By Satyaki Chakraborty
A Citizens Committee comprising former Supreme Court and High Court judges and a former Home Secretary of the Union Government have authored a report raising serious questions about the role of the news media, social media, Bharatiya Janata Party (‘BJP’) and Hindu nationalist leaders, the Delhi police, and both the Union Government as well as the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, in either fomenting the North East Delhi riots of February 2020, or not doing enough to quell them.
The report, titled Uncertain Justice: A Citizens Committee Report on the North East Delhi Violence 2020, has been authored by Justice Madan B. Lokur, former Supreme Court judge; Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Madras and Delhi High Courts and former Chairman, Law Commission of India; Justice R.S. Sodhi, former Delhi High Court judge; Justice Anjana Prakash, former Patna High Court judge; and G.K. Pillai, retired Indian Administrative Service officer and former Home Secretary of the Union Government.. Justice Lokur chaired the committee.
The report examines different facets of the violence in Delhi: the context of and build-up to the riots, the state’s response through the entire episode, the polarisation created by sections of the electronic and social media, the legal strength of the Delhi police’s investigation into the violence, and the larger implications of the way the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (‘UAPA’) was used.
The report sets out the context of the months preceding the riots. The Muslim community was dealing with insecurity due to the potential combined effect of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (‘CAA’), 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens, and several members of the community had joined nationwide anti-CAA protests. BJP leaders, in the party’s election campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections in early 2020, continuously painted the anti-CAA protestors as traitors, and encouraged violence against them.
This was amplified by the electronic news media and social media platforms, an analysis of the content of which between December 2019 and February 2020 shows the creation of a Muslim versus Hindu narrative centred in the coverage of these events, through the vilification of the protests, airing unfounded conspiracy theories about them, and calling for their shutdown by police force.
This, combined with hate speech spread on social media by BJP leaders and Hindu nationalist figures against Muslims, “significantly contributed to creating a climate in which a significant section of society became receptive to incitement and calls for violence against the Muslim community.”
The report closely examines the days leading to the riots and concludes that hateful content purveyed in the area on February 22 and 23 by certain BJP leaders and Hindu nationalists “was designed to incite, exhort and provoke actions of violence and … acted as an immediate trigger to the break-out.”
It suggests that the violence started between the pro-CAA and anti-CAA camps, but eventually descended into a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims, as Muslim homes, businesses, places of worship were especially targeted, leading to the death of 40 Muslims, apart from 13 Hindus.
The report castigates the State’s response to the violence, characterising all stages of the violence “by a frightening undermining of democratic values.”
It criticises the Delhi Police for failing to reign in hate speech by political leaders in the run up to the riots, and states that the police allegedly assisted mobs and attacked Muslim civilians, indicating police complicity in the violence. It calls for a court-monitored independent investigation into the police failures.
It also calls the role of the Union Home Affairs Ministry “wholly inadequate”, and demands a serious examination of its failure to respond to the violence. It claims that the Ministry did not avail of any effective steps to respond to the spread of violence, and didn’t increase police deployment on the days of the riots. It holds that a “comprehensive, independent review of the body of known intelligence, total police and other security force strength, and sequence of deployment across affected areas during the days of violence, is urgently required.”
It also censures the Delhi government for doing little to mediate between the two communities in conflict in the days leading up to the violence, or calm the situation. It also holds it guilty of not providing timely and adequate relief and compensation to the victims of the violence.
The report analysed a chargesheet filed by the police alleging “that there was a pre-planned conspiracy to instigate the violence which involved terrorist acts” and in which the UAPA was invoked, and finds that it lacks credibility. It also finds that the legal threshold for alleging crimes or terrorism is not met, and casts doubt on the claims made in the chargesheet.
It comes down on the police’s investigation in other cases registered under the India Penal Code, for “bearing the taint of tutoring and fabrication”, and describes most of the witness statements as ‘unreliable’. It calls the entire direction of the investigation ‘skewed’, and submits that “only an impartial and rigorous investigation can shed light on the truth, ensure accountability, and do justice to the victims of the violence.”
It also criticises the misuse of the UAPA by the police in order to incongruously target anti-CAA protestors for allegedly committing crimes against Muslims, and calls for a comprehensive review of the UAPA.
The report states that the committee’s examination of the violence led it to “discern broader implications impacting constitutional values and the health of democracy in India. The microcosm of an engineered anti-Muslim narrative leading to the violence signals the growing fusion of hate messaging in public discourse with the actual incidence of violence. There seems to be a deafening lack of institutional will to act against hateful content.”
It refers to the effective and balanced regulation of broadcasting and social media as an urgent challenge. It further reflects that “capacity for empathetic thought and action to enable harmonious interactions, and most importantly, imagination to resolve conflict are essential attributes for a plural society to last in the long run. … The only way forward is for the state to act towards justice harboured in the conjoined practice of fraternity, equality and freedom.”
It concludes by demanding the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to probe the riots; it also points out “that the terms of reference and the choice of the Chairperson for the proposed Commission of Inquiry assure the affected communities of its independent and effective functioning.” (IPA Service)
Based on the inputs in The Leaflet