Travesty of justice
The remnants of northeast Delhi riots continue to haunt the affected — both in form of shoddy police investigations and unhealed wounds
Last week, we observed the first anniversary of the dreadful northeast Delhi riots that shook the city to its core. It will be misleading to say that we recollected those incidents after the passing of a year. There is a sense of continuity and not completion. The city burnt during the corresponding week of the previous year but is not burnt to ashes yet. It continues to burn. One can still smell the smoke and blood etched in the cracks of the walls. Aspects related to the Delhi violence continue to linger and torment our very own people.
Remnants of failures
We failed a year back and continue to fail today — be it police failure, administrative failure, intelligence failure or failure of society as a whole. When it is talked about continuity, it is not just in abstract terms but more explicit and tangible terms. The police investigation in the case is still far from reaching any conclusion. More importantly, the direction of the investigation is not clear. It is difficult to figure out what the police are trying to establish through their investigation. The Magistrate and Session courts that are hearing the pleas related to riots have one by one expressed dissatisfaction with the evidence and witnesses presented by the police. But why is it so big a problem, given the usual lengthy process of justice that we see in our country?
It will be a grave fault if we see this as a mere procedural delay. It is, in fact, a suspension of liberty and living conditions of a section of people in the heart of India. Apart from those who lost their precious lives in the riot, many continue to bear the burden of stringent laws under which they are arrested. It is important to punish the guilty but it is even more important to prevent the innocent from going through a treatment that is meant for guilty. We understand the importance each day holds in our lives. Those who are under arrest without trials in the case are losing months, that too under immense mental and physical pressure. Cry out loud to punish the guilty but even louder to prevent the innocent from going through undue torture.
The ongoing situation requires meaningful interventions — both in immediate and long terms. The humanitarian angle hints at providing immediate relief to people who may be suffering unnecessarily. Long term interventions are required to check the evolving pattern of riots and mass conflict.
The police are proceeding with their investigation. They claim to be doing tech-driven investigations but the courts hearing the matter are far from being convinced with the evidence and witnesses that they have produced. Some important questions need to be answered before attempting to understand the nature and scope of the police investigation into the matter.
One important question is, in what direction the investigation is headed and what it seeks to uncover? The police investigation should not be guided by the element of vengeance towards any particular group of people. Delhi riot, like any other riot, is a very complex phenomenon. It may involve many stakeholders like groups supporting or opposing CAA, the Government and the police itself. All the discrete stakeholders interact together in complicated dynamics. The investigation should hit the root of the issue by taking into account all the stakeholders as well as their interaction with each other through the entire happenings. Most importantly, the approach has to be completely unbiased and free of any extraneous influence.
A more important question is, at what stage the investigation and judicial proceedings in the matter have reached so far? Police have made 1,753 arrests and filed 342 charge sheets against 1,553 people. These are not just numbers. They are people, thousands of people, living a life that is devoid of liberty and full of chaos. As of now, 1,204 people are in jail in cases related to riots. Their culpability or innocence will be decided only after the investigation concludes. Many of them may be found 'not guilty'. Last year in June, Delhi High Court designated four special courts in Karkardooma courthouse — two Magistrate and two Session courts — to hear all the cases related to the riot. These courts have heard 4,437 bail pleas as against 1,753 arrests made by Delhi police. It is important to note that none of the cases has reached the trial stage. It will be reasonable to say that the police investigation in these cases is overstretched, causing immense inconvenience to more than a thousand people.
Further, the pretensions of police regarding its use of video footage, call data records, facial recognition technology and AI to trace the culprits and prove their guilt have further obfuscated the courts rather than convincing them. Millennium Post, in its series of investigative reports, has found that the quality of these shreds of evidence failed to stand the test of judicial scrutiny in many of the cases. Also, witnesses produced before the courts were found "doubtful" by the courts. Police personnel themselves served as witnesses in many cases. Many of the witnesses, including both police and the public, recorded their statements officially after 10 days to over a month of their seeing the commission of the crime. This raises more questions than answers. The courts ruled out these witnesses as dubious. The police investigation thus falls short on the spectrum of merit also.
The people of north-east Delhi have paid a heavy price for raising their voices against (or in support of) laws that they felt would affect their lives and community. Dissent is guaranteed in democracy. But if such is the price people have to pay for their dissenting voices, they will think twice before doing so! The riots not only saw vandalisation of personal and public property on a humongous scale, but it also presented a case of arson and loot. People who left their houses in fear during the riot week, returned reluctantly, to see their homes looted and reduced to nothing. Families put their estimates forward and made cases for compensation. But how does one put the cost to the lives of those 53 people and the grief and anguish they have left their family members to live with!
Also, it takes centuries for the formation of a bond between two communities. Hindus and Muslims have nurtured their bond over many centuries. The dreadful riot has inflicted great damage to the mutual understanding and perception of each community towards the other. The relations between the two communities remain stained, forcing them to bear the agony of living under constant fear from each other. It will take years of rigorous attempts to bring back both communities in harmony with each other in the region.
