On August 3, Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand was interrogated by the Delhi Police in connection with the communal violence that engulfed North East Delhi between February 23 and 26. At least 53 people were killed in the violence and hundreds were left injured.
During the interrogation, police questioned the professor about his association with a WhatsApp group called “Delhi Protests Support Group”, The Indian Express reported on August 5. In addition, police seized Apoorvanand’s phone.
This WhatsApp group has featured heavily in the police’s investigations under the main case connected to the deadly communal violence, with more than a dozen members reportedly questioned in connection with it.
In its larger investigation into the violence, the police have claimed in several chargesheets that the riots were a part of a major conspiracy to defame Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi government during US President Donald Trump’s visit to New Delhi.
But what do the conversations on this WhatsApp group, currently being scrutinised by the police, tell us about what actually took place in the run-up to the violence – and while it was taking place?
Scroll.in has accessed the transcripts of this WhatsApp group that was created on December 28, 2019 at 12.22 pm.
The group was formed after a meeting on December 26, 2019, at Indian Social Institute in Delhi, according to the first message posted by a member. According to the transcripts, it was formed as a “support group” to facilitate a “dialogue” between various protesting groups, who were demonstrating against the government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens. The amended law introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship for the first time, an element that critics said was discriminatory towards Muslims.
The members of the group included activists Harsh Mander, Kavita Krishnan, Anjali Bhardwaj, Kavita Shrivastav along with Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav, filmmaker Rahul Roy, Professor Apoorvanand, former Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid, United Against Hate campaign founder Khalid Saifi and Pinjra Tod founders Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, among others like local protest organisers of different protest sites in Delhi.
“It is needed as a support group to those platforms/collectives/campaigns that are currently organising and mobilising,” according to the first message on the group on December 28, 2019. “The current protests are decentralised and spontaneous, and that character needs to be protected. Such protests hardly have a precedent, and have managed to unite north and south India.”
A closer look at the conversations paint a rather complex picture of how the group approached protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
The transcripts document purported disagreements over the role of the WhatsApp group as well as how it became a forum for members to coordinate relief efforts after the Delhi violence that took place in February.
The Delhi Police, in several chargesheets filed over the last few months, have claimed that the riots were sparked by the protests against the citizenship initiatives. However, as Scroll.in has previously reported, the police have not provided any concrete evidence for this alleged conspiracy so far. Many of the confession statements relied on by the Delhi Police to frame the alleged conspirators turned out to be identical, raising questions about their veracity.
This WhatsApp group, its members and the chats have featured heavily in Delhi Police’s interrogations under the main conspiracy case number 59/2020. This case is being investigated by Delhi Police’ Special Cell. Police are yet to file a chargesheet in the matter. The Indian Express quoted unidentified officials as saying that 10 to 15 group members had been questioned.
“They are very much interested in this group,” a member of the group who was interrogated by the police told Scroll.in. The police had seized this person’s phone.
Said another group member who did not wish to be identified and was interrogated in June: “They are giving extra importance to these chats.”
In addition, this member said that police asked him what group members did after one member purportedly flagged the possibility of violence in Seelampur and Jafrabad if protestors blocked roads.
“I told them my version very clearly,“ the person said. “We were against road blocks from day one. But I was not on ground zero. If someone is on ground zero [and they have this information of violence] then they should have gone to the police directly.”
Scroll.in sent Delhi Police queries about their scrutiny of the transcripts of this WhatsApp group. This article will be updated if they respond.
The WhatsApp group also find mentions in an official document: A purported confession statement recorded by the police under the main conspiracy case number 59/2020 that was attached to the chargesheet filed on June 8 for FIR number 60/2020. The FIR is related to the killing of Head Constable Ratan Lal, who died of injuries on February 24.
The statement, allegedly recorded on May 27, is a disclosure by Shadab Ahmad, one of the several organisers of the Chand Bagh protest site who is accused of rioting, murder and conspiracy among other grievous crimes in both cases.
