The worst-ever communal violence in India’s capital in four decades was an outcome of a conspiracy to defame the Narendra Modi government, Delhi Police has claimed in multiple chargesheets filed in court in June. The conspirators, it alleged, were those who had organised protests against the controversial Citizenship Act amendments.
This week, it went a step further, alleging the conspirators had secessionist motives and were using “the façade of civil disobedience” to destabilise the Indian government.
To recap: Parliament amended the Citizenship Act on December 11, introducing a religious test for Indian citizenship for the first time. It made only non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries eligible for fast-tracked Indian citizenship. Coming on the back of repeated assertions by home minister Amit Shah about the government’s plans to draw up a National Register of Citizens to weed out “infiltrators”, it sparked anxieties among Indian Muslims about the possible loss of citizenship. [Read about how the CAA and NRC intersect, here and here.]
Muslims, students and other citizens who felt the amended law undermined India’s secular foundations began nationwide demonstrations against it in December 2019. Delhi saw peaceful sit-in protests at several locations over three months.
The Delhi Police has claimed these protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens were aimed at sparking hostility between Hindus and Muslims and engineering religious riots to discredit the Modi government internationally. In February, 53 people were killed in four days of communal violence.
This week, responding to petitions alleging police inaction during the violence, the Delhi Police painted an even more sinister picture of the conspiracy: in an affidavit filed on July 13, it alleged the protestors were willing to “advocate and execute a secessionist movement in the country by propagating an armed rebellion against the lawfully constituted government of the day”.
Fourteen people have been arrested so far in the main conspiracy case, which now includes charges under India’s draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Six of those arrested are students. But raising the spectre of an even wider investigation is the sprinkling of names in other chargesheets and the affidavit. Among them are some of the most prominent activists in India: Harsh Mander, Yogendra Yadav, Kavita Krishnan, Anjali Bhardwaj.
For all its sweeping claims, what evidence has Delhi Police produced so far in court to support its narrative of a grand conspiracy in the national capital?
Since the police are yet to file a chargesheet in the main conspiracy case, Scroll.in examined the chargesheets of three other pivotal cases. In these chargesheets, the police have relied on the alleged confession statements of the accused to establish a conspiracy – but none of these statements have been recorded in the presence of a magistrate.
Even though the police claim the accused have confessed to their involvement in the alleged crimes, statements made to the police in custody are inadmissible by law – that is, they are not considered valid evidence. The only exception is provided under Section 27 of the Evidence Act, where a statement is admitted if it leads to establishing a fact relevant to the crime that the police did not know about before the statement was recorded.
Worse, many of these statements are identical, which lawyers said raised serious doubts about their veracity.
Said Yug Chaudhry, a criminal lawyer in Mumbai: “If multiple accused at different points of time in the same case have resorted to the same identical words in almost identically worded disclosure statements, then it is evident that these disclosure statements are fabricated and are hopelessly inauthentic.”
He added: “They should be thrown out.”
Two alleged confession statements recorded in the main conspiracy case have been imported into another chargesheet – a dubious move, said lawyers. One of them is purportedly by Safoora Zargar, a student leader of Jamia Millia Islamia University who is presented as a key conspirator by the police. Strikingly, scribbled at the bottom of the statement is a note: “Refuse to sign”.
From Jamia to Jafrabad
On February 23, communal clashes erupted in North East Delhi on the eve of a two-day visit of United States President Donald Trump. Within four days, 53 people had been killed – 38 of them were Muslim. Among those dead was a police constable and a staffer of the Intelligence Bureau. The police registered 751 first information reports about the violence. Until July 11, chargesheets had been filed in 200 of these cases.
In the chargesheet related to the murder case of police constable Ratal Lal, registered as FIR number 60/20, the police said: “It is not difficult to understand that the present incident was a consequence of a deep-rooted conspiracy which was hatched under the garb of democratically opposing the Citizenship Act.” Similar allegations are made in a chargesheet related to the killing of the Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma (FIR number 65/20), as well as another chargesheet on the Jafrabad protest (FIR number 50/20), which the police claim was the trigger for the communal violence.
