Security personnel walk past Bhagirathi Vihar area of the riot-affected northeast Delhi, February 26, 2020. Photo: PTI

By Yash Kumbhat and Eklavya Vasudev

This is the first article in a three-part series critiquing the Delhi government’s assistance scheme for the rehabilitation of survivors of the Northeast Delhi riots. Names, where necessary, have been changed.

Ten months ago, on February 25, 2020, Karim, a resident of Old Mustafabad, Northeast Delhi, was preparing to leave for work when his landlord called him. For 16 long years, Karim had worked as a technician for the Reliance Communications Group. In 2017, he withdrew money from his savings and pension fund and took loans to start his own business. For the next three years, he worked painstakingly to establish an electrical repairs and electronics shop. Beyond the money needed to feed and educate his five daughters, Karim put back what he earned into his growing business.

On the phone that morning, his landlord told him that a mob had broken into his shop and was looting everything in sight. What they were not stealing, the rioters had begun burning in a heap out on the street. “Don’t come here,” the landlord said, again and again.

On February 23, less than 48 hours earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kapil Mishra – having recently suffered an electoral loss at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party in Model Town – led a rally in Northeast Delhi to decry protests that had begun against the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) in Chand Bagh and Jaffrabad.

That same day, Mishra, flanked by senior policemen, issued an ultimatum to the Delhi police (on television and, again, in a now-deleted tweet), ominously threatening extrajudicial action if his demands were not met. Should the police fail to remove these protestors within three days, he declared, “… there will be no use in trying to stop us then. We won’t listen – not even to you,” he said to the police.

The very next morning, violence gripped the streets of northeast Delhi. At first, only reports of stone-pelting surfaced. But as night fell, accounts of loot, murder, and assault began coming forth from across the Yamuna. On the news, the violence was called a riot. But by February 25, the morning Karim’s shop was looted, it had become clear that the riot was, in fact, a pogrom – a concerted and relentless attack on Muslim-owned businesses, homes, and places of worship. The violence continued almost completely unchecked for three long days.

Despite his landlord’s repeated warnings, Karim could not stay at home that morning. His papers – the deed to his house, his diploma in engineering, identification cards, bills and receipts – were all at the shop. He had hoped to find these, at least, left untouched. Before setting out for his shop, Karim called the police on its helpline number several times. He made recordings of each attempt, more than half of which document only unanswered calls.

On one call, Karim can be heard pleading to have the force sent toward Mahalaxmi Nagar, where his shop was then being ransacked and its contents burned. “A mob is running rampant here. They are identifying Muslim-owned shops and burning them.”

The man on the other end says, “Ninety-nine percent the [fire] truck will reach your shop.” The man tells him that the fire trucks are having trouble getting through the narrow and blockaded streets. Karim repeats his plea, “Send the police, at least, or the BSF – kuchh toh bhejo. The man snaps back, “Coming, coming!” and disconnects the line.

Karim saw the smoke from a distance. When, accompanied by two friends, he arrived at his shop, a handful of young men were still reaching at a pile of smouldering goods – cell phones, light bulbs, extension cords – that lay on the street, pocketing the things still intact enough to take home with them. Karim checked the shop for his papers and, finding it utterly empty, asked the men on the street if anyone had seen, or taken his documents. He said he only wanted his diploma – that’s all; but nothing remained and, if one of the men standing by had Karim’s degree, he did not return it. Karim took out his cell phone and began clicking pictures of the damage.

At once, he was surrounded by a mob of men, one of whom had pulled out a knife and brought it to Karim’s neck. With great difficulty, his two friends and the landlord – all three Hindu – managed to persuade the knife-wielding man to spare Karim’s life. He was made to delete the photographs there and was hurried away to safety before the mob changed its mind.

No fire brigade or police ever arrived to help.

In hindsight, it is startlingly evident that the police had little or no intention of ever making a timely intervention in those three days of rioting. Let alone prosecuting Mishra, whose hateful and incendiary speech sparked the violence (and who, in the wake of the riots, has been accused time and again of participating in the attacks against Northeast Delhi’s Muslim residents), the Delhi police even turned a blind eye to the battalions of armed, ordinary men who responded to the calls of, and walked brazenly in step with, Mishra and other politicians. Having let the mobs control the streets, then, it follows that the police had no inclination to apprehend the alleged rioters within its own ranks either, the likes of which include a deputy commissioner of police, an assistant commissioner of police, and various station house officers.

Across the board, survivors of the pogrom have reiterated these accusations against the Delhi police in their testimonies, documenting them in registered police complaints, in court, in conversations with legal aid volunteers, psycho-social care counsellors, and doctors – a veritable and living history of the state turning on its own citizens. These testimonies describe the police, at their best, as silent bystanders in the face of ruthless crimes and, at their worst, as beating, harassing, and shooting at the men and women they are employed to serve and protect.

On the third day of rioting, even the Delhi high court took note of the police’s gross failure in discharging its constitutional duties and passed an important order on the February 26 night. The order reads:

“The Court accordingly directs the Delhi Police to ensure such safe passage by deploying all the resources at its command and on the strength of this order to ensure that apart from the safe passage, the injured victims receive immediate emergency treatment, if not at the GTB Hospital, then at the LNJP Hospital or Maulana Azad or any other government hospital.”

To wit, the Delhi high court can be seen instructing the police, quite simply, to do its job.

Are we to believe, then, that the Delhi police, in truth, is so inept that it must be given instructions and reminded of its most fundamental responsibilities – protect the injured, protect the persecuted – as if it were a truant school child?

If this is the case, then it is time that the force undergoes radical – many might argue long-overdue – changes to its mode of operation, its responsibilities and its powers; and if it is not, if we are unwilling to accept that our national capital’s police force is this incompetent, then we must see that they were acting with malice and in the shadow of a vitriolic political agenda.