Ahmad mentions a group named “DPSG”, spelt out as “Delhi Protest Solidarity Group” in the statement. He claimed that locals and outsiders allegedly made inflammatory speeches at the protest site and that he was in regular contact with the speakers through WhatsApp.
Aside from the DPSG, Ahmad mentions other WhatsApp groups such as “People Against Fascism”, “Save Constitution” and “Khidmat”.
Role of the group
The chat transcripts show that group members used it to discuss logistics of events, making posters and organising speakers for different protest sites during the end of December 2019 and January 2020 – when demonstrators took to the streets around the country to agitate against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
Throughout these discussions, questions over the role of the group kept surfacing, the transcripts show.
For instance, messages sent by various members on January 28 indicate how one member accused the group of appropriating the protests against the Citizenship Amendemnt Act and the National Register of Citizens after several calls were made to mobilise volunteers to form a human chain at the Gandhi memorial at Rajghat Delhi on January 30, the freedom fighter’s death anniversary.
“...I don’t question their commitment or the work that had been done,” said the member who accused the group of appropriation on the night of January 28, the transcripts show. “I am only questioning the raison de etre [d’etre] of the coordination group. Of no conflicting calls.”
To this, another member responds: “Which coordination group? This is not a coordination group. And it is because of conversations inside this group that a certain facilitation is happening and we are managing to collaborate on actions. There is only action here and people are going about the job in different ways.“
A few minutes later, the same member added: “We had said there shouldn’t be multiple calls. There aren’t in this case. There is one call for a human chain. Also, we cannot play referee. We can speak, have conversations and try to build consensus. That is why this was a support group and not a coordination group. I think we have played a positive role until now.”
To this, the member who accused the group of appropriation responded: “I don’t see any support emanating from the group. I see appropriation aplenty. And talk.”
Members of this WhatsApp group told Scroll.in that while such conversations surfaced regularly, the role as a support group – distinct from groups that directly coordinated protests – had to be constantly reiterated.
“Since the protests were spontaneous, organic and being led by the local community, especially Muslim women which in itself was unprecedented, the group wanted to ensure that support was extended in a manner which did not in any way take away from the nature of protests,” said one member who did not want to be identified.
Another member said that there was “no organisational structure” under which the group functioned. “DPSG was not a very serious group,“ said the member who wished to remain anonymous. “It was just a platform for citizens for idea exchange.”
The attempt to form a human chain at Rajghat on January 30 did not take place as Delhi police did not grant permission for it, according to the chat transcripts.
This was the same day on which a gunman opened fire at protestors at Jamia Millia Islamia University leaving one student injured.
The incident happened just days after Union Minister Anurag Thakur led crowds on January 27 to chant slogans to “shoot the traitors“ at a rally in the backdrop of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s polarising campaign during the Delhi Assembly Elections. The slogan was a common refrain at events supporting the amended Citizenship Act and other BJP-related rallies to counter the protests against it.
In the transcripts, some members of the WhatsApp group expressed concern about such firing incidents. “Have been really worried about these stray attacks,” said a member on the night of January 31. “They have fuelled so much poison that they now just have to sit back and watch the returns.”
On February 1, joining the chorus of his partymen, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during a speech at a campaign event in Delhi, spoke about using bullets to get dissidents to fall in line.
On the same day, another firing took place, but this time at Shaheen Bagh, the sit-in protest site ld by Muslim women that emerged as the epicentre of resistance against the citizenship initiatives.
As news about this incident spread, members of the WhatsApp group shared forwards requesting more people to gather at the site. One member said that such incidents were meant to provoke reaction. “We should ensure that at all protest sites there are regular announcements to not react,“ the member said on the evening of February 1.
Disagreements and accusations
The members of this WhatsApp group did not just include academics and activists from civil society. “Some local protest organisers were also added to the group and the nature of the group became complex,” said a member, who did not want to be identified.
