On February 24, communal violence engulfed North East Delhi, leaving at least 53 people dead over the next three days, most of whom were Muslim. Exactly a month later, India went under a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Normal life came to a halt – but not Delhi Police’s investigation into the violence.
By April 13, the police had made more than 800 arrests, the Indian Express reported. An unidentified official was quoted in the report saying that the Union Home Ministry “insisted that police must continue making arrests under any circumstances”.
But many lawyers and activists say the lockdown reduced scrutiny of the police investigation and impaired access to justice for those arrested. On May 16, activists of the Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights, a civil liberties group, wrote in The Hindu that very little was known about the status of most Delhi violence cases.
Based on an analysis of around 40 FIRs, it accused the police of displaying communal bias against Muslims, by diluting charges against Hindu accused. “It is imperative, for the sake of justice that all FIRs pertaining to the riots be opened to public scrutiny,” the activists said.
The same day, the Delhi Police issued a rejoinder to the article on Twitter, calling it “factually incorrect”. It said over 1,300 accused had been arrested in over 750 cases related to the violence, with the number of those arrested from the two communities “almost identical to each other”. Still, the Delhi Police have not made the FIRs public.
Activists say this raises further questions, given that Muslims bore the brunt of the violence: 38 of the 53 killed are from the community.
Nature of violence
Activist Harsh Mander said the nature of violence in North East Delhi on the first day was that of a riot as both communities engaged in violence. On the subsequent days however, he said, it evolved into a pogrom “where organisations and people of the majority community, with active state protection and support, attacked the properties and bodies of Muslim residents”.
“The maximum loss of life and the loss of property was of this minority community, as has happened in virtually every major episode of communal violence after Partition, barring very few exceptions,” he said.
Three months after the worst violence in India’s capital in three decades, information about the police investigation remains limited, making it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. But Scroll.in examined a few cases closely to find a troubling pattern: often victims of the violence were being prosecuted by the police.
Scroll.in sent queries to Delhi Police regarding the prosecution of victims of the violence. The story will be updated if the police responds.
Here is the story of two such families.
Filed a complaint – and got arrested
On March 1, Hasim Ali submitted a complaint to the Karawal Nagar police station. In the complaint, the 60-year-old resident of Shiv Vihar wrote about how his home was looted, ransacked and burnt to the ground at around 3 pm on February 25.
A mixed neighbourhood of both Hindus and Muslims, Shiv Vihar had seen intense rioting over three days. Several Muslim families had fled the area as mobs ran through it and desecrated the Medina Masjid, located in the same lane as Ali’s home. Ali oversaw the administrative work of the mosque, said his son Aabid Ali, 22.
In his complaint, which Scroll.in has seen, Ali said he witnessed the mob set his house on fire and identified three people in the crowd: Diwan, Dashrath and Bhudev. “Diwan and Dashrath live behind my house and Bhudev lives in front of it,” he wrote. “In teeno ko maine saaf taur par dekha”– I saw them clearly.
Around 5.55 pm, another neighbour, Dharmendra, along with others, set fire to his second house, Ali wrote in the complaint. He claimed to have heard members of the mobs say they would be given Rs 10,000 for burning one house and Rs 5,000 for burning a shop. “I heard them say we will kill all the mullahs [Muslims] and burn their homes,” he alleged. He claimed when he called the police that evening, they said they were coming, but did not arrive.
Hasim Ali ran a tailoring shop in his house, and his family, including his 53-year-old wife Anisha Begum, four sons and daughter-in-laws, lost everything as their two houses were burnt to the ground that day. In the letter, he requested compensation for his losses pegged at Rs 90 lakh and asked the police to investigate the actions of the rioters.
The police attached Hasim Ali’s complaint to an FIR dated February 28, filed at Karawal Nagar police station by another resident of Shiv Vihar, Naresh Chand, who lived two lanes away, said Hasim Ali’s lawyer Brij Shyam.
Scroll.in has seen the FIR that sums up Chand’s account of narrowly escaping violent mobs with his family around 5 pm on February 25. Their home was looted and burnt by mobs, he said. They family lost their fridge, 40-inch LED television screen, motorcycle and jewellery.
On the FIR, the police have scribbled a note stating that Ali’s complaint had been attached with this FIR “for all legal purposes”. The FIR listed offences of rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly and use of explosives.
It is not clear why the police did not file a separate FIR on the basis of Ali’s complaint.
After they fled the violence, Ali’s family has been living with their relatives in Delhi’s Mustafabad area since February 25.
On April 4, the police arrived at the house around 4 pm. Anisha Begum, the wife of Hasim Ali, said they asked for her elder son Rashid. He was not at home. Instead, they took away Hasim Ali.
Aabid Ali, who works as an electrician, said the police had previously taken away his father for questioning “four to five” times, and each time he had returned after a few hours.
“They would ask him about what happened during the riots, how did it happen,” Aabid Ali said. “Papa used to tell them what happened, that our house was burned and looted...two bikes and one scooty were burned,” Aabid Ali recalled.
But on April 4, Hasim Ali did not come back.