Families that have lost their loved ones and property are thrown into the relentless struggle of fighting court cases as many booked under UAPA come from these families. The stringent law empowers police to arrest individuals by producing bare minimum evidence. The individuals can be denied bail if the court prima facie finds them guilty. The individuals who are charged under this law end up spending more time in jail even if there is not much evidence against them. Since its inception in 1967, it had been used to contain terrorist organizations but its ambit has expanded over years. The latest amendment has brought individuals under the domain of the Act. This prolonged period of detention due to tardy bail proceedings has added to the woes of people affected by the riots.
Riots are an indicator of polarized societies. They are extreme incidents where a particular group of people go to the extent of killing a large number of people representing the other group in conflict and causing widespread destruction to their property. Differences indeed exist in society, but what leads to the facilitation of such mass-scale violence? Conflicting standpoints and assertiveness prevailing in two polar groups is one possible explanation. But again, there must be some factors that shape and drive the consolidation of viewpoints among the masses.
Thinkers and researchers have cited political parties to be a major factor in facilitating riots in large parts of the world. As per Horowitz, "official support for violence is actually a common facilitator of ethnic riots." He asserts that as long as the state has the will and capacity to intervene strongly against the rioters, there will be fewer riots. In the case of the northeast Delhi riots, it is pertinent that both state and Central governments show the will and capacity to restore complete normalcy in the strife-torn area.
There are other factors in play as well, the social fabric of a region defines its resistance against polarizing factors. Varshney concluded after a comparative study of Indian cities that if the civic organizations of the city are inter-ethnic then "polarizing politicians either don't succeed or eventually stop trying to divide communities by provoking and fomenting violence." Thus, a parallel effort is required to redefine our social fabric and the way communities interact with each other.
There are two aspects of the problem — the first is the overstretching of the investigation and the second is the evolving pattern of riots and mass violence. The foremost priority should be relieving the accused. They are not guilty until they are proven so. The police, judiciary and the government should make concerted efforts to speed up the process. A sensitive approach has to be adopted towards the accused on the humanitarian ground. It must be remembered that those who are not real culprit among them, are in fact, victims of dual suffering, first of the riot and then the stretched investigation. Besides speeding up the investigation, outreach has to be made to the affected families, and their grievances should be addressed. Justice is not just about punishing the culprits. It is as much about saving the innocent from being afflicted. Apart from these immediate measures, some long term interventions also need to be made.
Long term solutions must be chalked out to prevent such incidents in future. With society growing increasingly divided into the lines of caste, class and religion; such conflicts can become a routine phenomenon. To minimize the frequency, magnanimity and impact of such dreadful outcomes; we need to fix at least two things. The first is the long-awaited police reforms and the second is restructuring the way communities live beside each other in our country.
There is no dearth of reform measures for police in India. The only issue is that of implementation of these measures. Right from the National Police Commission in 1977 to the Police Act Drafting Committee II in 2015, there have been persistent efforts to form expert bodies and transform the police system in India. The police are accountable to the political executive which may affect their operational freedom. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission of 2007 has emphasized that the power of political executives over police should be limited to promoting professional efficiency and ensuring that police are acting in accordance with the law.
The Supreme Court ruling in the Prakash Singh vs Union of India case is of immense significance in this regard. The ruling required the Centre and states to set up authorities to formulate guidelines for police functioning. The apex court asked states to fix a minimum tenure of service to check abrupt transfers and postings. The Supreme Court and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission also highlighted the need to establish independent complaints authority to look into matters of police misconduct on the lines of similar bodies in countries like the UK and USA, which have strong police machinery.
In the north-east Delhi riot cases, the police have arrested many suspects on the basis of their disclosure statements under section 161 of CrPC, which are considered as inadmissible evidence. The Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the disclosure statement of the accused should be video-taped in order to ensure transparency. The objective is to ascertain that the statement is not recorded under any sort of pressure or compulsion. In the north-east riot cases, Delhi police has produced disclosure statements as evidence even in the cases where the accused has refused to sign the statement. These actions are not in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling and remain futile.
How big does the problem of living in ghettos look like? It is in fact very big. The ghettos provide a prepared ground for potential riots. People live in ghettos possibly because they have a shared culture. But the other reason could be that they look for a sense of security and strength. It turns out to be otherwise. Ghettos, instead lead to a heterogeneous society that is more vulnerable to riots and targeted violence. Ghettoisation is not in itself a reason for riots but ghettos turn out to be breeding ground for riots in the larger socio-political context. Polarizing efforts of political parties tend to have the most dreadful impact on ghettos as against homogeneous societies. Restructuring these settlements into homogeneous societies is the only way out.
*With inputs from the city desk. Views expressed are personal