Who failed Delhi?

The writing had been on the wall. At least on the one-kilometre-long wall that separates the warren of galis from the sewage canal that runs through the Jafrabad area of Northeast Delhi. Nineteen pieces of anti-CAA and anti-NRC graffiti are sprayed on that white facade. But the administration failed to see it. All it took was for someone to fling a stone, and the area erupted in a conflagration that lasted four days beginning February 23. There are enough indications to suggest the riots were not spontaneous. There were Molotov cocktails, stockpiles of stones and handguns. Twenty-two of the 49 victims were shot dead and nearly 200 people sustained gunshot injuries. Yet, all the law enforcement agencies and the political class could do was point fingers at each other even as the current spate of Hindu-Muslim riots became the worst the national capital has seen in 70 years. The question, then, bears repetition: who let Delhi down?

A 62 square kilometre area, off the shoulder of the Yamuna river, Northeast Delhi is the most densely populated district of the country with 36,155 persons per sq km as against the national average of 420. Three-storeyed concrete houses stand cheek-by-jowl on narrow, three-feet-wide bylanes. Levels of education as well as of employment are low, its youth aspiring for nothing more than a motorbike or a mobile phone. A porous border with Uttar Pradesh means criminal gangs shuttle freely between both sides; procuring petrol bombs and country-made guns is not difficult either. The area also has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the city 30 per cent as against the average of 13 per cent elsewhere in Delhi. It has a history of both crime and communal riots there was violence here during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 as well as after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Throw an incendiary communal narrative into this volatile mix, and a conflagration is guaranteed.

Tensions had been building up in the area ever since the BJP-led central government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, on December 9 last year. Hundreds of women had begun their sit-in at Shaheen Bagh,22 km away, from December 14 onward. Three days later, on December 17, anti-CAA protesters moving to assemble at Seelampur Chowk in Northeast Delhi were stopped by the police, and a clash ensued. The agitated mob pelted stones at the police and damaged vehicles, including a school bus which had a driver and student inside. The police used teargas and led a lathi-charge. Twelve policemen and six civilians were injured. Before long, Northeast Delhi became the Ground Zero of the anti-CAA protests.

The FIR filed on January 14 named Aam Aadmi Party leader Abdul Rehman and ex-Congress MLA Mateen Ahmed for provoking the crowds to join the violence’. Around the same time, BJP leader Kapil Mishra started tweeting videos to his 796K followers of what he claimed were Muslims beating up policemen and frightening young children inside the bus by pelting stones at it. BJP followers then started the hashtag #AlahuAkbar where more videos of alleged Muslim mobs shouting Allahu Akbar’ and throwing petrol bombs started trending. With the Delhi assembly election approaching, the BJP used the events to begin a polarising campaign. Invoking the protest at Shaheen Bagh, BJP leaders said it was causing inconvenience to the city and businesses. The pitch resonated well in Northeast Delhi, home to many Hindu traders, who readily identified with the damage a blocked road could inflict on their livelihood. It worked. Three of the eight seats the BJP won in the assembly election were from Northeast Delhi. Another three came from the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency next door.

The election over, national attention, indeed that of the Delhi Police, shifted to the impending two-day visit of the American president, Donald Trump. Amid all this, the warning signs the slow build-up to the violence, the stockpiling of stones, petrol bombs and firearms went largely unnoticed. This, despite the elaborate central information-gathering network in the national capital. The Intelligence Bureau the home ministry’s eyes and ears has its operatives on the ground, especially in communally-sensitive areas. The police has beat constables and plainclothes Special Branch personnel, who fill out Daily Situation Reports (DSRs). In the states, the DSRs go to the police commissioner and the chief minister. In Delhi, where the police is under the home ministry and not the chief minister, they go to the police commissioner, the lieutenant governor and the home ministry.

On February 22, at around 12.30 am, some 200 women gathered at the Jafrabad metro station, waving Indian flags and shouting Azadi from CAA and NRC’. They wanted to come at night because that is how their sisters in Shaheen Bagh had started their protest. By the afternoon of the next day, their numbers had gone up to almost a thousand, swelled by Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Ravan’ Azad’s Twitter call for a Bharat Bandh on February 23. The bandh wasn’t only to mark dissent against the CAA but also against Dalit persecution and reservations.

