Over the past two months, even as most of Delhi struggled to deal with the lockdown to combat Covid-19, the police have arrested hundreds of people for their alleged role in the communal violence that gripped the city late in February. Their actions in the midst of the pandemic have prompted allegations that the authorities have taken advantage of the lack of scrutiny during the lockdown as well as the limited access to the courts to move forward with flawed investigations.
But the Delhi Police have denied any anti-Muslim bias in their investigation. In a tweet on May 16, a police spokesperson said that more than 1,300 accused had been arrested in over 750 cases related to the violence, with the number of those arrested from the two communities "almost identical to each other".
However, activists say this only gives rises to further questions, given that Muslims bore the brunt of the violence. Of the 53 people killed from February 23 to February 26 in the violence, 38 were Muslim.
Harsh Mander, an activist who has worked with victims of riots, said that what made the arrests more "sinister and troubling" was that the Delhi Police "cynically used the cover of the lockdown to detain and arrest large numbers of mostly Muslim people, including direct victims of violence".
Even in the course of the violence, disturbing videos and testimonies had suggested police complicity, either in turning a blind eye to the violence against Muslims, or in many cases actually abetting and participating in it.
Many Muslim residents allege this bias extends to the police investigation into the violence. The families of Muslim men arrested say police officials mocked them using communally coloured language. Within the community, there is a strong perception that they are being targeted for their participation in peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
Scroll.in sent queries to Delhi police regarding allegations of families against police officials for using communally-coloured language and the Muslim community’s perception of being targeted. This story will be updated if they respond.
Here is a closer look at two cases.
Got your 'azaadi'?
April 3 was the last time 42-year-old Fatima (name changed) saw her husband Ahmad (name changed), 44.
On April 2, around 4 pm, Fatima and Ahmad were visiting her parents’ house. They had left behind their sons aged 17 and 14 years at home. The doorbell rang. At least 12 police officials were outside their home.
"Some were in their uniform and some were wearing regular clothes," she recalled her younger son’s account of the evening. They searched the house and took away the 17-year-old.
Fatima rushed to the police station, where she was told "pehle iske baap ko bulao" — call his father first. For three hours, she pleaded with the police, asking them to release her son. Instead, a police official showed her a video on his phone. It seemed to be CCTV footage from the Rajdhani Public Senior Secondary School in Shiv Vihar, which had been vandalised by mobs on February 24. Her husband, Ahmad, could be seen in it.
"He was just standing there and his phone was in his hand," Fatima said. "There was no fighting, no maar-peet, he was just standing."
Fatima claimed Ahmad had a good reason to be at the school. "Achchai karne gaye the na humare miyan. My husband had gone to do a good deed," she said. His friend’s helper was stuck at the school. He merely picked him up, dropped him home, before returning to Mustafabad, she said.
After she watched the video in the police station, she called Ahmad. He got to the police station around 6 pm, after which the police released her son and took Ahmad into custody. The police did not provide any details about the FIR under which he was being arrested, Fatima alleged.
Lawyers Nikita Khaitan and Menaka Khanna who have been working with those affected by the violence in North East Delhi say this is a wider pattern. "In many cases, the police are detaining people without any notice or information on the grounds of detention and without informing family members," they wrote in The Hindu. "There are cases where family members of suspects were detained for hours as proxies, to threaten and coerce the families to produce the person that the police actually wanted to arrest."
The next afternoon, when Fatima took food for her husband, she alleged police officials greeted her with taunts: "Mil gayi azaadi? Le li azaadi? Aur kitni azaadi logi ab?" Have you got the freedom you wanted? What more freedom do you want?
Fatima said she broke down when policemen threatened her husband would serve seven years in jail. "I told them sir please do not do this. I have small children. I have rent to pay. How will I manage? My children will die."
She alleged the police responded by saying: "How does it matter to us? You die and your children should die too."
The family was given a copy of the FIR on April 9. It had been filed on March 4 at the Dayalpur police station based on a complaint by Mohammad Shahnawaj, who claimed to have witnessed mobs burning and looting his restaurant in Shiv Vihar’s Mahalaxmi Enclave at 4.15 pm on February 24. The FIR does not identify any accused.
