Was there a conspiracy behind the communal conflagration in February in Northeast Delhi, which left more than 53 people dead, several hundred injured and vast properties gutted and looted?

Scholars of communal violence in post-Independence India maintain that no significant episode of communal violence is entirely spontaneous. Communal organisations systematically foster hate through hate speeches and rumour-mongering, and also organise the logistics of the assaults. And I have repeatedly affirmed, based both on my experience of handling many communal riots as a civil servant and my human rights interventions and study of many episodes of communal violence, that no riot can continue for more than even a few hours unless the government actively wishes for the violence to unfold.

In the weeks before Delhi was traumatised by the worst Hindu-Muslim communal blood-letting since the Partition riots, the city witnessed the dangerous ramping up of communal tempers by recurring hate speeches by a series of senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including Union ministers and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in the election campaign for the Delhi assembly. The target of the ire of most of these speakers were the protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act, best epitomised by the indomitable working-class women of a low-income Muslim ghetto Shaheen Bagh, and including women who had organised sit-ins in many parts of the city and the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University.

The Delhi Police, however, have propounded an entirely different version of the conspiracy which resulted in the February communal carnage. They discount any role of any hate instigation by leaders of the ruling party, and despite “constitutional anguish” expressed by one of the judges of the Delhi High Court, have still not even registered FIRs against any of the men who made hate speeches. Instead, the Delhi Police version is that the conspiracy behind the violence was hatched by the protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

They maintain that the leaders of the protest were cynically scare-mongering among the Muslims about the dangers to their citizenship rights created by the Citizenship Amendment Act, whereas the law actually did not in any way harm their interests and their rights. Their narrative is that the peaceful and constitutional character of the protests were only a facade for a diabolic plan to instigate Muslims to attack their Hindu neighbours during the visit of President Donald Trump to India.

They allegedly did this in the hope that this would draw international attention to their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, would create an international crisis, and ultimately would destabilize and topple the democratically elected government led by Narendra Modi.

This alleged conspiracy is being investigated under FIR 59/20 by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, which is normally charged with investigating grave crimes like terror. FIR 59/20 was registered by the Crime Branch on March 6 The FIR states that the violence that happened in North East Delhi was preplanned and conspired. The original FIR has two names: (1) Former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, who along with others is alleged to have started sit-in protests and coincided it with President Trump’s visit to make India look bad at the international level and (2) a man named Danish, who is said to have got people from all over the place to North East Delhi to participate in the riots and arranged for weapons.

Expanded scope

Initially it contained Sections 147/148/149/120B of the IPC, but in April the Crime Branch added sections of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Arms Act. Three people who were arrested initially (Mohammed Danish, Mohammed Ilyas and Mohammed Parvez Ahmed, members of the Popular Front of India) managed to secure bail since the UAPA sections were added later. People arrested under FIR 59 now include former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain, former Congress municipal councillor Ishrat Jahan, activist Khalid Saifi, MBA student Gulfisha Fatima, PhD scholar Meeran Haidar, MPhil student Safoora Zargar, and Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita of the Pinjra Tod women’s collective.

The police were to conclude the investigation within three months and file a charge-sheet in June but the Patiala House Court gave an extension to the Crime Branch till 14 August. As the deadline was approaching, Karkardooma Court gave the Crime Branch another month’s extension on August 13.

BJP leader Kapil Mishra tells supporters that if the police fail to clear sites at which protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act are being held, they will have to do it themselves.

During this period, scores of young people, and a number of senior activists who were associated with the protests have also been called for interrogation by the Special Branch. Among those recently summoned by the Special Branch to their Lodi Road office is teacher of Hindi Literature in Delhi University, literary critic and eminent social and political commentator Professor Apoorvanand.

Apoorvanand issued a brief statement after his five-hour interrogation:

“While cooperating and respecting the right of police authorities to conduct a full, fair and thorough investigation, one can only hope that the probe would focus on the real instigators and perpetrators of the violence against a peaceful citizens’ protest and the people of Northeast Delhi.

“It should not lead to further harassment and victimisation of the protestors and their supporters, who asserted their democratic rights through constitutional means, while stating their dissent to the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) and the decision of the GOI to operationalise the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), all over the country.