The Jafrabad protests were clearly inspired by the Sha­heen Bagh one. In both places, adult women came out in large numbers to block a public road, crucial for wholesale markets nearby to conduct business. Yet, trying to set up a Shaheen Bagh in a Hindu-majority area, shortly after the anti-CAA violence, had an entirely different outcome.

Shaheen Bagh, despite current allegations of the agitation there being a political conspiracy, started life as a peaceful sit-in by local women. Women who, incidentally, believed that it was because they were blocking a major road connecting Delhi and Noida that they were getting attention. In Mumbai, on January 5, after violence broke out at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, protesters tried to block both the Gateway of India and Carter Road in the same manner. The Mumbai police relocated them to Azad Maidan before the numbers could grow. In Delhi, no such attempt to relocate or negotiate with the locals was made in the initial days. It is only now, as the Shaheen Bagh protest enters its 12th week, that the disruption to public life is bringing it more criticism than sympathy. Nor did any pro-CAA group turn up at Shaheen Bagh. The women in Jafrabad had no such luck.

On February 23, as the anti-CAA rally in the area grew in strength, entry and exit to the Jafrabad metro station were closed. The area was also barricaded to keep out school buses. On the same day, senior police officer Ved Prakash Surya addressed the media, saying, We are holding talks with the protesters so that they leave, they can’t block a major road like this. We have also called paramilitary security personnel. At around 1.22 pm, Mishra tweeted for his supporters to reach the venue, telling them that if the police couldn’t stop the public road from being blocked, the people would. By 3 pm, a large group had gathered and begun shouting slogans against the anti-CAA protesters. According to a police assessment, Bhim Army supporters first pelted stones on the pro-CAA group at 4.42 pm, and they in turn chased them away with sticks and stones.

The men were all shouting Bulao, jaa kar logon ko bulao, maar dalo inhein’. Nobody knew who was on which side, says Ruksana Aslam, 31, who works at a beauty parlour in Noida and was at the Jafrabad protest on her mother’s insistence. They escaped the scuffle because they were at the edge of the gathering. We knew something bad was going to happen because the men were all making phone calls and asking for more men to arrive. The police didn’t lathi-charge the mob. They let it happen, she says.

In school, if two kids fight, teachers take them aside and give them time to calm down before bringing them together to reconcile. This time apart’ is important for tempers to cool down. When human beings are seized by negative emotions, logic and compassion do not return immediately, explains Dr S.K. Khandelwal, head of psychiatry at AIIMS in Delhi.

Between the stone pelting on the evening of February 23, the burning of homes and lynching on February 24 and its continuation on the third day, the situation was allowed to simmer. The morning after the 23rd, everybody was angry. Kirana shops were turning away customers who were not of the same religion, says Ruksana. But neither the law enforcers nor the political leaders took the anger seriously.

By then, a dangerous rift had opened up. About a kilometre away on the same road that connects Jafrabad with Maujpur, a pro-CAA group sat on the road and declared: We will not move unless Jafrabad is emptied out. Slogans such as Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko’ made popular by Union minister of state for finance Anurag Thakur during the Delhi election campaignrang alongside other provocations aimed at the anti-CAA protestersKise chahiye azadi? Hum denge azadi’ and Hamara yahi naara hai, Bharat desh hamara hai’. The police remained mute spectators to the chants. Later that day, visuals of violent clashes between the two groups supporting and opposing the CAAstarted pouring in. There is no conclusive information on which community first initiated the violence. On February 24, the day before Trump was to arrive in Delhi, Mohammad Yusuf, 53, was dragged off his motorcycle while returning home with his son and beaten to death by a lynch mob. Videos of mobs asking people to chant Jai Shri Ram’ before thrashing them with sticks began circulating online. Still, no leader appealed for peace, nor did the police ask for reinforcements. On February 25, at 4.30 pm, women were asked to gather once again at the Jafrabad metro station to protest the February 24 lynching. They were just assembling, when rioters arrived and opened gunfire. It took the police nearly 72 hours to persuade the anti-CAA protesters to relocate to Seelampur, where a similar sit-in by women had been going on for a month, but which was not blocking any key road.

