Each episode of communal violence creates formidable challenges for the possibility of justice, because of a long almost unbroken tradition of impunity for perpetrators of hate crime in India. There are highly fraught moments when the prospects for justice become even more remote, such as during the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, Bhagalpur communal violence of 1989 and the Gujarat communal massacre of 2002. But the outlook for justice is even more distant after the Delhi communal conflagration of February 2020.
This is because in 2002 (as in 1984) although the highest executive was allegedly complicit and culpable in enabling the violence, other institutions of the state rose to the defence of justice. In 2002, the Supreme Court passed a series of landmark judgements to advance justice for the survivors of the violence, and the National Human Rights Commission stewarded by Justice JS Verma became a beacon for defending the constitutional rights of those felled by the violence. India also had then a far more independent and outspoken mainstream media. Large sections of civil society were vocal in their anguish and solidarity with the survivors.
All of these are completely missing in action in the India of 2020.
A burst of hope
The winter of 2019-’20 was memorable, indeed historic, for its sudden burst of brilliant hope. This is already threatening to fade into hazy memory as we are returned to a blistering summer of even greater fear and hate. The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens were raising voices of dissent and solidarity across the country. A colourful, lyrical and spirited movement to safeguard our constitutional ethos against the divisive agenda of the amended citizenship law filled the country.
With women leading the way in a struggle to defend the very soul of India, students lent their voice of protest, the voice of resistance. They painted the walls with poetry, they sang songs of justice and love. Protesters collectively read the preamble to the Constitution, the national Indian flag became a proud symbol of solidarity, and the national anthem a song of resistance.
This nation-wide resistance rapidly grew into the largest non-violent popular movement in the journey of the republic since Independence. Its ideas of equal citizenship as imagined in the freedom struggle and promised in the Constitution, unnerved and rattled the ruling establishment, because these ideas constituted a powerful refutation of the alternative imagination of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party of remoulding India as a Hindu supremacist state.
However the pushback of the establishment against this movement for the constitution became visible first during the Delhi election campaign, when leaders of the BJP struck back with a rash of hate speeches stigmatising and attacking the protesters. Although the climate of hate had been building up in this way during the most divisive election campaign to the Delhi assembly, many observers, including this writer, believe that the immediate spark for the communal conflagration in North East Delhi was supplied by a speech inciting violence by BJP leader Kapil Mishra on February 23, in a rally against people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Soon after his speech, violence erupted.
For the first 24 hours, there were pitched battles – attacks, killings and arson – by men of both communities (although there was no damage to any Hindu shrines even on this first day). But this changed from February 25, from when the attacks assumed a visibly one-sided character and shifted to Muslim neighbourhoods and Muslim homes and shops in Hindu neighbourhoods.
This continued unabated for several days, peaking between February 24-2. The violence left at least 53 people dead rendering this the most grievous episode of Hindu-Muslim communal violence in the national capital after the Partition riots of 1947. Apart from these gruesome killings, more than 200 people were gravely injured including through bullet injuries; there were troubling reports of sexual violence; massive destruction of homes, commercial establishments and vehicles; and the destruction and desecration of 16 mosques.
Of the 53 people killed, there was one police officer and another intelligence officer and around a dozen other Hindus. An analysis of the affidavit of the Delhi Police by The Wire shows that 77% of civilians killed were Muslim. Women also report sexualised violence, with attackers taunting them by displaying their genitals, and sometimes attacking them. Leading scholar of communal violence in India, Ashutosh Varshney characterises the first day of Delhi violence not as a pogrom but instead observed it fits the classic description of a riot, defined “as a violent clash between two groups or mobs, in this case one in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Act and another against.”
But the next two days “began to look like a pogrom, as the police watched attacks on the Muslims and was either unable to intervene, or unwilling to do so, while some cops clearly abetted the violence”. During these two days, revenge was wreaked on the Muslim community where life and property was destroyed with impunity, ostensibly to punish them for their participation in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
A number of citizen and media investigations reveal the partisan role of the police. In the Delhi High Court, in a petition seeking immediate filing of FIRs against senior leaders like Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur filed by this writer and Farah Naqvi, Justice S Murlidhar expressed “constitutional anguish” at the delay in filing these FIRs. The police responded that it did not think the time was fit for filing these FIRs.
More than four months later, at the time of writing, it appears that the suitable time to register these complaints had not arrived for the Delhi Police. However, even during the lockdown, they found it fit to arrest several hundred others, mostly young student and youth leaders who had been active in protesting the citizenship law amendments, and ordinary residents including some victims of the violence.
But supporters of the ruling party, the BJP, and the Delhi Police which reports to the union government, have an entirely different version of the communal violence, charging it to be a planned and sinister conspiracy by those opposed to the amendments in the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, mostly Muslim students and youth leaders and senior left and liberal intellectuals and activists who prominently participated in the mostly peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. They claim that the objective of the protests and the planned violence was the secessionist overthrow of the democratically elected government.
