Who let Delhi burn?

For four days, India’s capital plunged into an orgy of violence, arson and loot. It is the worst sectarian violence India has seen in recent times

For the past two months, the women of Shaheen Bagh are sitting under a tent, demanding the rollback of the amended citizenship law. The roads are blocked and people being inconvenienced but there was no violence. But when a similar protest began on the Seelampur-Jafrabad road, Delhi plunged into darkness of communal violence; violence so bad that some people likened them to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

On the intervening night of Feb. 22 and 23, around 500 women blocked the Seelampur-Jafrabad road through a sit-in against the Citizenship Amendment Act. On Feb. 23, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who lost the recently held Delhi Assembly election in Model Town constituency to Aam Aadmi Party’s Akhilesh Pati Tripathi, gave a 3-day ultimatum to police to vacate the roads. “Teen din baad to hum aapki bhi nahi sunenge (We will not listen to you after three days),” he said as a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) stood in attendance. It was a clear threat – that the Hindus will take things in their own hands.

The next day, violence broke out in Jafrabad and Maujpur. Two deaths were reported: one protester and a Delhi Police head constable were killed. From that day to until the National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval sprang on the streets, violence spiraled from one area to the other in the northeastern Delhi, killing 38 people and injuring at least 200 people in a full-blown communal war between the two communities.

It began with stray incidents of two groups pelting each other with stones on the evening of Feb. 23. A pro-CAA group, largely Hindu men from other parts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, took positions under the Maujpur metro station, playing the Hanuman Chalisa from a loudspeaker. Most of the residents of Maujpur are Hindus.

Around 1 km away, Muslims had gathered to protest against the citizenship law at Jafrabad Metro station. Another spot, on the other side of the road from the Maujpur station was also occupied by Muslim groups. It is unclear which group began to pelting stone on Feb. 23 evening, but by the evening of Feb. 25, the two areas and other in their neighbourhood were in the throes of communal battle, with both sides clearly marked and zealously guarding their turfs. When a civilian belonging to the other religion accidentally ended up in the rival camp, he was attacked with sticks, rods and stones.

The mob used torches, burning slippers and balls made of cloth to set fire to four buildings belonging to Muslims after failed attempts to break the shutters. Each time a house caught fire, the mob cheered with loud claps and religious chants. Patriotic songs, including ironically “Aye mere watan ke logon” – which is dedicated to the armed forces — played in the background. The mob would move only when the heat from the flames was too much to take.

The policemen watched, heavily outnumbered, and not interfering while the mob torched buildings and small establishments. It would take hours before fire tenders could reach the location. The mob, in both Maujpur and Jafrabad, then turned its focus to banners of shops, smashing them if they suggested that they were owned by members of the other religion. CCTV cameras were broken along the routes, except for a few protected by iron meshes.

The Hindus pelted Muslim mob with stones while standing right next to the policemen, who did nothing at all to stop them, let alone make efforts to disarm them. And when the police did occasionally fire tear gas shells to separate rival groups who came too close to one another, the Hindu mob was heard chanting, “Delhi Police Zindabad.”

The stone-pelting by the Hindu mob in Maujpur was matched by similar action by the Muslim mob in Jafrabad, where petrol bombs were added to the arsenal. The bearded man, later identified as Mohammad Shahrukh, who was seen in multiple video clips pointing his gun at a police officer and firing at protesters from the other group was a part of this group.

Arson – burning houses, business establishments and vehicles on the road – attack on people and the media covering the riots was the order of the day in these areas for three days. While the nature and intensity of violence in north-east Delhi kept changing over three days beginning Feb. 23 evening, what remained constant was the police’s response: they did almost nothing, until it was too late.

The Supreme Court pulled up Delhi Police for failing to act professionally and to check unfortunate incidents of violence. The apex court lashed out at the law enforcing agencies for allowing the instigators of violence to get away and said they should act independently as per law.

In another development, the Delhi High Court granted four weeks time to Centre to file response in the plea seeking registration of FIRs against BJP leaders for making provocative statements that led to riots in northeast Delhi. A bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice C Hari Shankar gave the Centre time to respond after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta contended that “it was not conducive to file FIR now over hate speech”. The matter has been adjourned for April 13.

