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Counting the cost of violence

The three days of riots in Delhi last February continue to cast a shadow

A man rides a bicycle along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi.
A man rides a bicycle along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi. (AFP)

This time last year, as covid-19 was beginning its rampage across the globe, the Union government was preparing to welcome then US president Donald Trump—and trying to play down the nationwide protests against the amended citizenship law.

Murmurs about covid-19 being the pandemic that it turned out to be had just started. A sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, had been on for several weeks. The Delhi election had concluded and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was back in power. All over India, students, women, artists and academics were protesting amendments to the citizenship law. The atmosphere—offline and online—was charged.

On 24 February, clashes broke out in Maujpur, north-east Delhi. What followed was the worst communal violence the Capital had seen in decades. Officially, the number of deaths was put at 53, most of them Muslims. More than 400 were injured. The violence continued for almost three days. Thousands took shelter at a nearby idgah, staying there for a month. They returned to find houses ransacked, looted or damaged.

Arshad, 30, who left Shiv Vihar, a neighbourhood with Hindu and Muslim households, and stayed at the idgah with his family, told me last year: “When I returned three days later to check the house, the lock was broken and my house ransacked. Even after we came back, on some Tuesdays for several weeks after that, mobs would gather to chant Jai Shri Ram, but then the police came to disperse them. Had the police come in the first place, this would not have happened.”

The Delhi police has faced criticism for its handling of the protesters as well as the riots. During the worst of the violence, police issued shoot-at-sight orders. On the morning of 26 February, the police and Rapid Action Force conducted flag marches in many of the neighbourhoods affected. An emergency hearing of the Delhi high court was held to enable emergency services to reach the wounded, and for fire tenders to enter neighbourhoods. After hearing petitions on the violence, the high court rebuked the police for its “appalling” failure to contain the rioting.

Repeated calls and messages for a comment for this story to Delhi police commissioner S.N. Srivastav, who took charge soon after the riots, went unanswered.

From 25 March 2020, a nationwide lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of covid-19. The pandemic and lockdown overtook every issue, from the citizenship law to communal violence.

The victims, however, are still trying to piece together their lives. Subera Khatun, 55, is among those who fled during the violence last year. During the riots, she remembers taking her seven-year-old granddaughter, Nabia, with her and joining neighbours as reports of mob attacks reached them, but she lost consciousness when she saw a fire and doesn’t remember too many details. Her son went missing; the rest of the family wasn’t with her at the time.

Subera suffered partial memory loss. When she was taken back to her locality in Shiv Vihar, she could not find her house. She and her granddaughter have been living in a room provided by the non-governmental organisation Karwan-e-Mohabbat, in the old Mustafabad area nearby. Her son is still missing; her daughter-in-law has left their daughter and son in Subera’s custody; she isn’t sure where she has gone. Her ailing husband is in their village in Bihar.

Subera, who has been in contact with me since October, cries every time she thinks of her son. “I could not file a police complaint because I don’t have his photo. I don’t know how to find his photos. Everything is scattered,” she says. She has been treated for a host of ailments, including depression. Nabia proudly says she manages the chores like washing clothes “when dadi cries”.

Till the riots, Subera used to work at a small scrap unit, separating copper from plastic wire, eking out enough to pay for the basic requirements for her husband and her. She hasn’t been able to get work since—her poor health and the fact that she has to care for two children doesn’t allow her to do much. Dilshad, an activist with Karwan-e-Mohabbat, says: “I keep trying to help her remember but we can’t pressurise her too much. She has many ailments and a heart condition too.”

Dilshad says the violence has impacted such families at many levels. Most are still waiting for compensation; many are still suffering from injuries. “They have been through a lot and don’t know how they can cope financially or emotionally. Some will live with the injuries, both physical and psychological, forever.”

In the past year, the riots case has taken several twists and turns, documented in a chargesheet that runs into 17,000 pages and a supplementary chargesheet of over 900 pages—of conspiracy by activists and student leaders. This case is against 18 people, 16 of them in jail, and pertains to a “larger conspiracy”. The trial has been stayed by the Delhi high court after Delhi police said it couldn’t provide hard copies of the chargesheet to the accused.

More than 700 FIRs have been filed for the actual violence, and over 1,000 have been arrested. It is not clear how many are still in jail. Four special courts have been set up to handle the cases.

Senior lawyer Mehmood Pracha, who is defending many of those arrested for rioting, says, “Muslims were the victims and they have been arrested for conspiring.” Pracha’s office was raided in December in what he terms an attempt to intimidate. “We managed to file online complaints and FIRs have been registered against RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) members. We got about two dozen of them arrested so they are trying to silence us,” he alleges. Over 1,000 lawyers signed a petition supporting Pracha and demanding action against the police.

The police also filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case related to the death of riot victim Hashim Khan, accusing some alleged members or supporters of the RSS with conspiracy, murder and under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa). At least nine were arrested and more named. Investigation continues in many of the cases related to the violence and it is unclear how many have been arrested and/or granted bail.

One of the first arrests was of AAP MLA Tahir Hussain, who allegedly conspired and prepared for the violence from his residence. Accused of stocking weapons on his terrace, he has denied this, claiming he himself was caught in the violence. In all, 18 persons have been charged with conspiracy to riot, including student activists Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and Meeran Haider. Safoora Zargar, a student activist opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, spent two months in jail, and was finally released on bail on humanitarian grounds as she was pregnant.

Earlier last year, human rights activist Harsh Mander filed a case in the Delhi high court seeking FIRs against Bharatiya Janata Party member Kapil Mishra and others for hate speeches that activists and victims say led to the violence. This, too, is pending.

Mander’s NGO Karwan-e-Mohabbat is also trying to get compensation for victims. Ankita Ramgopal, a lawyer with the organisation, says, “We are following up on many cases for compensation but several are still pending with the administration.” The Delhi government’s scheme offers victims 5,000 to 10 lakh. A petition demanding enhancement of compensation from 10 lakh to 15 lakh is also being heard by the Delhi high court.

Earlier this week, on 16 February, judicial custody of 16 accused, including Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid, was extended to 1 March. The court has directed all of them to be produced via video conferencing on that day.

Those three days of violence continue to cast a shadow. The victims don’t want to speak much about the cases. Instead, they speak of moving to “safer” areas. “Earlier, it was okay. Perhaps going to a Muslim neighbourhood is better for the family’s safety,” Arshad, whose son was born in the idgah relief camp, had told me earlier.

Last October, when Subera and I met, it was twilight. She and Nabia were waiting for evening prayers to start as she prepared dinner. Subera showed the clothes and earrings she had got as “generous donations” from different didis. “This brother got gas and stove and atta for me. Another didi got clothes. I cook once a day.” She held Nabia and thanked god for keeping her safe. She hoped she would locate her son, house and documents.

A year after the riots, nothing has changed. She hasn’t found her son or the house. She is taking care of the grandchildren and worrying about her husband. She is desperate for a source of income. She still feels guilty about not being able to find photos of her missing son to file a complaint.

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