The member added that this made it difficult to control the workings of the group. “Some members also went beyond the brief of the group in their individual capacity,“ he said. “No one was controlling anyone. It was impossible. There were no joint decisions.”
The transcripts show that disagreements among group members surfaced routinely as several sit-in protests cropped up across Delhi.
On the afternoon of February 17, a member messaged to say that a meeting was held on February 16 with the organisers of protests at Chandbagh, Mustafabad, Kardampuri, Jafrabad and Sunder Nagri. The agenda, the member wrote, was to “sustain the ongoing protests” and increase coordination as these protest sites were near each other.
Another member responded to this message to say a road block plan was discussed according to some who were present. This resulted in a heated exchange between some members, the transcripts show.
X: It was a brainstorming session but “some ppl” were there with aim to disturb that meeting.
Y: I was there in a meeting. And many of us clearly stated that we don’t want any Road Block in our protest sites.
Z: If the aim is to raise public consciousness about the issue, and sympathy and support for the cause, “road block” is the worst form of protest. Please don’t adopt such tactics.
Y: Locals from any protest sites are not willing to block the road. Because they are locals and they will suffer. But some outsiders who claim to facilitate the protests, they are planning to block the roads. X is saying disturbing elements to some of us who are strongly opposing any road blockade in our trans Yamuna protest sites. We want nonviolent protests. We can’t allow road block plans.
A member of the group claimed the group was not aware of the strategies at protest sites and differences in opinions between organisers. “The protest sites would have their local meetings to discuss the issues and way forward on sustaining the protests,” said the member who did not want to be identified.
The meetings were not attended by the WhatsApp group members or related to the group, the member claimed. “These meetings were not called by DPSG and most members of the Whatsapp group did not even know what was happening locally as DPSG was not in any way involved in deciding the strategy and plans for each of the sites,” they said.
On February 22, a group member shared posters to observe a Bharat Bandh called by the Bhim Army on February 23. The poster showed that protestors from Chandbagh planned to march till Rajghat.
Disagreeing with this move, another member responded: “If something wrong happens, you will be responsible, X. You all are putting life of locals in danger. Your wild entertainment for easy publicity will cost us heavily.”
A few minutes later, another member messaged to say that women from Seelampur and Jafrabad had blocked the Jafrabad Main Road.
Several members messaged to say that they disagreed with the road block and questioned why it was done just a day before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the matter on February 24 regarding the occupation of roads by Shaheen Bagh protestors.
“This is being done to scuttle the hearing,” claimed one member on February 22. “I am seeing a very painful trend on this.”
One member wrote to say that when the women in Seelampur and Jafrabad refused to block roads, some members of the Pinjra Tod student had allegedly rebuked them saying, “Kafan bandh ke aaye hain. Aur jo humare sath nahi desh ka gaddar hai.” We have come with our coffins tied. And those who do not stand by us are traitors of the nation.
To this, a member responded to dismiss the allegation against Pinjra Tod and asked the other member to go to the ground and speak to the women protesting.
“We have been quiet for a while listening to whatever false rumours you have been spreading but this is crossing all limits,” the member responded on the night of February 22. “It’s completely false. And if you want to see what the local women are saying, please come here and see for yourself. And please stop negating their agency. They are the ones leading.”
That night, the other member accused Pinjra Tod of distributing chilli powder to the women protestors with the intention of attacking members of the police and paramilitary. After this message, a member wrote in to say that differences should be sorted on the ground rather than on social media.
The next day on February 23, BJP leader Kapil Mishra amassed supporters 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 precipitated skirmishes that afternoon.
While this took place on the ground, members of the group questioned why more and more sit-in protests were emerging from Muslim-dominated areas, putting the local residents in more vulnerable positions and exhausting their resources without any visible impact.
“Ye Hindustan ki ldayi se musalmano ki ladayi kyu banti jaa rhi he as more and more sit emerging from Muslim areas only,” said the group member on the evening of February 23. “Why we’re painting this movement as Muslim movement [?]”
