Delhi Riots: How BJP Leaders Created A Powderkeg That Led To 2020 Hindu-Muslim Violence

11 Oct 2022 17 min read  Share

The report of a citizens’ committee comprising retired public officials and led by retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur says a divisive narrative, anti-Muslim hate speech following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and portrayal of anti-CAA protestors as traitors laid the groundwork for the February 2020 communal clashes in north-east Delhi that claimed 53 lives. BJP election campaigners who called for violence against Muslims did not face police action, while hate speeches were amplified by television channels.

Muslim homes and businesses which were set on fire during the rioting in Shiv Vihar, Delhi/ BANSWALHEMANT, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Mumbai: ​​A months-long build-up of a “divisive Hindu-Muslim binary” fanned by powerful politicians and Hindu nationalist figures followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) sectarian, hate speech-filled campaign for the Delhi Assembly election created a volatile tinderbox eventually leading to the February 2020 communal clashes in New Delhi, according to a fact-finding committee chaired by former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur.

Calling the BJP’s rhetoric in the run-up to and after the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 “divisive and inflammatory”, the panel’s report, called ‘Uncertain Justice’ and released on 8 October, said the ruling party’s framing of the National Register Of Citizens (NRC) as a step towards identifying and expelling ‘infiltrators’ from the country sparked fears in the Muslim community about loss of citizenship. 

Allegations of police complicity in allowing or participating in the targeting of Muslims and their establishments was another facet of the violence, the report said.   

Even as anti-CAA demonstrations in the capital faced police action, pro-CAA demonstrations emerged, “calling for shooting bullets while branding anti-CAA protesters as ‘traitors’, ‘terrorists’, ‘rioters, and ‘jihadis’,” the report said, holding  speeches by politicians, Hindu nationalists and the BJP’s election campaigners responsible for growing communal tensions in the period immediately preceding the outbreak of violence in the North-East Delhi district, 

“... the February violence emerged as the ultimate culmination of a larger communally divisive project that was set in motion before the eruption of violence…” the report said. “Once it broke out, while the violence was perpetrated through the mechanics of mob involvement on both sides, Muslim identity was singled out as a target to be attacked.” 

The report was written by five members of a citizens’ committee formed in October 2020 upon the invitation of the Constitutional Conduct Group (a non-partisan and politically unaffiliated group of retired public officials working to promote Constitutional principles) to conduct an independent inquiry into the riots. The panel studied the events running up to the violence; assessed the response of state and police machinery in tackling the violence; investigated the riots and relief measures for those affected by the violence; and examined the role of mainstream and social media during, before and after the riots. 

A sixth member of the committee, retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Meeran Chadha Borwankar, a  former director general of police (DGP), withdrew from the committee in the final stages and wrote a dissent note that was published in the report with a response from the other committee members. 

In addition to Justice Lokur, the panel comprised former chief justice of the Madras and Delhi high courts A P Shah, former Delhi high court judge R S Sodhi, former Patna high court judge Anjana Prakash and retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer G K Pillai.

The committee’s report, based on extensive scrutiny of primary material including first information reports (FIRs), chargesheets, court orders, audio-visual clips and media reports, and after hearing fresh testimonies of affected persons, lawyers, activists, journalists and public intellectuals, also studied previous investigations’ findings on state and institutional failures in response to the anti-CAA protests, including a report by global non-profit Human Rights Watch), an investigative briefing by Amnesty International and a fact-finding report by the Delhi Minorities Commission.  

The panel members were left with little doubt, they wrote, that “relations between Hindus and Muslims stand altered”, and that the 2020 riots would have long-term consequences on Muslims’ agency to express themselves politically or otherwise, an impact that would be felt not just in the North East Delhi district, but on the “psyche of the Indian Muslim” across the country. 

CAA Used To Polarise, Incite 

Mid-December of 2019, as north-east Delhi emerged as an epicentre of sit-in demonstrations against the CAA, the BJP’s poll campaign labelled anti-CAA protestors as anti-nationals and traitors. 

“Calls for violence against the so-called ‘traitors’, in the form of the ‘goli maaro’ (shoot the traitors) slogans, were casually repeated, with no censure,” the report said. 

The hate speech, amplified by TV news and social media, and open calls for violence enabled a fraught atmosphere in which individuals became receptive to incitement.  “The microcosm of an engineered anti-Muslim narrative leading to the violence signals the growing fusion of hate messaging in public discourse with the actual incidence of violence,” the report said.

When mob violence from both sides broke out, anti-CAA protest sites such as those in Chand Bagh, Kardampuri, Jaffrabad, Mustafabad and Khajuri Khas, all in north-east Delhi, were specifically targeted, suggesting an “effort to rein in the anti-CAA sentiment in the course of the violence”. 