The Supreme Court has so far refused to hold the executive accountable in any way for the climate of hate that was allowed to be built up, for failing to control the violence, for the partisan role of the police, and the manifest failures of justice. The Delhi High Court briefly held the executive to account, but the judge who displayed concern immediately received marching notification. The National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities have done all they could to ensure their absolute irrelevance. Most of the mainstream media remains complicit, by either actively supporting and noisily relaying the communalised anti-Muslim and anti-liberal “alternative facts” of the government establishment, or self-censoring critical reporting and opinions.
Indian civil society has long nurtured a rich tradition of independent fact-finding into episodes of communal, caste and gender violence, and these have carried more credibility than the official versions; and with the decline of the independent media than the media versions. With all the erosion of a vibrant civil society, this tradition endures.
Conventionally, these independent fact-finding reports of the past have mostly been steered by senior judges, lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and retired civil servants. Many such investigations were undertaken of the Delhi violence, but these were interrupted by the pandemic and lockdown.
This series summarises the findings of one such civil society report on the events of communal violence in North East Delhi in late February 2020. But this report is different from those of the past, because it has been authored by an entirely different demographic, of young people mostly between the ages of 20 and 35 years. Titled Chronicling Truth, Countering Hate, it has been published by the Karwan e Mohabbat.
This group of young people came together spontaneously after early terrifying reports of communal violence started pouring in from February 23, 2020, and a rush of desperate calls came from people trapped in their homes by violent, slogan-shouting mobs, begging for rescue, for their lives to be heard. It became quickly apparent that the state would do nothing to save the lives, properties and shrines of the targeted community.
We made a call for volunteers to run a rescue helpline, and around 30 young people responded within hours to the call. Some were fellows of Karwan e Mohabbat, others of Not in My Name and Hum Bharat ke Log. Others were independent young people, including lawyers, doctoral scholars and university students. Most did not know each other earlier. But within hours they organised themselves to receive and respond to distress calls. They did what government officials should have done those nights, but did not.
Several volunteers did not return home that night and several nights thereafter, and survived with a round of toothbrushes bought the next morning, and many rounds of coffee and simple snacks.
When dire reports poured in of a steady stream of injured people and two dead bodies at Al Hind Hospital, and ambulances being blocked from reaching larger hospitals by mobs uncontrolled by the police, lawyers reached out to a judge of the Delhi High Court. He called them just after midnight for an urgent hearing in his home, and in what has already become legendary, passed detailed instructions to the Delhi Police to ensure safe passage to the ambulances. Not just the 20 gravely injured people, the police then cooperated with this group in responding to their distress calls with rescue teams. Several hundred lives were saved that night, and in the next two days.
The team of young people just did not disband even after the first critical nights of days of rescue. In the coming days and weeks, they organised legal assistance; help in filing police complaints and compensation claims; medical camps and assistance in getting injured people into hospitals; setting up relief camps and a place of safety for children; documenting their testimonies; and offering solace and comfort.
The Covid-19 pandemic intervened suddenly and calamitously, but most volunteers still stayed enmeshed closely in the lives and suffering of the survivors of the violence and their families, organising food relief. The Delhi Police chose to arrest large numbers of residents under the shadow of the lockdown, when lawyers were not permitted to step out of their homes; but the lawyers stayed in touch and tried to assist them as effectively as they could.
Some kept in regular touch with the victim survivors on phone, offering them comfort as they endured the double whammy of the carnage and then the punishing lockdown. Several continued to visit them in the lockdown with ration supplies. Some could not bear their suffering, and braved the fears of being infected, moving in to live in one of the apartments of the victim survivors, so that they do not feel abandoned and alone.
This is their report, what these young people saw, heard and felt in those tumultuous weeks and months. Most were too young to have lived through a comparable communal carnage. The young people share here their trauma of profound loss, betrayal and injustice. This is the story of the communal carnage in Delhi as seen from their eyes and hearts.
I will in this four-part series summarise and extract from this report. But I will not mention the names of the young individual writers. This is because in the past several weeks, many young people are being summoned by the Special Branch of the Delhi Police to investigate and criminalise their role in the Delhi violence.
Under the cover of the pandemic lockdown, where the pandemic has become the pretext for sliding back of democracy, trampling of rights and deepening authoritarianism, hundreds of mostly Muslim youth leaders, young women, students of Jamia Milia Islamia University, residents including victims of violence in Delhi, and young women leaders of Pinjra Tod (who were visibly active in supporting the protests in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register) have been arrested, and several charged even under the stringent sedition or Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in which even bail is difficult to access. It seems the state is seeking revenge and punishing the best young women and men citizens of our country for daring to stand up and resist and keep hope alive.
Therefore, although I would want to celebrate each of these young people with their names, pictures and individual histories, they will have to remain unnamed until we return to better times, when the state and all its institutions respect the dissenting voices of idealistic young people.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.
This is the first of a five-part series on the Delhi riots. Read the other parts here.
The full version of the report “Chronicling Truth, Countering Hate” by Karwan E Mohabbat can be accessed here.