To this, a group member responded: “It is precisely because of a lack of perceptible impact of the sit ins that people will try new strategies. Blocking roads will be the obvious first strategy. There is a certain desperation to being heard and acknowledged.“
The member said: “The next phase of this movement will be confrontational and we will have to wait and see the outcomes.”
The same member later warned that protests should not slip into “communal confrontation”. The member said, “And that will be the biggest danger as this second phase becomes more confrontational.”
The person said: “It would be sensible to take two steps back if there is any danger of a communal conflagration. The Hindutva brigade has been extremely restive and confused by the nature and language of the protests until now.”
“They also know how critical the NPR [National Population Register] boycott is for the movement and will try their best to bring this to the field they are most comfortable with – communal tension and divide. The movement needs to be hyper aware of this probability and not let it happen.”
As thousands of protestors gathered around the Jafrabad Main Road through the night, another group of people supporting the citizenship law gathered barely half a km away at Maujpur, situated at the opposite end of Jafrabad.
A member questioned the claims that one women’s collective could influence thousands of local residents to sit in protest at Jafrabad and block roads.
“The impression I have got from various posts on this group, is that in Jafrabad it has been basically Pinjra Tod that has been propelling to get on the road despite locals not being in agreement,” the member said on the night of February 23.
“Who are these people? Are they locals or mobilised from outside. Is this how influential Pinjra Tod is in the area? – that people, without using their own agency are following them in such large numbers? Curious.”
Road block debate
The role of the group came under scrutiny once again as skirmishes were being reported from Maujpur and Jafrabad – in North East Delhi where the violence took place – on February 23 after Kapil Mishra delivered an ultimatum to police to clear protestors blocking the Main Jafrabad Road.
A member expressed concern over these developments and said that the group did not do anything to quell the concerns raised over conducting road blocks. “Those who created the crisis at Chandbagh have to be held accountable,” the member wrote on the morning of February 24.
Another member responded to this and discouraged the member from sending such messages, and reiterated that the role of the group was merely to provide support and that too “remotely”.
“We are not here to decide strategy for each site,” the member wrote. “Sure we may disagree but to say people of xyz site need to be held accountable – by whom? I feel this will discourage participation from the sites in meetings & on this group & will prevent dialogue.”
This led to a heated exchange on the morning of February 24 among members who once again questioned why the group was formed.
A: Are we here to merely put out the fires ignited by anarchists? We are here because we share some common concerns. The Supreme Court had raised concerns about the MANNER of conducting protests. We desisisted from expressing any opinion on the same. We were unconcerned when a bunch of anarchists were taking hapless women at Chand Bagh for a ride. Our role is limited to providing ambulance services. Great!
B: Actually the role of this group is to merely provide a means of communication between different groups and activists. This is not a coordinating group. That was made clear from the very start.
B: The role of this group is not to direct how various protest sites should conduct themselves. So let’s not try and assume a role which is not what this group was set up for.
C: I am again reiterating that the starting point of any fruitful discussion or disagreement cannot be a set of accusations.
It is unfortunate that no one besides Y on this group asked questions and tried to get a sense of the discussions that led to the decision to block the Jafrabad road. Also, I don’t know if people on this group are aware of the discussions that have happened through the night. People on the site are aware of the communal buildup in the area and do not want it to escalate and will do whatever is needed to prevent a flare up. It doesn’t help to start on an accusatory mode.
A: Communicate what? What is the content of that “communication” supposed to be. If there is nothing common about the intent and purpose of these protests, what kind of support is this group supposedly lending to these groups? Is the Supreme Court going to issue separate directions to each of the protests? Do each of the protests have diverge opinions on the CAA, NPR and NCR? I just don’t understand. What are we supposed to be doing as a group?
On February 24, communal tensions between Maujpur and Jafrabad had escalated. In the afternoon that day, clashes broke out between groups opposing and supporting CAA between Jafrabad and Maujpur. Hundreds were injured and one constable died of injuries that day.