Hate Speech In BJP’s Poll Campaign   

Listing several instances of hate speech by BJP leaders and candidates during campaigning for the Delhi Assembly election held on 8 February 2020,  the report said the election commission’s (EC’s) response was neither uniform across cases nor effective in putting an end to the series of provocative speeches from top leaders, including some that openly called for violence. 

The EC issued gag orders against some leaders, holding that the  language of their speeches was objectionable and could incite hatred between religious communities, but failed to initiate criminal prosecution in a single case. 

On 31 December 2019, the BJP’s Anupam Pandey called anti-CAA protesters “deshdrohis” (traitors) at an election rally. 

On 23 January 2020, the BJP’s Kapil Mishra tweeted that the 8 February contest in Delhi would be an India-Pakistan face-off. “Delhi mein chhote chhote Pakistan bane. (Small Pakistans have come up in Delhi),” he tweeted. Holding the tweets objectionable, on 25 January, the EC directed that Mishra be barred from public meetings, processions, rallies, roadshows, interviews and utterances to the media for 48 hours. 

Days later, union minister Anurag Thakur raised the slogan ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko’ (Shoot the traitors of the country) on 27 January, at an election rally in Rithala, in north-west Delhi. On 29 January, the EC ordered Thakur’s removal as a BJP star campaigner and, on 30 January, barred him from holding any public meetings, public processions, rallies, roadshows, interviews and utterances to the media for 72 hours.

By then, BJP MP from West Delhi Parvesh Sahib Singh had said in an interview on 28 January, “These people will enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, kill them. There’s time today, Modiji and Amit Shah won’t come to save you tomorrow.”

On 29 January, along with Thakur, the EC ordered Parvesh Sahib Singh’s removal as a BJP star campaigner too and later barred him from holding any public meetings, public processions, rallies, roadshows, interviews, and utterances to the media for a period of 96 hours.

The MP went on to be a repeat offender, earning another 24-hour ban on rallies and meetings on 5 February. 

The same day that union minister Thakur’s speech was held objectionable, on 29 January, another BJP leader, Tarun Chug, defended the shoot-the-traitors slogan in a tweet equating Shaheen Bagh’s anti-CAA protesters with Islamic State terrorists. 

On 2 February 2020, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath addressed multiple election rallies, commenting on the Shaheen Bagh protestors, claiming that the protestors were in fact opposing the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Where “boli” (words) doesn’t work, “goli” (bullet) does, he said.  

On 6 February, the EC issued Adityanath a notice, but the campaign ended that evening.  

“.. the malaise of hate speech infusing electoral campaigning is likely to spread further,” the report said, pointing out that the EC had stopped short of ordering registration of FIRs against these leaders for hate speech. 

(Parvesh Sahib Singh, addressing a gathering of Hindus in Delhi on 9 October 2022, called for a “total boycott” of Muslims, and made the crowd gathered in the rain take an oath not to make purchases from Muslim-owned businesses nor give employment to Muslim workers.) 

“Oversight institutions such as the courts and Election Commission did not intervene resolutely to prevent or halt the spread of hateful content at the heart of the polarising narrative,” the report said. “It can be argued that these factors facilitated the build-up of an enabling environment for violence, shaped by hate and deteriorating community relations.”

Lapses In Caring For The Riot-Hit

On gaps in the public health system that affected victims’ access to medical care, the report described the scenes at Al Hind Hospital in Mustafabad in north-east Delhi, a small medical facility with no more than 15 beds that took in over 500 injured persons by the evening of 25 February 2020. 

“By late night, the hospital was overflowing with increasing numbers of bullet injuries, acid attack cases, and deaths. Despite lacking adequate facilities to perform major surgery, it provided essential medical care for hundreds of people during the violence,” the report said.

Later that night and on subsequent days, police barricaded roads in Mustafabad, making it difficult for ambulances to reach the hospital or to ferry the grievously wounded from Al Hind to other hospitals. “… a team of about eight doctors from the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum made several attempts to reach Al Hind Hospital on February 24 and 25, but reported being stopped by the police as well as mobs.”

The report recounted one doctor’s statement to the media: “The patients had lost all hope in the police.” It took a high court order after an urgent hearing to ensure that ambulances were given safe passage.  

Patients and volunteers reported receiving communal remarks from hospital staff,  such as “ugravadi” and “aatankvadi” (terrorists).

Calling out the Delhi administration for not pressing into service the national disaster management authority and other statutory machinery for evacuation, rescue, relief work and rehabilitation, the report said the government also failed to use the Delhi State Legal Services Authority to provide assistance to violence-affected families in their attempts to avail compensation. The government also failed to conduct a comprehensive survey on the quantum of damage and survivors’ needs. 

