By Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman
For a year, Irfan has remained almost entirely in his house, too terrified to leave. A Muslim living in north-east Delhi, he says that his powerful Hindu neighbours, many belonging to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), are keeping a close watch on him. Jobless and afraid, he spoke in whispers of his fear of being “eliminated” at any time.
“I take a safe route to occasionally leave my house to see my lawyer,” said Irfan, who requested a pseudonym for protection. “I know that BJP leaders and their followers are after me so I move around very carefully. I have to stay alive at least to see those who attacked me are brought to justice.”
It was one year ago last week that Irfan’s life as a simple Muslim shopkeeper was ripped apart: 23 February 2020, now known as the first night of the Delhi riots.
For three days, communal violence ripped through the north-east of India’s capital, the worst religious conflict in the city in four decades. Though both Hindus and Muslims were involved in the violence, it was predominantly Muslims who fell victim to violent Hindu rightwing mobs roaming the neighbourhoods. Many of those involved had travelled from outside Delhi and carried guns, rods and explosives. Muslims were beaten, shot and lynched in the streets, thousands of their shops and homes were attacked and at least four mosques were left in charred ruins. Of the 53 who died in the violence, 40 were Muslim.
Irfan is among those still fighting for justice. He was sheltering in his shop when a mob of around 150 people, including many of his Hindu neighbours, descended, throwing stones and armed with guns and rods. Irfan alleges they were led by a local BJP leader, who put a pistol to his head. He says the rioters shouted Hindu nationalist slogans and Muslim slurs as they looted his shop and then set it on fire with a petrol bomb.
Irfan had been a member of the BJP for almost a decade but, as a Muslim living in a Hindu-majority area, it was not enough to protect him. Two days later, on 25 February, as neighbourhoods across north-east Delhi burned, the mob struck again, targeting his house, this time allegedly led in part by Mohan Singh Bisht, a local BJP politician who, Irfan says, threw a petrol bomb at his house and led the mob with the cry: “Kill all katwa [kill all the circumcised Muslims].” Several of Irfan’s neighbours confirmed this account to the Observer.
Bisht called the allegations lies. “There is no such case against me in any court in the country,” he said. “I was not present in Delhi during the riots. How could there be a case involving me in the violence?”
Yet in the year that has passed, the police – who, Irfan alleges, were complicit in the attacks – have repeatedly refused to register his case naming Bisht, other local BJP leaders and some of his Hindu neighbours as the perpetrators.
More than 25 Muslims in his neighbourhood were also allegedly denied the right to file a case by police, despite claiming to know the identity of their attackers.
They took their cases to a lawyer, Mehmood Pracha, but Irfan is one of the few who has kept up the fight after local BJP figures and police allegedly threatened them with reprisals if they persisted in taking the matter to court. “I told them on no condition would I withdraw,” said Irfan.
Irfan’s case is not an isolated one. Hundreds of Muslim victims who have attempted to file cases against their alleged Hindu attackers – who have often been affiliated with the BJP – have spoken of being harassed and threatened by Delhi police who have refused to register their cases. In some instances, when victims went to police stations to identity and file their cases against rioters, the police instead charged them or their family members with rioting.
Delhi police, a predominantly Hindu force, is under the remit of the government’s ministry of home affairs, led by Amit Shah, one of the most hardline Hindu nationalist ministers in the BJP government.
Of the nearly 1,750 people arrested in connection with the riots, more than half are Muslim, even though disproportionate damage was done to their community. In charge sheets filed by Delhi police, almost 70% name Muslims as the perpetrators of attacks, even in cases when only Muslims were the victims. Delhi police did not respond to requests for comment.
Syed Zulfiqar, 34, a light-maker from Mohanpuri, was shot in the head on the 24 February when a local Hindu leader, whom he knew personally, fired at him during the violence. “He pointed a gun at me and I heard him cry, ‘you are a Muslim, we will kill you’, and then he fired the gun at me from a distance of about 20 metres,” said Zulfiqar. “I almost died. But when I went to the police station to register a case against this man, the police told me they would only accept the report if I named my shooter as unidentified.” He alleges police then filed riot charges against his brother.
Mohammad Nasir Khan, 35, a government employee, who was shot in the eye and blinded when a mob of influential local Hindu men he knew fired at him, has still not been able to file his case. “I have tried so many times but it has been one year and the police still refuse,” said Khan, wiping the gently weeping wound where his eye once was.
