This is a summary of the Delhi Police’s investigation in the riots conspiracy case based on a chargesheet it submitted to the court in September 2020.

A week after 53 people were killed in communal riots in North East Delhi, the Crime Branch of Delhi Police filed a first information report on March 6.

Numbered 59/2020, the FIR was the seed of what is now known as the Delhi riots conspiracy case.

A senior inspector claimed in the FIR that an informer had tipped him off that the February communal violence was the outcome of a planned conspiracy by Umar Khalid, a former student leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and his associates.

Khalid made provocative speeches asking people to block the roads on February 24-25 when United States President Donald Trump was visiting India, the FIR alleged, with the aim of “spreading propaganda at the international level about minorities being subjected to atrocities in India”.

Khalid and his associates mobilised women and children for street protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act across Delhi. They even collected arms and ammunition inside homes, the FIR alleged.

On February 23, the protestors blocked the road outside Jafrabad metro station, the FIR claimed, “so that nearby residents are put to trouble and the rising tensions are utilised to engineer riots”.

Other than Khalid, the FIR named Danish, a resident of North East Delhi, as one of his associates. The two men were booked for four offences: rioting, using deadly weapons, unlawful assembly and criminal conspiracy.

Danish was arrested in the case on March 9 and released on bail four days later.

Umar Khalid was arrested on September 13. He was unable to secure bail.

This was largely because in April the police had added graver offences to FIR 59/2020 under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which makes bail near-impossible.

In the six months between Danish and Khalid’s arrest, the police arrested 19 others, widening the scope of the investigation to include small-time politicians, student leaders, activists, academics, ordinary Delhi residents who had participated in the Citizenship Act protests.

On September 16, the police hauled steel trunks inside a courtroom. Inside were 17,000 pages detailing the charges and evidence against 15 of the 21 people arrested in FIR 59/2020. They have been charged under 26 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including for murder, sedition, promoting communal enmity, two sections of the Arms Act, and four sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

A file photo of Umar Khalid.

Who are these 15 accused?

The list starts with Abdul Khalid Saifi, an activist who worked with Umar Khalid as part of the United Against Hate Campaign. He was arrested on March 21. The same day, Ishrat Jahan, a former municipal councillor from the Congress party, was also picked up by the police. Both lived in North East Delhi.

The next to be arrested were two minor politicians from the area: Meeran Haider of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Tahir Hussain, a former councillor of the Aam Aadmi Party. Hussain also stands accused of the murder of an Intelligence Bureau staffer during the riots.

By mid-April, two young students, 28-year-old Gulfisha Khatoon and 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, were arrested. While Gulfisha was a resident of New Seelampur, a neighbourhood close to the Jafrabad protest site, Zargar lived 20 km away on the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University in South Delhi, where she was a research scholar.

With Zargar’s arrest, the investigation spilled beyond North East Delhi. Next to be picked were Shafa-ur-Rahman of the Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia and Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student leader at Jamia.

Early June saw the arrest of more student leaders, this time from Delhi University: Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita of the Pinjra Tod feminist activist group, both aged 31.

By July, the police had arrested several young Muslim men from North East Delhi who had participated in the protests: Shadab Ahmed, Salim Malik, Salim Khan, Athar. Also arrested was a 36-year-old Taslim Ahmad, who lived in another part of Delhi.

How the conspiracy began, according to Delhi Police

The chargesheet summarises the purported conspiracy in 600 pages. The chronology of events begins with an accused against whom charges are yet to be filed: Sharjeel Imam.

A student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Imam wrote pamphlets in the first week of December opposing the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act, the chargesheet states. It was “content”, the police allege, “which would have created a sense of fear and insecurity among the Muslim community”. The pamphlets reproduced in the chargesheet, however, mirror the critiques that were commonly reported in the news media at that time.

In the chargesheet, the police have reproduced the pamphlets purportedly written by Sharjeel Imam.