All three chargesheets present a similar chronology of events: starting with the march against the Citizenship Act near Jamia Millia Islamia University on December 13, to the non-stop sit-in protest by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh, to the candle march by protestors at Jafrabad who went on to occupy and block the road outside the metro station on February 22.
According to the police, these events spanning three months were carefully orchestrated to culminate in Hindu-Muslim riots.
In the chargesheet related to the murder of the Intelligence Bureau staffer, the police claim two of the alleged conspirators – Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid – met at Shaheen Bagh on January 8. “In that meeting, it was decided to have a big blast so that the Central Govt could be shaken on the issue of CAA/NRC and so as to defame the country in the international arena,” the chargesheet claims. “These riots were planned to occur during or prior to the visit of US President Donald Trump in the month of February, 2020.”
Trump’s trip was announced on February 11. How could Hussain and Khalid have known about it early in January?
In the affidavit, the police have modified the claim: “When the visit of Mr Donald Trump, President of USA was announced, conspirators took the decision of escalating the protest to another level.” This was allegedly done “by blocking the strategic roads in mix population areas/non-Muslim areas in a coordinated manner with the objective of heightened tension and creating riots”.
The affidavit states that the conspirators “had accordingly planned for these riots much in advance by accumulating firearms, sharp edged weapons, petrol bombs, acid bottles, empty bottles, stones, catapults, chilli powder etc”.
By this account, the Delhi Police is effectively claiming that a large-scale riot was planned and executed in 12 days. Weapons were stockpiled in the national capital in a month when assembly elections took place, with a high-powered diplomatic visit looming and yet the police did not even have a whiff of the plans.
Strikingly, the three chargesheets fail to mention Kapil Mishra, a leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who massed supporters on February 23, on the eve of Trump’s visit, barely a kilometre from the gathering of anti-CAA protestors at Jafrabad. In the presence of a senior police officer, he demanded that the police evict the protestors and threatened violence in case they failed to do so. His speech raised tensions in the area and precipitated skirmishes that afternoon. Despite repeated requests, his supporters did not disperse from the area, the Delhi Police concedes in its affidavit. Yet, it maintains that there is no evidence to initiate action against him.
Another crucial omission in the police’s chronology of events is the hate-mongering against Muslims by other BJP leaders, including a Member of Parliament, in the run-up to the assembly elections in early February. As far as the police are concerned, protests in the defence of the Constitutional right to equality disturbed the communal harmony in Delhi, not actual hate speech against a community.
‘A three-tier arrangement’
In the chargesheets, the police claim the February violence was meticulously planned by the anti-CAA protestors, who operated in a three-tiered structure.
On top were the alleged “conspirators”. These were people who “laid the foundation” of the protest sites and made Delhi’s Muslims believe they were in “a predicament”, according to the chargesheet filed in the police constable’s murder case.
This chargesheet identifies them as:
- Lawyers DS Bindra and Mehmood Pracha
- Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain, who was later suspended from the party
- Former Congress councillor Ishrat Jahan
- Jamia Millia Islamia students Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar
- MBA graduate Gulfisha Fatima
- Founding members of Pinjra Tod, a women’s collective, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal
- Filmmaker Rahul Roy
- “United Against Hate” campaigner Khalid Saifi
- Members of the All India Students’ Association Kawalpreet Kaur and Shriya Ghosh
Below them were “local organisers/instigators” who allegedly helped out the conspirators set up the protest site and “provided the logistics”. “Tents, stage, chairs, catering, kitchen etc. were managed by these accused persons,” the chargesheet claims.
At the bottom were the “local rioters” – Muslim residents of North East Delhi who visited the protest sites, where they were allegedly indoctrinated through provocative speeches and incited to violence.
In the chargesheet, the police have depicted this three-tiered arrangement through a flowchart.
Another flowchart is featured in the chargesheet related to the Intelligence Bureau staffer’s murder, showing the web of connections of key accused, Tahir Hussain.
