In Retrospect

Bloodied Hands

Most people who grew up in the 21st Century would not have thought they would see a communal riot in 2020 but after the carnage of the Delhi riots, all that’s left to do is examine all those with blood on their hands

After more than three consecutive days of rioting on the streets of North East Delhi, the death toll stood at 13, including one Head Constable of Delhi Police. However, what nobody realised was that when the Central government finally swung into action to cull the riots and the violence was contained from Wednesday onwards, the number of deaths due to the communal riots saw a sharp rise as official figures put the toll at 42 on Saturday, among them of course, Intelligence Bureau official Ankit Sharma, who was murdered by one of the rioting mobs and thrown into the Chand Bagh drain.

As entire districts in Delhi were put under curfew and parks, homes, people and their lives burnt in the riots, the Centre was preparing the other side of the Capital for US President Donald Trump's state visit and only after news of one policeman dying became public did an official response originate from within the Ministry of Home Affairs. At first, the Home Secretary said that the situation was under control -- even though the riots continued for more than 28 hours after this statement. Moreover, while the Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy said that the riots had been planned to coincide with Trump's visit, in a meeting with top Delhi government officials the next day, Home Minister Amit Shah reportedly said the attacks were spontaneous.

Not to say of course that the complete breakdown of law and order in the North East district of the Capital is to be blamed only on the Centre. In fact, the Delhi government, which had just won the popular vote in the Delhi Assembly election, could have sprung into action much earlier than their top leaders took to Twitter. While it is true that law and order in the UT is the Centre's jurisdiction, there is a slew of measures the Delhi government could have taken to help the populace that elected them to power once again with a thumping majority.

While Article 237 AA, lays the ground for the administration of Delhi as a UT, it hands over matters related to public order and law to the Central government. Despite this, when CM Kejriwal said that he had requested the Home Minister to deploy the army in North East Delhi, it remains a fact that the Constitution provides for the CM – as the Executive head of the Delhi Government – to bring the army.

Mayhem and dread

As the North East Delhi riots escalated to its peak on Monday and Tuesday, discussions on TV debates and Op-Ed pages revolved around whether to call what had hit Delhi a communal riot or a pogrom against Muslims. Twitter exploded with angry characters expressing rage against the semantics of what had happened – without a care for the fact that the people whose homes had burnt down along with their lives and livelihoods did not care what people sitting in studios would like to call what was happening to them.

Since the riots began, large parts of North East Delhi have seen a mass exodus of Muslim families looking for a safer abode; at least 42 have been killed so far – some identified and some yet to be, and 167 FIRs registered by the Delhi Police with the probe entrusted to two SITs. But the stories that emerged from the riots remain ever-haunting. Around 12,000 PCR calls were made from North East Delhi in a span of 48 hours as most calls reportedly went with the action taken column blank.

There were dead bodies waiting in colonies for the rioting to die down before being laid to rest. Ambulances took more than five to six hours to reach injured people and a complete sense of dread as violent, gun-toting, sword-wielding and riotous mobs surround them with the purpose to burn their homes "properly from the inside". And the pain seen in the faces of the deceased's families at the hospitals was something else altogether. It would not be fair to even try and express what their fear looked like in words.

And while a lot of politicians have come out and criticised the government and the police over the handling of the riots, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh also came out with a statement saying that the government must do whatever is needed to stop the violence in the capital. An official of the right-wing organisation said that law and order must be restored in the city.

What feeds a communal riot

When one considers the sheer amount and degree of violence that was perpetrated in entire colonies, questions of - who should take responsibility for the bloodshed? Whose hands does the blood of the 42 dead wash? And What, in fact, feeds a communal riot? – often arise.

What we know from last week is that the Delhi Police could not do much despite having enough forces to deploy; that with intent a riot can be culled in hours; that everyone - including the Centre, Delhi government and the police - had to be woken from their slumber by the scorn of a Delhi High Court judge, who was transferred to a different High Court the same day he reprimanded the Centre and the Delhi Police for failing to control the situation.

We also know for a fact now that once ordered with gusto by the court, the Delhi Police is capable enough of culling a riot within hours, bringing in additional forces and start patrolling riot-affected areas as a show of strength.

So, how is it that rioters managed to wreak havoc across North East Delhi for around 72 hours? Rioters had built shelters for their people, where they were taking cover while pelting stones. There were makeshift factories churning out petrol bombs from both sides. How is it possible for rioters to run amok without either the incompetence or complicity of law enforcement authorities and the entire state machinery? It remains to be answered, along with a long list of questions pertaining to accountability - if the riots ever undergo an unbiased and logical probe.

Moreover, the inexperience of the top brass of Delhi Police in dealing with violent clashes, a lack of faith in the leadership and the police department's failure to assess the situation on the ground amount to nothing but failures on the part of what was once considered the model police force in the country. Retired policemen expressed shock that the force did not face harsh repercussions for their utter lack of professionalism in dealing with the Delhi riots. Some even said the Delhi Police had "no planning, action, tactical deployment or understanding of the crowd and the area" - all of which is seemingly being done by the NSA as of now, as opposed to the police.

In what can only be explained as one of the peculiar beauties of Indian politics, the same people who gave the Bharatiya Janata Party a massive mandate in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Delhi are the ones that gave a resounding mandate to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party - barely eight months later. So, is it not the democratic obligation of both the BJP and the AAP to set aside party politics and come together to find a solution to a full-blown communal riot gripping the nation's Capital as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century?

