Bharadwaj, N.D. Jayaprakash, Nadeem Khan and Annie Raja. Prof. Apoorvanand and Pinjra Tod members were also part of the group. All of them have been vocal critics of the CAA and the Modi government.

N.D. Jayaprakash of the Delhi Science Forum told Frontline: “As explained in detail in my five-part article in The Wire, the Union Home Ministry deliberately took no action to prevent physical confrontation between CAA supporters and anti-CAA protesters despite adequate and repeated forewarning issued to the Home Ministry by the Intelligence Wing of the Delhi Police following [BJP leader] Kapil Mishra’s inflammatory speech on February 23. If the RAF [Rapid Action Force] had been deployed in adequate strength in time at the right place, the situation could have been controlled before it took an ugly turn. What was equally worse was that even after the riots broke out, the Union Home Ministry did not allow the Delhi Police to respond to nearly 13,000 distress calls for help from riot victims for over 72 hours until midnight on February 26.

“Now the Union Home Ministry is compelling the Delhi Police to file false cases against anti-CAA protesters and against members of the Delhi Protests Solidarity Group to make them scapegoats by pinning the blame on them for allegedly instigating the riots. In the process, there is a concerted attempt to cover up the pivotal role of Kapil Mishra and other CAA supporters in unleashing the violence as well as in concealing the conceited role of the Union Home Ministry in allowing the riots to break out and in prolonging the same.”

The police have held the anti-CAA protesters responsible for the Delhi riots and termed the riots as the result of a “deep-rooted controversy” by them. While Hindu rioters have also been arrested, the conspiracy angle has been attributed only to Muslims and civil society dissenters against the citizenship law. The role of BJP leaders Kapil Sharma, Parvesh Verma and Anurag Thakur who gave provocative speeches is not even being probed by the police.

Petitions in courts

A bunch of petitions filed by individuals, including Harsh Mander and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat, against the BJP leaders’ hate speeches are pending before the courts. A Delhi High Court bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan is also hearing a petition against Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, AAP leaders Manish Sisodia and Amanatullah Khan, and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader Waris Pathan for alleged hate speeches.

In an affidavit, the Delhi Police maintained that the investigations had not revealed any evidence to show that the BJP leaders had instigated or participated in the violence. If any link was found between their alleged offensive speeches and the riots, the police said, then they would file the requisite FIRs.

The police also said that prima facie investigations revealed that the violence was not sporadic or spontaneous “but appears to be part of a well-thought-out conspiracy to destabilise the harmony in society”.

So far, 763 cases under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act, the Prevention to Damage of Public Property Act and the UAPA have been registered, over 200 charge sheets filed and three Special Investigation Teams (SITs) headed by Deputy Commissioners of Police constituted.

The Crime Branch submitted before the High Court that the riots were carefully engineered and funded by “mischievous elements”, who instilled a false panic in the minds of a section of society, instigated them to take law and order into their own hands and resort to violence.

While claiming that the petitioners were trying to distract the court’s attention from the true facts, the Crime Branch argued that the use of terms like “political vendetta”, “state-sponsored pogrom”, “persecution” and “malicious prosecution” appeared to be part of some “undisclosed agenda”.

Earlier, a High Court bench headed by Justice S. Muralidhar had played in court the videos containing the alleged inflammatory speeches of Kapil Mishra. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that the Delhi Police had deferred the decision to file FIRs as the situation was not “conducive” to it. The FIRs have still not been filed. Justice Muralidhar was transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Charge sheets

Three days before Prof. Apoorvanand was summoned for questioning, the Special Cell interrogated former JNU student leader Umar Khalid and confiscated his phone for further probe. He was booked under the UAPA but was called for questioning for the first time on July 31. Umar Khalid, along with Khalid Saifi and former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain, is being made out to be a “mastermind” behind the riots.

In a charge sheet filed by the Delhi Police Crime Branch in connection with the murder of Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma, Tahir Hussain has been made an accused. Interrogation transcripts of Hussain have been circulating on social media wherein he confesses to have met Umar Khalid at the PFI office in Shaheen Bagh on January 8 to plan the riots along with Khalid Saifi. While the confessions made before the police are not admissible in court, Hussain’s interrogation reports are part of the charge sheets submitted.

According to the interrogation report, Umar Khalid gave assurances regardinglogistics and finances from the PFI, the JCC, politicians, advocates and Muslim organisations. Incidentally, the fact-finding reports submitted to the government by the two NGOs linked to the Sangh Parivar had blamed Umar Khalid for the same and the PFI for funding the riots. One of the organisations, Call for Justice, had stated, “The timing of the attacks, starting from February 23, was very well meticulously planned in advance as evident from Umar Khalid’s comments dated February 17 in which he explicitly mentioned that the riots would take place during the visit of the U.S. President.”

Thereafter, several media reports pointed out that while the charge sheet claims that it was on January 8 that Umar Khalid and the others planned to organise a “big blast” on Donald Trump’s visit to India in February, the first information on Trump’s visit to India was made public on January 14 through a story in The Hindu.

In his speech in the Lok Sabha on the Delhi riots, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also furthered this theory. “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.”

United Against Hate, a group comprising diverse activists such as Umar Khalid, Banojyotsna, advocate Tamanna Pankaj, Nadeem Khan and Khalid Saifi, has also featured as an instigator in the police version.

Lawyers associated with the cases say that the fantastic story woven by the investigative authorities will not stand in a court of law. But for the students and activists who are being arrested, the process itself would become the punishment, they said.

While responding to the Supreme Court’s contempt notice against him, advocate Prashant Bhushan questioned the apex court for being a “mute spectator” during the Delhi riots. He said: “When the Delhi riots were unleashed, with daily videos emerging of mobs tearing down and burning mosques, the police force systematically destroying public CCTVs, taking an active part in stone-throwing, massive firing and deaths, blockades of a hospital to prevent assistance to the severely wounded Muslims, etc., the Supreme Court remained a mute spectator while Delhi burnt.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor