How the Delhi riots probe polarised society | Analysis
The dreary evening of February 23 saw parts of North-East Delhi gripped by a communal frenzy, reminiscent of the carnage during the days of Partition. The police dithered for a considerable time before taking firm action when they should have crushed the violence right away. Soon, the riots spread like wildfire across the smoke-grey skyline of the Capital, engulfing new areas and snuffing out more and more innocent lives. Chief minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal looked on helpless, sitting on a peace mission at Rajghat, while various politicians traded charges. Much to the relief of the city’s citizens, some semblance of order returned gradually from February 26.
Six months after the incident, the probe into the riots has come under public scrutiny. The most contentious case is the overarching one, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, covering the conspiracy for planning, instigating and executing the riot action plan. The arrest of Umar Khalid under UAPA has unleashed a bitter debate over the alleged bias in the police probe. Even former director-general of police Punjab and Gujarat, and police commissioner, Mumbai, Julio Ribeiro and other retired police officers have expressed their reservations on the matter.
The police investigation of the riot cases has clearly polarised the public. While a section finds the police biased for targeting the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protesters, the other justifies the police action, clamouring for stringent legal action against the accused in the UAPA charge-sheet. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. While the Delhi Police has done meticulous investigations in many cases, it has failed on some counts too. The probe can thus be covered broadly under three categories.
First, it was a mammoth exercise to conduct a probe in the riots which claimed 53 lives and injured 583 others. Two policemen were killed and over 100 injured. A total of 781 cases were registered by the local police, special cell and the crime branch. The police arrested 1,575 people, including 776 Hindus and 799 Muslims, and 250 charge-sheets have been filed till now. Seizures by the police include 12 pistols, 121 empty cartridges, 92 live cartridges, 61 glass bottles full of noxious chemicals and an assortment of sharp-edged weapons. One policeman died from bullet wounds. The cases are being vetted by 11 special prosecutors for presenting in four special courts set up for the purpose. The charge-sheet submitted under UAPA runs into 11 volumes, totalling over 17,000 pages.
The hallmark of an investigation in a majority of these cases has been the extensive use of scientific evidence, including the facial recognition system — matching the faces of the accused with the help of a databank of driver’s licences and dossiers maintained by the police — CCTV, electronic data and the Vahan portal. Some probe teams did particularly well, including the one which unearthed the killing of nine Muslims by 11 members of the Hindu Kattar Sangh in Gokulpuri. The painstaking collation of clues and messages of a chat group led to the case being cracked.
Second, it is the case instituted under UAPA that has generated a heated debate as it relates to the planning, instigating and fanning the flames of communal conflagration. While social activists maintain that Umar Khalid and company are mere dissenters and protesters of CAA and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Delhi Police maintain that they have unimpeachable evidence against them regarding well-planned sit-ins and blocking of roads, collection of acid and incendiary devices, funding through the Popular Front of India (PFI) and confrontation with the state law and order machinery. The statements of a few witnesses before the court and electronic data have added heft to the charges. For the case to succeed, the prosecutors have to convince the judge that the acts of the accused extended beyond sit-ins and protest speeches which come under the ambit of democratic dissent, to the instigation of riots and confrontation with the state leading to the killing of two policemen and injuring 108 others. Hence, this issue is in a grey area awaiting a judicial verdict.
Third, the high court observed after the riots that all hate speeches delivered around this time should be analysed and FIRs registered accordingly. The lack of real action taken by the Delhi Police against the speeches by Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur and Pravesh Sharma has got civil society in a ferment. The forces failed to summon the courage to take legal action against the minister, the Member of Parliament (MP) and some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cadres for rabble-rousing. Kapil Mishra was called to the police station only to be let off soon after. The minister and MP were not even called by the same police which had once questioned the Delhi CM in the case of an assault against the chief secretary. A clutch of petitions filed with the High Court on such issues is waiting to be taken up.
When history looks back at the worst communal riot since Partition in Delhi, it is the failure to hold to account rabble-rousers from the ruling dispensation which will torment the sentinels of democracy.