The Delhi Police was either standing with the mob of Hindus or seen to be a mute spectator to the orgy of violence unleashed on the Delhi streets. It was either waiting for orders from the Centre, which controls it, or was told to look the other way. In either condition, Delhi continued to burn under their watch. The biggest question is – why did Delhi Police allow a skirmish to flare up into a full-fledged communal riot? Why did they not nip it in the bud?

Some people say the genesis of the violence could be in the results of the Assembly election in which the people of Delhi rejected the BJP, which is at the helms at Centre. They say the party that tried, unsuccessfully, to communalise the Delhi election over Shaheen Bagh couldn’t bear to see another sit-in. Delhi got in between the AAP government and the Centre, bearing collateral damage. When all this was happening, there was radio silence from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union home minister Amit Shah on the violence. Their first responses came after Congress leader Sonia Gandhi held a press conference to demand Shah’s resignation, and after the police got flak from the apex court.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he “had an extensive review on the situation prevailing in various parts of Delhi.” Admitting that the Delhi police could not bring the situation under control, BJP sources said the government was keen on putting the “administration” into action to contain the violence.

This was followed by the visit of Doval with senior Delhi Police officials to the affected areas, going door to door and assuring residents of safety. Doval is an advisor and has no executive power; those who do, were nowhere to be seen. Special Police Commissioner for Law and Order, SN Shrivastava, who was appointed on Feb. 26, visited violence-affected Khajoori Khaas and interacted with the locals.

The Delhi Government under Arvind Kejriwal was too busy being silent on the issue or staging photo-ops – sitting at Rajghat or sitting in review meetings with the HM – taking refuge in the fact that Delhi Police doesn’t report to them. The Delhi government could have, through its civilian administration, summoned the Army to take control but it didn’t do that.

It’s the reason of politics of opportunism in which no party wants to keep people at centre of its strategies. People are left in the midst of marauding wolves who are out on the street to murder people in broad daylight, with no fear or regard of law of the land.

On Feb. 27, Kejriwal said the “security situation in the country must not be politicised”. “We will ensure punishment to the perpetrators of violence and no one will be spared, irrespective of whichever party they belong to. SDM officers would be available for people in affected areas. Rs 10 lakh would be extended to affected people, Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia and Rs 5 lakh would be granted in case of death of a minor,” the Delhi CM said even as the death toll rose to 38.

Congress leaders led by Sonia Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh met President Ramnath Kovind over the riot. “We handed over the demands to President Kovind in the memorandum. The Centre and Delhi government were mute spectators to the violence which has claimed several lives. Businesses have also fallen prey to looting. President said he will take cognisance of our demands; we feel fairly satisfied,” Sonia Gandhi said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, the Delhi police transferred northeast Delhi violence case to Crime Branch and formed two special investigation teams to probe. Police said 48 FIRs had been registered so far.

Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati called for a Supreme Court-supervised probe and asked the Centre and AAP government to pitch in together in order to ensure compensation for the loss suffered during the riots. She also likened the violence with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and alleged that under the garb of violence, dirty politics was being played by parties.

On Feb. 27, Kapil Mishra spoke again. He said, “No question is being asked to people who are talking about dividing country or those on whose terrace petrol bombs were found. But someone who only requested for road to be cleared as it was causing inconvenience to 35 lakh people is being called a terrorist.”

For four days, a party of India’s capital descended into a night of dread and despair. There was attack on media. In every newspaper, there are stories of how reporters covering the riots came face to face with death. From being reporters, they became Hindus or Muslims. Their phones were snatched and formatted. The violence was also an embarrassment for Prime Minister Modi as he hosted US President Trump.

The violence may stop sooner than later but the wounds will fester for years to come – the same way that wounds of 1984 continue to trouble. The real culprit may never be caught as one probe will lead into another until these riots will fade from public memory. But we, the people, need to stop and ponder – who has filled our minds with so much poison against each other.

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