Aabid Ali called him at 6.14 pm. “He said they had just called him for interrogation and that there was nothing to worry about,” the son said. He called his father again at 6.39 pm. “Papa said he was just waiting and that police had not yet asked him anything,” Aabid Ali said.
Around 9 pm, he was still waiting to be questioned. Finally, at 10 pm, he called up Aabid Ali and told him that the police were taking him for a medical check-up. “From behind, I heard someone say, ‘take away his phone, he is talking too much,’” Aabid Ali said.
That was the last he heard from his father.
Allegations and arrests
When Aabid Ali called his father’s phone at 11 pm, a stranger answered. “He said that they had arrested my father... I asked him who he was and he said he too had been interrogated.” The police had released him after interrogation. Hasim Ali’s wife, Anisha Begum, went to Shiv Vihar that night to collect the phone and money from this man.
The next morning, Aabid Ali received a call from an unknown number. It was his father. He asked them to bring him some clothes and food.
Aabid Ali and his uncle Shaukat Ali reached the police station within half an hour. Only Shaukat Ali was allowed to enter. Aabid Ali caught a glimpse of his father: “I saw him from a distance,” he said. “They did not let me meet him.”
The police did not give them any information about the FIR under which Hasim Ali had been arrested.
“Our house was burned and looted and we complained but none of those people were picked up. They are still roaming around,” said Aabid Ali. “Instead, the police took away our father and are chasing our brother.”
Investigating officer Suman Kumar from Karawal Nagar police station told Scroll.in that Hasim Ali had been arrested under the same FIR that his complaint was attached with.
“We received around 1,500 to 1,600 complaints from our area,” Suman Kumar said. “Individually not everyone has an FIR. Almost 15 to 20 complaints have been clubbed in one FIR. So the investigation will be done under that FIR only.”
While the FIR did not name any accused people, said Kumar, two people, including Hasim Ali, had been arrested in the case, and four others, including Ali’s elder son Rashid Ali, were “absconding”.
Asked what was the basis for Hasim Ali’s arrest, the investigating officer claimed he featured in several photos and videos that emerged from February 25 in Shiv Vihar.
In the footage, Kumar claimed Hasim Ali appeared to be provoking mobs who were armed with sticks, rods and swords. “He was gesturing with his hands, asking them to move forward quickly,” the officer said.
However, Kumar admitted he had not been able to hear the audio of the footage. The CCTV was later destroyed by a member of the mob, he said.
What about the four men that Hasim Ali named in his complaint? Would they be investigated?
Kumar said Ali’s witness statement would be taken under Section 161 of the criminal procedure code. “When you name people, you should give some proof against them,” he added. He said the main complainant of the FIR, Naresh Chand, had given evidence in the form of CCTV footage recorded on that day.
Lawyer Abhik Chimni said that asking for proof from a complainant was “prima facie incorrect”. “The idea of an investigation is to reach a conclusion about the claim,” he said. “Police asking for proof from the complainant is bizarre.”
A bail application for Hasim Ali was submitted by his lawyer Brij Shyam on May 3 at Karkardooma District Court. It states that the accused was a victim of violence who had filed a complaint but instead had been “falsely implicated” by the police.
At the first hearing on May 6, the court asked investigating officer Suman Kumar to submit a response, Shyam said. The next hearing took place on May 12 where the investigating officer did not turn up and the hearing was again scheduled on May 13, the lawyer said.
After arguments were made on May 13, Hasim Ali was granted bail on May 15 by Additional Sessions Judge Yogita Singh.
In the bail order, the judge noted the counsel’s arguments for the accused which stated that Hasim Ali was “falsely implicated” in the case and was the sole breadwinner of the family. The judge also noted in the order that the investigating officer opposed the bail appolication and had accused Hasim Ali of being involved in serious offences.
The judge asked the accused to furnish a surety bond of Rs 20,000 and noted the “personal difficulty of the accused” – the fact that he was the sole earning member – to allow his release from judicial custody.
Complained of vandalism – got arrested
Subhash Tyagi, 51, works in a government-run hospital in Delhi. He lives in Yamuna Vihar with his wife and children, while his parents, three brothers and their families live in North Ghonda.
On February 23, the family left Delhi to attend a wedding in Firozpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district. Tyagi stayed back. So did his 26-year-old niece and 16-year-old nephew.
The next day as communal violence spread through North East Delhi, they called him to say tensions were rising in their area, he recalled.
Tyagi left work and reached North Ghonda around 7 pm. While he was parking his bike in front of the gate of the house, some people came to attack him, he alleged. The mob, he claimed, was armed with sticks, stones and firearms and chanted slogans like “Allah Hu Akbar!”
Leaving his motorcycle there, Tyagi ran into a neighbour’s house. When he emerged around 9 pm after the mob retreated, he found his motorcycle had been burnt, the gate of the house had been broken and glass windows shattered, he said. His niece and nephew had recorded videos of the vandalism. They also called the police helpline but no one responded, he said.
