Prabhjit Singh

TWO YEARS AFTER the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra gave a threatening speech about protesters in northeastern Delhi, precipitating three days of communal violence, Yati Narsinghanand delivered yet another incendiary speech in the national capital. At a Hindu Mahapanchayat attended by around three hundred people, on 3 April 2022, Narsinghanand, the head of the Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad, claimed, “Once a Muslim becomes the prime minister of India, in twenty years, fifty percent of you will change your religion. Forty percent of Hindus will be murdered.”

Three months earlier, Narsinghanand had been arrested by the Uttarakhand Police for calling for a genocide of Muslims at a similar public meeting in Haridwar. Despite international outrage, he was released on bail within a month. His arrest did not dilute his vitriol. “If you want to change this future, become men,” he said at the Hindu Mahapanchayat in Delhi. “He who is armed is a man.”

Mishra’s speech, in February 2020, had been made in the presence of a senior Delhi Police official. There were at least thirty police personnel at the Mahapanchayat where Narsinghanand spoke, even though it was held without requisite permission. Despite live media coverage of the event, the Delhi Police did little to halt it, though the police did subsequently register first-information reports. This was among the many episodes over the past two years that have made it evident that the Delhi Police is doing little to stop the escalation of communal tensions in the capital.

For many residents of the national capital, the communal incidents in Delhi since 2020 have come as shocks.

On 16 April, two weeks after the Mahapanchayat, there were communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Jahangirpuri, in northern Delhi, during a rally to mark the Hindu festival of Hanuman Jayanti. The Delhi Police arrested 23 people in connection to the violence, including minors, for unlawful assembly and rioting. Most of those arrested are Muslims. An FIR was also filed against two men from the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindutva outfit, and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, for carrying out a procession without prior permission. Four days after the clashes, the BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation began an anti-encroachment drive in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Jahangirpuri, where bulldozers razed parts of several structures, including the exterior gate of a mosque. The demolition drive, which started at around 10.15 am, went on for two hours despite the Supreme Court’s directions at 11 am that the status quo be maintained.

For many residents of the national capital, the communal incidents in Delhi since 2020 have come as shocks. The city, it seems, held on to the belief that its cosmopolitan landscape and its position as the national capital, with tight security and several centres of political power, would protect it from the widespread communalisation that began after the BJP came to national power, in 2014. But this belief has always been flawed. It misses, among other things, a historical perspective on the Delhi Police. To begin understanding the order of the day, one must look backwards—at the violence of February 2020, and at the history of the Delhi Police as a force of the union home ministry.

“The modern police force that we know today was set up under the Police Act of 1861,” Suvashis Choudhary, a former joint commissioner of the Delhi Police, writes in his 2021 book Capital Cops. For the first few decades of the force’s existence, it was a part of the Punjab Police. An inspector general of the Delhi Police was first appointed in 1948. The Delhi Police Act, 1978, ushered in the commissionerate system, and it is from this law that the force now draws its mandate and powers.

“Today, it comprises 163 territorial police stations with a total strength of nearly 87,000 police officers of different ranks,” Choudhary writes. “Although the number is still inadequate for the growing population of the city, it has a dominant presence in terms of the 1500 sq. km area that it is mandated to police.” The Delhi Police website states that it is now “perhaps the largest metropolitan police in the world.” And yet, the force failed to prevent the loss of more than fifty lives in the violence of February 2020.

Over the years, the Delhi Police has expanded and its structure has evolved. But SN Dhingra, a retired judge who presided over cases related to the 1984 anti-Sikh violence and the 2001 parliament attack, told me that the police has essentially always been the same. “The police we had when the British were ruling, which used to support the Britishers, today, it supports whosoever is in power,” he said.

Under the ruling BJP, the union home ministry—which oversees the Delhi Police—is led by Amit Shah. The government appointed Rakesh Asthana, from the Gujarat cadre of the Indian Police Service, as Delhi’s police commissioner on 28 July 2021, just a couple of days before he was slated to retire. This was among the few instances where an officer from outside the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territories cadre of the IPS has been appointed the capital’s police chief. Several news reports pointed out that Asthana was the “blue-eyed boy” of Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his controversial career, Asthana has handled several high-profile and sensitive cases, including one pertaining to the communal violence that unfolded in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister.

Asthana did not respond to my requests for an interview or to questions about the Delhi violence. Emails to officials of the Crime Branch, Special Cell and various police stations in northeastern Delhi also went unanswered.

The presence of the deputy commissioner of police for northeast Delhi, Ved Prakash Surya, during Kapil Mishra’s speech in 2020 had triggered outrage at the time. Mishra’s speech pertained to Muslims protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at the Jafrabad metro station. The protest was a part of a wave of demonstrations that had swept Delhi, and the country, after the passage of the CAA, in December 2019. The BJP and other Hindutva groups vilified the protests, many of which were led by Muslims who understood their place in the Indian republic to be threatened by the act and the compilation of a National Register of Citizens. The demonstrations were met with intimidation and even violence in numerous places, especially in BJP-ruled states. In line with his party’s stance, Mishra declared that, if the Delhi Police did not clear the protests at Jafrabad and neighbouring Chand Bagh, “we will have to come out on the street.” Forty of the 53 people who died in the ensuing violence were Muslims.

The police received massive backlash for its apparent inaction in the violence. “It appears that in some instances they were merely spectators when incidents of violence took place in their presence,” the former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur told me. Lokur pointed out that the Delhi Police can utilise the services of the Central Reserve Police Force, the Rapid Action Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and has done so on occasion. But, he said, “It is not clear why it does not take the assistance of these forces in situations of mass violence as in the case of riots which took place in 2020.” Vikram Singh, a former director general of police for Uttar Pradesh, said, “There was a free run to the rioters, and there was no exemplary action.” The police, he added, “were treating cancer with a band aid.”

The force was accused of direct participation in the violence as well. Reports poured in of the police either quietly watching on as Hindu mobs attacked Muslim neighbourhoods or joining in, even chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” In one video that surfaced at the time, police personnel were seen forcing five Muslim individuals, all severely injured and lying on the ground, to sing the national anthem. They could be heard abusing the five men, taunting them with “azadi”—freedom—a word often used in protest slogans and urging them to sing better. One of the men soon died from his injuries. In early 2021, three eyewitnesses told The Caravan that they had seen Harveer Singh Bhati, a sub-inspector from the Okhla police station, shoot and kill a Muslim man on 24 February 2020.

The police, however, soon presented a very different version of events. Its narrative is clearest in the most sensational case pertaining to the violence: FIR 59 of 2020, better known as the conspiracy case. This is being handled by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell.

Set up in 1985 as an independent anti-terrorism outfit, the Special Cell has often faced accusations of concocting false narratives. Framed, Damned, Acquitted, a 2011 book first released as a report by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, analyses 16 cases investigated by the Special Cell. In these cases, the Special Cell accused several individuals—almost all of them Muslims—of being connected to terrorist organisations, and charged them with crimes such as sedition, criminal conspiracy and waging war against the state. Many of the accused were acquitted of all charges. “What judgment after judgment comments on,” the report states, “is the manner in which the so-called evidence provided by the police and the prosecution was tampered with and fabricated, how story after story as presented by the prosecution was unreliable, incredulous, and appeared as concocted.”