Instead, police filed their own report on Khan’s case in June, naming several Muslims as the perpetrators of the attack and not mentioning the four local Hindus Khan alleged shot him.
Pracha is the lawyer representing many of these victims, yet he has also found himself a target and, in December, his office was raided by dozens of members of Delhi police special cell on allegations of forgery.
“Due to the police’s proactive role in threatening, assaulting and intimidating the riot victims, very few dare to open their mouths,” said Pracha. “The police took some complaints from Muslim victims but only on the condition that they would not name any police officer or any BJP member,” said Pracha.
“In many cases I am handling, police have named Muslims as the accused where they were actually the victims.”
In several bail hearings against accused Muslims, the police have failed to produce any evidence. At a hearing last week, a judge granted bail to three Muslims accused of shooting another Muslim, 25-year-old Shahid Alam, during the riots on the basis it was “hard to believe” that Muslims would kill other Muslims in a communal riot.
Delhi police have also been accused of protecting their own officers from being charged. Hundreds of eyewitnesses – in allegations verified by CCTV footage – accused police of both taking part in the attacks on Muslims, allowing the Hindu mobs to target Muslims unimpeded and ignoring thousands of distress calls. Last year, Amnesty International released a detailed report on the Delhi police’s role in the riots. But not a single officer has yet been arrested or charged.
Instead, those who have felt the strong arm of the law since the riots are those who say they had nothing to do with the violence at all.
After Shah, the home minister, told parliament that the riots were a “deep conspiracy”, Delhi police began a crackdown on anyone who had been involved in peaceful anti-government protests in the months before the riots.
Activists, academics, feminist collectives, students and civilians – who had been described as “terrorists”, “traitors” and “jihadis” by government figures in the weeks before the riots – have been charged with conspiring to stir up communal riots in order to tarnish India’s reputation, some under draconian terrorism laws.
Many have described this as a turning point in the BJP government’s crushing of democratic dissent. “The Delhi riots have been used by the police to go after all activists and anti-government protesters in Delhi in the name of a false conspiracy that has no basis in evidence,” said Nadeem Khan, co-founder of the activist group United Against Hate, which has had multiple members arrested. “The whole of Delhi civil society is living in a state of fear.”
Notably absent from the Delhi police’s charge sheet are the names of many Hindu rioters and BJP leaders, in particular Kapil Mishra, the local BJP leader whose speech in north-east Delhi on 23 February, calling for his followers to clear the Muslim protesters and “teach them a lesson”, is widely seen as sparking the riots.
Mishra said the police had thoroughly investigated and cleared him. Echoing the Delhi police, he said the riots were a result of a “well-planned anti-national conspiracy by protesters to hijack the democracy of this country and create the collapse of law and order”.
He denied knowledge of the higher Muslim death toll in the violence, but added: “Hitler died in world war two but do we call him a victim? Just because that person has died doesn’t mean they were a victim. In any war or riot, more people can die from one side because more were participating in the violence.”
Mishra said he was working for communal harmony in north-east Delhi but added: “My worry is that very deep-rooted hatred is being planted in the minds and hearts of the Muslim community through false propaganda.”
In the neighbourhoods affected by the riots, the scars are still deep and visible. Dozens of houses sit vacant or locked up, spectral monuments to families who fled back to their villages outside the capital, while neighbourhoods have become divided down communal lines.
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Sitting in the recently rebuilt al-Faruqi mosque in the suburb of Mustafabad, Imam Mohammad Jalaluddin carries a haunted look. He was beaten almost to death by rioters who broke into the mosque and set it on fire on 25 February. His jaw, smashed into three parts, is now constructed of steel plates and his face – ripped completely in half – has been sewn back together. His fingers, built back together with steel pins, no longer bend properly.
No charges have been brought against Jalaluddin’s attackers. He and the mosque president, Mohammad Fakhruddin, allege it was police officers who led the violence, including firing tear gas into the mosque and beating the imams. It was also allegedly police officers who returned the next morning to destroy the CCTV evidence.
“I find it very hard being in this mosque and sometimes I get flashbacks to what happened to me and I start shaking and break into tears,” Jalaluddin said softly.
“Next week, I will go back to my village in Bihar and live there,” he added. “I studied in a madrasa here since I was 10 and later became an imam. I loved this city. But after the violence that left me almost dead –and I have survived by the grace of Allah – I am too afraid to live here any longer.”
This story first appeared on theguardian.com