About eighty days after the riots that convulsed NE Delhi, what is the status of the investigation into the ‘over 700’ FIRs reportedly registered, according to the Home Minister’s statement in Parliament on 11 March, two months ago? If recent media reportage of the investigation and prosecution in the riots related cases is to be followed, the impression conveyed is that a group of persons, mostly Muslims, were responsible for the riots and the many acts of gruesome violence in it, in which the majority of those affected were also Muslims. While there has been no sharing of information with the media on the progress of the vast majority of the ‘over 700’ FIRs registered, the police have however put forward (through the selective pursuit of a particular line of investigation) the theory of an alleged ‘conspiracy’ that sees the riots as the handiwork of Muslims and anti-CAA protest organizers. PUDR strongly condemns this blatant attempt to actively derail justice by rescripting the truth of the NE Delhi riots, under the active aegis of the State. Based on its own fact-finding investigation, interviews with victims and lawyers, media reports and official statements, PUDR would like to draw attention to the following points:
- The police have cherry-picked selective FIRs to construct their own narrative -notable among these is FIR 59/20, filed by the Crime Branch on 6 March, where the complainant is also a police officer acting on information received from a supposed ‘special informer.’ This FIR initially cited bailable offences but has been incrementally added to by the police to now include allegations under Sections 13, 16, 17 and 18 of the draconian UAPA. ‘Investigation’ under this has been peculiarly speedily pursued under the COVID-19 lockdown, and this has meant that youth, volunteers and protest organizers are daily being summoned for interrogations by the Special Cell, their phones seized etc. – some (especially those with an association with Jamia Milia Islamia University) have been arrested. The combination of the threat of UAPA and lockdown conditions has meant that possibility for those being thus accused to challenge this legally has been severely restricted.
- The frightening scale of the speed and lack of transparency with which this cover-up is proceeding became apparent when a recent RTI application about the numbers killed in the riots yielded a response from DCP (Crime) of ‘23 deaths’ in contrast to the 52 mentioned by the Home Minister two months ago and 53 confirmed deaths widely reported in the press. The numbers arrested was also represented as much lower than had been reported by the police earlier, and in the Parliament.
- This re-scripting is underway not only through misinformation in the public domain, but also through the records produced by the state, through the particular ways in which the FIRs are written. Independent news and fact-finding reports have shown that about three-fourths of those killed (38 out of the 53 recorded) during the riots were Muslims, as were the majority of those injured, or those who lost their homes and property to arson. These and many other plain facts which were known about the riots through media reports are being carefully sought to be driven out of public memory. This is being done by drawing attention away from the charges against BJP leader Kapil Mishra and his ultimatum on 23 February, Anurag Thakur, Ragini Tewari, and the role of largely Hindu murderous, violent mobs responsible for attacking, brutally beating, burning and killing Muslims, mobs encountered by journalists who were allowed to go only because of their Hindu names, an account of men in uniform beating up Muslim youth, compelling them to sing the national anthem, police refusing to allow ambulances into the area to take injured Muslims to hospitals at the height of the violence among many other reports. It has also emerged that the police were illegally detaining and torturing Muslims during the riots (eg. at PS Dayalpur, apparently from 24-28 February). At PS Jagatpuri lawyers who went to ask for access to detainees were beaten up.
- The FIR is one of the most important instruments through which the police could have control over what is regarded as the truth–it is the first document through which a crime is ‘cognized,’ its contents forming the basis for subsequent investigation. Discrepancies in the recording of FIR can lead to improper investigation and later to acquittal of the guilty. For the victims of NE Delhi riots, the act of filing complaints, lodging FIRs was the first challenge. Some victims, Muslims, who went to file complaints reported that they were beaten up at police stations in the immediate aftermath. In some cases in which murdered victims’ families were able to file FIRs, they have been under enormous pressure from police to withdraw charges, and change their version. Further the police refused to file or misreported ‘missing persons’ complaints by Muslims – in one case, where the complaint was mis-reported, the family of the missing victim had to eventually approach the High Court on 4 March to get their complaint registered. This missing person’s corpse was later one of those recovered from the NE Delhi drains.
- PUDR has been able to access, and has in its possession about 40 FIRs (into crimes that occurred during the riots) which it has scrutinized. These reveal certain crucial distortions and discrepancies. In some cases where Muslim complainants could, after considerable effort, lodge complaints of arson, looting, destruction of their property, the police deliberately diluted the charges, dropping non-bailable charges against Hindu accused. There are instances of single FIRs combining multiple incidents of different places – vexing the possibility for future investigation and prosecution– opening possibilities of wrongful arrests. Another common problem is that the police are themselves complainants in several FIRs, despite the presence of other witnesses and of victims/survivors. This implies essentially that the police person was observing the violence, not acting to stop it, and responsible for ‘dereliction of duty.’ More immediately, this practice of police lodged FIRs meant that victims could not demand the FIR as a right or intervene in the court during prosecution etc. Those arrested, or called for interrogations, their lawyers and families, are also struggling to gain access to FIRs under which Muslims are continuing to be regularly detained.
- Given the role of the police in the NE Delhi riots, their complicity with the aggressors through acts of omission and commission reported during and after the riots, there can be more than ‘reasonable doubt’ about the content and nature of the not just these but all other FIRs pertaining to the riots that the police have lodged. – especially because most of the FIRs are not available for public scrutiny. Such distortions as we have already found were not so innocent and quite likely deliberately inserted and retained. They could ensure that investigation would be skewed, the guilty escape prosecution, and innocent charged. In the context of the communal bias in policing already evident during the riots, this would lead to further targeting of Muslims. Above all it would lead to a massive miscarriage of justice. There is thus clearly a need to make all the FIRs pertaining to the riots public to ensure transparency in investigation, and counter the bias, already demonstrated. It is also not unreasonable, under the circumstances, to suspect a similar bias in the collection of evidence – CCTV footage, phone records, photographs, videos as well as physical remains at the sites of crime. There is need to monitor the process of evidence collection closely and ensure its neutrality.
- It needs to be noted that while the comparison of NE Delhi riots of Feb 2020 and Gujarat genocide of Feb-March 2002 has been made elsewhere, and its nature, and validity may be debated, it is clear that some of these distortions in the way FIRs were lodged were very similar – the combined or ‘running FIRs’, lodging of FIR by police, dilution of charges against Hindu accused. FIRs included attacks by large (typically unidentified) Hindu mobs and identified Muslims. The results are today known – these FIRs as well as the very selective investigation and gathering of evidence led in several instances to Muslims being arrested or jailed for murders of Muslims, destruction of mosques, dargahs etc. They also led obstructed fair investigation and contributed significantly to the denial of justice.
- Through the COVID-19 lockdown period, the police have also continued issuing summons, arresting or extending of remand of those implicated in other riot related FIRs – the majority of whom are also Muslims. Media reports on these ‘rampant arrests’ have shown that this is blatant violation of their democratic rights – to legal representation and also right to life. The interventions by the head of the Delhi Minorities Commission questioning this selective arresting and prosecution of Muslims in the NE Delhi riots form the background to the recent charge of ‘sedition’ being imposed on him for a tweet. The charging, arrests of prominent Muslims could serve as an intimidatory tactic by the state authorities to deter any questioning of blatantly biased policing and prosecution.
- In this entire exercise of officially rescripting the riots certain crucial points are being sought to be wilfully erased. The first is that the anti–CAA protests being now criminalized and misrepresented through the ‘political conspiracy’ theory, had been going on peacefully in different sites for months. They had been constitutional and legitimate. The present official effort also aims to deliberately push to the background the concerns it had been peacefully raising. The second more crucial point being elided is the failure of the state to investigate and prosecute the accused in the massive violent attack by the police and state agencies on the Jamia students’ protests against the CAA in December 2019. Most of the NE Delhi and other anti-CAA protests had originated after this brutal attack. The police’s entry into the campus, attack on students in the library on 15 December etc. had drawn international criticism and it is significant that in January 2020 the University authorities sought registration of FIR, and further video evidence emerged in the case in February 2020. No FIR has yet been filed and the MHA is apparently not interested in pursuing it. The third point that is being sadly forgotten is the need for fair recording of incidents, investigation and collection of evidence, the basis for a fair trial and prerequisite of justice.
In the light of the above PUDR demands
- That arrests, detentions, interrogation by the various agencies – Crime Branch, SITs, Special Cell and Delhi Police – in connection with the NE Delhi riots cases of 2020, during the COVID lockdown be stopped immediately.
- That all FIRs lodged in the NE Delhi riots be made public. Discrepancies and distortions need to be rectified so that the guilty do not escape prosecution.
- That transparent and fair investigation into the NE Delhi riots be initiated anew and these various agencies be made accountable to abide by constitutional norms. The investigation should be handed over to an independent agency and FIRs be registered anew, victims and their family members be given security and protection, and all victims and survivors be treated equally regardless of religion, economic or social background, or political opinion. All state representatives guilty of communal acts during the riots – by omission or commission –should also be investigated and punished.
- That an FIR be immediately filed and a fair thorough investigation be undertaken into the violent attack by police on Jamia Milia Islamia students and in the institution December 2019, and the guilty police be prosecuted and punished.
- A time-bound judicial commission of enquiry by a retired judge of the Supreme Court be established to investigate the NE Delhi riots of 2020.