On August 28, a Delhi court was damning in its remarks about the police investigation on the communal violence that erupted in the capital last year. The Delhi Police had filed “half-baked chargesheets”, said the Karkardooma sessions court. In a large number of cases, the court observed, the “standard of investigation is very poor”.

Protests against the new citizenship law gave rise to a violent backlash last year. In February 2020, this culminated in communal violence that swept across North East Delhi, leaving at least 53 dead, hundreds injured and displaced. A majority of the victims were Muslim.

The police filed nearly 750 cases in the aftermath of the violence, including one under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Some of those who organised protests against the citizenship law were booked under the anti-terror law, with the police accusing them of a conspiracy to trigger violence and overthrow the Narendra Modi government.

However, as of February 2021, only 73 chargesheets were taken cognisance of by the courts. Around 3,500 people had been granted bail by the four courts assigned to handle the cases at the Karkardooma Court Complex in Delhi. Several more have been granted bail over the last seven months, including three student activists booked under the anti-terror law and others charged with murder, attempt to murder and various serious offences.

Numerous court orders granting bail to those named in these cases have criticised the Delhi Police investigation. Lawyers called the orders a “scathing indictment” of the Delhi Police, which reports to the Union ministry of home affairs. “These observations highlight that the police has been far from scientific and methodical in their investigation,” said Ritesh Dubey, a lawyer representing Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar, who was arrested under the anti-terror law.

Scroll.in examined 20 orders in which the Delhi Police was hauled up by the court. These orders were passed while granting bail to the accused, during arguments or while charges were framed in a case. The courts blew holes in every step of the police process: the “farcical” filing of first information reports, the lack of evidence against the accused, gaps in witness statements and generally shoddy investigation.

A violent mob on the streets of North East Delhi on February 24, 2020. Picture credit: Danish Siddique/ Reuters

The riddle of the FIRs

In at least three orders, the courts have pointed to irregularities in the way FIRs were filed. At times, the Delhi Police filed multiple FIRs at one police station for a single incident, implicating the same accused in several cases for the same offence. In other instances, it clubbed separate complaints in a single FIR.

In July, a Delhi sessions court directed the Bhajanpura police station to file an FIR based on a complaint made by one Mohammad Nasir, who had lost his left eye after being shot at during the violence. Despite his requests, the police had refused to register a separate FIR. The court also ordered the police to pay a fine of Rs 25, 000 and directed the Delhi police commissioner to take appropriate remedial measures against the lapse. The police challenged the order in the Delhi High Court, which put a stay on the fine but otherwise declined to interfere.

In the case of arson at the Madina Masjid, the police themselves seemed unaware that a separate FIR had been filed and failed to inform the trial court of its existence. The police initially claimed they had clubbed three arson complaints together in one FIR. The first complaint, made by one Naresh Chand, detailed how his family narrowly escaped mobs that vandalised his house.

During the investigation of the case, Hashim Ali, a member of the masjid committee was arrested for alleged arson. But Ali had also filed two complaints of arson. First, he alleged that his own house was burned down. Second, he named 15 rioters who had allegedly set the Madina Masjid ablaze. Both these complaints were clubbed with Chand’s FIR.

The court pointed to the absurdity of a situation where Ali was jailed on the basis of an FIR where he was a complainant. When it directed that the arson of the Madina Masjid be addressed in a separate FIR, the police found such a case had already been registered at the Karawal Nagar police station in North East Delhi.

In other cases, the Delhi Police were zealous, filing five FIRs on the same incident of arson in North East Delhi’s Maujpur locality. It was acting on separate complaints made by five different members of the same family. On September 2, the High Court quashed four of these FIRs and told the police to proceed with just one.

Security personnel guard a mosque set ablaze in North East Delhi's Mustafabad in February 2020. Picture credit: Xavier Galiana/ AFP

‘No evidence’

Earlier, Scroll.in had reported how the police lacked evidence to establish its claims, relying heavily on witness statements or purported confession statements, which are not admissible in court. At least two court orders bear this out.

In March, the Delhi High Court granted bail to four Muslim men arrested for rioting, burning vehicles and robbery. The court observed that the men had not been named in the FIR; there was no CCTV footage, video or photograph connecting the men to the incident either. “Nothing incriminating has been recovered from their possession,” the court stated.

On September 3, the High Court granted bail to four men and one woman accused of murdering Head Constable Ratan Lal, killed on February 24 in North East Delhi. The order said there was no evidence that justified keeping the accused in jail.

“Furthermore, this Court is of the opinion that there is no evidence which has been placed on record which can corroborate the contention that the Petitioner had damaged CCTV cameras,” the court said in its order. “Merely being caught staring at a CCTV camera right before its dislocation by a co-accused cannot form the basis of this assumption.”

