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Vengeful Policing : A disturbing pattern

While the expectation of the Delhi Police investigation into the North East Delhi riots yielding action against powerful BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra is slowly fading, a pattern has emerged in the way the probe is being conducted and selectively publicised, which would seem as if it is serving to build a narrative

Vengeful Policing : A disturbing pattern
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Many have by now written about how the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement that rose in December last year was one of the strongest challenges to the Narendra Modi-government since 2014 and many more have spoken of how the intersectionality of the movement — the sheer resolve of Indians to stand up for their fellows in times of what has now come to be known as a time of Constitutional crisis was the reason it had outlasted prior movements against the NDA-I and NDA-II governments.

However, a defining characteristic of the nationwide movement has been that it was organised from the ground-up — not just by students but by women students who stood up as a voice against the establishment, holding out the Constitution in front of them. Eventually, the movement did go on to encompass a wide section of India's minority groups — which could also be attributed to the fact that the uprising was spearheaded by women.

A PRIMER

When the Citizenship Amendment Bill was being tabled in Parliament in the second week of December 2019, student groups in Assam had broken into a spate of protests which had within a matter of days engulfed the student community in the Capital, who had first started in solidarity with Assam's student community but had soon began organising what we now call as one of the defining anti-establishment movements of the last six years.

By December 15, students of Jamia Millia Islamia had gathered in large numbers to protest the controversial legislation, whose constitutional validity is yet to be decided by the Supreme Court, where at least 144 petitions lie waiting for the attention of a larger bench. But of course, an incident of violence at a face-off between the protesters and the Delhi Police somehow gave the uniformed officers "permission" to enter the JMI campus that night and randomly pick out students from inside libraries and hostels to brutally beat them up.

According to the Delhi Police's suo motu FIR in the case, the Capital police had said they had fired at least 56 tear gas shells in the campus that night in less than one hour, in an attempt to get at "stone pelters" who they claimed had run into the varsity campus. And as the anti-CAA movement caught on in UP, Karnataka, Mumbai and many other places across the nation, it was revealed that the Delhi Police had fired 450 tear gas shells at just two locations in Seelampur and Jamia Nagar to quell these protests.

But what happened a few thousand metres from the JMI campus a day after the police brutality in the varsity was what really kicked off the movement. A few middle-aged women from Delhi's Shaheen Bagh had decided to go on a sit-in protest on one side of the Kalindi Kunj Road leading towards Noida. "We are sitting here to protest against the police brutality on our children at JMI, who were just raising their voice against a law that would render millions in our country stateless," many of the women had said at the time. The resolve of these women would in a few months go on to make headlines across the globe as the faces of the resistance against the government.

The Shaheen Bagh sit-in grew by the day and many women across the country had taken inspiration from the Shaheen Bagh women to stage their sit-in protests that continued for months. And within a month, student leaders and activists like Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Sharjeel Imam, Meeran Haider and many more became key organisers of the movement against the CAA. By January this year, almost every higher education institute in the country, including the IITs and IIMs had joined the students of JNU and JMI and all others in solidarity and condemned the police brutality against Jamia students and to an extent police complicity in the JNU attacks of January 5.

And it was established that the student community and more importantly women in the country had formed the bedrock of the movement.

THE AFTERMATH & THE PROBE

When the North-East Delhi riots had finally died down, after four days of what many have called clear police inaction and in some cases police complicity — as reported by many journalists in February, dead bodies of those killed in the violence kept floating in the drains of the area up to several days. The officially recorded number of people killed in the riots amounted to 53, of which 38 were reportedly Muslims.

Yet many who live in the riot-hit areas and had to face the direct wrath of pro-CAA rioters burning their homes and relatives down say that there is no semblance of justice that they see prevailing through the investigation by Delhi Police. A lot of the residents who lived in areas like Kardampuri, Gokalpuri, Vijay Park and Maujpur have said that pro-CAA mobsters who were burning down schools during the riots don't seem to be facing a probe, but victims of the violence seem to be facing the brunt of the investigation.

According to reports that have been published since the investigation began, there have been instances where Delhi Police officials have arrested Muslim residents from riot-hit areas and asked questions to their relatives like, "got your azaadi?". And time and again, activists like Harsh Mander have pointed out that the investigation seems to be focusing only on arresting Muslims under the cover of the COVID-19 lockdown, which came soon after the riots.

Moreover, Radhika Chitkara and Vikas Kumar of the People's Union for Democratic Reforms have also raised questions on the way the Delhi Police is conducting its probe in the cases. While Home Minister Amit Shah had said in Parliament that over 700 FIRs had been registered for the riots, the PUDR members have said that policing has been focused on cherry-picked FIRs, in an attempt to purportedly weave a conspiracy by anti-CAA protest organisers.

Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and many others like Asif Tanha were arrested by the Delhi Police and charged under sections ranging from conspiracy to attempt to murder to sections of the UAPA. And while the Delhi Police has said that it has made over 1,300 arrests in over 750 riots cases which do not have any religious bias and were made on "scientific and technical evidence", questions have been raised over what seem to be several serious lapses when the events leading up to the riots are considered.

