By Amit Pandey and Shahid Tantray
“You can call it self-preservation or revenge, but mainly it was revenge,” a 22-year-old Hindu resident of Karawal Nagar, who said he participated in communal violence in northeast Delhi, said. Over two interviews with The Caravan, the 22-year old described how during the violence in February 2020, he and other Hindu men targeted shops and vehicles belonging to Muslims, destroying these or setting them on fire. He admitted to beating up Muslim men for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram.” The 22-year-old told The Caravan that the Delhi Police gave Hindu rioters free reign to target Muslims. “They told us to go and attack inside, in the Muslim areas, that they won’t come there … They said, ‘Show us that you’re Hindu,’” he said. He added that a police official told him that the Hindu rioters were being “given a chance,” and that “when we get a message from above, I will stop you. But until then, do what you want.’”
The 22-year-old also alleged that he had met a member of the Bajrang Dal, who handed him a rod to use while smashing properties of Muslims. According to him, the Bajrang Dal member also encouraged Hindu men to unite against Muslims, saying that “if you don’t do something now, you will never be able to do anything.” The 22-year-old said that the man from the Bajrang Dal told the mob to unite as Hindus and to discard their political affiliations for the duration of the violence. The 22-year-old said that through the days when the violence was ongoing in Delhi, he received messages and calls on WhatsApp that incited him into attacking Muslims. He said that the messages described, among other things, a heinous attack by Muslims on Hindus, and called for Hindus to be prepared to attack Muslims in the dead of night.
The 22-year-old further said that he witnessed a mob of Hindus killing three Muslim men. One among these, he said, was thrown onto a vehicle for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram.” The mob then set the vehicle on fire, killing the man. The 22-year-old praised the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra, saying that Mishra had “done good work … he has taken the public along with him, he has given many suggestions.”
Between 24 and 26 February, northeast Delhi was engulfed in communal violence. Of the 53 people who were killed, 38 were Muslim. On 23 February, Mishra had given an incendiary speech at the Jaffrabad metro station. Nearby, Muslim residents of northeast Delhi were conducting a sit-in protest against the recently enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens—one among many such peaceful protests in India which had begun in mid-December 2019. Mishra had threatened that if the police did not clear up the crowd, “the matter would be taken out of the police’s hands.” His speech—delivered in presence of Ved Prakash Surya, the deputy commissioner of police for northeast Delhi—was followed by skirmishes between Hindu mobs and Muslim protestors.
In a few hours, the violence escalated. Muslim residents have since described how mobs shouting “Jai Shri Ram” entered their localities, burned down their shops, looted and set fire to their homes and in many cases, brutally beat, lynched or killed Muslims. Victims and witnesses have also accused the Delhi Police of aiding and shielding Hindu mobs—in one video that circulated widely on social media, police officials can be seen torturing Muslim men, one of whom subsequently died. Muslim residents of northeast Delhi told The Caravan that Mishra and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party led mobs during the violence, and that senior Delhi Police officers participated in criminal intimidation, unprovoked firing, arson and looting during the violence. The residents said that the police ignored their complaints about these incidents and intimidated them, demanding that they exclude the names of senior officers and leaders from their statements.
In the chargesheets it has filed in cases related to the violence, however, the Delhi Police has blamed Muslim protestors for inciting the violence, claiming that they led the sit-ins in an attempt to discredit the Narendra Modi-led central government. In an affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court on 13 July, the Delhi Police claimed that the protestors in Jaffrabad had purposely blocked the road to trap non-Muslims within surrounding areas, and that they timed this protest to coincide with the United States President Donald Trump’s visit to India. The police also blamed activists that were associated with the protests for inciting riots. The police told the court that it had filed 750 first-information reports and 200 chargesheets related to the violence, and that by 11 July, it had arrested 1,430 people. Though the police has arrested some Hindu men, the names of leaders such as Kapil Mishra and the targeted attacks by Hindu mobs on Muslims are conspicuously absent from the Delhi Police’s narrative, as are any comments on its widely reported complicity in the violence.
On 8 July, the Delhi Police’s special commissioner for crime wrote to senior officers investigating the violence, cautioning them that “arrests of some Hindu youth … has led to a degree of resentment among the Hindu community.” He asked the officers to take “due care and precaution” before arresting any person. The police has since claimed that the letter was only informing senior officers of the view point of Hindu community leaders.
The 22-year-old’s testimony is at odds with the Delhi Police’s version of events. He admitted to participating in the violence for three days, alongside a group of Hindu men, all of whom, he said, were carrying weapons such as bricks, stones, lathis and iron rods. He added that some Hindus he saw were carrying pistols, too. “Two or four men had pistols … there was a six-rounder, a 315, a 309,” he said, referring to the types of guns. He added, however, that he did not see the men firing these guns. He said that he and his companions targeted Muslim property and vehicles. He said they destroyed many shops, broke the windshields of vehicles. “From Karawal Nagar to Kalighat Road, there is no count of how many vehicles were burned,” he said. The mob identified some vehicles by the inscription of the number “786”—a number considered holy by Muslims, as it is the sum of the numerical values of Arabic letters in the first line of the Quran—or by checking people’s government-issued identification cards, such as Aadhaar.