The clashes between the two communities soon spread to other locations, Seelampur, Babarpur, Karawal Nagar, Ghonda, Gandhi Nagar and Rohtas Nagar, all assembly constituencies the BJP had won, barring Seelampur and Babarpur. Schools, religious institutions and homes, the rioters methodically targeted them all. Neither the police lathi-charge and teargas shells nor the imposition of Section 144 in some areas prohibiting the assembly of more than four persons failed to curb the violence that spread like wildfire. The narrow architecture of the area made it difficult for the police to enter. Several victims were dragged into the narrow bylanes and knifed, their bodies dumped into the sewage canal that runs through the suburb.

Former Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken blames the government for fanning the flames. This so-called pro-CAA protest is Union BJP government-sponsored. They knew it would culminate in violence which now gives them the excuse to remove the protesters, Maken says. On February 25, when the Jafrabad protest site was cleared, BJP general secretary (organisation), B.L. Santhosh initially tweeted: Jafrabad Metro protest area totally cleared. The game starts now. Time to enforce the law in its entire spirit. Rioters need to be taught a lesson or two of Indian laws.’ Later, he edited the tweet and deleted the fragment that said the game starts now. It doesn’t help. The game continues.

Why was there no crackdown on inflammatory speeches?

On February 26, as some semblance of law and order returned to Northeast Delhi, Justices S. Muralidhar and Talwant Singh of the Delhi High Court took up a petition asking for FIRs to be filed against three BJP leaders Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and Kapil Mishra for hate speeches’ that, the petitioners alleged, sparked off the riots in New Delhi. The evidence presented were videos of three such speeches, including the now-infamous Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko (Shoot the traitors)’ chants at public rallies, as well as Verma’s allegation that the peaceful Shaheen Bagh protesters would rape your sisters and daughters and kill them’, and his insinuation that if the BJP lost the Delhi election, even Modiji and Amit Shah won’t be able to save you’.

A crucial moment came when Justice Muralidhar asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta, representing the Delhi Police, why FIRs had not already been filed. Mehta reportedly said that the situation was currently too delicate’, and that FIRs would be filed at an appropriate stage’. The exchange that followed centred on a simple fact: When you don’t register an FIR,’ noted Justice Muralidhar, a wrong message goes out. People aren’t deterred from repeating [such provocations].’

The police’s failure to crack down on such incendiary statements likely played a significant role in what was to come. Consider the case of Mishra. On January 22 and 23, while campaigning in New Delhi, Mishra described the assembly election as an India-Pakistan conflict’, saying that the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress had set up a mini-Pakistan at Shaheen Bagh, and that whenever traitors raised up Pakistan in India, patriots would raise up Hindustan. Ruling that Mishra had violated the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), on January 25, the Election Commission (EC) slapped him with a 48-hour campaign ban. Nonetheless, a month later, Mishra was back at it. On February 23, in a speech at a rally in Jafrabad, called to protest against anti-CAA protesters who were blocking roads in the city, Mishra issued an ultimatum. With a senior police officer standing alongside him, Mishra said: I say to the DCP [standing next to me] on everyone’s behalf: until [US President Donald Trump’s visit to India ends], we will be peaceful. But after that, we won’t even listen to [the police] if the roads have not been cleared. Before Trump leaves, clear Jafrabad and Chandbagh. [Otherwise], we will have to return to the streets.

That deadline never came to pass. Three days later, scores of New Delhi’s citizens had been murdered by their communally enraged neighbours.

Mishra is not alone in such speeches. The EC had also hauled up Verma and Thakur in late January, the former for his they will rape your sisters and daughters remark and for describing Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as a terrorist, and the latter for leading crowds in the desh ke gaddaron’ chant. The EC had ruled that both had, aside from transgressing the MCC, also violated the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which carries a maximum punishment of three years’ imprisonment. Nonetheless, both were only served with campaign bans. Contrast this with instances in which authorities have clamped down harshlyjust a few months ago, comedian Kunal Kamra was banned from air travel for heckling a journalist, with the ban endorsed by minister for civil aviation Hardeep Singh Puri. Similarly, in 2016, JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar was booked for seditious remarks, and just last month, a nine-year-old’s mother was sent to prison because her child performed in a school play which was described by authorities as seditious’.

Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist at the Hiranandani Hospital in Mumbai, says that communal material can most certainly influence people. India is an angst-driven society. Rumours become beliefs easily because of this reason. Angst is able to overshadow the pre-frontal cortex in our brains, which helps us discern information and tells us what to trust and what to ignore, says Dr Shetty. Angst becomes our primary source of expressing primitive emotions; eventually it can lead to violent action. Anecdotal evidence is aplenty for instance, the men who opened fire at Shaheen Bagh and in Jamia Millia Islamia University in early February were found to be members of Facebook groups that regularly circulated videos and messages about Muslims harming Hindus’.

There was no monopoly over hate speeches. In January, anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Imam was heard exhorting protesters to cut Northeast off from India and was booked under an anti-terror law for hate speech. At an anti-CAA rally in Kalaburagi, Karnataka, on February 15, AIMIM leader Waris Pathan invoked a vision of Hindu-Muslim clashes: We might be only 15 crore, but remember we are enough for the remaining 100 [crore].

What instances like these also highlight is that defining hate speech’ can be a tricky matter. Manoj Tiwari, MP from Northeast Delhi and president of the BJP’s Delhi unit, says there should be an independent commission to decide what constitutes hate speech. While there are no laws explicitly defining this concept, several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 295A, 298 and 505(1) and (2), prohibit certain forms of speech, the former two proscribing acts and words deliberately intended to outrage religious feelings and the latter two penalising statements, rumours or reports that could cause public mischief, enmity, hatred or ill-will. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018, has also attempted to establish rules in this regard. Section 153C of this bill, which has yet to be passed, prescribes two years of imprisonment and a fine for those who use gravely threatening words or advocates hatred’ on the grounds of religion, race, caste or community, among others.

For the moment, the status quo remains, with solicitor general Mehta’s appropriate stage’ yet to arrive. Though Justice Muralidhar had demanded a response from the Delhi police about the filing of FIRs against BJP leaders within 24 hours, eyebrows were raised when he was transferred to the Punjab & Haryana High Court the next day, though the central government clarified that the transfer orders were issued on February 12, weeks before the riots broke out. A new bench, comprising Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice C. Hari Shankar, gave the Centre a four-week breather, with the case to be heard next on April 13. However, on March 2, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition on the same matter on March 4, though it noted that there were limitations to its power’ to control such violence.

Why was the Delhi Police so inept in its response?

There’s a reason the Delhi Police is called the country’s most pampered police force. The Union home ministry foots its Rs 8,619 crore annual budget for a force of over 80,000 policemen. For comparison, consider the Rs 3,656 crore neighbouring state Haryana spends on its 56,747-strong force. An August 2019 study by nonprofit agency Common Cause and Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank, found the Delhi Police to be India’s best when it came to staffing, infrastructure and use of budget’. None of these were visible when it came to handling the national capital’s worst outbreak of Hindu-Muslim clashes in 70 years. The police failed to anticipate the steady build-up to the four-day orgy of violence which led to 49 deaths in Northeast Delhi’s communal tinderbox.

Among their early failures was not preventing the sit-in at the Jafrabad metro station by anti-CAA protesters on February 22. This was compounded by the lack of action against BJP leader Kapil Mishra the next day as he fulminated against the protesters. In fact, Mishra served an ultimatum to the Delhi Police on having the protesters removed from the Jafrabad and Chand Bagh areas and he did it with the DCP of Northeast Delhi district, Ved Prakash Surya, standing next to him. Within a few hours of Mishra’s rally, violent clashes erupted in Northeast Delhi.

Why did the Delhi Police, supposedly India’s finest, fail? It’s a failure of the police leadership, says Prakash Singh, former director-general of police of Uttar Pradesh. Police commissioner Amulya Patnaik has gone under a cloud at the end of his career.

Other police veterans are equally unsparing of the role played by their former colleagues. Former Delhi police commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma accused the force of allowing the situation in Northeast Delhi to snowball and turn into a riot. Even the Shaheen Bagh sit-in should not have been allowed in the first place. Once it continued, it generated communal feelings, which escalated during state elections. This communal situation culminated in the riots, he said in a TV interview.

Most senior police officers, even those who believe in Patnaik, concur with the assessment. It was a monumental failure on the part of the police commissioner, says another serving officer of DGP rank. He displayed indecisiveness, inaction and sheer lack of leadership qualities in not having the moral courage to protect Delhi’s citizens. He was always a submissive character, submitting to political authority, never leading from the front.