For instance, after telling the Delhi High Court that it needed time to assess whether BJP leader Kapil Mishra could be held responsible for instigating the riots based on a video in which he directly threatens to violently disrupt a peaceful protest, the Delhi Police is yet to file a formal case against him. The police had told the court that it was not the appropriate time to do so in February and that it would act when the time is "more suitable". Many activists have now started asking when the "suitable time" would present itself.

Furthermore, HM Shah had told in parliament that over 300 people were brought in to instigate the violent riots from the state of Uttar Pradesh under the cover of darkness. Delhi Police is yet to make public its investigation into who the men were, how they were brought across state borders with weapons and who was responsible for organising these men. In addition to this, there is the matter of videos that surfaced late on the first night of the riots.

On February 23, hours after Mishra's inciting speech at Jafrabad, multiple trucks filled with stones were seen being offloaded at Jafrabad and Maujpur areas. The Delhi Police is, again, yet to clarify who was responsible for this and how this could happen despite heavy police deployment in the region owing to the ongoing protests. And then again there is the matter of purported police complicity in the riots.

Videos had surfaced during the riots, showing police personnel engaged in stone-pelting. Many reports also highlighted how police officials were directing their force only at Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods and a horde of documented reports of how there was no police personnel deployed inside the most vulnerable colonies which were under attack from pro-CAA rioters. The extent of police inaction or complicity in some cases remains muddled and yet there is no sign of the Delhi Police focusing on these aspects of the case. Significantly, reports have also mentioned how police personnel sat staring at their phone screens while BJP party members had to pass on information to the Home Minister about the ground situation.

WHY THE SELECTIVE PUBLICITY?

So why is it important that the arrests of activists like Zargar, Khalid and others be publicised while other aspects of the investigation not be? Many journalists have also questioned why the Delhi Police does not simply hold a press conference to alleviate doubts being cast upon the integrity of its investigative prowess.

While the Delhi Police has come out with several press releases claiming that its probe is unbiased and doubts being cast upon it are coming from quarters with vested interests, it is important to understand how the riots began in the first place.

Around February 20, following Shaheen Bagh's cue, a peaceful sit-in protest was organised under the Jafrabad metro station by local women who were mobilised by among others, activists like Zargar, Kalita and Narwal. On February 23, BJP leader Mishra came to Jafrabad with his supporters and with a Delhi Police DCP standing by his side, threatened the police to remove the protesters before Trump leaves or else they could not blame him for what he and his men would do.

Hours later, men were seen gathering stones near Jafrabad and the riots started on the same night in Karawal Nagar — when a mob of pro-CAA rioters attacked and destroyed a small anti-CAA protest tent. Dozens of eyewitnesses to the riots said that the following day, there were coordinated attacks at small homegrown anti-CAA protest sites and as the pro-CAA rioters destroyed their protest tents, the riots had broken out.

This background has somewhat given a warped legitimacy to the probe being pursued by police officials. For instance, instead of holding people directly responsible for rioting and inciting violence against peaceful protesters, it can now be conveniently "alleged" that these perpetrators had got violent due to some kind of "provocation" by people peacefully protesting and exercising their Constitutional right.

And of course, with this comes a precious opportunity for the government to implicate anti-CAA protesters as instigators and by extension delegitimise the entire movement.

COURTS FIND EVIDENTIARY & INVESTIGATIVE LAPSES

What has added fuel to the doubts that the Delhi Police investigation into the riots might be one-sided, is several trial courts pointing out inconsistencies with the probe conducted by the Capital police in many of the riot-related cases.

While many of those arrested in the riot cases have now been granted bail with a view to decongesting jails in light of the COVID-19 crisis, there were at least four cases where the court had observed that police had not gathered enough electronic evidence to show the involvement of the accused.

The Delhi Police, in a statement, had clarified that the court had specifically spoken of electronic evidence and that it had gathered other forms of evidence to arrest these accused.

On the other hand, in another case, where JMI student Asif Tanha was arrested, the district court here had observed that the Delhi Police case diary had shown the investigation tilting towards only one direction. The court had granted bail to Tanha but many others like him are either in police or judicial custody.

In Tanha's case, the court had said a mere perusal of the case diary revealed that the probe was targetted only towards one end and that the investigating officer had not bothered to look into the "rival faction".

A DISTURBING PATTERN

While time and again, the Delhi Police has maintained that its probe in the riots case is not biased or one-sided and that it is committed to conducting a fair and accurate investigation, which will take time, many questions remain unanswered.

Questions of why powerful BJP leaders who seem to have a direct connection to inciting violence against anti-CAA protesters in public speeches made days before the riots still loom large and the Delhi Police's refusal to make more details of the riots investigation public raises more eyebrows.

And what is disturbing in this is that it seems as if there had now evolved a set pattern of somehow subverting the narrative to make anti-government dissenters and rationalists look like violent anarchists, when, in fact, this subversion, is more a sign of anarchy than anything else. The same pattern can be seen in the Bhima-Koregaon case, where arrests of activists and scholars like Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bhardwaj and Varavara Rao have reduced the entire Bhima-Koregaon violence into something of an outburst by a "disgruntled minority group".

What remains to be disturbing is that their continued detention has only helped the establishment weave a narrative of vengeance — one that teaches the lesson that if you were to prescribe to an ideology that goes against the core tenets of the ruling establishment, you would face its wrath one way or the other.

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