Especially given the tall promises made by the saffron party in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly election. The BJP's key poll plank was providing the people of Delhi security. A simple analysis of the areas where the most violent riots broke out shows that these assembly segments had voted for BJP MLAs. Is it to be assumed that the MLAs could not provide safety and security to their constituents. While the BJP has campaigned on local issues like women's safety, dengue and pollution in previous elections, it has been largely removed from the ground reality of their constituents.

At the end of the day, there are too many questions left unanswered. Most mobs seem to have been brought to Delhi in buses from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Police sources have been quoted as saying that the weapons for the riots were also brought in from outside the Capital. It is pertinent to ask what took law enforcement 72 hours to act on the ground; why the courts had to direct the Delhi Police and whose hands have been bloodied with the blood of the 42 who have lost their lives and their families so much more.

And yet, in the heart of the most violent riots, there were Muslim anti-CAA protesters rescuing scores of innocent Hindus from the violence, Hindu families sheltering Muslim families fleeing from burnt homes and lives. Maybe when Delhi saw one of the worst communal riots in its history; it also saw Indians willing to stand up for what India was meant to be – what the founders had hoped we would aspire to be like.

The failures

That Delhi was failed by its elected representatives, its police force and the Central government is something that became apparent on Monday when what had started as clashes between pro and anti-CAA agitators exploded into communal riots as the police, prepared in riot gear, stood by and watched. But what is more important is that by the third consecutive day of rioting, the police personnel had become complicit in the violence being perpetrated upon entire neighbourhoods in areas like Maujpur-Babarpur, Mustafabad, Yamuna Vihar, Gokalpuri and Kardampuri.

While hundreds of ground reports filed from North East Delhi in the last week show the incompetence of Delhi Police in handling the riots, reports from Thursday revealed that the police's incompetence had reached a point where the Home Minister had to speak to party cadre members in the area to get verified inputs on how the situation was developing. In fact, one report quotes a government official saying that BJP's cadre members were more aware of developments than the police who were mostly inside their vehicles looking at their smartphones.

And as far as the Delhi government's apparent inaction is considered, under Sections 129 and 130 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, the Executive Magistrate, who reports to the Chief Minister can issue orders with respect to public safety. By Monday, Section 144 of CrPC had been imposed in all of North East Delhi, and as per Sections 129 and 130 of the Code, the Executive Magistrate is empowered to issue orders calling for the dispersal of unlawful assemblies and order local police to do the needful. However, Section 130 also gives the Magistrate powers to order an officer of the armed forces to disperse unlawful assemblies with use of "limited force".

Who were the rioters?

While it is no dispute that investigation into the 167 FIRs registered by the Delhi Police during the entire duration of the riots will reveal more horrifying details about the degree of violence – with post mortem reports of Ankit Sharma, the IB official showing he was stabbed 400 times before being ditched in the Chand Bagh drain.

However, it is extremely pertinent to examine the precursors to the violent communal riots that broke out on Sunday night. In the afternoon of the same day, BJP leader Kapil Mishra had visited the Jafrabad metro station anti-CAA protest site with his supporters and given an ultimatum to the Delhi Police to clear the protesters from the metro station and Chand Bagh – with the District DCP standing next to him and supporters cheering him on.

From Sunday night onwards, crowds poured into Delhi from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh with truck full of stones in the tow. The rioting which started from Karawal Nagar and Kardampuri on Sunday night blew into a communal one with planned attacks from pro-CAA agitators to burn Muslims.

Of course, intensely polarising campaign rhetoric from senior party leaders like Union Minister Anurag Thakur and BJP MP Parvesh Verma became anthems for the pro-CAA mobs to target and burn Muslim homes and the same way contentious speeches from leaders like Waris Pathan also built up tensions.

Despite his seeming role in instigating the riots – with no room for the irony to escape anyone – Mishra held a peace rally appealing all to reject violence, especially after having coined the slogan "desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalo ko", another anthem for rioters as they targeted Muslim neighbourhoods.

The judiciary

And yet at a time like this when we might feel the need to admire the courage of judges like Justice Muralidhar, formerly of the Delhi High Court, we must remind ourselves of the fact that the intervention from the court came only on an urgent plea made by a lawyer seeking safe passage for ambulances to and from riot-hit areas – and not by its own motion, which the Delhi High Court had done when lawyers and police clashed in the Tis Hazari Court Complex last year. By the time J Muralidhar ordered Delhi Police to control the situation in North East Delhi, more than seven deaths had been reported – including the one of Head Constable Rattan Lal.

However, what ensued after J Muralidhar rapped the Centre and the Delhi Police on Wednesday intrigues more. The same day that the judge had reprimanded the Centre, the government had notified his transfer to the Punjab and Haryana High Court – which had been notified by the SC Collegium earlier. While most transfers allow for a 14-day room before the new posting must be taken up, J Muralidhar's transfer was with immediate effect.

Curiously, on Wednesday, while hearing the Delhi riots matter, Muralidhar had asked the Delhi Police to explain why they could not file an FIR against Mishra within 24 hours. However, after his transfer, a bench headed by Chief Justice DN Patel gave Delhi Police four weeks to decide as it had said the situation was "not conducive" for an FIR against him at that point.

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