New Delhi: In 2020, on a cool February night in a teeming northeastern neighbourhood in India’s capital, Mohammad Wakeel and his 20-year-old daughter, Anam, were sheltering on the terrace of their building as a riot raged below.
Cautiously, Wakeel, 52, peered down from his perch, a space he thought protected them from the mob, and flinched in pain, as he felt a hot splash on his face. His eyes burned, and he felt blood trickling down his face.
A frail vegetable vendor, Wakeel suppressed a scream to avoid the attention of a murderous mob below. He was later informed by doctors that acid flung on his face had severely damaged both eyes, blinding him forever.
Writhing in pain, Wakeel stayed put until his wife, 40-year-old Mumtaz Begum, came to his rescue. The family fled their home and took refuge in the nearby mosque, Madina Masjid. They hid in a corner of the mosque at around 10 pm, while armed rioters rampaged through the night and the next day, looting and setting houses, mosques and shops aflame.
Citizens from both Hindu and Muslim communities co-habit in Shiv Vihar—a neighbourhood where Wakeel had moved to from Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, over 30 years ago, and settled in well. Until 20 February 2020, when Shiv Vihar suffered one of the most violent riots India’s capital had ever seen.
More than a year after the riots that broke out in the wake of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, protests in the capital, victims such as Wakeel who suffered immense personal damages feel abandoned by the state. Some of them are still trying to revive their businesses while others said the compensation they received was too paltry to help them move on. Muslim and Hindu survivors that Article 14 spoke to complained of meagre compensations and arduous struggles with paperwork with what seemed to them like an uncaring bureaucracy.
‘One Particular Side Is Being Prosecuted’
The Delhi police alleged the riots that raged through the northeastern neighbourhoods of India’s capital between 23 and 26 February, 2020—leaving 53 dead, of which 75% were Muslim, 581 injured and hundreds homeless—were a “pre-planned conspiracy and centrally co-ordinated” by those protesting the CAA to coincide with US President Donald Trump’s visit to India.
The police have since been criticised for bias against Muslims, during the riots and after. In September 2020, a statement from nine former Delhi police officers alleged “a majoritarian attitude in the police leadership”, which led “to a travesty of justice for the victims of violence and their family members belonging to minority communities”.
In several cases, reported Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, the police did not follow procedures established under the criminal code, such as producing an arrest warrant, informing the person’s family of the arrest, and providing them a copy of the first information report (FIR) or ensuring that those arrested have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation.
“The police have got a different master; therefore, they are not even bothered about what the courts say,” former Supreme Court Justice Vikramjit Sen, who visited riot-hit areas with two former colleagues, told Article 14. “One particular side is being prosecuted.”
The Peace Committee That Failed
Facing allegations of not doing enough to control the violence, the Delhi government set up peace committees in the affected neighbourhoods after the riots.
The Committee on Peace and Harmony was expected to restore the riot survivors’ trust in the government and bridge the divide between the two communities through citizens’ involvement in the administration of their neighbourhoods and institutional reforms. Elected officials were entrusted with the task of listening to complaints and recommending suitable solutions to foster harmony.
More than a year later, the committee appeared to have failed. There appeared to be no progress in restoring trust, and schisms between Hindus and Muslims appeared as wide as ever, if not wider.
The threat of violence and fractured relations are palpable in riot-hit neighbourhoods, where police allegedly refused to register many FIRs, merging varied complaints and carrying out investigations with what one victim called a “callous attitude”.
A Delhi court criticised the police and said “the issue of clubbing the investigation of different complaints into one FIR is basically to protect the accused”.
Having lost hope of justice, many victims have now turned their focus on getting proper compensation and rehabilitation, which they said fell short of what the government promised.
A Way Of Life Torn Apart
Wakeel and his family live in a one-bedroom house in gali (lane) number 13, next to the Madina Masjid, which was set on fire during the violence. They lived on the first floor of the building, while the ground floor was a grocery store—their only source of income.
Before the rush of acid hit his face Wakeel remembers a swarm of rioteers wearing helmets. They approached his home “with aggressive slogans of Jai Shri Ram”.
As the mob approached the mosque, the family rushed upstairs. Seeing him in pain, Anam said she would get water, but Wakeel stopped her. The mob, he believed, would have been alerted to their hideout by the sound of a running tap.
“My wife kept calling the police, but her calls went unanswered,” said Wakeel. “No one came to help us.”
Within minutes, the mob flooded into the mosque and used two LPG cylinders to set off explosions that set it ablaze.
The house was reconstructed by a community organisation nearly a year after it was burnt by the rioters. Painted white and beige, it looked much improved than it did in photos before the attack. Later that night at around 3 am, the family walked to a relief camp set up for riot victims in Chaman Park—a Muslim-dominated area.
“Shiv Vihar bore the look of a crematorium,” said Mumtaz, Wakeel’s wife. “Houses and shops were burning. Flames and smoke filled the air. Everything was vandalised.”
When she returned to Shiv Vihar, 13 days after the riots started, Mumtaz found her house burnt, jewellery and other valuables and the shop looted. The events of that February night in 2020 shattered their trust in the neighbourhood.