The chargesheet claims Umar Khalid, who is described as Imam’s “mentor”, introduced him to Yogendra Yadav at a protest organised by the United Against Hate group at Jantar Mantar on December 7. Yadav, an academic and activist, is the president of a political party called Swaraj India.

Imam, Yadav, Khalid agreed to use “social media for large scale indoctrination and mobilisation of Youths for Chakka Jam as a protest against [Citizenship Amendment Bill]”, the chargesheet alleges.

Chakka jam or road blockade is a common form of protest used in India by all political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The chargesheet, however, presents it as something sinister.

“As per the version and statement of witnesses, it was decided in the meeting to execute the earlier agreed conspiracy of Chakka Jam,” the chargesheet states, referring to a subsequent meeting of the activists in a basement office in Delhi’s Jangpura area on December 8, 2019.

The chargesheet presented an image of the meeting on December 8, 2019 in Jangpura, Delhi.
Excerpt from the chargesheet.

Also presented as sinister in the chargesheet are large-scale public protests against the Citizenship Act that took place in December, whether demonstrations held at Jantar Mantar, the iconic protest venue in Central Delhi, or marches that started from Jamia Millia Islamia University, or an indefinite sit-in protest by women at the Shaheen Bagh locality in South Delhi. According to the chargesheet, all these were organised by the accused “in furtherance of their common conspiracy”.

The chargesheet focuses on the few protests that saw clashes between the police and protestors. For instance, a march by students outside Jamia University on December 13 is described as “the first in a series of pre-planned violent acts by the protestors against the CAA and the State.” The chargesheet states: “The complicity of Sharjeel Imam [is] corroborated by the fact that his spectacles were broken in the riots.”

While the police claim the clashes were part of “a pre-planned and premeditated conspiracy”, eyewitness accounts in news reports then had painted a more complex picture, with some protestors accusing the police of initiating the violence. Extensive video footage from Jamia University showed the police storming into a library in Jamia University on December 15 and attacking students. But the chargesheet is silent on this.

Within hours of the police violence inside Jamia University, a sit-in demonstration had sprung up in the Shaheen Bagh locality. The chargesheet claims Imam was responsible for it. “Local residents were initially against the protest but Sharjil Imam threatened them with dire consequences if they did not yield to his demand and posed any obstruction to his road block plan,” the chargesheet states.

As evidence the police have produced screenshots of a purported WhatsApp exchange where Imam’s brother points out, seemingly grudgingly, that another student activist had been interviewed for a Reuters report on Shaheen Bagh, not them. Imam replies: “Peace hain. Tension mat lo. Hum dono mastermind hain.” Stay in peace. Don’t take tension. We are the masterminds.

Reliance on WhatsApp messages

The chargesheet extensively reproduces screenshots of purported WhatsApp messages exchanged by student activists, as well as their Facebook posts, to establish their complicity in the alleged conspiracy. Many of the messages cited are protest announcements available in the public domain.

The chargesheet states that the activists of different groups like United Against Hate, Jamia Coordination Committee, Pinjra Tod, Muslim Students of Jamia “were in close proximity and worked in tandem to achieve a common goal”. They created multiple protest sites in North East Delhi and closely supervised them. The feminist activist group Pinjra Tod provided “a tactical female shield” to the protests, while “JCC mobilised more and more women and children protestors from a particular community at protest sites to deter police on duty from taking effective action”. Street plays, candle marches, door-to-door awareness campaigns are all presented as part of the conspiracy, with photos added as proof.

The maximum attention, however, is devoted to a WhatsApp group called Delhi Protest Solidarity Group. “While the JCC and MSJ largely consisted of amateur students and activists handpicked by seasoned conspirators, the happenings of Dec’2019 necessitated the eventual emergence of these hardcore, professional ideological deviants on the formal platform called DPSG where they found their voice and realised the true objectives of this terror conspiracy,” the chargesheet states.

