The response of the Union home ministry to the February 2020 Delhi riots was wholly inadequate, a report by four former judges and a former civil servant has said.
The report, titled “Uncertain Justice”, was authored by a citizens’ committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur. The other members of the committee were former judges AP Shah, RS Sodhi and Anjana Prakash, and former Union home secretary GK Pillai.
The report focused on the communal violence that had broken out in North East Delhi between February 23 and February 26, 2020 as supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those opposing the law clashed. The violence claimed 53 lives and hundreds were injured. The majority of those killed were Muslims.
The Delhi Police claim the violence was part of a larger conspiracy to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and was hatched by those who organised the protests against the amended Citizenship Act.
They also claimed the protestors had secessionist motives and were using “the facade of civil disobedience” to destabilise the government. The police have arrested several activists and students based on these conspiracy charges.
The committee, in the report, also said that the Delhi government “did precious little” to mediate between Hindus and Muslims in the period leading up to the violence. It, however, recognised that the Delhi government had limited ability to control the violence, as the police in the city are under the Centre’s control.
The evidence put forward by the Delhi Police in its chargesheet in larger conspiracy case does not meet the legal threshold to justify terror charges, the committee said.
The inception, occurrence and aftermath of the February 2020 Delhi violence were characterised by a “frightening undermining of democratic values”, it said.
‘Centre failed to take effective steps’
The committee said that the Union home ministry failed to take effective steps to control communal violence although it controls the Delhi Police as well as central paramilitary forces.
“Repeated assurances on February 24 and 25 by police top brass and government officials that the situation was under control did not match the visibility of violence on the ground,” the report said. “Though internal alerts circulated by the Delhi Police advised increased police deployment in North East Delhi on February 23 itself, official data shows that deployment rose only on 26 February.”
The committee said that the police received the most number of distress calls related to the riots on February 24 and February 25, but the deployment of police personnel was not increased on these days.
The panel said that the Delhi Police’s allegation of a premeditated conspiracy to carry out the riots is “based on unexplained, belated statements which are inherently unreliable in law”.
It added that there were several contradictions and inconsistencies between the case pertaining to the alleged larger conspiracy and the other first information reports on the violence.
The report said that in the days leading up to the violence, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders espoused a divisive narrative that portrayed protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act as being anti-national and violent.
The committee noted that slogans by BJP leaders Kapil Mishra and Anurag Singh Thakur calling for violence against “traitors” were casually repeated at rallies, with no censure.
At a rally in January 2020, Thakur was heard shouting “desh ke gaddaron ko” and the crowd responded with “goli maaro saalon ko”. The slogan meant “shoot the traitors”, with an expletive used for “traitors” being a reference to those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
On June 13, the Delhi High Court had dismissed a petition seeking a criminal case against Thakur, holding that sanction from the Union government was required for filing a first information report in the matter.
The report also said that six widely-viewed news channels – Republic TV, Times Now, Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV and Republic Bharat – fanned unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and called for the forcible shutdown of protest sites.
“The channels’ reportage of events surrounding the CAA framed the issues as ‘Hindus versus Muslims’ with prejudice and suspicion against the Muslim community,” the committee said.
‘Delhi government failed to ensure compensation’
The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government failed to “exert the role of civic mediation and statesmanship to calm the situation”, the committee said. The Delhi government also failed to ensure that timely relief and compensation is given to those hit by the violence, it added,
The committee found that a claims commissioner appointed to decide on claims for compensation had only examined 1,425 out of 2,569 claims till March 2022. “The chair [of the Claims Commission] estimates that the process is likely only to be completed by December 2022,” the report said.
‘Need to review UAPA’
The committee said that patterns of usage of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act suggest its “targeted application” by the government. The law allows for prolonged pre-trial and custody and provides extremely limited grounds for bail, it added.
“UAPA accused are very often acquitted in their trials due to insufficient evidence, yet, forced to remain in custody, often for years,” the committee said. “This ensures the legal process itself becomes punishment.”
The panel said that there was a need to urgently review the law.
The authors of the report also called for a commission of inquiry to “establish the whole gamut of factors” that led to the February 2020 violence.