In the conspiracy case, the police arrested individuals who had organised protests against the CAA, including some prominent activists such as Sharjeel Imam, a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University; Umar Khalid, a former JNU student; Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, from the feminist collective Pinjra Tod; and Khalid Saifi, the founder of United Against Hate. The police portrayed these individuals as key conspirators behind the violence and charged them under several sections of the Indian Penal Code as well as the Arms Act, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act and the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

To begin understanding the order of the day, one must look backwards—at the violence of February 2020, and at the history of the Delhi Police as a force of the union home ministry.

Running over seventeen thousand pages long, the charge sheet in the matter contains references to messages, phone records, speeches, meetings and witness testimonies. But, as soon as it was filed, in September 2020, several journalists and commentators flagged holes in the investigation and criticised its lack of substance, arguing that the only substantiated accusation against the accused was that they helped organise protests against the CAA.

Meanwhile, the Special Cell has ignored several allegations against right-wing leaders that had already been made public. In June 2020, I reported that the police refused to register FIRs based on numerous police complaints that said that the violence in northeastern Delhi was perpetrated by, or at the behest of, BJP leaders. The leaders named in these complaints include Mishra, the MP Satya Pal Singh, the MLAs Nand Kishore Gujjar and Mohan Singh Bisht, and the former legislator Jagdish Pradhan. One complainant wrote that, just before the police began an attack on protesters, she heard an assistant commissioner of police assure Mishra over the phone, “Don’t worry, we will strew the streets with their dead bodies such that it will be remembered for generations.” Yet, the Special Cell has not accused Mishra of conspiracy.

THIS IS NOT the first time that the Delhi Police has faced allegations of abetting communal violence and colluding with the ruling party at the centre to attack a minority community. In November 1984, under the Congress-led government of the day, the Delhi Police was accused of abetting the killing of almost three thousand Sikhs at the hands of organised Hindu mobs in the capital. Witness testimonies and other evidence substantiated many allegations against the police at the time, including that the police disarmed Sikhs before the mobs proceeded to attack. The police even spread a rumour that Sikhs had poisoned the piped water supplied by the city administration.

In a 1996 judgment, SN Dhingra eviscerated the police:

If it is believed that upto 3.11.84, when the riots were actually taking place, the situation was such that it was beyond the control of the police and there was no participation of the police, it was merely helplessness of the police; then the subsequent investigation of these crimes would have been done honestly by the police and the criminals and rioters, would have been brought to book. But the subsequent conduct of the police, in saving the rioters and in destroying the evidence would compel any court to draw an adverse inference against police and the investigating agency being hand in glove with the rioters and acting under the directions of those unseen powerful persons who were behind all this.

The first commission to investigate the violence was set up immediately after the fact, and was headed by Ved Marwah, a senior Delhi Police officer. But as it was nearing the completion of its work, the central government aborted it.

A commission constituted in 1985 under the Supreme Court justice Ranganath Misra noted the “behaviour of most policemen was shabby in the sense that they allowed people to be killed, houses to be burnt, property too be looted, ladies to be dragged and misbehaved with in their very presence.” The Misra commission stated that all calls to the police helpline and to police stations during the attacks went unanswered. If there had been any response, it added, “it was a plea of inability to assist.”

“The role of the police in 1984 and in 2020 has been the same,” Dhingra, a retired judge who presided over cases related to the 1984 violence, said. “Neither the professional attitude of the police has changed, nor the police and nor those handling the police has changed.”

The Misra commission noted that, in the prevailing atmosphere at the time, it was difficult for the victims to approach the police. Moreover, the police refused to register FIRs “if they implicated police or any person in authority … the informants were required to delete such allegations from written reports.” One of the only police stations that appeared to take action against the mobs was in Subzi Mandi, where Kewal Singh, an assistant commissioner, and Gurmail Singh, an inspector, rounded up some ninety rioters on the first night of the pogroms. However, “these Sikh officers were removed from the scene,” Kusum Lata Mittal, a retired secretary to the central government, wrote in a 1990 report. “It almost seems that they were removed as a punishment for making large scale arrests.” Mittal indicted 72 police officials and recommended that any agency other than the Delhi Police should take action against them. This recommendation was never followed.

The police appeared to have no intention of arresting the perpetrators or even collecting evidence against them. For instance, in their book When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, the journalist Manoj Mitta and the lawyer HS Phoolka, who represented many of the victims for years, write that the police arrested just four arsonists in eastern Delhi from among the hundreds who made up the mobs. From the same place, the police arrested 26 Sikhs who had tried to defend themselves. It was only when commissions of inquiry were set up in subsequent years that the truth about the pogroms started to be registered in government records. Even then, justice was seldom meted out.

Harminder Kaur, a resident of Mansarovar Park, in eastern Delhi, lost her husband—a head constable with the Delhi Police—on 1 November 1984. The following day, her 17-year-old son and 23-year-old son-in-law were also lynched. In their affidavits before the commissions, numerous witnesses named HKL Bhagat, the Congress MP for East Delhi, as having led the lynch mobs in the area. However, the only FIR that was lodged against Bhagat, in 1996, was based on Kaur’s affidavit. In When a Tree Shook Delhi, Mitta and Phoolka recalled what happened afterwards.

In Harminder Kaur’s case, the police recorded her statement as many as six times, questioning her over and over again on her allegation against Bhagat. She was harassed and driven to a point where she actually regretted giving any affidavit on the murders of her husband, son, and son-in-law. In contrast, the police felt no need to question Bhagat even once. Not surprisingly, the police closed the case in court in 2000. We made a representation to Lieutenant Governor Vijay Kapoor to reopen the case against Bhagat, and transfer the investigation to the CBI. Kapoor sought the opinion of additional solicitor general, KK Sud. In a detailed opinion pointing out flaws in the investigation, Sud castigated the police for shielding Bhagat. Kapoor then sent Harminder Kaur’s case to the CBI. By the time it got around to filing charges in the case, Bhagat, however, became mentally unfit to be tried for any crime.

Bhagat was subsequently discharged in the case due to insufficient evidence. He was arrested for barely four days in another case and then released on bail, after he complained of health issues. He died in 2005. It took two more years for three men to be convicted based on Kaur’s allegations.

In Trilokpuri, which bore the brunt of the violence, several eyewitnesses accused Soor Veer Singh Tyagi, the officer in charge of the Kalyanpuri police station, of enabling the pogroms. Mittal’s report indicted Tyagi, describing his actions as “criminal misconduct.” She also noted that his attempts, “to a great extent successful, in obtaining affidavits in his favour by browbeating the witnesses indicate that it is highly unlikely that any witness would have the courage of coming and giving evidence against him.”