No evidence connecting ‘rioters’ and ‘conspirators’
The voluminous chargesheets are filled with reams of purported evidence against those at the bottom of these flow charts – the alleged rioters. The police claim to have CCTV footage and mobile phone location records that purportedly establish their presence at the sites of violence. They have submitted seizure memos of bottles, weapons, cartridges recovered from the crime scene; clothes that the accused wore on that day which are allegedly visible in the CCTV footage.
But in the case of the “conspirators” – the student leaders and social activists – the police have not produced any major evidence yet.
The police have submitted call detail records of several of the alleged rioters arrested in the Ratan Lal murder case. “The CDRs [call detail records] of the mobile numbers of the arrested accused persons and suspected persons reveal the link between them and members of other organisations like Pinjra Tod, AISA [All India Students Association] etc,” the chargesheet states. But the call records featured in the chargesheet are limited to the morning and afternoon of February 24 and show no contact between the alleged rioters, let alone any wider links to the alleged conspirators.
Besides, there are no call detail records – let alone audio recordings or transcripts – presented for the period in the run-up to the violence, crucial to establishing a conspiracy.
In the chargesheet related to the Jafrabad protest, the police claim to have recovered a WhatsApp message from the phone of an alleged rioter. It lists ten measures Muslim women must take in the time of riots: arrange boiling hot water or oil, use chilli powder, fix doors and instal iron gates, stock bottles of acid and stones, among others. The chargesheet states the message was forwarded to two people, but does not state when. The police have cited the message as evidence that the violence was planned by anti-CAA protestors, ignoring the more plausible explanation that it was a sign of how anxious the Muslim community was, weeks after BJP leaders had made hate speeches against them.
The chargesheets are replete with references to “provocative speeches” made at the protest sites, inciting Muslims to violence. But the police have so far failed to submit any actual recordings of such speeches.
In the three chargesheets, the police appear to be relying solely on the purported confession statements of the alleged rioters to implicate the student leaders and social activists. However, the police have recorded these confession statements under Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which means there was no magistrate to supervise them. Curiously, the police have recorded five witness statements under Section 164 of the CrPC, in the presence of a magistrate.
A possible explanation for why the police may have avoided the scrutiny of a magistrate for these confession statements lies in their contents: many of these statements are identical, word-by-word, line-by-line.
Seven identical statements in the 60/20 chargesheet
One of the first deaths in the communal violence was of head constable Ratan Lal, who died on February 24. A first information report filed the next day alleged he was murdered by a rioting mob near Chandbagh. No accused was identified by name in the FIR.
Subsequently, the police arrested 17 Muslim men – all residents of Chandbagh and neighbouring localities. Seven of them were arrested on March 11: Mohammad Saleem Khan, Saleem Malik alias Munna, Mohammad Jalaluddin alias Guddu Bhai, Arif, Mohammad Ayub, Mohammad Yunus and Mohammad Danish. The disclosure statements of all seven are identical, with a few lines missing in one.
All the statements begin with the same line: “Kuch mahine pehle bharat sarkar ne sansad mein CAA ka kaanon banaya hain va bhavishya mein kendra sarkar ki NRC lagu karne ki yojana hain.” Some months ago, the government of India passed the CAA law in Parliament and has plans to implement NRC in the future.
This sparked discussion within the Muslim community, the statements say: “Social media pe kai message viral ho rahe hain ki CAA humare samaj ke khilaf hain.” Messages were viral on social media saying CAA is against our community. “...tatha sarkar NRC lagu karke humare samaj ke logon ko desh se bahaar nikalegi aur hum pe atyachar karegi.” And the government will throw out members of our community by implementing NRC and will perpetrate atrocities on us. “Jo ki humare sampraday ke kai netayun aur dharam guru dwara bhi CAA, NRC ka virodh kiya jaa raha hain.” The political leaders and religious leaders of our community are also opposing the CAA and NRC.
The statements use exactly the same words in exactly the same sequence.
“The use of identical words and syntax across multiple statements shows not multiple voices, but a single voice and a single mind, that of the Investigating Officer who has fabricated these statements as a script writer does a story,” said Chaudhry, the Mumbai-based criminal lawyer.
Six statements point out that DS Bindra – a Delhi-based lawyer who set up a langar or community kitchen in Shaheen Bagh – established a community kitchen in Chand Bagh as well. Gaining the trust of people, he instigated them, the six statements say, again using identical language.
