New Delhi: Days after communal violence ravaged north-east Delhi in February 2020, home minister Amit Shah broke his silence about the riots for the first time on 11 March in the lower house of Parliament.
Hailing law enforcement, he said: “Controlling and putting a full stop to riots in just 36 hours in a dense area is a very difficult task. I must say that Delhi police did a commendable job.”
Shah, who did not make a single public statement during the days of the riots, lauded the Delhi police. “The police were struggling but did not give up,” he said. “I will congratulate them and praise them for not allowing the riot to spread to other parts of Delhi.”
Shah’s praise came despite multiple media reports revealing how the Delhi Police not only failed to contain the violence, but looked the other way as mobs burned down houses and shops of citizens (here, here and here).
In some cases, the Police were also accused of attacking residents of riot-affected areas, going on to shoot people randomly. A video, widely circulated on social media on 26 February 2020, showed a group of men being beaten by the Police as they lay on the ground injured, forced to sing the national anthem. As of August 2021, the police had identified only three of their ranks involved in this. None have been arrested.
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Contrary to Shah’s claims, victims of the riot reported that the police did not respond promptly when called, claiming that the officers were busy. Desperate victims repeatedly ran to local police stations crying out for help, but each time they found the gates locked from the inside. For three days, no help came, the Guardian reported.
As many as 21,000 distress calls were made to various police stations between 23-29 February. However, reports (here, here and here) said call logs of police stations in riot-hit areas suggested that either no action was taken or action was pending.
The Delhi police alleged that the riots—which left 53 dead (the police disputed this figure), of which 75% were Muslim, 581 injured and hundreds homeless—were a “pre-planned conspiracy and centrally co-ordinated” by those protesting the CAA to coincide with US President Donald Trump’s visit to India.
As matters continue to unfold before the courts of law, these allegations and Shah’s endorsement of his police force before Parliament are proving to be premature and ill-founded.
From the start, serious red flags were raised about the inaction of the Delhi police in the riots. Now, we are witnessing a pattern of clear investigative lapses, being made public by various courts in India’s capital city.
‘Callous, Shoddy, Farcical, Lackadaisical’
In the aftermath of the Delhi riots, the Delhi police registered around 750 First Information Reports (FIRs) of which 150 have been admitted for trial in Delhi’s courts. Charges have been framed in no more than 39 cases.
As of July 2021, only one Delhi court had arrived at a final verdict, where it remarked that the investigation on the part of the police was “way short” of the statutory mandate and found that the accused could not be connected to the offence in any manner.
In a series of recent cases, various Delhi courts have granted bail, while holding the police responsible for “vague evidence and general allegations,” a “shoddy probe”, “absolutely evasive” and “lackadaisical” attitude; the police have been accused by various courts of investigations that are “callous”, “casual” and “farcical”, “poor” or “painful to see”.
Given that only one judgement has been delivered and charges have been framed in nearly 35 cases so far, there are a disproportionately large number of comments and remarks alluding to the lack of efficacy and fairness of investigation in the cases around the north-east Delhi riots.
After reading through more than 40 court orders in the Delhi riots, we found 11 ways in which the Delhi police were found to have faltered:
#1 Inordinate Delays In Registering FIRs
The role of the Delhi police did not end once the violence stopped. They were required to promptly register FIRs, the starting point of criminal proceedings, based on complaints received and investigate each case in accordance with the law.
Court proceedings, however, point to the contrary.
While hearing a petition moved by activist Harsh Mander on 25 February 2020, seeking registration of an FIR against BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Sahib Singh for inflammatory speeches made by them, the Delhi High Court bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Talwant Singh criticised the police’s failure to do any of that. The bench remarked that it was "amazed at the state of affairs of Delhi Police".
When the court, on 27 February that year, ordered the police to file FIRs against those whose speeches triggered the riots, counsel for the Delhi police and the government said that they had consciously not done so, claiming that arresting them would not restore immediate peace; they sought more time to “investigate” the matter. Despite prima facie evidence in the form of widely available videos making clear what BJP leader Sharma and others said, the Delhi police refrained from any action against them.