‘Double jeopardy’

Many of the witness statements that so many cases hinge on have also been called into question. As Scroll.in has reported, the witness statements recorded by police in some cases were identical, which raised doubts about their veracity. It has also reported how some witnesses alleged they were abused, threatened, coerced into giving false statements by the Delhi Police.

In at least seven orders, the courts have questioned the credibility of witness statements.

In four of these orders, the witnesses were police personnel. First, in October last year, a sessions court granted bail to one Irshad Ahmed, accused of being part of a mob that looted and vandalised a shop in North East Delhi’s Dayalpur area. It noted there was “serious doubt” about the credibility of the witnesses: two police constables who had registered no complaint against the accused nor named him to senior officers on the day of the incident. Ahmed’s name cropped up only two weeks later, when the investigating officer recorded their statements.

Second, in January, the court granted bail to Mohammad Shoaib and Shahrukh, who were allegedly part of a mob that pillaged shops in North East Delhi’s Gokulpuri area. Once again, the witnesses were two police constables. The court demanded why the policemen had waited till April, a month and a half after the incident took place, to record their statement when they could have filed a case straight away.

The court also questioned the credibility of policemen acting as witnesses in at least two bail orders passed in April, noting that the witness statements were undated in one case and hugely delayed in the other.

Delayed statements were grounds for granting bail even when the witnesses were not policemen. In February, it granted bail to murder accused Kuldeep Singh, remarking on the “humongous delay of about 83 days” in recording the witness statement.

Another curious pattern emerges through the orders – the same eye witness appears in multiple cases. In April, the Delhi High Court granted bail to Pradeep Rai and Aman Kashyap, both accused of murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy, observing that one of the eye witnesses had cropped up in several FIRs filed at the same police station. The court alleged this person was a “planted witness”.

In other instances, the same eye witness statements are used in multiple cases against one person. Take the case of Gulfam, named in two cases of rioting. Granting him bail on September 2, an irate court remarked: “It is beyond comprehension that under what provision(s) the investigating agency has imported the statements of said witnesses [from one FIR to the other].”

Such a practice, the court observed, violated the “doctrine of Double Jeopardy”.

The remains of an anti-CAA protest site in North East Delhi in February 2020. Picture credit: Scroll Staff

‘Failure of investigating agency’

In at least five orders, overall poor investigation by the Delhi Police has been grounds for bail or for discharging the accused.

In July, a sessions court acquitted one Suresh, accused of looting a shop run by a man named Asif, who had filed the complaint. The court noted that the accused denied the charges and claimed the police had made him sign on blank papers. It also noted “glaring inconsistencies” in witness statements, which did not always match with the prosecution’s version of events. The “prosecution has miserably failed to prove its case” and there was “no testimony worth its salt”, the court concluded.

In two separate orders this September, the court pointed out that the police were unaware of the status of investigation, unable to present the accused or file supplementary chargesheets.

On September 2, a sessions court discharged three men, including the brother of former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain, who is accused of conspiracy in the North East Delhi violence. The three men were allegedly “active members of a riotous mob”. But, examining the case against them, the court found several flaws: the accused were not specifically named in the FIR, there was no incriminating evidence recovered from them, no CCTV footage, no independent eye witness and no conclusive call detail records.

The court order ends with a strongly worded comment: “When history will look back at the worst communal riots since partition in Delhi, it is the failure of investigating agency to conduct proper investigation by using latest scientific methods, will surely torment the sentinels of democracy.”

The ‘hornet’s nest’

The court had other grievances. Last year, as the police began to file chargesheets detailing the crimes of the accused, the contents of these documents were reported in some media outlets even before the court had taken cognisance of them.

This included the purported confessions or disclosure statements of those accused in the main conspiracy case, where the police invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. These statements are not admissible as evidence in court as they are recorded by the police. Only statements recorded in the presence of a magistrate can be submitted as evidence. But media outlets continued to report these disclosure statements.

Two such instances involve Zee News. In August last year, the channel reported the confession statements of Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha. Tanha petitioned the Delhi High Court, alleging that the confession statements were leaked by the police to vilify him and deny him a fair trial.

When the police denied leaking the confession, the High Court asked Zee News to reveal its source. The channel refused to do so, arguing that a journalist was protected against disclosing sources. In August this year, the police told the court that it failed to identify the officers who had leaked the statement to the media.

While the court called it a “very serious issue”, the additional solicitor general, representing the Delhi Police, said that a deeper examination would “stir a hornet’s nest”.