In his book, Phoolka recalls Tyagi telling him that “he had been made a scapegoat.” He writes that Tyagi claimed that senior police officers had gathered in Bhagat’s house on the eve of the pogroms. “The decision conveyed to officials down the line was to let killings take place and then erase all traces of the crime,” Phoolka writes. He told me that neither Tyagi nor any other police official has been convicted for their role in the violence till date.

Days after the February 2020 violence, the New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “Why Delhi Police Did Nothing to Stop Attacks on Muslims.” In it, The Caravan’s political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal, wrote, “Many of the police personnel and officers who were attacking protesters last week in Delhi along with the Hindu mobs would have either served under or been trained under the very same officers who escaped any punishment for their role in the 1984 pogrom.”

The impunity afforded to the Delhi Police in the aftermath of the pogroms means that little has changed over the past four decades, as the anti-Muslim violence of 2020 indicates. In multiple cases of murder that I studied, I found that, even two years after the fact and despite filing voluminous charge sheets, the Delhi Police has not been able to determine who the assailants were. Many charge sheets that the Delhi Police has filed in these cases accuse more Muslims than Hindus—in several cases, Muslims are accused of killing people from their own community. The investigations are filled with glaring lacunae, making it clear that Muslims bore the brunt of not just the violence but also of the police action that followed.

“The role of the police in 1984 and in 2020 has been the same,” Dhingra told me. “Neither the professional attitude of the police has changed, nor the police and nor those handling the police has changed.”

AMONG THE FIRST casualties of the 2020 violence was one of the Delhi Police’s own: Ratan Lal, a 43-year-old head constable, who on 24 February was deployed at Wazirabad road, in northeastern Delhi, to maintain peace at a CAA protest site. Hundreds of police officials participated in a wreath-laying ceremony held for him the next day. “This is a big loss for us,” the police commissioner at the time, Amulya Patnaik, told the media. “And we will always remember his sacrifice in the time to come.” Ratan Lal was cremated with full state honours and posthumously awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry. But, even two years on, the police has not been able to find out who shot him.

The charge sheets in the Ratan Lal case raise several questions about how the force dealt with his death. I interviewed Gurmeet Singh, the investigating officer in the case until December 2021, about what appeared to be discrepancies and oddities in the charge sheets. He blamed the chaos of the riots. “At a given point of time, there are the victims, we are nabbing the accused, we are collecting the evidence—so the technical stuff becomes here and there,” he told me.

Ratan Lal was brought dead to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital at 2.12 pm on 24 February. It took over a day for the police to register an FIR, which did not mention a gunshot injury despite a post-mortem examination determining, four hours earlier, that he had been shot. The FIR did not say that the protesters at Wazirabad were carrying firearms or even mention any firing at the scene of the crime. It merely stated that Ratan Lal had died after being attacked by the protesters.

When asked about the delay in registering the FIR, Gurmeet—who has filed all the five charge sheets in the case so far—said that the priority at the time was law and order. He first insisted that the gunshot wound was mentioned in the FIR, and when I pointed out that it was not, he said that he would check again.

Registered based on a complaint by a constable, the FIR said that, on the afternoon of 24 February, anti-CAA protesters in Wazirabad started to make their way from a service road to a main road. Senior police officials tried to stop them, which allegedly made the protesters “violent.” The complainant accused the protesters of charging at the police with sticks, iron rods and stones, and snatching away teargas shells and batons. As a result, the FIR added, Ratan Lal and two of his seniors—Anuj Kumar, the assistant commissioner for Gokulpuri, and Amit Kumar Sharma, the deputy commissioner for Shahdara—fell to the ground. Ratan Lal is said to have been subjected to further stone-pelting, as a result of which he sustained a head injury. Once “additional force” arrived, controlled the crowd and sent the injured cops to hospitals, the complainant found that Ratan Lal had died. “Actually, what happened was, when the bullet hit, they didn’t come to know it had happened,” Gurmeet said. “It got pressed under the anti-riot gear he was wearing, so no one came to know at that time.”

Ratan Lal’s medico-legal certificate and inquest report failed to mention a gunshot injury either. The former mentioned that he was injured during a physical assault, while the latter said that he was wounded during stone-pelting. But the doctor conducting the post-mortem noted in his general observations that a “circular hole was present over left sleeve of [Ratan Lal’s] shirt and inner, which was encircled.” This description makes the absence of a gunshot wound in the inquest papers more glaring, as it is prepared by a police official before the post-mortem, based on their observations about the apparent cause of death.

When asked about what appeared to be discrepancies and oddities in the charge sheets in the case about Ratan Lal’s killing, Gurmeet Singh, the investigating officer in the case until December 2021, blamed the chaos of the riots. “At a given point of time, there are the victims, we are nabbing the accused, we are collecting the evidence—so the technical stuff becomes here and there,” he said.

There are other curious details in the medical documents. In the inquest report, the investigating officer did not fill in details under crucial subheadings, such as a description of Ratan Lal’s injuries and the weapon, if any, believed to have caused the injuries. Moreover, the medico-legal certificate and Ratan Lal’s emergency registration card stated that a constable had brought him to the hospital from the “Peer Dargah” at Chand Bagh. Gurmeet admitted that the “Peer Dargah is actually quite behind, some two hundred and fifty metres away” from the site of the incident. He said that the whole area is at times referred to as the Chand Bagh Peer Dargah. “At that time, actually, what happened was that there was what is called a total system collapse,” he added. “Whatever whoever understood to the best of their abilities at that time, [they filled that in.]”

The post-mortem reports for at least five other people who died in the violence that day were prepared by a medical board. Ratan Lal’s post-mortem report, as attached in the charge sheet, only bore the signatures of an assistant professor of forensic medicine at GTB Hospital and an unidentified individual, and not of a full medical board. Moreover, while all the other charge sheets pertaining to the violence that I studied mentioned that the relevant post-mortem examinations had been videotaped, no such comment appears in Ratan Lal’s case. When asked about these points, Gurmeet said, “Whatever it is, it is on paper only. There was a board that did the post-mortem.”

It is still not known who shot Ratan Lal. The statements of about twenty police personnel quoted in the charge sheets share similar narratives. Many of them mentioned that some individuals were standing on the roofs of nearby buildings and firing at the police. They also accused protesters of carrying weapons. Some of these statements have identical portions. However, none of the statements mention the police personnel at the scene firing any shots, either in self-defence or in the air, despite them allegedly coming under attack. Gurmeet maintained that the police did not open fire.

The two senior officials who were with Ratan Lal did not know who shot him either. Both of them repeated the same line in their statements: “I came to know afterwards that the rioters had shot head constable Ratan Lal dead and several other police personnel were also grievously injured.”

Supplementary investigation remained pending in the case, the Delhi Police stated in an affidavit on 28 January 2022. The ballistics report, which should reveal details about the weapon used to shoot Ratan Lal, has not been filed in any of the charge sheets so far.