“It is disturbing to see a theory emerging which treats the supporters of the protestors as the source of violence. I would urge the police and expect their probe to be thorough, just and fair so that truth prevails.”

There was widespread outrage about his interrogation. More than 1,500 scholars, writers, artists and activists issued a trenchant condemnation. It even attracted a rare editorial critique in the widely circulated The Times of India.

What followed rapidly after was a series of scurrilous attacks on Professor Apoorvanand by right-wing sections of the media that are known to be ideologically closely aligned to the ruling establishment. These attacks claimed to be based on inside information about on-going investigations by the Delhi Police into the alleged conspiracy behind the February riots.

In its news broadcast of August 11, Zee News described Apoorvanand as “Dilli dangon ka professor” (the professor of the Delhi riots). It quoted the Special Branch of the Delhi Police that its investigations have revealed that Apoorvanand had hatched a big conspiracy during the protests against citizenship initiatives. It then quotes Gulfisha Fatima, a young activist who was arrested and jailed for her alleged role in the conspiracy behind the riots, in which she is said to have testified to the Delhi Police that Apoorvanand held many secret meetings with her, along with other activists like Rahul Roy and Umar Khalid, to instigate and plan the riots. This report was echoed in other television channels like Aaj Tak.

This was followed by a print report by Zee Media Bureau that quoted “sources” to report that Gulfisha Fatima had told the police that Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand was “one of the main instigators and even praised her for her work”. He “instigated her to organise protests at various places and conspired riots (sic.) to present a bad picture of the Indian Government on the world stage. The professor also told them to arrange stones, empty botels (sic.), acid and knives before the riots. Women were also asked to keep chilli powder.”

More absurd claims

A report in Op India further elaborated the leaked police version, that “Professor Apoorvanand told them that the Jamia Coordination Committee(JCC) was going to organise a movement at 20-25 places across Delhi and the purpose of the movement to portray the Indian government as an oppressive regime that discriminates against the Muslims. ‘This will only happen if riots take place under the guise of the protests,’ Gulfisha quoted Professor Apoorvanand.”

I can speculate what resulted in this rash of reports maligning Apoorvanand, but am happy to be corrected if the Delhi Police has another credible version. These various reports claim to rely on information given to them by sources in the Delhi Police. There have been no denials by the Delhi Police, therefore it there is every reason to believe that the Delhi Police deliberately leaked these claims to plaint sections of the media to tarnish the reputation of Apoorvanand and influence public opinion against him.

Perhaps angered by the extent of public support that Apoorvanand received, the Delhi Police relied on its trusted allies in the media to uncritically relay the police version, and to feverishly raise the tenor of their attacks on the professor; one news report even describing him as a “terror professor”.

The Delhi Police have, to their immense disgrace, chosen to leap a long way outside what is prescribed and permitted by the law, by the superior courts, and the standards of professional police investigation.

Zee TV's programme about Apoorvanand.

Firstly, they have quoted a young woman who is in custody, who has no opportunity to contradict or endorse her alleged statement. Gulfisha Fatima was arrested on April 9 for her involvement in Jaffrabad road-block protest, charged in FIR 48/2020 under multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code. She was granted bail under this particular FIR on May 13. However, she continues to be in jail as another case under the Indian Penal Code, Arms Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that was slapped against her on April 18 under FIR 59/20.

Second, even assuming that she had indeed made such a statement to the Delhi Police, confessions made to the police are not admissible in courts of law under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act because it is known that such statements can be extracted under duress. Although the police know that such statement, even if she had made will not be accepted as evidence in any court of law, they still leaked the alleged statement so as to damage Apoorvanand’s reputation.

As observed, the charge-sheet under 59/20 has not been filed yet. It is instructive that Gulfisha Fatima was named in a police confession of another person accused in the riots who later told The Hindu that he had lost his eyesight in the February violence and could not read the statement he had signed. He also said that he had not heard the names of the any of the people (including Gulfisha Fatima) whom he had supposedly named in his confession.