Dependence of the compensation process on police co-operation

On February 27, 2020, the Delhi government released an assistance scheme for the help of riot victims, announcing, amongst other categories, a compensation worth 50% of the loss (up to a maximum of Rs 5,00,000) for survivors reporting cases of damage to uninsured commercial property. But, before the processes of damage assessment and compensation disbursement can begin, riot survivors must furnish the government with a first information report (FIR).

Given the flood of allegations against law enforcement officials, though, a thoughtful administration might have organised a rehabilitative scheme that minimises a riot survivor’s contact with the police – or, at the very least, does not make it entirely dependent on police cooperation.

Instead, by mandating the registration of FIRs in compensation claims for looted shops and houses, the scheme seeks to push survivors like Karim back into the arms of the very state officials responsible, in part, at least, for the violence that disrupted their lives. Further, apart from the well-documented pattern of police inaction and involvement, the requirement of FIRs leaves open another avenue for the coercion and intimidation of riot survivors – making the process of compensation another punishment for the persecuted.

The scheme’s reliance on the police is all the more curious given that the police is a Central subject under the constitution of India—a fact that the Delhi government has lamented time and again, complaining that matters of law and order are not entirely within its hands. With such a strained relationship, why would the Delhi government defy moral, rational, and even political imperatives by promulgating a scheme that turns entirely on police co-operation?

In other countries, standard practice often engages third-party reviewers in the process of verifying a victim’s claims and evaluating the nature of their losses. Before making a final assessment, independent reviewers must also take into account other relevant factors such as the victim’s financial situation, the mental and emotional trauma they have suffered, and so forth. By granting the Delhi police the power to determine the legitimacy of survivors’ claims, the Delhi government’s scheme welcomes prejudice into the fold and creates the perfect conditions for the obstruction of justice.

Four days after the looting of his shop, on February 29, 2020, Karim registered a police complaint at the Dayalpur police station. The complaint disclosed the full extent of his loss, which includes stolen electrical equipment, electronics, cash from the register, and items of furniture. He estimated his damages at Rs 6,00,000.

Thereafter, Karim frequented the police station several times a week. On each visit, he asked whether an FIR had been registered in relation to his complaint, and each time, he was asked to leave and return another day. In May 2020, Karim was called to the police station and asked to give a statement on the events of February 25, 2020. On this occasion as well, despite asking the inspectors about the registration of his FIR, he was not given an answer.

These long-drawn delays in the registration of an FIR run entirely against the word of the law. The Lalita Kumari guidelines, a set of rules governing FIRs set forth by the Supreme Court, mandates the registration of an FIR, given that the received information discloses a cognisable offence, such as the looting of one’s shop, within 15 days, and – in extenuating circumstances – within six weeks. If the information disclosed does not constitute a cognisable offence, the police are required to conduct a preliminary inquiry, which must be completed within a week, following which the FIR is either registered, or the complaint closed.

Further, the registration of an FIR is not contingent on whether a complainant can furnish proof for the offence in question. The Lalita Kumari guidelines, again, offer clarity on the subject, instructing that the veracity of the offence cannot be in question prior to the registration of an FIR, but that the FIR’s registration is dependent only on the nature of the alleged offence – that is, whether or not the complaint discloses a cognisable offence.

One fails to understand why, then, in the minutes of a meeting under the chairmanship of the deputy chief minister of Delhi, a representative of the Delhi police is on record stating that FIRs for house looting will only be registered after the submission of a rent agreement, or other proof of the complainant’s residence at the house. The police are neither judge nor jury – and yet this fact seems entirely lost on the officers of Northeast Delhi.

Returning to the question, then: why mandate the submission of an FIR at all, when, in the process of verifying an application for compensation, officials from the sub-divisional magistrate’s office and the public works department are duty-bound to make site visits anyway? Should a survivor wish to pursue a criminal case and take rioters to task, of course, that is his prerogative – but there are hundreds who want nothing more than the resources to start again, knowing fully well that the perpetrators in the streets work unfazed in police stations, or live in a neighbouring house, or have the power of an elected office behind them.

In the last week of June, with the help of a lawyer working pro-bono to assist riot survivors, Karim filed an application under Section 156 (3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure in Karkardooma Court, which directed the police to register an FIR and conduct an investigation into the looting of his shop. A week later, after five months and moving court, Karim was given a copy of his FIR. He is hardly the only riot survivor to have waited several months for the police to act on a complaint.

Karim was subsequently awarded Rs 5,000 in compensation for the looting of his shop. At the time of its disbursement, the police had not conducted an inquiry into his complaint, nor registered an FIR in the case. The sub-divisional magistrate, despite these glaring omissions, assessed the damage as a meagre Rs 5,000 without a moment’s pause at the police’s inaction and, seemingly, without much application of his own mind, either. A handful of lightbulbs costs more.

“I’m entirely alone,” Karim says. “Not only did it take me months to register an FIR with the police station, no one in the government has ever asked after us or come to listen to our troubles, let alone tried to help us stand on our own two feet again. What’s more, the riots have not only ruined me, they have fractured the relationships within our community. I can hardly recognise the country around me, and it makes me afraid – for my own safety and the safety of my children too.”

Mandating the inclusion of the police in the process of compensation, then, seems an arbitrary and monumental impediment to the disbursement of compensation to riot survivors; it puts them in the dangerous position of returning to the same institution that has played a pivotal role in meting out the destruction they have suffered.

What’s more, it betrays a troubling apathy to the struggles of riot survivors – men and women who, while trying to come to terms with having to start over, must run from pillar to post to satisfy a scheme’s peremptory requirements, of which a mandatory FIR is only one.

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