The police has filed grave charges, including of murder and damage to public property, against 22 Muslim men in the case. Sixteen of the accused have received bail, Gurmeet told me. According to the charge sheets, no firearm has been recovered from any of the accused. Athar Khan, an activist who has also been charged in the conspiracy case, is said to have admitted in a handwritten statement that he participated in the violence that day. However, beneath his statement, which is attached to one of the charge sheets, it says, “Accused refused to sign.”

Scroll reported that seven of the accused, all of whom were arrested on 11 March 2020, have almost identical disclosure statements. “There’s no contradiction, no?” Gurmeet responded, when asked about this. “Policemen have their own language, a set language. A policeman would ask the person questions and write in his own language then. What’s the problem with that?”

Five days after the incident, a local media platform called Media Durbar uploaded a video report that covered how Ratan Lal was shot. “His relatives present at GTB Hospital’s mortuary told us that, when the crowd attacked them, DCP Amit Sharma sustained a head injury and he fell down,” the anchor said. “Ratan Lal bent down to pick him up, and a bullet fired from the DCP’s side hit him.” Gurmeet paused and then laughed in response to a question about this. He denied that any such firing took place.

In late 2021, I met Ratan Lal’s wife, Poonam, and showed her the Media Durbar clip. She said she did not know anything about it, but she did not appear shocked. When asked about the investigation into the case, her brother Deepak said, “We don’t know anything.”

Another casualty during the violence was Sikander Khan, an unmarried 36-year-old bus conductor. His brother Mohammad Ashfaq, a tailor, told me that it was normal for the family to not see Sikander for fifteen days at a stretch. Ashfaq, who resides in a small house in Chand Bagh, said that Sikander practically lived in the bus. Sikander did not have a mobile phone of his own; he would borrow one from a friend if he had to contact his family between his visits home.

Sikander last visited his house on 23 February 2020, Ashfaq told me. About four kilometres away, at the Jafrabad metro station, Mishra delivered his speech. The next day, Ashfaq heard that there were some fights happening. “I initially thought it’s something small,” he told Maktoob Media nine months later. “A major clash cannot break out in Delhi. The Delhi Police controls these things very quickly.” That evening, he said, he found that his shop had been looted. For a few days, he hunkered down in his home with his family, worrying about how to deal with his losses.

About ten days after the violence ended, Ashfaq said, he began asking around about his brother. He heard from somewhere that Sikander had died. “Our whole world came crashing down,” he told me earlier this year. Ashfaq was directed to the Khajuri Khas police station, where the cops asked for Sikander’s identification marks and other details. “They said no one like that has come,” he told me. But, Ashfaq said, a few days later, when he approached the station house officer, he was sent to the GTB Hospital mortuary, where he found his brother. The body was finally handed over to the family on 19 March.

Ashfaq said that he had been asking an official at the Khajuri Khas police station to register an FIR, but the response he received was, “His FIR will be registered, but I will not be the one to do it.”

Sikander’s post-mortem report offers some answers about his death and also raises questions about how the police handled it. The report states that, as per the inquest papers, the unidentified individual was found in an “unconscious state under flyover, Khajuri chowk on 27 February 2020 at about 11.20 AM.” By the time he reached a hospital, about four hours later, he had died.

The body was “brought and identified” by an official of the Khajuri Khas station, where Ashfaq had initially been turned away. Even though Sikander’s body had been recovered on 27 February, his autopsy was conducted two weeks later, on 11 March. Dr Pyara Lal Garg, a retired professor of surgery who was the dean at the faculty of medical sciences in Chandigarh’s Panjab University, said that such a delay is uncommon. “Normally, an unidentified body is kept for 72 hours before disposal and all possible measures are taken by the police for identification during the said period,” he told me.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Sikander’s death is that the Delhi Police did not recognise him as a casualty of the communal violence, despite plenty of indications that suggest otherwise. His body was recovered on the third day of the violence. According to data compiled by the Delhi Police from July 2020, Khajuri Khas was among the worst-affected areas, with the local police station registering the highest number of cases pertaining to the violence among all the police stations in northeastern Delhi. Sikander sustained six external injuries on his body, including one to the head. Garg told me that a histopathology report was needed to form a final opinion about the gravity of the injuries. But Ashfaq believed that his brother had been beaten a lot. “There were marks on his body, from head to toe,” he told me.

The police refused to register an FIR regarding Sikander’s death. Ashfaq said that he had been asking an official at the Khajuri Khas police station to register an FIR, but the response he received was, “His FIR will be registered, but I will not be the one to do it.”

In October 2020, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat wrote a letter to the police commissioner flagging Sikander as a casualty of the communal violence. The Hindustan Times quoted a Delhi Police spokesperson saying that an unidentified body had been found in a public toilet in Khajuri Khas on 27 February. “There were no fresh injuries on the body,” the spokesperson claimed. “Inquest proceedings were carried out. We are still awaiting the final autopsy report but there is so far no connection of that death to the riots.” It is unclear why the spokesperson said that a final autopsy is due in the case, or how the police deduced that Sikander had not died in the violence.

Ashfaq told me in January that he had been running from pillar to post to get an FIR registered. On 16 September 2020, his family had filed an application under Section 156(3) of the Code for Criminal Procedure. This section empowers an individual to file an application before a magistrate to seek the registration of an FIR. Two months later, the Delhi Police told the magistrate that it had received the histopathology report but was waiting for the hospital to submit a final opinion on the cause of death. But, even one year on, Ashfaq had no idea what the police had concluded and whether an FIR would be registered.

MOST OF THE CHARGE SHEETS I studied begin with the police’s account of the anti-CAA demonstrations, which always cast the protesters in a negative light—despite ample evidence that the protests were largely peaceful. An even more jarring feature of the police’s narrative was that Muslims somehow ended up killing people from their own community in the communal violence.

In his statements, Arif allegedly admitted that he had joined a “Hindu mob” to lynch the three Muslim men in Brijpuri.

Take, for instance, the violence at Jafrabad that led to the death of 18-year-old Amaan Iqbal. On the night of 22 February, about a thousand people began a sit-in underneath a metro bridge on Jafrabad’s 66 Foota Road, next to Crescent Mode Public School. The road connects Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, with the neighbourhoods of Maujpur on one side and Seelampur on the other. “Many people had reached such spots, made anti-national remarks to provoke the protesters and pump their anti-national thoughts,” the charge sheet in the case registered about the violence says. The blockade at Jafrabad irked the “other community”—Hindus.

The situation at the sit-in became heated over the next two days. On the afternoon of 23 February, Mishra delivered his speech in Jafrabad—a fact that did not find mention in the charge sheet. “The other community” gathered about eight hundred metres away from the sit-in, in Maujpur, and demanded that the road to be cleared. As per the police, the anti-CAA protesters began pelting stones, but the force contained the situation. The next day, the police narrative states, as violence began in other parts of the area, the Jafrabad protesters tried to make their way towards the pro-CAA protesters opposing them and the police’s efforts to stop them were met with stone pelting. Meanwhile, at Maujpur, a man named Shahrukh Pathan brandished a gun at a head constable and fired shots. No one was injured during the incident.