“Sardar DS Bindra ne humein va humare samaj ke logon ko yeh kehkar bhadkaya ki san 1984 ke dango ke samay jo haal Sikh samuday ke logon ka hua tha vahi haal aage chalkar Muslim aur Dalit samuday ka bhi hone vala hai.” Sardar DS Bindra instigated us and our community by saying what had happened with the Sikhs in the 1984 riots could also happen to Muslims and Dalits.
“Jo hum sabhi ko milkar CAA, NRC ka bade star pe virodh karna chahiye aur iske khilaf logon ko sadko par aana chahiye.” We must oppose CAA and NRC on a wider scale, people should come out on the streets against this.
As people grew convinced of the argument, all the statements say, tents with anti-CAA banners came up at the site of the community kitchen. Muslim men, women and children started gathering there to listen to “bahut hi utejit aur badhkau bhashan” – very fiery and provocative speeches.
All the statements name the people who gave these provocative speeches in almost the same order.
Then, they go on recount how protestors decided to occupy the roads on February 24. “Jiske liye humne logon se dande, rod, paththar, tehzaab, petrol, bottle va hathiyaaron ko ikkatha karne ke liye kaha.” For which we asked people to gather sticks, rods, stones, acid, petrol, bottles and weapons.
All the statements then name the people present on that day in almost the same order.
The statements are filled with identical lines describing the confrontation with the police: “When we came on the road to block the Main Wazirabad Road then the police tried to explain things to us but according to our plan, we all started pelting stones on the police party and used the sticks, baseballs, iron rods hidden in the tent to beat police and others on the road.”
A similar line about protestors allegedly hiding “sticks, baseball, iron road [rod], etc” appears in the first information report written by the police.
All disclosure statements state that the protestors then snatched tear gas cans and batons from the police. Some also threw acid and petrol bombs on the police from the terraces of nearby houses and shops, and started firing on policemen and attacked members of the public. Five statements have an identical line about damaging the CCTV cameras to ensure that the police would not have any evidence against the rioters.
Even the confession in five of the six statements is identical: “Maine social media par bhadkau message va humare saathiyon dwara CAA/NRC ko Muslim samuday ke khilaf bataye jaane ke virodh mein bhavnaon mein bhehkar dinank 24/02/2020 ko yojana ke mutabik policewalon va public ke logon par janleva hamla karne me dangaiyon ka saath diya hai tatha sarkari va gair sarkari sampatti ko nuksaan pahunchaya hai.” Swept by emotion, under the influence of provocative messages on social media and to oppose the CAA and NRC which our friends said was against the Muslim community, I helped rioters on February 24, according to a plan, attacking policemen and members of the public, and vandalising public and private property.
MV Swaroop, a criminal lawyer who lives in Chennai, said identical statements indicate the police drafted them. “No two people will narrate the same story in the same way,” he said. “There will always be differences in sequence, narrative style, emphasis and point of view.”
Swaroop said that such a practice would reflect “very poorly” on the police even though it was not unknown for them to do this. “This kind of practice has been condemned by the court many times, and ideally, the court should ignore these statements while appreciating evidence,” he said.
Ten identical statements in 50/20 chargesheet
The same pattern of identical statements is seen in the chargesheet related to the Jafrabad protest. An FIR filed on February 26 alleged a mob armed with sticks, iron rods, bricks, stones and bottles gathered and raised slogans against the Citizenship Act outside Jafrabad metro station around 4 pm on February 25. Ignoring repeated appeals by the police to disperse, the mob pelted stones on police vans, forcing the police to fire tear gas shells. The crowd fired bullets, leaving several policemen and civilians injured, the FIR said.
The FIR did not identify any accused. The police later arrested 12 people in the case, including Pinjra Tod members Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal. Barring them, the police have submitted disclosure statements of ten other accused.