Patnaik, who retired on February 29, defends his record. He commends his officers for preventing the riots from spreading through the city. The Delhi Police contained the violence within 12 police stations of Northeast Delhi and prevented its spread to the other 194 police stations. But for the Delhi Police’s action, the situation could have been worse, he says.

The police, Patnaik says, dispersed the mobs on the night of February 22 and 23 during pro- and anti-CAA protests and deployed special commissioner of police Satish Golcha to monitor the situation on the 24th. On February 25, the police used teargas a lathi-charge. I was present in Northeast Delhi on February 24, 25 and 26. By that time, the situation had begun to return to normal.

If, as he says, the police was doing its job, where did the violence break out? In the initial two days, the police were manning the main streets and intersections where the crowds had gathered. The bylanes of Northeast Delhi are very difficult to penetrate. It was here that the maximum violence happened, says Patnaik.

The police themselves were targeted by the mobs. Head constable Ratan Lal was shot dead and, in another incident, DCP Amit Sharma sustained serious injuries on February 24 after being beaten by a mob. A 26-year-old IB staffer, Ankit Sharma, was murdered after being repeatedly stabbed and his body dumped in a nearby drain. These attacks, as policemen point out, might have been a result of their losing the monopoly over coercion and violence in controlling public disturbances. It should have resorted to prompt action in what clearly were extraordinary circumstances. The police should have resorted to the disproportionate use of force to quell the violence, says former IPS officer Uday Sahai.

When faced with a clear case of communal riots involving two communities, as happened in Northeast Delhi, the police have to resort to maximum possible force to quell the violence and change the course and direction of the situation. The police have to face the violence and crush it so that further outbreaks of violence are prevented, adds another serving commissioner-rank officer of the Delhi Police.

Delhi follows the comissionerate system of policing, where senior officers say an ACP or DCP do not need permission from a district magistrate to take a policy decision such as using teargas or a lathi-charge, carrying out arrests, or even firing shots. This system works well during normal times, but it can completely collapse in times of a major crisis such as a communal conflagration. This is because it does not have the mechanism of checks and balances the magisterial system in states has, explains a chief secretary-rank officer in a key Hindi heartland state.

Patnaik, the city police commissioner since January 2017, was due to retire on January 31 but was given a one-month extension in light of the Delhi assembly election. But it was hard to miss the steady erosion in the public image of the Delhi Police in recent months. Last November, after lawyers in the Tis Hazari court thrashed their comrades, thousands of uniformed policemen led a protest march to their own police headquarters shouting, We want justice. In December, the force failed to evict the protesters at the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, allowing the situation to become communally charged. On December 15, the police were accused of high-handedness in clashes with students at Jamia Millia Islamia University. On January 5, they were accused of inaction after goons went on a rampage in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Then, in the run-up to the assembly election in Delhi on February 8, a divisive political campaign hardened sentiments along religious lines. And yet, the Delhi Police, which has direct links to the Union home ministry via the lieutenant governor, the home secretary and the home minister, were caught unawares when the communal cauldron began boiling on the eve of US President Donald Trump’s visit.

A deputy commissioner of police acknowledged that they had weak human intelligence about the (anti-CAA) protests. The police also had little clue about the pile-up of arms and illegal ammunition. Local area DCPs, SHOs, ACPs and the special branch of the Delhi Police are supposed to gather human intelligence by networking with the local community and religious leaders from both communities, especially when there are fears of a communal clash brewing.

Beginning March 1, the Delhi Police had a new chief, S.N. Srivastava. By March 2, the police had registered 369 FIRs and arrested or detained 1,284 people for the violence. New officers have been posted in Northeast Delhi whose main job is to fight rumours, reduce the trust deficit between the communities and also the police. Trust can be broken in a matter of minutes, rebuilding it takes forever. It could be equally true of Delhi’s Police’s dented public image.

Why was the Home Ministry’s response inadequate?

Even as the violence in Northeast Delhi spiralled out of control and the Delhi Police struggled to control the rampaging mobs, there was a higher authority who could have stepped in Union home minister Amit Shah. Not only does the Delhi Police directly report to him, but Shah also has under him a force of over 1 million as part of seven central armed police forces. This includes the Rapid Action Force and the specialised riot-control wing of the CRPF. On February 24, when the clashes between the pro- and anti-CAA mobs turned into full-fledged riots, Shah was in Ahmedabad, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and key cabinet members to welcome US President Donald Trump. Home ministry officials admit the ministry’s preoccupation with the Trump visit played a significant role in their slow reaction to the riots.