At 1 pm the next day, the charge sheet says, the anti-CAA protesters again tried to move towards Maujpur and again charged at the police—this time, with lathis and firearms as well. The police fired 108 bullets, but only in “self-defence” and to disperse the crowd, apart from using eight teargas shells. The charge sheet mentions that the police used 5.56-millimetre INSAS rifles, but bullets of other calibres were also recovered from the scene.

In the commotion that afternoon, ten personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force, nine policemen and ten rioters were injured, many of them sustaining gunshot injuries, and Iqbal died. The police took no responsibility for the death. “A rioter was killed by a bullet fired by the rioters itself,” the charge sheet says. It adds that, according to eyewitnesses, the rioters were aiming to shoot policemen, but “their bullets ended up bumping into the metro pillars and hitting the violent illegal crowd that included Amaan.”

When I asked Garg about this, he said that the “police can say anything, but the possibility of a projectile hitting a metro pillar, getting deflected and then causing such a massive injury … is not usually seen as a deflected projectile loses force and velocity.”

Iqbal’s post-mortem report confirmed that the “projectile of a firearm” entered the right side of his face. Instead of a whole bullet, “three projectile fragments” were recovered from the corpse.

The ballistics report in the case says that the calibre of the bullet could not be identified due to “lack of characteristics parameters.” A ballistics expert from Uttar Pradesh who examined the documents related to the case told me, on condition of anonymity, that it would be possible to give more details about the bore of the weapon with the information available.

The police charged 13 individuals—11 of them Muslims—with grave offences under the Indian Penal Code, including sections pertaining to rioting and murder. The individuals were also charged under sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act and the Arms Act. None of the charge sheets filed in the case mention if a firearm was recovered from any of these individuals.

Media organisations were not the only ones to point out the lacunae in cases where the police accuse Muslims of killing other Muslims. Even some district court judges have pulled up the police in these matters.

The case of 35-year-old Arif is telling. Arif is among the men accused of murdering 24-year-old Zakir, 22-year-old Mehtab Khan and 24-year-old Ashfaq in Brijpuri on 25 February 2020. He was arrested on 16 April that year. The three charge sheets filed in these murder cases state that Arif was leading a Muslim mob and vandalising properties belonging to Hindus. The charge sheets in the cases of Ashfaq and Zakir have identical disclosure statements by Arif—and the one filed in Mehtab’s case has only a couple of sentences that differ from the other two. The statements attached in Ashfaq and Zakir’s cases were recorded on 16 April, while the one attached in Mehtab’s case was recorded the next day.

In these statements, Arif allegedly admitted that he had joined a “Hindu mob” to lynch the three men in Brijpuri. He stated that Muslims had carried out “arson” in northeastern Delhi, which fired him up. Arif described that there was also a Hindu mob at the site. “The stone-pelting mob of the Hindus suddenly came near us and many of us Muslim boys got stuck,” he said. “The mob was severely thrashing three Muslim boys. I covered my face with a hanky out of fear and the communal slogans that the Hindu mob was raising, to save my life, I started raising them as well and joined the rioters and began beating those three Muslim boys as well. In some time, the three Muslim boys fell down and I managed to run away. I made a mistake, forgive me.”

While granting bail to Arif on 11 December 2020 in one of the murder cases, Vinod Yadav, a district judge, pointed out how peculiar this narrative was. “It is very obfuscatory that a muslim boy would become part of an ‘unlawful assembly’ which mostly consisted of members of Hindu community, the common object whereof was to cause maximum damage to the property, life and limb(s) of the other community,” Yadav noted. He pointed out that Arif was not visible in any video footage of the area. Moreover, the three eyewitnesses in the case could not spell out Arif’s exact role in the violence. “The primary material against the applicant remains his disclosure statement, which has got no meaning,” Yadav observed. A disclosure statement is not admissible as evidence in court.

Sahil claimed that he had seen a man called Sushil shoot his father, Parvez, on 25 February. Sahil wrote in an application that when he mentioned this in front of police personnel, one “policeman threatened me.”

Referring to the prosecution’s argument that the court had rejected bail for another accused person—Jitender, a Hindu—Yadav said that Arif’s case was different. “It does not appeal to senses that applicant being a muslim would rub shoulder to shoulder in such a surcharged atmosphere with the members of ‘unlawful assembly,’ which mainly consisted of the persons of Hindu community and would beat a muslim boy to death.”

Arif was subsequently granted bail in the other cases as well. In October 2021, Yadav, who had given multiple judgments indicting the police in the violence, was transferred to the Rouse Avenue Court, where he exclusively hears cases filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In January this year, I visited Arif’s home in Brijpuri. His mother, a middle-aged woman who did not identify herself, told me that Arif did not want to talk to the media. She said she thought the police had targeted him. “You see, the police had already been framing him in petty crimes,” she told me, adding that Ashfaq, whom Arif was accused of killing, was Arif’s relative. (Ashfaq’s family had confirmed this to Newslaundry in October 2020.) She said that Arif’s father had been among those who went to collect Ashfaq’s body from the hospital. “But we never knew that Arif would later be arrested in the same case,” she told me. “Even if you ignore that, think for yourself, can a Muslim kill someone from his own religion in communal riots?”

Another case where a court has pulled up the Delhi Police for its investigation is that of 22-year-old Shahid Alam. On 24 February 2020, hours after Ratan Lal’s death, the anti-CAA protester was also shot dead in Wazirabad. According to multiple accounts, Hindus and Muslims were pelting stones at each other in the area—the Hindus were on the roof of Mohan Nursing Home, and the Muslims were on the roof of the Saptirishi building, on the other side of the road. Photojournalists have recorded evidence that the men on Mohan Nursing Home were shooting at the other side.

All six accused in the case are Muslims and were arrested over the next two months. In a bail order for three of the accused, the Delhi High Court judge Suresh Kumar Kait pointed out that the accused had asked three Hindu men and their families to leave the scene of the crime. “If they were really involved in this communal riot and wanted to cause harm to the members of the other/Hindu community, they would not have tried to save the lives of the … members of the other community,” Kait ruled, adding that no firearm or weapon was recovered from the accused.

The court also poked other holes in the Delhi Police’s case. It dismissed the police’s claim that “firing was possibly from close proximity”—an assertion that would indicate that the Muslim stone pelters themselves shot Shahid. “The antemortem injury does not mention the shape of the wound and the colour of the initial part of the track which are essential to decide the range of the fire,” the bail order stated. “The theory of close-range shot is just a conjecture of the investigating agency and is not based on scientific fact.”

ON 8 JULY 2020, Praveer Ranjan, the special commissioner of police (crime), issued a letter to senior police officers heading investigations into the Delhi violence:

As per an intelligence input, arrests of some Hindu youth from Chand Bagh and Khajuri Khas areas of North-East Delhi recently in connection with Delhi riots has led to a degree of resentment among the Hindu community there. Community representatives are alleging that these arrests are made without any evidence and are even insinuating that such arrests are being made for some personal reasons … Due care and precaution be taken while arresting any person.