Ahmad’s lawyer filed a bail application on April 21 at Karkardooma District Court, saying he had been "falsely implicated without there being any admissible evidence".
The application was listed for hearing on April 27 through video conferencing but the lawyer, who did not want to be identified, alleged he did not receive any calls from the court. Duty judge Raghubir Singh went on to dismiss the bail application.
"None has appeared on behalf of the applicant despite several calls since morning," the order said. "It is 12 noon. In these circumstances, application under consideration is disposed of as dismissed for want of prosecution."
The lawyer filed another bail application on May 5, which was listed for hearing at 11.30 am on May 8. This time, the hearing was adjourned because of "technical issues" as the judge could not be heard, the lawyer said. The next date for hearing took place on May 11.
On May 11, Duty Judge Raghubir Singh dismissed the bail application once again after arguments were heard.
"Neither any urgency is involved nor any ground is made out to grant bail/interim bail," the bail order states. "Moreover the presence of applicant/accused was visible in the viral video. Consequently, the application under consideration is disposed of as dismissed."
The lawyer filed a bail application at the Delhi High Court and the matter was heard on May 20.
In the order given by Judge Anup Jairam Bhambhani, the court noted the accused counsel’s arguments which state that Ahmad was not involved in the alleged offences and pointed that the offence alleged of using firearms and explosives was not proven by the prosecution. The judge noted that the prosecution had sought time to file the status report along with the video recording on the basis of which the accused was arrested.
The judge directed the prosecution to file a status report of the case within three days, "specifically clarifying as to how the prosecution identifies the applicant in the video".
The next hearing is scheduled for May 26.
'No coronavirus for them'
Investigating officer Rajiv Sharma said Ahmad had been arrested under two FIRs related to the same incident based on videos that had circulated online. Did the videos show Ahmad engaging in violence? To that, Sharma responded saying, "There were many others with him." But what exactly were they doing in the video? "You check it and you will see on Youtube," he said.
The investigating officer, however, did not present the video at the trial court, according to the lawyer, and it was not immediately clear which YouTube video Sharma is referring to.
"The beat officer knows this person well," Sharma continued. "The day this happened the beat officer was present there and so was this person."
Sharma did not reveal the contact details of the beat officer. He added that he was not aware of the number of arrests made by officials from Dayalpur station in connection with the riots.
Since April 3, Fatima has been unable to meet with Ahmad, who is currently at Mandoli jail. As Khaitan and Khanna point out in their article in The Hindu: "Once in jail, family members have no way to monitor the arrestee’s continued health and safety, as the guidelines passed by the Supreme Court to prevent the spread of Covid-19 prohibit the meeting of prisoners with their family members or lawyers.
Ahmad, who works as a driver, is the sole breadwinner for the family. In his absence, Fatima has not been able to pay the INR4,000-monthly rent of their rented house. "Till when will I manage? Ramazan is also going on."
She was worried about her husband’s health, especially in the midst of an epidemic. He had suffered a heart attack in January, she said. "There is no coronavirus for them [the police]...Everything is for us," she said.
Teenager in Tihar
Eighteen-year-old Faraz (name changed) was arrested by police officials on April 12 from his home in Janta Colony, Babarpur, said his brother Arif (name changed), 25, who works as an autorickshaw driver.
Faraz, who worked at a grocery store he ran with his mother for nearly two years, had attended the protests against the amended Citizenship Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, which took place next to the Jaffrabad metro station.
There were repeated calls for residents of Janta Colony to attend the protests, Arif said. "Some people would shout slogans saying if we sleep in our houses now then we could be kicked out of them tomorrow," he recalled. "We did not get out of the house but my brother is young, he went for the protest for two to three days."
On April 8, while Arif was in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh with his mother, he received a call from his sisters, who said that police officials from the Crime Branch had searched their house and wanted to take Faraz to the police station for "verification". A crime branch officer, Krishna Kumar, told him he would come to their house on April 13. "He [Krishna Kumar] said if my brother had not done anything then they would leave him," Arif said.