Reiterating the findings of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan report that many victims, fearing medico-legal cases and FIRs for involvement in the riots, did not seek institutional medical care, it said the official count of the injured may have been “grossly understated”.

A July 2020 affidavit by the Delhi police reported higher figures of property destruction and damage than an interim report by the North East Delhi district administration in March 2020. The committee cited a media report that said there appeared to be an undercounting by police of the extent of damage to Muslim homes and shops. 

The state has an obligation, the report said, to ensure timely and adequate compensation. “This obligation derives from the judicial consensus that when the state fails to prevent widespread violence, victims have a right to claim damages from the state.”

The Role Of The Delhi Police 

Union home minister Amit Shah, speaking in Lok Sabha in March 2020, lauded the Delhi police for its handling of the riots. “Controlling and putting a full stop to riots in just 36 hours in a dense area is a very difficult task,” Shah said.  

The home minister, who did not make a single public statement during the rioting,  said the police struggled but did not give up. “I will congratulate them and praise them for not allowing the riot to spread to other parts of Delhi.” 

The report by the citizens’ committee said, “Multiple reports of police apathy in preventing the violence, as well as of police collusion and active participation, raise deeper questions of the state’s role.” 

It described in detail the incident of 24 February in Kardampuri, in north-east Delhi, in which five young Muslim men were rounded up and apparently assaulted by police. In a viral video, the men were seen lying on the street as policemen ordered them to sing the national anthem and Vande Mataram. The youngsters could be heard pleading with the policemen. One of them, Faizan, later died. 

On 15 December, after a crowd of over 1,000 protestors headed to Jantar Mantar was forced to return to the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, according to testimonies of university students and CCTV video clips, the police entered the campus, hurled several rounds of tear gas shells and attacked students. “Student testimonies recorded that the police made pejorative, communal remarks like, ‘recite the kalmia’ (last words), and ‘go to Pakistan’, while rounding them up,” the report said.

The report cites other instances of police inaction: On 25 February, in the Gamri Extension locality, after a mosque was vandalised and some establishments torched, “police told Muslim residents that the mobs were going to increase and they did not have adequate strength to contain them or provide protection”. Policemen advised families to leave. 

In Brijpuri on 25 February, an official of a school that was attacked told a TV channel that they called the police and fire department, but no assistance reached them.

The same day, in Khajuri Khas, a retired Delhi police official who resided in the same lane as a mosque that was attacked, told journalists that “police inaction” allowed the rioters to carry out arson.  

In Gokulpuri, a journalist said media personnel had to leave when an angry mob headed towards them. He recounted that Delhi police personnel told them to leave, saying they couldn’t protect them. 

Multiple Reports Pointed To Police Role

Earlier, human rights group Amnesty has said police were complicit in the rioting. The Delhi high court also observed that the Delhi police had failed to conduct a proper probe.   

Media reports (here, here and here) recounted witnesses and victims’ accounts that police failed to act in time.

A September 2020 report by the Citizens & Lawyers Initiative, edited by senior advocate Chander Uday Singh, pointed to other incidents involving the police — policemen allegedly chanting Jai Shri Ram with Hindu mobs; eyewitness accounts of policemen breaking CCTV cameras; pro-CAA demonstrators casually chatting with the police, sticks and lathis in hand; alleged intimidation of victims in the process of filing complaints.

“This destruction of CCTV cameras is one of the most damning indictments of Delhi police’s role in the orchestrated violence, as is the apparent failure of the police to recover crucial CCTV footage from the areas where Muslims were attacked and their properties destroyed,” the Citizens & Lawyers Initiative report said. “This omission becomes glaring when it is seen that the police themselves have treated CCTV footages as the most crucial (and sometimes the sole) evidence to identify alleged perpetrators of riots or for initial leads in the investigation.”

Home minister Shah, however, reiterated his praise for the force in 2022.

Bungled Investigations Flagged By Courts 

The committee studied 752 of the total 758 FIRs registered in 11 police stations across the district. 

As of October 2021, based on a Delhi police affidavit, chargesheets were filed in 361 out of 758 cases. As of January 2022, trial had commenced in 92 cases, accused persons had been discharged in five cases, and acquittals had taken place in four cases.

The committee said it had, while not making an early judgement or prediction of the outcome of the trials, assessed the manner of investigation and evidence on the basis of principles of criminal and evidence law. 

The report said courts had found police witnesses’ identification of accused to be unreliable due to unaccounted delays in identifying assailants, and had flagged the possibility of these witnesses being “planted” only to implicate the accused. In many cases where police submitted CCTV footage, videos or photographs as evidence, these materials actually exonerated the accused or failed to evidence a crime. In some cases, location of the accused through Call Detail Records (CDR) contradicted prosecution claims about an accused being present at the place of offence. 