“I set fire to four to seven bikes,” he said. “There was one bike, it had 786 written on it. The guy who was driving it … we stopped him and asked him to say ‘Jai Shri Ram.’” When he refused, the 22-year-old said, “we beat him up and burned his bike.” He described various such incidents, when he and other Hindu men ganged up on and beat Muslims. “Aadhaar cards were being checked… if someone said the wrong name, we would immediately look up their car number and see which community they are from,” he said. He further said that he and his companions set fire to Muslims’ shops by using tyres and petrol. “We took tyre and put petrol in it, set it on fire, and threw it in the shops,” he said. “We took a few drops of petrol from nearby bikes or cars.” When asked how he identified Muslim homes and people, he said, “You can see them and tell. You can tell by their manner.”
The 22-year-old said that the police not only turned a blind eye to the Hindu mobs, it encouraged them to attack Muslims. “The police gave Hindus full support,” he said. “They themselves told us to go inside to these people’s areas and attack there, and said that there was no problem with that.” On being asked whether the police saw the group he was a part of carrying weapons, he said, “Yes … they just kept watching.” The 22-year-old added that personnel from the Central Reserved Police Force were also present alongside the Delhi Police.
According to the 22-year-old, police officials told the Hindu mobs that they had “free reign” for two hours. He said that one police officer told him, “You are being given a chance, do whatever you want. When we get a message from above, I will stop you. But until then, do what you want.” He added that the police told him and his companions: “You say you are ready to fight, that you are Hindu … then go fight, show us that you are Hindu. Let us see how much you can fight.”
The 22-year-old alleged that a man from the Bajrang Dal—a militant wing of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the BJP—aided him in breaking shops belonging to Muslims. “I was holding a thick rod, of six or seven or eight feet, a shop was being broken and destroyed, and I was helping in that,” he said. A well-built man “came and said, ‘You won’t be able to do it with this,’ he took my lathi and handed me his.” According to the 22-year-old, members of the mob told him that the man was a member of the Bajrang Dal. The 22-year-old said the man then addressed the Hindu mob. “He said that we Hindu brothers must maintain unity … that if we don’t stay united, then we won’t be able to do anything,” the 22-year-old said. The man “told us to fight and that whatever has to happen, will happen,” the 22-year-old added. “He said, ‘Set aside your political affiliations, fight as Hindus only. Don’t think that someone here is from AAP, BJP, SP”—referring to the Aam Aadmi Party and Samajwadi Party—“Congress. Just fight as Hindus.’”
It was clear that 22-year-old had been greatly influenced by messages he received over WhatsApp, which prompted him to attack Muslims. He said that on 23 February, he had begun to receive a barrage of messages about the violence, calling on Hindus to unite against Muslims, to “be ready to defend” themselves. He said that Hindu men who participated in the violence had remained in touch throughout, via phone calls and WhatsApp messages. “We were collaborating, we would have done anything to save Hindus. We would have fought fire with fire.” He further cited allegations against the former Aam Aadmi Party councillor, Tahir Hussain, as proof that Muslims had conspired to instigate the Delhi violence. The police has named Hussain as an accused in the murder of Ankit Sharma, a staffer of the Intelligence Bureau who was killed during the violence. The police’s version of Hussain’s involvement in the violence, however, have been widely contested.
The 22-year-old described an audio message he had received over WhatsApp, which said that Muslims were surveying areas in northeast Delhi to ascertain the strength of their community. The man in the audio—which he played for us—said that Hindus should remain “alert.” The 22-year-old also described receiving messages about Muslim mobilisation. In another audio message that he played for us, a man could be heard saying that “an announcement had been made at the mosques that Muslims will attack after 2 am.” The messaged exhorted Hindus to “stay awake all night.”
He added that he had received messages or videos of attacks by Muslims on Hindus. “I saw that and got angry, that if they are beating Hindus, why should we stay silent?” The 22-year-old further said that he was angered by the protests against the CAA. “You come and sit on the streets, bothering the public, interrupting work … where will everyone go? They have been doing this for a month and a half or two months, and Hindus came and finished the job in two hours.”
Throughout the course of our interviews, the 22-year-old’s hatred for Muslims was palpable. He described Muslims as “merciless,” and accused them of always instigating violence. He claimed that Muslims are loyal to Pakistan, which was their rightful country—a common refrain among members of the Hindu Right in India, including prominent BJP leaders. “Hindus never fight first, it is always the Muslims who fight first. We thought, ‘Let’s end this once and for all,’” he told us. He cited other misinformation, such as the unproven claim that the population of Muslims is rising extraordinarily. He claimed that Muslims all have “ten children … that their population has risen a lot.” His claim echoed that of many BJP supporters and leaders, some of whom have previously demanded population-control measures against Muslims. “I would like for all Hindu brothers from Pakistan to come here and for Muslims to go there … then there will not be any fighting,” the 22-year-old said. “They are Muslims, they will never improve, they will attack us one day or another … this is true. Hindu brothers must be prepared.”
When we asked whether he ever regretted participating in the violence, the 22-year-old said, “At the time I felt that I was doing the right thing, but then later it strikes you that everyone we attacked was poor … I feel some remorse sometimes, but what happened had to happen.” He said that he was swept in a wave of hatred and adrenaline, and the company of his Hindu companions. “People should not have been killed … but it was necessary to suppress Muslims,” he told us. “Earlier, they were like lions, and now they are scared mice,” he added. “They know now that Hindus are united, and they will not think about attacking us.”
This story first appeared here in The Caravan Magazine.