The home ministry is the administrative ministry of the Delhi Police, but the police commissioner is the magistrate. He has full powers to call the army and additional forces, says former home secretary G.K. Pillai. The standard procedure is clear, you have to crush disturbances with an iron hand by issuing shoot at sight orders and imposing curfew. These actions were clearly not taken by the Delhi Police in the initial hours of the violence. It is unclear how the other functionaries in the chain of command lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, home secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla and, finally, Shah reacted to the crisis. Ultimately, it took two visits to Northeast Delhi by national security advisor Ajit Doval on February 25 and 26 to reassure locals the situation was under control.

One major reason behind the police failure may also be the over-centralisation of authority in the home ministry after Shah took over in 2019. Shah is sharp and it is good to have his directions in crucial matters, says an officer, but the downside to it is that when he is busy, like during Trump’s visit, the officials down the chain begin to flounder while waiting for his orders. This is what happened in this case too. Shah should have delegated officials to deal with the situation.

What’s more, home ministry officials perhaps also ignored advance warning on the riots. Student-activist Umar Khalid, accused of raising anti-India slogans in JNU in 2016, had told a public rally in Amravati, Maharashtra, on February 17 that when Trump comes, the antiCAA protesters would hit the roads in protest. The Intelligence Bureau should have smelt a rat and taken corrective steps, says an MHA official who did not want to be named. Shah himself has been conspicuously silent on the subject of the riots.

Since the riots, opposition leaders have repeatedly disrupted proceedings in Parliament demanding Shah’s resignation. Even senior leaders in the BJP are of the opinion that Shah should have issued an unambiguous statement expressing regret for the police failure and the riots. Shah himself was unavailable for comment. However, those speaking on his behalf have their own take on the events. They emphasise that it was radical Islamic forces that were bent on disturbing the peace that triggered the riots rather than inflammatory speeches by political leaders.

Asource close to Shah says, The home minister’s preoccupation with the Trump visit was used by the radical Islamic forces to inflame the situation in Jafrabad and trigger the riots. In fact, if Shah had not intervened and reined in the police force after the deaths of Ratan Lal (Delhi Police head constable) and Ankit Sharma (Intelligence Bureau staffer), it could have been worse for the Muslim mobs. After all, some 1,000 bullets were fired from private weapons in the first three days of the riots. The police could have retaliated strongly, but did not. In fact, a main post-riot criticism has been that the police did not use enough force to disperse the rioters.

Former BSF director-general Prakash Singh believes the police failed to anticipate the designs of radical Islamic forces. But he also blamed the police for its very slow response, which he believes was due to the forces being unnerved by the repeated media attacks on it after the incidents of violence at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and Jamia Millia Islamia. The police was either accused of being a silent spectator or being too violent in its response then.

As Singh says, The police was very indecisive despite the clear-cut signals and there was severe intelligence failure too. With a force of 90,000 personnel and Trump not having any public engagement in the capital, the Delhi Police was well equipped to deal with the situation. But it was completely caught by surprise. By the time it came up with an effective response, it was too late. Even Shah, Singh says, reacted too slowly. He should have had a hands-on approach.

The absence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the wake of the violence was glaring. The party had swept to power in the Delhi assembly elections, a second successive time, just the previous fortnight. As rioting broke out in parts of Northeast Delhi (February 23 onwards), party leaders extended help, support and sympathy on social media. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, AAP MPs and MLAs, they all steered clear of the riot-affected areas. As the violence escalated on February 24, Kejriwal starting tweeting appeals for peace and condolences to the family of the slain police head constable. In one of his tweets, Kejriwal even urged the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Anil Baijal, and Union home minister Amit Shah to restore law and order. Nobody should be allowed to orchestrate conflagrations, he tweeted on February 24. By that time, four civilians and a police head constable had died in the clashes. Kejriwal’s cabinet colleagues, too, were tweeting in support. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said he had not felt so scared ever in his three decades in Delhi. It finally took a directive from the Delhi High Court to get Kejriwal, Sisodia and other officials to visit the riot-hit areas, which they did on February 26.