On the night of the violence, Tyagi did not return to his home in Yamuna Vihar and stayed back at the family home in North Ghonda for the next four days. His brothers came back from Baghpat around 11 pm on February 24, he said.
On February 27, when Scroll.in had visited the area to report on the aftermath of the violence, Tyagi and his brother had given a similar account of the mob violence. A burnt bike was parked outside their home.
It took the family three weeks to file a police complaint. On March 16, Subhash Tyagi’s brother Virendar Tyagi wrote to the station house officer at Bhajanpura police station, saying he recognised faces in the violent mob seen in video footage recorded by his daughter. He asked the police to launch an investigation into the matter.
Crime Branch summons
But the police did not file an FIR on the basis of the complaint, said Subhash Tyagi.
However, police officials at Bhajanpura police station told Scroll.in that an FIR had been filed on the basis of Virendar Tyagi’s complaint. They refused to disclose the FIR number to this reporter over the phone.
On April 8, Subhash Tyagi along with his brothers Naresh Tyagi, 53, and Uttam Tyagi, 40, received summons to appear before Inspector Richhpal Singh at the Crime Branch office in Dwarka on April 9. They were asked to bring their mobile phones.
The notices said that the investigation pertained to a case registered at the Jaffrabad police station for offences related to rioting, criminal conspiracy and the Arms Act.
However, at the crime branch office on April 9, where they found themselves as part of a group of 22 men, they were told the case pertained to the murder of a person named Parvez who had been killed near Baburam Chowk in Maujpur. Their mobile phone locations showed they were present near the spot at that time on February 25, the police said.
“If our house is there, then we will be located there itself, no?” said Subhash Tyagi. He claimed his family home located at the corner of gali number 3 of North Ghonda and was over 800 m from Baburam Chowk.
Scroll.in accessed an FIR filed on February 26 by Assistant Sub Inspector Rakesh under Section 302 for punishment of murder. The FIR, which is not available on the police website, does not name any of the accused.
The FIR states that on February 25, a 48-year-old man identified as Pravesh was brought dead to GTB Hospital at Dilshad Garden. The medico-legal certificate said he had suffered a firearm injury near Baburam Chowk, Maujpur at around 7 pm. In the FIR, the police official said he tried to search for eyewitnesses but could not find anyone.
Inspector Richhpal Singh told Scroll.in that the person identified in the FIR as Pravesh was later identified as Parvez Alam.
Parvez Alam, 50, ran an NGO in the area providing books to students and free eye surgeries for the elderly. On February 27, Scroll.in visited the area and spoke to a neighbour who claimed he had seen Alam fall to a bullet while making an appeal for peace at the corner of his lane in Ghonda. Alam’s son also recounted his father’s last moments to reporters outside the GTB hospital.
Baburam Chowk in Maujpur is at least 500 metres away from the lane in which Alam lived. Scroll.in sent queries to the police about this discrepancy – the FIR alleges that Alam suffered his injury “near Baburam Chowk”, though his neighbour and son say he was shot at the corner of his lane. The piece will be updated if the police respond.
On April 9 morning, Subhash Tyagi had carried a pen drive with him to the crime branch office, which had screenshots of the mob vandalism footage recorded from a neighbour’s CCTV camera on February 24 evening in North Ghonda. But the police refused to see it. “They [police] said we should show all this in court,” he said.
Subhash Tyagi claimed that police made all the men sit on the floor of the crime branch office without maintaining any physical distancing norms required to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
He was finally allowed to leave at 11 pm after being made to fill up some forms. “Like a dossier for criminals,” he said. “They told me they were letting me go because I have a government job.”
But his brothers were arrested and so were several other men, he recalled. Many were familiar faces from the area. “Everyone there was from our community, the Hindu community,” he said. “Humare aas paas ke log the sab.” He said that many of those arrested that day were neighbours and victims of the February violence in which their homes and vehicles had been destroyed.
Inspector Richhpal Singh told Scroll.in that 16 people were arrested from that group in connection with the case. He said that the police had photos and videos as evidence against them.
The lawyer representing the two brothers said that their bail application had been filed but the case had not yet been listed at the Karkardooma District Court. The lawyer, who did not wish to be identified, said that the police had no “potent evidence” against the brothers.
Subhash Tyagi received another notice signed by Inspector Ricchpal Singh dated May 20 to appear before him on May 21 at 11 am at the crime branch office in Dwarka to give information regarding the investigation of the same FIR under which his brothers were arrested. Tyagi said he was unable to go because his leave was rejected by his workplace in light of Covid-19.
He wrote a letter to the police on May 21 stating that he would not be able to “physically participate” but would assist them and provide them with information over the phone, or through WhatsApp, video conferencing and email, and attached the letter from his workplace cancelling his leave, he said.
Subhash Tyagi said his family has been unable to meet or speak to his brothers since they were arrested on April 9 and taken to Mandoli jail. The family was concerned for their health as both brothers are diabetic, he said.
Listing the educational qualifications of his brothers, who run a packaging business, he asked: “If we were criminals then why would we go there [the crime branch office]?”
In Delhi violence investigation, a disturbing pattern: Victims end up being prosecuted by police