The DPSG group was created on December 28 by film makers Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy. The first message on the group, reproduced in the chargesheet, said it was “needed as a support group to those platforms/collectives/campaigns that are currently organising and mobilising”. It added: “The current protests are decentralised and spontaneous, and that character needs to be protected.”

But the police allege the group was created to provide “secular cover, gender cover and media cover” to the protests because until then “the public faces of the protests were identified with a community and the police had little difficulty in controlling the situation”. The statement betrays a majoritarian bias, suggesting that as long as the protestors were Muslim men, the police had no compunction in using force to shut down democratic protests.

Chats from the DPSG WhatsApp group as presented in the chargesheet.

Debate over Jafrabad protest

The chargesheet dwells at length on the disagreements that broke out within the DPSG group on the question of blocking roads in North East Delhi. Some members expressed their opposition to the idea, saying they feared it could lead to violence given the volatile atmosphere in that part of the city. Roy asked for disagreements to be resolved on the ground and not on social media.

The police have presented the exchanges as evidence that Roy and others on the DPSG group deliberately ignored the concerns raised by others because they wanted the road blockades to spark communal riots as part of their pre-planned conspiracy.

Chats from the DPSG WhatsApp group as presented in the chargesheet.

The chargesheet claims as part of the conspiracy, a secret meeting was held in North East Delhi on the intervening night of January 23-24 in which “Umar Khalid directed that protest should ultimately escalate to riots and should result in spilling of bloods of policemen and others… This is the only possible means to bring the government of India on its knees and to force the government to withdraw the CAA/NRC.”

Another meeting took place in Chand Bagh on the night of Feb 16-17, the chargesheet alleges, where “it was decided and agreed that a coordinated blockade of traffic on roads, i.e. Chakka Jam will be executed during the visit of USA President Donald Trump…After Chakka Jam all protest site members will instigate and resort to violence and riots.”

To back these claims, the police have produced witness statements of DPSG group members and residents of North East Delhi who participated in the protests. Some of these statements have been recorded before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The identities of some of the witnesses have been protected. However, found a list in the chargesheet revealing the names and addresses of 15 protected witnesses.

At least two protected witnesses who gave Section 164 statements told that they gave the statements under police pressure. One of them said he was forced to falsely implicate one of the organisers of a protest site in North East Delhi.

Before he was arrested, Umar Khalid recorded a video denying the allegations made against him.

On the question of finance

The chargesheet seeks to establish that the Citizenship Act protests were funded by the alleged conspirators. About Rs 4 lakh are shown to have been transferred to the Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia, which the police claim spent “between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for the protest site at Jamia Gate no.7 alone”.

The amounts traced to other accused are also relatively small, barring in the case of Tahir Hussain. The former councillor of the Aam Aadmi Party who lived in North East Delhi is presented in the chargesheet as a key figure who “brought with him money, muscle and community base, much required by the key conspirators”.

“Investigation has established that Tahir Hussain, a high school dropout, was enamoured and taken in by the aura of intelligentsia which comprised the key conspirators,” the chargesheet states.

The police allege Hussain met Umar Khalid in Shaheen Bagh on January 8. Two previous chargesheet in other riots cases had claimed the conspiracy to spark communal riots to coincide with the visit of US President Trump was hatched during this meeting. But the chargesheet in FIR 59/2020 has quietly dropped this claim, since the police have only been able to establish that Trump’s visit was first flagged in news reports on January 14.

“Tahir Hussain comes across as a unique case who, for financing the protests and riots, through a complex web of intermediaries converted Rs 1.5 crores of his own white money to black, i.e. ready cash for the purpose of distribution and use by rioters,” the chargesheet states.

Eight witness statements recorded under Section 164 have been produced to corroborate the conversion of the money. The witnesses include Hussain’s business partner.

However, the chargesheet fails to establish how the funds were put to use. The police produce two witnesses who said they saw Hussain buy glass bottles, acid, petrol days before the riots. But it is unlikely such low-grade material could have consumed more than Rs 1 crore of cash.

Read the entire series here.