“Never in my dreams had I expected anything like this,” said Wakeel. “I lost everything—health, property and trust in neighbours—during the riots.”
The family was acutely aware of their changed world, as they tried to pick up the pieces. In the past Wakeel would manage the shop, leaving his children free to study or do chores.
Today, he is blind and bed ridden and has to depend on his family to help him. “The shop is now run by my young sons who have abandoned their work and studies,” said Wakeel. “I am running about for the treatment to restore my eyesight partially.”
Of Wakeel’s three sons and two daughters, the eldest is married. One son, 18-year-old Mohammad Shamim, was employed with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) to serve refreshments on the Shatabdi Express. He earned Rs 9,000 per month, but lost his job, as train operations ceased during the pandemic. After the operations resumed, his father did not send him to work again.
“Dar lagta hai bahar bhejne, pata nahin kab kya ho jaaye (I am scared to send him back to work again; I don’t know what happens and when),” was his reply when asked why he was hesitant about sending his son back to work.
An FIR (No. 138/20) was registered under sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees) and 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, at the Karawal Nagar police station, based on Mumtaz’s complaint. She urged the police to probe the rioters who had allegedly poured acid on her husband and daughter, and looted and destroyed their property.
Days after the riots Wakeel was admitted at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan (LNJP) Hospital, where the doctors predicted the possibility of loss of eyesight, if multiple serious surgeries were not done immediately. But a year has passed since the riots, and two hospitals refused to conduct the surgeries citing the pandemic.
The progress record of the hospital listed the possibility of vision loss in both eyes and loss of soft tissues due to deep burns. The patient will require multiple surgeries, said the record.
The sliver of a chance of his eyesight being restored after surgeries gives Wakeel equal measure of hope and anxiety. “If I have no chance of seeing again, instead of dilly-dallying, the government hospitals must declare me permanently disabled so that I can claim compensation at least,” he said.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government had announced compensation under separate categories, which included Rs 10,00,000 for death, Rs 500,000 each for the death of a minor, permanent disability and serious damage to residential and commercial premises, Rs 300,000 for those orphaned and Rs 250,000 for minor damage to residential premises.
Wakeel received Rs 280,000 as relief. He is yet to get any compensation for the loss of his house and shop.
A Worker’s Hand Blown To Smithereens
Unlike Wakeel, Akram Khan, 23, is yet to assimilate the idea that the carnage has left him permanently disabled. Akram, a tailor, planned to attend a religious congregation in old Delhi’s Kasab Pura on February 24. He returned home from work the previous night before violence broke out, following Kapil Mishra’s controversial speech near Maujpur traffic signal.
He did not fathom that a low-intensity conflict between two groups would flare up into a war-like situation, engulfing almost the entire Trans Yamuna region. The resident of old Mustafabad, in northeast Delhi, was waiting to board his bus at Yamuna Vihar bus stop.
Suddenly, Akram noticed people running around and a group of armed men hurling stones. He ran towards a traffic signal and took refuge at a grocery nearby.
Within minutes, a riot unfolded. As he stepped out of the shop, rioters caught him, and after ascertaining his identity, started beating him. He extricated himself but stumbled on a stone and fell.
“Soon after, a live explosive hit my right hand,” he told Article 14. “I lost consciousness.”
Akram was administered first aid at Meher Hospital in Mustafabad, and then rushed to GTB Hospital by his uncle where he underwent treatment for the next 32 days.
Akram’s right hand was amputated from below the elbow on 25 February; and since his left hand was also seriously injured the index finger, which had developed sepsis, was also cut off 20 days later. He said he had undergone four major surgeries so far.
From earning Rs 20,000 per month, enough for an independent life, he now depends on others to meet his basic needs and requires assistance to perform his daily ablutions.
Akram has been fitted with a prosthetic right hand, which is of no use. He is trying to accomplish as much as possible with the other hand.
Now handicapped, Akram received Rs 500,000 from the Delhi government.
“Paanch lakh men zindagi nahin chalti (Rs 500,000 is not enough to stretch an entire life). The government must provide an opportunity for me to earn a living with dignity,” said Akram, who has elderly parents and a younger sister to look after.
Akram came from Bulandshahr in western Uttar Pradesh to Delhi six years ago in search of a job. He worked at a denim factory in Karol Bagh, where he remembers being the most admired employee on the shop floor.
“Now, cutting jeans without an arm and a finger is impossible,” he said. “I have not only been betrayed by fate, but by the State and society.”
His written complaint to the police did not lead to an FIR, alleged Akram. He claimed to know some of the attackers and named them while describing the sequence of events to the police.
“But they have not registered a case on my complaint,” he said. “The FIR misrepresents facts of the case, and I have yet to receive a copy from the police,” he added. With no hope of justice from the police, he has taken the matter to court.
After he partially recovered in March last year, Akram sent a complaint to the police kiosk set up at a relief camp in Mustafabad for victims from areas under jurisdictions of Karawal Nagar, Gokalpuri and Dayalpur police stations.