“This is a serious indication of false implication by the investigating agency,” the report said. “The failure to collect CCTV footage despite it being available gives rise to the possibility of deliberate suppression of material exonerating the accused by the investigating agency.” 

In one case, the prosecution contended that a Muslim accused had joined an unlawful assembly of Hindus who were beating a Muslim boy to death. In another case, the imam of a mosque was arrested for burning the mosque.

There were also crucial omissions in the police probe, the report said, including the hate speeches preceding the violence.  

“The reoccurring feature of police and public witnesses being discovered and added belatedly indicates possible fabrication. Vital omissions and lacunae in the investigation as illustrated above calls into question the impartiality of the investigation,” the committee noted. 

Assessing Police Claims Of A Muslim Conspiracy

Having “very carefully” considered the application of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 against 18 persons in a single FIR, the committee called this the gravest aspect of the Delhi police probe. The UAPA allows detention without trial for six months and turns the burden of proof on the accused while also restricting the possibility of bail.  

The police have claimed that the 18 accused conspired to execute the riots to force the government to repeal the CAA.

The report said the material in the chargesheet does not appear to credibly substantiate the claim—not only were the majority of dead and injured Muslims, but damages to property and establishments were also steeper for the minority community. “The incongruity of ‘Muslim persons’ organising riots in Muslim-dominated areas, killing Muslim victims mainly and burning mosques in order to protest against a law that is allegedly discriminatory towards Muslims has been noted by the courts,” the report said. “This ill-conceived and unsubstantiated application of UAPA to the present case is not merely stretching the law, but a perversion of the law and appears targeted.”

From the material analysed by the committee, the only evidence of conspiracy was in statements of persons who reportedly attended meetings or overheard discussions. 

“While the veracity of the witness statements recorded by the Special Cell will be tested at trial, it is noteworthy that every public witness who claims to have heard explicit details of the preparations for the riots has voluntarily reported this information to the police more than two months after the violence, and much after the initial arrests in FIR 59,” the report said. “The witnesses have given no explanation for the delay in reporting.” 

The delay indicated “possible tutoring” of these witnesses, the report said, adding that such incongruities “cast a cloud of suspicion” on the police’s claims.

This committee said it supports calls for a comprehensive review of the UAPA.

‘TV Channels Mimicked Hate Speech’

Based on a content-analysis of 326 episodes of select programmes, constituting approximately 243 hours (14,580 minutes) of broadcast time on news channels with the highest viewership–Republic TV, Times Now, Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV and Republic Bharat, the report said, “The analysis showed that these channels’ narratives mimicked the hate speech and calls to violence by political and Hindu nationalist figures.” 

The committee found recurring patterns in the programmes they analysed, including prejudice and suspicion against the Muslim community; an attempt to frame the debate over the CAA as Hindus versus Muslims; vilifying anti-CAA protests as overwhelmingly violent through the use of words such as “vandals”, “rioters”, “potential terrorists”, “anti-national”, “tukde-tukde gang”, “blackmailers”, etc  to describe the anti-CAA protesters.

It said these TV channels particularly vilified the Shaheen Bagh protestors, presenting them as a source of violence, comparing this protest site to Pakistan and Kashmir. 

It also pointed to the pejorative use of “they” and “their” to refer to Muslims and the trope of Muslims as the enemy; the framing of the anti-CAA protests as a conspiracy by the Opposition or backed by international actors; depicting anti-CAA protests as “imbued with designs of Muslim extremism, backed by Islamic extremist groups”. 

Stressing on the need for journalistic rules of rigour and objectivity, the report said the “failure of the existing regulatory frameworks to act as a check is starkly exposed through this analysis”.

Recommendations, And A Reckoning

Victims of the violence who suffered injuries or suffered damages to homes and businesses, found the return to normalcy an arduous journey even months later. Article 14 has reported (here, here, here and here) that victims felt abandoned by the state, struggled to revive businesses while others said the compensation they received was too paltry to help them move on.

As of August 2022, over 160 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the CAA were pending before the Supreme Court from January 22, 2020, the citizens’ committee noted.  

In addition, as of April 2022, the ministry of home affairs was still in the process of framing rules required to begin implementing the amended citizenship law.

Besides calling on state institutions to “unequivocally defend” the right to peaceful assembly and protest, the committee sought a law to fix accountability for miscarriages of justice arising through police excesses or unjustified prosecution. Such legislation should enable payment of compensation to exonerated persons and punitive action against officials responsible, it said.

The committee said both communities’ ability to heal had been affected by the violence. “We fear that these effects may not be easily undone,” it said. “Acts of deliberative reconciliation and reparation will have to be fashioned in the civil society and the state ought to play a role in it.”

(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)