Speaking in the Delhi assembly on February 26, his first session after taking oath for the third time, Kejriwal blamed outsiders for the riots besides, again, urging Shah to bring in the army if needed and impose curfew in the violence-hit areas. He even met Shah on the 25th, and later called the meeting positive.

Kejriwal’s party has been careful not to be seen as taking sides in the CAA battle. AAP opposed the act in Parliament, but its leaders have stayed away from the protests in Shaheen Bagh and other places.

The party was severely embarrassed when one of its corporators, Tahir Hussain, was booked for his alleged involvement in the mob killing of IB staffer Ankit Sharma on February 25. Police claim they recovered acid bottles and Molotov cocktails from the roof of his multi-storeyed building in Jafrabad. The corporator, who has been suspended by the party and is absconding, has applied for anticipatory bail even as the Delhi Police made contradicting statements regarding whether he was rescued or not from the scene of the riots.

Kejriwal also held a meeting of MLAs from the aff­ected areas and senior officers and again issued a peace appeal in a press conference on Tuesday. It was the day US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania were visiting Delhi. The US First Lady also had a scheduled visit to a Delhi government school. The chief minister, meanwhile, accompanied by his ministers, was at Gandhi’s samadhi at Rajghat to pray for peace to return to Delhi.

Kejriwal and his AAP have often cited lack of powers over the Delhi Police for their inability to control the law and order situation. The Delhi Police reports to the Union home ministry, unlike in other states where it is under the elected government.

The missing AAP leadership could be explained by the fact that the state government doesn’t directly control the Delhi Police. So what could the CM and his cabinet have done differently in such a situation? Former Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken listed a few steps Kejriwal could have taken, instead of playing helpless CM. Maken says Kejriwal should have immediately set up a helpline under him so that people could report any incident of police inaction or violence. This in itself, along with monitoring and coordination with the Delhi Police and SDMs of the areas concerned, could have brought the situation under control much sooner, feels Maken.

The BJP is divided when it comes to blaming its leaders for the Delhi riots. A section of the leadership blames Kapil Mishra for fanning the flames with his direct attacks on the minority community. The central leadership, they say, could have prevented the situation from taking such a bloody turn had it reined in these leaders. Party workers, however, blame the riots on the Muslim leadership and the pseudo-secular media while completely absolving Shah’s home ministry and the police.

Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad offered, in a delicately worded statement, that the provocative statements by some of our leaders were improper and the party has an internal mechanism to deal with it. Amit Shah himself disapproved of it. Shah had admitted in a public interview after the Delhi poll results that the highly inflammatory statements of some of his colleagues may have affected the BJP’s chances.

A senior BJP leader who was not willing to be quoted laid the blame for the riots on the radical Muslim leadership which began the Shaheen Bagh protests to defame the BJP government. But he also blamed the party’s polarising campaign during the elections and the statements like Goli maaro saalon ko by leaders like Mishra. The home ministry, too, woke up late. There was clear intelligence failure on its part in not anticipating a heightening of the anti-Modi-Shah rhetoric during Trump’s visit, the leader says.

The BJP rank and file, however, have little doubt that the riots were pre-planned. The aggression of their leaders, they believe, was a response to the provocation by the Muslim leadership, the inflammatory statements to defame Modi and Shah. They have full confidence that the police will uncover the conspiracy behind the riots. And with reports that the investigation might be given to the National Investigation Agency, they claim, even a foreign hand is possible behind the conspiracy.

On March 3, a week after the riots and fires have subsided, Northeast Delhi is limping back to normalcy. Children run to kirana stores to buy lollipops, mosques call for prayer, temple bells ring and a truck from the Northeast Delhi Municipal Corporation sprays mist all over the streets to [improve] AQI by settling the dust in the air’. (One of the electoral promises for this constituency had been better air quality.) Settling the dust of a communal riot is another matter. As the truck rolls on, it passes miles of rubble, burnt-out bike frames, mass graves for burnt paper and broken glass, soot-smudged homes and a team of Rapid Action Force (RAF) policewomen here to learn how to handle riots in the future. The rioters attacked from above this means the first step is to clear the rooftops. Then the ground is clear for forces to move in, their trainer explains.

