Delhi violence: Anatomy of a riot, and its escalation

While the riots have been controlled, at least 38 people have been killed and over 330 injured. Property worth tens of crores has been destroyed. Some questions remain unanswered.
On Sunday evening, there were reports of stone-pelting and firing from Kardampuri and Brahmpuri areas. By Monday, the communal riot was on in full-swing.(PTI)
On Sunday evening, there were reports of stone-pelting and firing from Kardampuri and Brahmpuri areas. By Monday, the communal riot was on in full-swing.(PTI)
Updated on Feb 28, 2020 09:14 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

On February 17, at a security review meeting attended by, among others, the city’s outgoing police commissioner Amulya Patnaik and additional chief secretary (home) Satyagopal (who goes by only one name), Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal raised the possibility of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests spreading to other parts of the city from Shaheen Bagh in the light of the visit of US President Donald Trump (on February 24 and 25) and a ruling by the Supreme Court that could ask the protesters to vacate the site (the court, on February 26, deferred the hearing to March 23).

According to documents seen by HT, Baijal verbally told those present at the meeting that there could be an attempt to embarrass the Union government during the Trump visit, and that the police should strengthen its intelligence and also have adequate force ready. Patnaik said he would do both. On paper, Baijal is responsible for overall superintendence of Delhi Police, although, for many decades now, the force has mostly reported directly to the home ministry. The Intelligence Bureau also provided inputs to the Delhi Police that there was palpable tension in the city’s north-east districts.

This intelligence – some of it was generic, to be sure – came to naught on February 22, when, according to video footage seen by HT, at around 10pm, activists and protesters caught the police unawares and occupied a road near the Jafrabad Metro station. Local police could not muster enough policewomen to remove them.

By the morning of February 23, the crowd at the site swelled. Top Delhi Police, Union government, and intelligence officials who spoke to HT said that the attempt was to create an alternative site to Shaheen Bagh.

February 23 was also when BJP leader Kapil Mishra said that if the police did not clear the site at Jafrabad, he and his supporters would. Mishra put out a video of this statement, highlighting his ultimatum to the police, on his Twitter account. Soon after, pro-CAA protesters started gathering at the predominantly Gurjar village of Maujpur. Reports from local residents of the area suggest many of them were outsiders, shipped in from Uttar Pradesh on buses. There are conflicting reports, though, and some say the crowds at Maujpur started gathering on Saturday evening itself.

A stretch of road separated the two groups. The growing crowd of Muslim, anti-CAA protesters at Jafrabad, and the growing crowd of Hindu, pro-CAA protesters at Maujpur. And between the two groups was Delhi Police, which, with its 73 reserve companies, was stretched almost to breaking point because of the forthcoming visit of the US President. Consequently, the force manning what would emerge as the flashpoint in the north-east district was left with few reserve companies at its disposal. Led by special commissioners Satish Golcha and Praveer Ranjan, the local police’s priority was to ensure that the two groups did not clash on February 22 and 23.

They managed that to some extent on the first day. They gave up some ground on the second. And on the third day, February 24, they were overwhelmed. It wasn’t until late evening of February 25 that they would regain a semblance of control. For 36 hours between Monday morning and Tuesday evening, many neighbourhoods in the north-east burnt.

On Sunday evening, there were reports of stone-pelting and firing from Kardampuri and Brahmpuri areas. By Monday, the communal riot was on in full-swing. At the peak, around 20,000 people were involved in the violence, broken up into smaller groups that went at each other, and at the rival community on the narrow lanes and bylanes.

The police didn’t have the numbers to quell the rioters. Nor did they have the numbers to handle the situation inside the neighbourhoods. To make things worse, the rioters were well armed — with guns, swords, knives, rods and pipes, sticks, stones, and petrol bombs (Molotov cocktails).

“With a mob of 20,000, there was nothing that we could do as the rioters would have lynched us also. There was no question of opening fire as there were far too many rioters armed to the teeth,” said a top police official on condition of anonymity.