Sahil Parvez, a 25-year-old who lost his father in the violence, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court challenging Ranjan’s order. The next month, the court ordered that the investigating officers were not to take Ranjan’s order into consideration while investigating the cases, but it did not impose any penalty on the Delhi Police for issuing such direction in the first place.

The police’s conduct while handling cases in which the main accused are Hindus is also worth a look. Members of the Tyagi family of North Ghonda, a neighbourhood in Shahdara, have been accused in at least three such matters, including the killing of Sahil’s father.

In a complaint filed at the Bhajanpura police station, on 18 March 2020, Sahil claimed that he had seen a man called Sushil shoot his father, Parvez, on 25 February. Sahil alleged that Sushil was accompanied by four or five men, whom he identified. He wrote that he took his father to GTB Hospital, and that police personnel at the hospital asked him for details in the presence of a doctor. When he mentioned Sushil shooting his father, however, one “policeman threatened me.” An FIR was registered the next day, but it did not name any accused.

Parvez died soon afterwards. Sahil took his father’s body to their hometown for the last rites. When he came back, he wrote, his father’s assailants began threatened him, saying, “if you open your mouth, then we will shoot your entire family with bullets.” If he went to the police, they allegedly added, “we will find out in a minute … the entire police department is with us.” Sahil wrote that it had taken great courage to submit this application.

It was only after 16 March that a member of a special investigation team took up the case. Sahil’s first statement was recorded on 3 April. Six days later, the crime branch arrested 16 accused in the matter. (The Quint later reported that all of them were connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.) The next day, the police obtained permission for single-day police custody of Sushil, which would allow them to interrogate him more freely, and sent the remaining 15 into judicial custody. The police stated in the original charge sheet that it was removing a charge against Sushil under the Arms Act as, “despite sincere efforts, the weapon of offense (firearm) has not been recovered so far.”

Among the accused in the case were the brothers Naresh and Uttam Tyagi. Three complainants have alleged that they personally saw the brothers indulging in criminal activities. For instance, Sahil had written in his application that, on 24 February, he saw Naresh, Uttam and their brother Subhash, among others, leading a mob that screamed slogans such as “Kapil Mishra zindabad!” Sahil wrote that the men were armed with guns and iron rods, and threw petrol bombs as well.

Sahil had also written in his complaint that he witnessed Naresh shooting one Mohammad Nasir Khan in the eye on 24 February. Nasir, who survived the gunshot, has himself reiterated the allegation multiple times. In an application seeking an FIR, filed in the Karkardooma court on 17 July 2020, Nasir wrote that he saw over a hundred rioters that night carrying iron rods, pistols, swords, petrol bombs and desi bombs in the street where he resides. Nasir wrote that the “mob was led by the owners of Tyagi Store”—Naresh, Uttam and Subhash—as well as Sushil, and that Naresh was the one who shot him in his left eye. Nasir also highlighted that his family members had frantically called police helpline numbers but did not get a response. His neighbour, an autorickshaw driver, took him to GTB Hospital. He lost his left eye and had to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Nasir said that he had been trying to get an FIR registered against Naresh, but the Bhajanpura police station refused to do so. In July 2020, he told The Caravan that the Tyagis had threatened him. “They said that they have all the correct political connections and dared us to go forward with the complaint,” he said. “All of them listed their relatives as a DCP, SHO, something or the other.” Despite the threats, he had filed a complaint at the police station, in late March, before submitting another one at the police help desk at a government relief camp in Mustafabad. He kept following up with the authorities to find out if the police was investigating the case, but to no avail.

On 13 July 2021, the judge Vinod Yadav said that the police had investigated the case in “a most casual, callous and farcical manner.”

That July, Nasir said, the police informed him that a charge sheet had already been filed in his case. They identified the case as FIR 64 of 2020, registered at Bhajanpura. Nasir said this came as a surprise to him. “How come they investigated my case without approaching me even once?”

The FIR, filed based on police testimonies, recounted violence between two groups of rioters at Maujpur chowk on 24 February. After receiving information about the violence, it stated, an official visited GTB Hospital and found the medico-legal certificates of seven men with gunshot injuries, including Nasir, and registered a case pertaining to them. It is not clear why the police registered one case for all seven of them, especially when Nasir had been injured at North Ghonda, which is at least a kilometre away from Maujpur. All five accused in the case were Muslim. The charge sheet said that these men had been identified from videos of the violence that had spread on social media.

On 21 October 2020, in response to Nasir’s application, a metropolitan magistrate directed the Bhajanpura police station to follow through within 24 hours and register an FIR. But the police station contested this and asked for the order to be revised. On 13 July 2021, Vinod Yadav rejected the police’s request and said that it had investigated the case in “a most casual, callous and farcical manner.”

Yadav noted that the investigating agency knew that the seven aggrieved men had suffered gunshot injuries but, “for the reasons best known to it,” had not invoked a relevant charge under the Arms Act, or of attempted murder, while registering the FIR. He pointed out that the case diaries had not been maintained properly, that Nasir’s case provided a “counter version” and that there was no reason for the two cases to be clubbed together. He further imposed costs of Rs25,000, which would be “recovered from the petitioner and his supervising officers, who have miserably failed in their statutory duties in this case after holding a due inquiry in this regard.” The state challenged this order in the Delhi High Court, and the matter remains pending. As of mid April 2022, no FIR had been registered in Nasir’s case.

A third allegation against the Tyagis was made by Mohammad Salim, who is accused in multiple cases pertaining to the Delhi violence. In an application to have an FIR registered, filed with a magistrate on 18 March 2020, Salim accused the Tyagi brothers, among others, of forcibly entering his house on the night of 24 February. He alleged that Subhash and another individual fired gunshots at his house.

When I visited Salim, he showed me holes on a wall at his house. The assailants had also fired from his roof, and abused and threatened him, he wrote in his application. He had called the police helpline number several times. “But even after many calls, no police personnel arrived,” he wrote. Salim added that he had unsuccessfully tried to have an FIR registered at the Jafrabad police station and had also emailed his complaint to the deputy commissioner for Delhi’s North East district.

Salim’s application was to be heard before a metropolitan magistrate at 2 pm on 19 March 2020, but he could not attend. That evening, his lawyers sent an email to the commissioner and other government officials. At around 1 pm that afternoon, the email said, around thirty people had shown up at Salim’s house and asked him to withdraw his application. If he did not, they allegedly told him, “he and his family would be implicated in false cases and would be made to suffer severe consequences by them.” The email stated that Salim was then taken to the Bhajanpura police station. He was subsequently arrested and released on bail this January.

Over a year after he injured a student of Jamia Milia Islamia by shooting a bullet, Ram Gopal Sharma delivered a hate speech at a mahapanchayat in Pataudi, in Haryana’s Gurugram district, where he said, “Jab mulle kaate jaenge, Ram naam chillaenge”—When Muslims are slaughtered, they will shout the name of Ram.