In another case, it took the police two court orders and 18 months to register an FIR. A riot victim, Saleem, had filed a complaint on 1 March 2020, alleging an attempt to murder him during the violence; the police refused to take any action. After repeated requests to the police failed, Saleem was forced to file an application under section 156(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1973, asking the court to direct the police to register an FIR.
On 23 November 2020, the court passed an order in Saleem’s favour, stating that after the disclosure of an offence, an FIR had to be registered. The police challenged the court’s order through a revision petition, further delaying the matter.
#2 Wilful Neglect Of Duty
Saleem’s case is one of many where the police appeared to not know the status of cases filed by them. The police, in their revision petition challenging the lower court’s order, contended that the investigating officer of the case did not state in his status report that Saleem’s complaint was clubbed with another FIR and was already under investigation.
While observing that the police’s contention was “ludicrous and preposterous”, Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat said: “...though the case is being investigated by the police, the police themselves did not know that they were investigating the case and, when told, came to realise that they were investigating the matter, the details of which they do not know".
Similarly, in a case involving one Faisal Farooq, owner of Rajdhani Public School, the Delhi High Court expressed its displeasure at the Delhi police while remarking that they were “misusing the judicial system” and taking the “system for ride”. The court noted that despite the fact that a petition seeking cancellation of Farooq’s bail was pending adjudication before the court, a separate petition seeking the same relief was filed without thought.
It appears the police were quick to challenge orders of the lower court, but were often unaware of the status of the cases they were prosecuting.
#3 False And Fabricated Charges
As various court orders have revealed, there is overwhelming evidence of fabricated charges. While in some cases, multiple FIRs have been registered for the same cause of action, in others there is nothing on record to connect the accused with the crime alleged.
On 1 September 2021, the Delhi High Court set aside multiple FIRs filed for the same cognisable offence (one that does not require a warrant to proceed). The police insisted that properties were distinct, damages were suffered by the residents individually and that the subject matter of each of the FIRs was different from others.
However, the court ruled that “..a perusal of the charge sheets filed in the respective FIRs show that they are more or less identical and the accused are also same”. There can be no second FIR and no fresh investigation in respect of the same cognizable offence, the judge said.
To address the Union Home Minister’s public assurance of bringing culprits to book, the police seem to be implicating random persons under false pretenses. Take for example, the case of State vs Khalid Saifi, where the court observed that "...chargesheeting the applicant on the basis of [such] insignificant material is total non-application of mind by the police which goes to the extent of vindictiveness”.
Similarly, in Mohammad Danish’s case, the court noted that neither did any of the public witnesses nor the police constables named Danish in their original statements. The fact that Danish’s name was mentioned by the same constables 12 days later through supplementary statements showed that the attempt to implicate him was an afterthought.
In what appears to be a recurring theme in many other cases, the court also took note of unusual loopholes in CCTV and CDR (call detail record) evidence, saying that neither connected the accused to the scene. The court found that "he [Danish] was not even in the vicinity of the violence affected area” on the day of the alleged crime.
As in Danish’s case, while hearing a bail application involving accused Firoz Khan, the Delhi High Court observed that the complainant never identified the accused in the FIR. The court also raised doubts about the prosecution’s case, questioning how in the supposed unlawful assembly of some 250-300 people, only two accused had been handpicked.
CCTV evidence produced by the police was also rejected, with the court recording that it was impossible for a CCTV camera to capture incidents that took place 400 meters away.
In one chargesheet, the police named the owner of Al-Hind Hospital, Dr M A Anwar, even though he was offering medical assistance to those injured in the riots. Similar observations citing lack of evidence linking the accused to the incident were also made in at least one case involving Umar Khalid, Sunny alias Lalla, Faisal Farooq, Shabir Ali & Ors., Mohammed Arif & Ors., Neeraj, Tahir Hussain & Ors., Mohammed Arif, Shadab Ahmad, Furkan, Suvaleen and Tabassum, Suresh, Imran, among others.
Additional sessions judge Vinod Yadav criticised the police for “filing the (sic) half-baked chargesheets in court” and held them responsible for the court’s inability to take the trial forward and bring investigations to a “logical end”.
In multiple cases, the judges also admonished the police for deliberately delaying trials by filing supplementary chargesheets, knowing that a large number of the accused persons were in jail since 2020 (here, here and here).