A member of the group said that civil society members wrote to Delhi Police on February 24 to control the violence in the area. Some also went to Jafrabad to request the women to clear the sit-in protest as instances of stone pelting were being reported from the area, the member said.
‘Need to deescalate’
As communal violence engulfed North East Delhi on February 24, some members of the group wrote to say that the situation needed to be controlled.
On the group, members forwarded messages about a call from the Jamia Coordination Committee to gather at the new police headquarters in Central Delhi to protest against the alleged attacks on protestors against the citizenship initiatives at Jafrabad.
To this, a group member responded to say that he received a call from a senior Delhi police officer asking him to deescalate the situation because of Donald’s Trump’s visit.
“I just got a call from a senior police officer of Delhi Police,“ the member wrote on the evening of February 24. “He urged me to request those who have called for today’s protest at Police HQ to reconsider their call and not come today.”
“He said the situation is very critical because of today’s developments, and also Trump’s visit, and it wouldn’t be wise to escalate the situation further. This is a request from his end, that I am forwarding here.”
On the night of February 24, a member messaged to say that a delegation from the Jamia Coordination Committee, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union, Pinjra Tod along with filmmakers Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, United Against Hate founder Khalid Saifi and member Nadeem Khan had met with the joint commissioner of police and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia.
“The Joint CP while assuring us that the police is acting didn’t really convince us that they will prevent further loss of life and property,“ the member wrote. “He said it takes time to control a situation like the one in North Delhi. He was told of the absence of police, collusion with mobs shouting Jai Shri Ram and the need of ambulances. We also told him that if the police was serious about taking action, Kapil Mishra would have been arrested and an escalation prevented.”
The member wrote about the lukewarm response Sisodia gave the delegation. “He [Sisodia] said that they are in the same situation as us and don’t know what to do,” the member wrote. “He was asked to do a press conference and something that makes it clear that they are asking the police to control and they are not being heard.”
Another member added that the delegation had suggested to Sisodia that he visit North East Delhi along with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. “He kept saying that it wouldn’t make any difference,” the member said.
Throughout February 25, group members shared news reports and updates about violence in different areas, and discussed the need for setting up peace committees. Members shared lists of volunteers and helpline numbers who could be contacted for rescue, provision of food, relief, medical and legal aid.
On the night of February 25, a group member wrote that a delegation comprising of women’s rights activists met Kejriwal and Sisodia that evening and discussed measures to prevent violence. They also made suggestions such as getting elected representatives to visit the affected areas, release video messages to restore unity among communities, open safe houses and create a helpline to respond to emergency calls.
On that day, a midnight hearing took place by Delhi High Court judges who asked Delhi police to ensure the safe passage of injured victims in ambulances from affected areas to hospitals. The petition on the matter was moved by filmmaker Rahul Roy, The Indian Express reported on February 26.
Messages about this hearing were sent on the group and were attached with contacts of volunteers involved in providing medical aid and ambulance services.
One member wrote to say that rescue services improved after this order.
“After the High Court midnight order the great satisfaction is that the police is now suddenly cooperative,“ one member wrote early morning on February 26. “Fully coordinating with us in rescuing several hundred people from many locations. I hope desperately that the worst is over.”
The group increasingly began sending messages at the end of February and through the first few weeks of March to coordinate relief efforts and arrange for volunteers in areas that were ravaged by violence. Messages sent detailed the requirement of clothes, baby food, sanitary pads as well as documentation requirements for victims to apply for compensation from the Delhi government.
On March 12, a member raised concerns of deleting the group and moving to another platform. “Now that the central [government] has started going after civil society groups. Why are we still communicating on WhatsApp?“ the member asked.
Some members agreed with this but some responded that it did not matter since they were not engaged in any “illegal activity“. “Therefore, we should go on with our task and not generate the suspicion that we were engaged in some illegal activity,” the member said.
By March 13, several members started to leave the group after which it became inactive.