It was clear as early as Sunday that the Delhi Police leadership had under-assessed the threat. It was also clear that the leadership was not resourced adequately. Two IPS officers, including DCP (Shahdara) Amit Sharma, sustained critical head injuries, and head constable Ratan Lal lost his life as they tried to control rioters in the lanes of north-east Delhi even as more rioters rained stones down on. Taken by surprise, Delhi Police sent out a request for companies of paramilitary forces the same day, but by then the rioting was on.

At 10.30 am on Monday, February 24, at the LG’s residence, Raj Niwas, Baijal met with Patnaik and Satygopal again. According to the minutes of the meeting, instructions were issued to Patnaik to strengthen and increase the police presence in the north-east districts, with flag marches and to impose Section 144 (which prohibits assembly of people in groups of four or more), wherever required. While Patnaik briefed the LG on the situation and protest at Jafrabad, he did not raise any requirement for more forces at the meeting. HT has reviewed documents related to the meeting. The situation on the ground was becoming worse.

Delhi Police was stretched thin; and only a few companies of paramilitary force arrived to bolster its strength. The riots continued to escalate. It was also a busy day for anyone concerned with law enforcement in Delhi – Trump was arriving the following day. On the evening of February 24, the situation was reviewed by home secretary Ajay Bhalla and Intelligence Bureau director Arvind Kumar, with Patnaik in attendance. Home minister Amit Shah also cut short his visit (he was in Ahmedabad, the first leg of the US President’s visit) and arrived in Delhi early on Monday evening.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was monitoring the situation throughout and after he landed from Gujarat on Monday late evening, he moved quickly. Decisive steps were taken on the intervening night, before President Trump’s ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhawan. More forces were pumped into the area.

The riots continued on February 25, but stayed contained to north-east Delhi, allowing the US President’s visit to proceed smoothly. On the afternoon of February 25, with more paramilitary forces in place, Delhi Police started its counter and began clearing out the main arterial roads of north-east Delhi. By then, the mob strength was also dwindling. Shah, who reviewed the situation in a meeting, and gave a carte blanche to Delhi Police when it came to the demand for additional forces. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal played a very positive role in the meeting and was willing to support any cause to help control the situation along with the LG. The Congress’s Delhi leader Subhash Chopra also attended the meeting, as did BJP’s Delhi chief Manoj Tiwary. Chopra wanted a case to be registered against Kapil Mishra.

With the Trump visit sharing space with Delhi riots on the front pages of newspapers, and with the visit coming to an end on Tuesday late evening (the US president flew out at 10pm), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in consultation with Shah and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval took decisive steps to bring the situation under control. Advisories to news channels were issued, and the PM and Shah asked Doval to take charge of a seemingly weak police leadership. SN Shrivastava was appointed as special commissioner (Law and Order) on the same day.

The moves paid off, with the force led by Doval gaining control over the riot-hit areas on the same night, with only minor incidents of violence reported on February 26. The decision to bring in Doval ended up being a masterstroke: the NSA’s position cuts through police and intelligence hierarchies and ensures everyone is on the same page.

While the riots have been controlled, at least 38 people have been killed and over 330 injured. Property worth tens of crores has been destroyed. Some questions remain unanswered.

Was the Jafrabad protest orchestrated to embarrass the Modi government during the visit of the US President? In the past, there have always been incidents of violence in Jammu & Kashmir to coincide with visits of US Presidents. The riot also came on the eve of the UN Human Right Council session, where Pakistan raised the issue of minorities being persecuted in India, and New Delhi responded.

Did Delhi Police Commissioner Patnaik and his team under-assess the threat? Did Patnaik’s imminent retirement on February 29 (he was already on a month’s extension) affect his ability to lead his team?

Or was everything a result of the police not having enough feet on the ground on Saturday and Sunday?

HT has reviewed the force strength on each day, and on February 26 there was a military division strength of reserve force helping out the local police.

But the story is far from over.

The rioters have gone back home, but with 38 dead, across both communities, north-east Delhi is expected to see a wave of targeted killings over the next few months, according to police and intelligence officials.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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