The FIR registered by the police at the Shastri Park police station describes the incident as an “accident”. Sections 279 (rash driving) and 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) of the IPC have been invoked.
When questioned about the lapse, a Delhi police official said the Shastri Park police station received a call with regard to an “accident” near Chand Bagh shrine. A policeman was sent to the GTB Hospital for inspection and recording the statement of the victim.
“The victim was grievously injured and was not in a condition to give a statement. His MLC (medico-legal case) was accessed which said ‘crush injury’,” said the police official on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to the media. “And, therefore, the FIR of the accident was registered.”
Responding to the victim’s allegation of not receiving a copy of the FIR, the police officer said: “Access to FIR is a legal right of the victim and no one can deny it. He has not approached anyone. He should have approached the DCP’s office.”
The Delhi Police have been accused of bias (here and here) in investigating the Delhi riots, which they denied. The majority of charge sheets filed thus far focus on those who protested the CAA, while the BJP’s Mishra and others Hindu activists who allegedly engineered the violence have not been named so far.
Akram’s lawyer Mahmood Pracha said not registering an FIR based on the complaints of the victim when he is alive was a “criminal” act on the part of the police.
“With an aim to weaken the case and protect perpetrators, a case of communal violence has been registered as a case of road accident,” said Pracha. “It’s a fraudulent FIR; and therefore, I have petitioned in the court to order a fresh FIR on the basis of the victim’s complaint.”
Jobs That Never Returned
Shah Alam, 45, the father of four young girls, suffered a bullet injury after he was fired on from the terrace of Mohan Nursing Home. He received a bullet just below his left rib cage in the evening of 24 February on his way home from work at Gonda chowk in the same neighbourhood.
Three surgeries later, he still had an infection, which he said was spreading. “Hatred has swept the region post-riots and Muslim workers are shunned,” said Alam. “I urge the government to make some arrangements for my rehabilitation. It’s all in the past. Even if the culprits are brought to book, what will I get?” he said.
On the other hand, even over a year after the riots, 34-year-old Akash Napa is yet to have a bullet—lodged in his spinal area—surgically removed. The doctors are not confirming a date for surgery, thanks to the pandemic. “The bullet failed to take away my life, but the system will,” said Napa.
A former journalist with JK 24X7 News, a local Hindi news channel, Napa was shot at by rioters on February 25 near Yamuna Vihar Road while covering the violence.
Stretched out on a bed in his one-room accomodation in Delhi's Krishna Nagar, he said in a feeble voice: “There was no police. Mere saath jo tha woh chala gaya (the man who was with me is no more).”
Three men, including him, were shot at the spot. Two succumbed to their injuries, while Napa was rushed to the GTB Hospital, where he was treated for a week and then discharged.
As he learnt about the violence in Mustafabad, on 25 February, he rushed to the spot on his motorcycle at around 12 noon. He live-streamed the events on Facebook from Bajanpura, before leaving for Yamuna Vihar for another on-ground report.
It was afternoon and Yamuna Vihar was in the eye of the storm—people were out on the streets and stones were being hurled between Hindu-dominated Yamuna Vihar and Muslim-concentrated Kardampuri.
“I was trapped along with the two others,” said Napa. “There was no place to run.”
He began recording the violence from his hidden spot but feels he was targeted for being a journalist. “The rioters did not want their crimes to be caught on camera,” said Napa.
He said first a petrol bomb was hurled at him by anti-CAA protesters, and he was shot in the chest.
Bleeding, he managed to walk some distance, before a man on a motorcycle dropped him to a police patrol van. He was bundled into an ambulance and rushed to GTB Hospital.
Father of an infant son, Napa is jobless—he was fired from his channel following the gunshot injury. The Rs 200,000 he received as compensation was spent on further treatment in a private hospital.
He was once called by the police to record a statement, but does not know what happened later.
“I stopped pursuing the case,” he said. “It is common knowledge how casually the police are conducting the probe into the violence. There is no point in pursuing this further and expecting justice.”
His priority, he said, was getting proper compensation and a source of income, not the police case.
Delhi Govt Compensation—A Cosmetic Effort
Justice Vikramjit Sen, one of three former Supreme Court judges (the others were Justices Kurian Joseph and A K Patnaik) who visited riot-affected localities, said the State and its forces had “totally failed” to secure the basic right to life of the people.
“We witnessed that the attacks were targeted,” Justice Sen told Article 14. “We do not know who the rioters were, but they were trained and (were) professionals. Oxygen and LPG cylinders were used to set houses, shops and mosques on fire.”
Sen said the government and the police had failed to rebuild confidence among the people.
“Having failed to protect lives and properties, the State is expected to pay proper compensation,” said Justice Sen. “The ‘compensation did not just mean monetary assistance but a realization of guilt, resolve to put lives back on track and a loud and clear message that the State would pay back lost assets and rebuild destroyed houses.”
But no such effort appeared to have been made, said Justice Sen. “The ex gratia payment is certainly inadequate,” he said. “What has been given by the government is only cosmetic.”
(Anwar ST is a Delhi-based journalist)