Naresh and Uttam were released last December, while Sushil told me that he was released last March. All three denied the allegations against them. I could not get in touch with Subhash.

On 21 December 2021, Kaleem Ahmed became the first person to be convicted for the Delhi violence. Ahmed had given shelter to Shahrukh Pathan, who was seen in a viral video brandishing a gun at a head constable in Maujpur on 24 February. The police had arrested Pathan on 3 March, and he was also booked in another case. Pathan remains in jail.

Meanwhile, another individual accused of unprovoked firing during the anti-CAA protests is out on bail. On 30 January 2020, when students of Jamia Milia Islamia were protesting outside the university, 17-year-old Ram Gopal Sharma shot a bullet that injured one of them. Several people pointed out that, in a viral video of the shooting, policemen could be seen simply looking on and not taking any action as Sharma walked towards the students, armed with a gun. Sharma was booked as a minor and released within a few months. In July 2021, he delivered a hate speech at a mahapanchayat in Pataudi, in Haryana’s Gurugram district, where he said, “Jab mulle kaate jaenge, Ram naam chillaenge”—When Muslims are slaughtered, they will shout the name of Ram. The charged crowd chanted the slogan with him. He was arrested again and released the following month.

The status of the investigation against Sharma for the Jamia shooting is not known. “To my knowledge, nothing happened in the case after the registration of an FIR,” Shadab Farooq, who was hit by Sharma’s bullet, told me. “I was supposed to get a summons from the police for an inquiry, but I haven’t received any communication from them so far.”

FRAMED, DAMNED, ACQUITTED, by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, mentions several cases in which the Special Cell’s initial narrative of a case fell apart. One of them is State vs Khongbantbum Brojen Singh. According to the prosecution, Rajbir Singh, an assistant commissioner of the Special Cell, received information in March 2002 from “a central intelligence agency” that Brojen Singh, a “known terrorist” affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, was hiding in Delhi with an accomplice. The two were arrested and charged under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act. (The POTA was repealed in 2004.)

Brojen, the authors write, used to participate in protests against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and had two cases registered against him in Manipur. He had previously filed a petition against his wrongful detention on an earlier occasion, and the Guwahati High Court had awarded him Rs60,000 in compensation.

Curiously, the police asked Kapil Mishra about his “personal observation of the area.” While describing the scene of the anti-CAA protests, Mishra said, “Muslim people had created an atmosphere of fear and terror there.”

On 12 May 2009, over seven years after his arrest, a district judge acquitted Brojen. The judge pointed out that the disclosure statement recorded by a police officer at the time of Brojen’s arrest and his confession recorded by another officer a month later were identical. “The entire statement is word by word including [comma] and full stop is exactly the same,” the judge noted. “It appears humanly impossible conduct both for the person making such a confession or the person recording it that entire confessional statement would be exactly the same word by word.” The JTSA writes that the court concurred with the explanation that, since Brojen “had been suspected as a terrorist by State authorities and he had already incurred wrath of authorities in getting their conviction in the contempt of court, the police got him targeted to become a victim of this crime.”

Rajbir Singh, who had allegedly received the initial tip in the Brojen case, was one of the Special Cell’s most well-known and controversial officers. Having entered the Delhi Police as a sub-inspector, in 1982, he steadily rose through the ranks and developed a reputation as an “encounter specialist,” with over forty killings to his name. He received constant encouragement from those in power. He was promoted out of turn, singled out for special praise from the home minister at the time, LK Advani, and also received a gallantry award from the president.

However, Rajbir was synonymous with the Special Cell’s dark history. Multiple cases he stitched together fell apart in court—though not before the accused spent years behind bars and allegedly faced custodial torture. In 2007, Rajbir was transferred away from the Crime Branch following accusations of property-grabbing and alleged links to a drug mafia. However, a vigilance probe failed to substantiate the charges, he became the head of a special anti-terror cell. In March 2008, he was shot dead by a property dealer when, according to Zee News, he allegedly went to collect Rs60 lakh for services rendered.

In December 2001, Rajbir took over the investigation into the parliament attack. All five men who carried out the attack were shot dead on the spot but, two days later, the police named five accused and cast SAR Geelani, a Delhi University professor, as the mastermind behind it. An obituary for Geelani, published by The Caravan in October 2019, described what happened when he was taken into custody.

The men of the Special Cell hung him upside down, and thrashed the soles of his feet, while delivering constant verbal abuse. He was then taken down and put on an ice slab where he was beaten till he was nearly unconscious. They laid him down handcuffed on the cold floor of the police station with chains on his feet tied to a table. His children were made to see their father in this state and the policemen threatened to rape his wife if he did not give a false confession.

Geelani refused to confess. He was charged under the POTA, which was still an ordinance at the time. A trial court convicted him and sentenced him to death. The Delhi High Court subsequently overturned the verdict, acquitting Geelani and one of his co-accused, Afsan Guru. “The prosecution has failed to bring on record evidence which cumulatively forms a chain, so complete that there is no escape from the conclusion” that Geelani was involved in the conspiracy, the court ruled. The Delhi Police unsuccessfully appealed in the Supreme Court. There has been no probe into how and why the police ended up accusing Geelani in the first place.

Afzal Guru, another accused in the case, was sentenced to death. In a 2006 piece arguing against the sentence, the journalist Sonia Jabbar emphasised that the police had still not been able to answer many questions about the attack. The choice of the Special Cell as the investigating agency and Rajbir as the investigating officer, given “the enormity of the attack and the fact that we nearly went to war with Pakistan” as a consequence, she wrote, was “a departure from all norms.” She noted that the investigation had been “completed in a record 17 days” and relied on Afzal’s confession, which the Supreme Court had deemed unreliable. The investigators had refused to follow up on the strands that had emerged from Afzal’s subsequent statements, such as the alleged involvement of the controversial policeman Davinder Singh—who would, in January 2020, be arrested while travelling with two militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen. As a result, Jabbar wrote,

there is nothing else that confirms the sequence of events or the conspiracy theory linking the masterminds with Afzal. Who were the attackers? Who were the masterminds? What was the conspiracy? Five years after the Parliament attack, the Indian public still doesn’t know the truth, and seems to be content to hang a man, close the case and sweep the rest under the carpet.

Rajbir Singh, an assistant commissioner of police, receiving a Police Medal for Gallantry from the then home minister, LK Advani, on 16 February 2003. Rajbir was synonymous with the Special Cell’s dark history and developed a reputation as an “encounter specialist,” with over forty killings to his name. In March 2008, he was shot dead by a property dealer when, according to Zee News, he allegedly went to collect Rs60 lakh for services rendered. BCCL

In November 2005, Mohammad Hussain Fazili, a shawl weaver from Kashmir, was arrested in connection to serial blasts in Delhi that had killed 67 people and injured over two hundred others a month earlier. Fazili was blindfolded and flown to Delhi, where he was taken to the Special Cell office at Lodhi Road. He was not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours, as mandated by law. Twelve years later, he was acquitted by a Delhi court. Following his acquittal, he described in graphic detail the physical and mental torture he had undergone at the hands of the Special Cell—including multiple beatings and being forced to eat his own faeces. It is not known whether these allegations were ever investigated.