But on April 12 itself, two police officials landed at the family’s doorstep and took Faraz away. "They told me not to worry and to reach Welcome police station," Arif said. "They mentioned two names to my brother and asked him if he knew them but he said he did not know them."
Arif reached Welcome police station within 15 minutes but was told by police officials that his brother was not present there. A constable at the police station told them that police might have taken Faraz to Gokulpuri police station. But when Arif reached there, Faraz was not present there either.
"We came back home after that," Arif said. "Some neighbours told us that whenever someone gets picked up by the Crime Branch then no one knows where they keep the person for one night."
'I was very scared'
The next day on April 13, Arif got a call at 11 am from Jaffrabad police station. He was asked to bring a copy of Faraz’s Aadhaar card and school marksheet. When he asked the police why his brother had been arrested, he was told: "Bhai, tere bhai ne bahut patthar waghera mare hai NRC ke protest mein, dange mein." Your brother has pelted stones during the NRC protest and riots.
The police showed him video footage from February 24, when anti-NRC protestors had clashed with pro-government groups in Jaffrabad. Pausing the video, the police zoomed in on a young man who looked like Faraz, Arif recalled.
"He was simply standing there," Arif said. "There were a lot of people in that video. But my brother was not doing anything." The police told him they had more videos that showed Faraz pelting stones.
"But they did not show me those videos," he said. "It is true that my brother went for the protests but I do not know if the police is lying or telling the truth."
A police officer asked Arif to take him to Faraz’s school in New Jaffrabad. He spoke to the school principal in private. When they returned to the police station, Arif saw Faraz being taken away in a van — for a medical checkup, he was told. Krishna Kumar, the crime branch officer, asked Arif to sign two blank forms. He complied. "I was very scared," he said. "This was the first time I had gone to a police station."
Two days later, a police official showed Arif an image of what his brother wore on February 24 and asked him to bring the clothes along with his mobile phone. The same day, Arif saw the police walk his brother through Janata Colony, perhaps as part of an identification parade.
On April 16 morning, investigating officer Naresh Tomar at Jaffrabad police called Arif to inform him that Faraz had been sent to Tihar Jail. But Tomar did not give him a copy of the FIR under which his brother had been arrested, only three FIR numbers, Arif said.
Scroll.in was unable to locate the FIRs online on the Delhi police website using the FIR numbers Tomar gave Arif.
On May 6, Arif went to the Jaffrabad police station again to ask for FIRs only to be stonewalled by police and asked to leave. He eventually contacted Krishna Kumar, who asked him to collect the FIRs from the Crime Branch office in South Delhi’s RK Puram. Despite the lockdown in the city, Arif rode on a scooter to the office. He was given only one FIR of the three.
This FIR was filed on February 26 at Jaffrabad police station on the basis of a complaint by sub-inspector Pankaj Kumar. He claimed he was patrolling 66 Futa Road in Jaffrabad around 4 pm on February 25 when a mob armed with sticks, iron rods, bricks, stones and bottles gathered and raised slogans against the Citizenship Act, despite repeated appeals by the police to disperse. The mob pelted stones on police vans, forcing the police to fire tear gas shells and use mild force, he said. The crowd even fired bullets, leaving several policemen and civilians injured, the FIR said.
The FIR does not identify any accused people. But Pankaj Kumar said he would be able to recognise members of the crowds if they were brought in front of him. The offences made under the FIR range from rioting, obstructing a public servant from discharging their duties using assault or criminal force, attempt to murder, being party to a criminal conspiracy, apart from sections of the Arms Act.
Investigating officer Naresh Tomar told Scroll.in that the case had been transferred to the Crime Branch.
Now that the family has a copy of the FIR, Faraz’s lawyer Mohammad Noorullah said they would file a bail application soon.
Arif last heard from his brother on April 26. He had called from Tihar jail. "He told me to try to get his bail done and asked for our mother," he said. "We spoke for just two minutes."
This article originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.