But it isn’t just the RAF that needs to learn from the failures of the Delhi riots every public institution does. By allowing the narrative of Shaheen Bagh to be changed from protest site to public inconvenience during the Delhi assembly election; by allowing communal clashes to take place in an area which had witnessed violence over the CAA less than three months ago; by not taking the venom of hate speech seriously when a neighbourhood began to view dissent as a mark of anti-nationalism; and by ignoring the potential of a mass-scale riot, the residents of Northeast Delhi were failed on many levels. Going forward, we need a plan of action to not only handle riots but also to prevent them from occurring at all.

Every democracy has to ensure that citizens have the right to protest, to dissent against the State. India is becoming a democratic dictatorship, why can’t we have protest sites? Why is hostility being spread in an area if one section has different views? A democracy should entertain all opinions, not burn them down, says Harsh Mander, director, Centre for Equity Studies. In the West, it is common practice for protesters to be given written permission and be allowed to express themselves in designated sites. Munich has Karslplatz, New York has Union Square, London has Trafalgar Squaresuch spaces are important for people to be able to view protests as a dialogue rather than a clash of opinions.

Residents in Northeast Delhi are trying to pick up the pieces, not necessarily because they want to, but because they have to. I have witnessed my worker, Dilbar Negi’s arms and legs being cut off and his body being burnt alive. I don’t want to work. But poor people can’t afford to take a vacation whenever they want, we have to earn our daily bread to survive, says Ravi Kumar, 40, who owns a car parking lot in Shiv Vihar where 25 burnt cars now sit. It took one minute to destroy my profession, it will take me months to rebuild it, adds Kumar, who was trapped with his 12-year-old son in the car parking lot as the violence unfolded. The duo escaped by climbing up the border wall and jumping off the other side.

Insurance inspectors are here to verify claims that various car owners have filed. There are representatives of the state government in the area as well, directing people on how to fill up forms to claim compensation for their burnt houses and businesses. Relief workers and members of civil society occasionally turn up to distribute food, clothing and warm blankets. But there is no one here to help people recover from the mental trauma of what happened, and the consequences of what has been lost.

What did my baby brother do to Modi or Kejriwal? asks 20-year-old Saniya. Her brother Mohammad Aakib passed away at GTB Hospital on March 3. He was only 17, a victim of stone pelting after he ventured out during the riots. Hamara ghar nahin jala, magar zindagi toh barbaad ho gayi na? I didn’t think I would see death so close at my age, Saniya adds, as her mother and relatives prepare to receive Aakib’s body. In her eyes, the victims and the culprits are clear. Our relatives have lost their homes, businesses, money, Muslims were targeted. Walk down any street here and you will know, she says. While many say that it will take years to recover from the material loss, mentally they may never be whole again. Marriage jewellery, family heirlooms, favourite sweaters and books have all been burnt to a crisp. I want my drawing book, wails nine-year-old Sahiba from Chandpur. She, along with her mother and father, ran for their lives when violence broke out but what really broke her down was to see scratch marks and burnt edges on her painstakingly-maintained drawing book upon her return.

It is children and young adults here who are the most at risk, according to mental health professionals. In 2018, the European Commission’s RAN Centre of Excellence did a study on kids living in extremist environments and concluded that there are high chances of such children becoming radicalised adults themselves. In Northeast Delhi, the youth who have watched their parents cry for days over the loss of home and family, who had to jump off burning buildings or had been pelted with stones and bullets themselves, now sit in hushed huddles on broken pavements. A majority of these huddles are of Hindu youth or Muslim youth. I have nothing to say to the Mohammedans, says Arun Kumar, 18. Kumar has just completed his schooling and his brother was to be married on March 4. They painted anti-CAA slogans on our walls and we said nothing. Now they have burnt my family house down and ruined my brother’s marriage. We will still say nothing. But how do we forget [these events] and trust these people? If I see their faces, I remember the violence, he confesses.

Promoting communal harmony is a much-needed balm to these riots, to prevent future polarisation and violence. And while the state has made no such attempt, locals are doing the best they can to keep hope alive. We want to live here. We don’t want to leave. We don’t want to hate. Both sides have lost a lot. We believe the state will come through and help us rebuild and recover, says Abdus Mohammad, 41, a teacher at a madrassa in Shiv Vihar, as he pins up a piece of cloth on a broken window to keep the sun out. Children will be returning to study here in two weeks’ time, he says. The cloth on the window was given to him by Naveen Shukla, his Hindu neighbour in nearby Chandpur.

Source: India Today

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