Today, the Special Cell is mostly in the news with respect to its narrative about the conspiracy case in the 2020 Delhi violence. The charge sheet begins like this: On the afternoon of 6 March, an informer told a sub-inspector at the Crime Branch that the Delhi violence was the result of “a conspiracy hatched by Umar Khalid and fellow students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and members of some organisations.” The Crime Branch registered an FIR the same day and, subsequently, handed the investigation over to the Special Cell.

Several journalists and commentators have criticised the case that the Special Cell has stitched together, stating that it lacks substance. In an article for The Caravan soon after Khalid’s bail application was rejected by the Karkardooma court, in March 2022, Shuddhabrata Sengupta writes that, at various points in the hearings, “the prosecution made its case by overreaching, by twisting the meanings of words, or by taking the actions of the accused out of their very apparent contexts.” Among the peculiar facts in the case is that one of the accused, Sharjeel Imam, had been under arrest for almost a month when the violence broke out.

A more notable aspect is that the police appeared to be ignoring the accusations against BJP leaders. For instance, according to the charge sheet in the conspiracy case, the police only summoned Kapil Mishra once. Mishra was asked whether he had visited northeastern Delhi before the riots, to which he responded that he lived there. He said that, on 23 February 2020, he had visited Maujpur in his personal capacity after seeing Facebook posts that people were facing difficulties with such things as commuting to their offices and schools as a result of the anti-CAA protest. “I had reached there to resolve this problem of the people and I had also informed the DCP on phone before going there,” he told the police. When asked whether he had delivered any speech in northeastern Delhi that day—even though his words had been captured on video—Mishra replied, “I never gave any speech. I only asked the police to clear the road in three days. And I also said that if the road isn’t cleared, then we will also hold a sit-in.” He insisted that this was not a speech.

Curiously, Mishra was also asked about his “personal observation of the area.” While describing the scene of the anti-CAA protests, Mishra said, “Muslim people had created an atmosphere of fear and terror there.” As the police had not registered FIRs in connection to complaints that accused Mishra of participating in the violence, he was not asked questions about it.

In October 2020, Scroll published a series on individuals who had been called in for questioning in the conspiracy case, which also called into question the veracity of the evidence produced in the charge sheet. Many of the individuals explained how the police tried to apply pressure on them during questioning. One of the individuals told Scroll that a senior officer “said that they had the right to do it [torture] under the sections that they were interrogating me.” Another individual admitted to caving under police pressure to give a false statement.

“The need for accountability of the Delhi police not only in instances of mass violence but also generally speaking was, I believe, necessary,” Madan Lokur said, “and recent events have shown that it has become absolutely necessary.”

One of the accused in the conspiracy case, Asif Iqbal Tanha, was arrested in May 2020. Tanha, a student of the Persian language at Jamia Millia Islamia, had participated in the anti-CAA protests. He was initially arrested in connection with the violence that took place on the campus in December 2019, but was soon charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, like most of his co-accused in the conspiracy case. Tanha told me that, in April 2020, he was taken to the Special Cell’s Lodhi Road office for one night for questioning. There, Tanha told me, he was beaten and verbally abused by four or five drunk officials. “Someone was kicking me, someone was punching me,” he recalled.

Dr Mohammad Ahtesham Anwar has also complained of harassment at the hands of the Special Cell. Anwar’s allegations are especially jarring, as he is known to have saved many lives during the violence. In those three days, when barely any ambulances were making it to northeastern Delhi, the only medical facility that hundreds of its residents could access was Anwar’s 15-bed Al Hind hospital, in Mustafabad. Many with grievous injuries and gunshot wounds showed up at the hospital. They needed to be referred to other, bigger hospitals but, given the situation in the area, it was impossible to do so in the first two days of the violence. “A few here had even succumbed to their injuries,” Anwar told me, “and they didn’t even allow the ambulance to take the dead to the hospital for post-mortem.”

Anwar said that he and the families present at the hospital tried calling emergency helpline numbers but did not receive a response. Then, on the intervening night between 25 and 26 February, the Delhi High Court held an emergency hearing, during which a bench comprising S Muralidhar and Anup Jairam Bhambhani spoke to Anwar to assess the situation at Al Hind. The bench then directed the Delhi Police to ensure “safe passage” for injured victims to receive “immediate emergency treatment.” Hours later, Muralidhar presided over another hearing related to the violence, at which he said, “I am appalled at the state of affairs of Delhi Police.” That night, Muralidhar was transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, after the law ministry accepted a two-week-old recommendation from the Supreme Court collegium for his transfer.

Anwar told me that he was called to the Special Cell’s office multiple times and made to sit there for the whole day. In an application to the deputy commissioners of the Special Cell and the Crime Branch, submitted in July 2020, Anwar wrote that he was asked questions such as “Who funded the protests?”, “Who served the biryani?” and “Who served the tea?” The interrogators allegedly told him, “You tell us any name and we will leave you.” Anwar wrote that he used to tell them that he is a doctor and could give them information about his clinic and work. “Teri saari doctory nikaal denge saale”—We will take the doctor out of you—they would reply, as per his application. “Your conversation with the judge has ruined the plan.”

Anwar alleged his interrogators told him that, “at the right time, we will give you a task and you will have to do it.” When he asked what this work would be, he wrote, they said, “It can be anything, right or wrong, and you will have to do it or else we will charge you with UAPA.” They threatened him with twenty years in jail, he added—“your house, family, clinic, everything will be ruined.”

On 30 March 2022, Anwar told me that the Special Cell had taken his mobile phone and had still not returned it. “I was broken during those days of mental torture,” he said.

Outside the Al Hind hospital in northeastern Delhi’s Mustafabad. During the February 2020 violence, when barely any ambulances were making it to northeastern Delhi, the hospital was the only medical facility that hundreds of residents could access. After the violence, Dr Anwar, who runs the hospital, complained of harassment at the hands of the Delhi Police. ISHAN TANKHA

In a 2014 article for The Caravan on the failure to deliver justice for the victims of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, Hartosh Singh Bal wrote, “If justice remains impossible for the victims of 1984, when the violence took place in the national capital and where the evidence is so ample, it seems likely that justice will continue to elude the vast majority of such victims anywhere in the country.” Instead of being afforded truth and reconciliation, the victims of 2020 seem to find themselves being further victimised by the police force meant to protect them.

The Delhi Police appears to have a habit of giving itself a clean chit, with no authority able to hold it to account. “The need for accountability of the Delhi police not only in instances of mass violence but also generally speaking was, I believe, necessary,” Madan Lokur told me, “and recent events have shown that it has become absolutely necessary.” However, he added, “It is very difficult to suggest any agency that can look into this ineptitude, if not laxity and complicity, except a body of citizens which can make an independent assessment.”

PRABHJIT SINGH is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

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