Each of the 10 statements begin with an identical narration of how the accused was at 66 Futa Road at Jafrabad metro station on February 25. “...ikatrit bhid CAA & NRC ko vapis lene ke liye bharat sarkar va police prashasan ke khilaf lagataar nareba azi kar rahi thi aur ugr ho rahi thi.” The crowd was chanting slogans against the government and the police, asking for the withdrawal of CAA and NRC, and turning aggressive.
“...usme karib das barah hazaar bhid shamil thi jo bhid mein shamil sabhi ke hathon mein dande, paththar aur hathiyaar aadi the tatha hum sab maujpur ki or jana chahte the jahan par hum CAA & NRC ke khilaf dharna pradarshan karna chahte the.” There were around 10,000 to 12,000 people, everyone was carrying sticks, stones and weapons, we all wanted to go towards Maujpur to protest against CAA and NRC.
The statements then go on to identify members of the crowd. In four of the 10 statements, the accused identify the same people in a similar order. Strikingly, in one statement, accused Mohammad Azad mentions his own name and address while identifying others in the crowd.
One of the accused, Shahrukh Khan, identified more people in his statement: “Gul @Gulfisha, Natasha, Guddu Chaudhary, Taslim, Suhasini, Faizan…” The police have cited his statement in support of its claims that the Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devanagna Kalita were part of the rioting mob.
But after he was granted bail on March 6, Khan told The Hindu that he did not know the two activists. He said he had been made to sign a statement that he could not read because of loss of vision during the violence.
Four identical statements in 65/20 chargesheet
This chargesheet focuses on the murder of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma, who lived in Khajuri Khas. After his body was recovered from a drain on February 26, his father filed a police complaint alleging he had been killed by a mob led by suspended Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain. The postmortem report revealed Sharma suffered 51 injuries caused by “sharp edged and blunt objects”, according to the chargesheet, which was filed on June 2.
The chargesheet identifies 10 people as accused, all of whom have been arrested. Hussain is one of them. The police allege Hussain was part of the larger riots conspiracy. He was in touch with Khalid Saifi, leader of the United Against Hate campaign group, who arranged a meeting between Hussain and Umar Khalid at Shaheen Bagh on January 8, the chargesheet claims. The police have not produced any evidence of this meeting.
Like the other chargesheets, the disclosure statements in this chargesheet too have been recorded under Section 161 of the CrPC. Four statements are strikingly identical.
Accused Kasim, Nasim, Sameer Khan and Haseen offer the same narrative while confessing to killing a man between the age of 24 and 25 and dumping his body in the drain after they were instigated by Tahir Hussain. “Hum panchon ne va bhid ne use laat ghuson se pith kar neeche gira liya,” the statements say using the same language. The five of us and the crowd kicked and punched him and threw him down.
After the mob allegedly beat up the man, they picked up his body and threw it in the drain. “Baad mein kaafi police aa jaane ke baad hum mauka se bhaag gaye the,” the statements say. We ran from there after several policemen came.
All the four accused state in an identical manner that on February 26, they found out through the news on television that the man they had allegedly killed was Sharma.
The witness statements
Apart from the purported confession statements of the accused, the chargesheets also contain witness statements, most of which are of policemen, doctors and residents of the area.
Five witness statements have been recorded under Section 164 of the CrPC, which means a magistrate supervised them.
Three of these testimonies are part of the chargesheet in the police constable’s murder case. According to the chargesheet summary, the witnesses have pointed to the “continuous misinformation” on CAA and NRC and that organisers and protestors chose the date and time to block the road keeping in mind Trump’s visit “to gain the maximum impact”.
However, an analysis of the three statements shows very little to support the larger conspiracy made out by the police. Instead, these statements offer a more complicated picture of events.
All the witnesses said that DS Bindra organised a langar at the Chandbagh protest site and urged Muslims to speak up otherwise they could suffer the same fate as Sikhs did during the 1984 riots. A tent sprang up. Over the next 50 days, “provocative speeches” were delivered at the protest site.
Najam ul Hasan, one of the witnesses, a cloth merchant and resident of Chandbagh, identified activist Yogendra Yadav among those who attended the protest. Hasan spoke of a secret midnight meeting that was held in February in which it was said that “the dharna is not achieving much, the Bhim Army has called for a Bharat Bandh on February 23, we should support it”. Some attendees opposed the plan to block roads, but they were ignored, Hasan claimed.