Identical statements

Matters became even more murky, when it turned out that many statements made to the police under different charge-sheets were mysteriously identical:

  • Seven identical statements were made in the 60/20 charge-sheet (relating to the murder of Head Constable Ratan Lal).  
  •   Ten identical statements were recorded in 50/20 charge-sheet (relating to the violence in Jaffrabad on February 25). 
  •   Four identical statements were recorded in 65/20 charge-sheet (relating to the murder of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma).    

Finally, by these scurrilous leakages of alleged statements which are not even admissible as evidence while the investigation is still in progress, without giving either the person who is alleged to have made the statement or the persons against whom the statements are made a chance to refute the allegations, the Delhi Police is deliberately defying the explicit orders of the home ministry and superior courts.

The Kerala High Court in Jitesh vs State of Kerala issued guidelines restraining the police from making selective leaks to the media while investigation is ongoing, on August 12, 2020. It declared:

“It is our considered opinion, no police officer conducting investigation into a crime shall be authorised to divulge the facts ascertained during investigation through the media. They should remember that a criminal case has to be finally decided in a court of law. Police officers should refrain from airing their personal views in respect of a case under investigation. They are not expected to reveal before the media the facts ascertained in the course of investigation by questioning material witnesses or confession made by the accused. It is common knowledge that recently the practise of police officers rushing to the media with speculative information about ongoing investigations is on the increase.”

In the course of this same investigation, the Delhi Police had selectively issued a “Brief Note” to the media charging Devangana Kalita of Pinjra Tod with hatching a conspiracy to organise rioting in Jaffrabad Metro Station. She filed a writ petition against this in the Delhi High Court. On July 27, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi Police to not make any statements against Kalita until the framing of charges. The High Court took note of the Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India that contains an advisory on media policy of police.

This memorandum lays down guidelines to be scrupulously adhered to while dealing with the media according to which the police officials should confine their briefings to the essential facts and not rush to the press with half-baked, speculative or unconfirmed information about ongoing investigations. It also stipulates that the briefing should normally be done only at the following stages of a case: (a) registration; (b) arrest of accused persons; (c) charge sheeting of the case; and (d) final outcome of the case such as conviction / acquittal etc.

In the case of Apoorvanand, as observed earlier, the police perhaps did not issue the statements officially; they relied instead on segments of the media that they knew were willing to flout all journalistic ethics to relay uncritically the police version that was informally released to them. But the court also had agreed with the observation made in Justice Chandrachud’s dissenting opinion in Romila Thapar vs Union of India (2018) 10 SCC 753 which read:

  “the use of the electronic media by the investigating arm of the State to influence public opinion during pendency of an investigation subverts the fairness of the investigation. The police are not adjudicators nor do they pronounce upon guilt.”  

However, the Delhi Police continues to collaborate with complaint sections of the media to spread false propaganda and influence public opinion against both young people and senior respected activists, whose only proven “crime” so far has been that they dissented against the Citizenship Amendment Act and organized peaceful protests against it.

Dragged through the dirt

I find it wrenching, and worry deeply about where we have arrived as a republic, when I observe how an important, brave, highly respected public intellectual like Professor Apoorvanand can be dragged into the dirt by the powers that be with such impunity, and such little resistance. The Delhi Police can casually resort to such toxic official innuendo, rumour and mythology untidily dressed as truth, because they know they enjoy the support, and indeed the approbation, of the most powerful men in the country.

In my recent book Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India (Penguin, 2019), I found myself quoting Professor Apoorvanand so many times that I joked to him that I should acknowledge him as co-author of the book. Let me therefore end with some of his words:

 “This is a war on the Muslims of India. It needs to be said in these very words. And the spread is wide . . . Let us put it on record that India was pushed into this war by its ruling parties, the governments that they created and fostered disaffection towards a large section of society and stoked violence against them. Let it be recorded that the finest minds of the educated youth who form our civil services and the police collaborated in this with the murderers. Let it be said that we went about our lives unperturbed when our neighbours were doubling with pain and not allowed to scream even for it would sound a sectarian cry. It would be a long war and we would come out of it one day, with stories of the banality of violence and our shame of participating in it and mutilated bodies. Victims are being blamed for forging victimhood; asked to free themselves of this imaginary cage. This duplicity would be noted in some distant time’.”

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.