Hasan goes on to describe scenes from February 24: when he stepped out of his house at 11 am, he saw many people were injured. He was told the police had charged protestors with batons that morning. As crowds gathered with sticks, rods, stones and swords, a police officer came and defused the situation. But chaos ensued in the area, he said.
This account suggests that the protestors turned violent on February 24 only after the police baton-charged them.
The second witness Toukir Alam, a 25-year-old resident of Chandbagh, claims protestors had decided to march to Rajghat on February 23 in response to the Bharat Bandh call by the Bhim Army. After the police stopped them, they blocked the Main Wazirabad Road. When reports came of violence in Jafrabad that evening, the area turned tense, he said. This appears to be a reference to the clashes that took place between Kapil Mishra’s supporters and the anti-CAA protestors at Jafrabad, suggesting Mishra’s intervention contributed to the escalation that followed.
The organisers then held a “secret meeting” in gali number four in Chandbagh, Alam recounts, after which they took to the stage to say it was time for the protestors to show their strength. Since Trump was visiting, all eyes were on India, they said, asking the crowd to return the next day with more people, Alam says.
Like Hasan, Alam too testifies that the next morning, chaos ensued only after news spread that the police had forcibly evicted protestors from multiple sites, firing tear gas on them – again bearing out a more complex chain of events than what the police have described.
The statement of the third witness Salman Khan alias Guddu, a 24-year old resident of Old Mustafabad, similarly offers an account of the violence on February 24, without revealing anything about a purported conspiracy.
Even the two witness statements submitted as part of the chargesheet in the case relating to the murder of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma simply offer an account of the actual events on February 25, without providing any evidence for the police’s claims of a conspiracy.
The main conspiracy case: FIR 59/20
Where is the evidence, then, for the grand conspiracy that Delhi Police have made out?
In the affidavit filed in court on July 13, the police claim to have evidence “in form of oral, documentary, technical & substantial” in the main conspiracy case – FIR number 59/20. But the police are yet to file a chargesheet in this case.
A glimpse of the nature of this evidence, however, is available in two confession statements recorded under FIR 59/20 which have been included in the chargesheet in the Ratan Lal murder case.
One of the two statements is purportedly of Shadab Ahmed, a 27-year-old resident of North East Delhi, who is also an accused in the constable’s murder. In the statement, Ahmed identifies activists Yogendra Yadav, Kavita Krishnan, Anjali Bhardwaj among those who delivered “provocative speeches” at the protest sites. These are activists with a long and distinguished public record of democratically fighting for gender rights, food security, transparency, among other public causes.
Ahmed’s statement has been recorded by the police, without the supervision of a magistrate, and is inadmissible as evidence. Yet, there are fears the police could use it as the basis for more arrests.
“In the present investigation under FIR 59/20, many seem to have been arrested arbitrarily, with little evidence,” said a lawyer familiar with the case, who requested anonymity. “This obviously contributes to a climate of fear because as and when names crop up, when people are called in for questioning, many others who haven’t done anything that could amount to a criminal offence begin to fear they too might be arrested arbitrarily and subjected to repressive and rights-eroding measures under the UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act].”
The second statement recorded in the main conspiracy case and imported into the chargesheet pertaining to Ratan Lal’s murder is purportedly that of Safoora Zargar, who was arrested by the police in April. In the statement, she is quoted as saying: “We knew that due to inconvenience caused by Chakka jams [road blocks] at different sites, trouble would be caused to Hindu Communities living in those areas, who will definitely protest against it and it will finally result in violent riots between Hindu and Muslims, which was our final motive.”
Scribbled at the bottom of the purported confession statement, however, is a note: “Refuse to sign”.
Zargar’s lawyer, who did not wish to be identified, confirmed to Scroll.in that she did not sign the disclosure statement. The lawyer declined comment on the contents of the statement.
Scroll.in contacted the deputy commissioner of Delhi Police’s Special Cell, Pramod Singh Kushwaha, to seek a clarification about this, but he did not respond to messages and calls.