#4 Invoking Serious Charges To Deny Bail
The courts called out the Delhi police for invoking serious criminal charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,1967 and the Arms Act, 1959 in deliberate attempts to defeat an accused’s right of bail.
In one case, a Delhi court noted that chargesheets were being filed under section 25 (possession of illegal firearms) of the Arms Act without requisite sanction of the district magistrate as mandated by section 39 of the act, despite expiry of a considerable period of time. The court observed that the only apparent objective of filing the chargesheet, despite knowing the court would not take cognisance, was “to keep the accused behind bars while defeating their right to default bail”.
The Delhi High Court, in June 2021, criticised the Delhi police for “casually” invoking provisions of anti-terror laws against three students, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, who had protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
In another case, a Court found that the complainant had stated under section 161 of the CrPc that a riotous mob had damaged his hall; there was not a word suggesting fire, arson or explosive. Yet the police included a charge for “mischief by fire” under section 436 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, a non-bailable offence.
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# 5 Doctored Disclosure Statements
In absence of any substantial evidence against accused persons, the police seem to have even copy-pasted disclosure statements. Any statements made or information received from a person accused of an offence while in police custody form part of disclosure statements.
Media reports (here and here) had found a pattern in the chargesheets being filed by the Delhi police—10 identical statements were found in the chargesheet concerning FIR no. 50/2020 of Jaffarabad Police Station, seven identical statements in FIR no. 60/2020 with a single line missing in one, four identical statements in FIR no. 65/2020, and nine out of 12 near verbatim confessional statements in FIR no. 39/2020.
This recurring pattern has been confirmed by various court orders.
In State vs Gulfam, Additional Sessions Judge, Vinod Yadav, questioned the conduct of the Delhi police, observing that it was “beyond comprehension how they had imported statements of witnesses from a different FIR into the one in question”.
Even in Mohammad Danish’s case, the court had reservations, believing that Danish’s statement was credible. “How can a man who’s only 10th pass write such a disclosure statement,” the court said.
#6 Significant Procedural Lapses
On more than one occasion, the Delhi police were caught flouting standard operating procedures mandated by the CrPC and the Police Act, 1978.
While granting bail in the case of Liyakat Ali, a Delhi High Court judge doubted the prosecution’s narrative: “..this court fails to understand as to why despite having a good understanding of law and order, a police official who is witness to the riots would neither call PCR nor make a DD entry when he witnessed the rioting”.
In another case, citing the failure of the police to seize video footage from cameras installed at metro stations or retrieve them from photographers, a Delhi court remarked that the police were in a “state of inscrutable indolence”. It is ironic that the police in their Delhi police Report of 2020 claimed that their “extensive use of technology and scientific tools in identification and arrest was the hallmark of investigation”
Contradictory to police claim of investigative accomplishments through the use of technology, additional sessions judge Vinod Yadav said: "When history will look back at the worst communal riots since partition in Delhi, the failure of the investigating agency to conduct proper investigation by using the latest scientific methods, will surely torment the sentinels of democracy.”
#7 Leaking Documents, Releasing Identities Of Protected Witnesses
On multiple occasions, the Delhi police were found to be in breach of court procedures.
The Delhi police itself admitted before the Delhi High Court that “a court-related document containing the identities of some of the witnesses had been inadvertently included in the copies of the chargesheet”. In doing so, the police endangered the safety of the witnesses who deposed at personal risk.
The High Court said “if your officer has leaked it, it's abuse of power, if for sanction (sic) this was entrusted to someone else it's criminal breach of trust and if the media has taken it away then it's a theft. So in any case, an offence is made out”.
Such dereliction on the part of law enforcement would attract offences under section 17 of the National Investigation Agency Act 2008, and section 44(3) of the UAPA, all of which deal with the protection of witnesses.
In another case, riots accused and Pinjra Tod member Kalita moved the court in June 2020 following the circulation of a "Brief Note" by Delhi police, which revealed information on evidence allegedly collected against her.
In response to Kalita's petition to stop circulation of selective information against her, the Delhi police filed an affidavit contending that they issued a press note on the “role of Devangana Kalita in Delhi riots cases” in an attempt to “safeguard their reputation” and “sustain the legal process”.
The Delhi High Court reprimanded the police: "This is not the kind of affidavit that is expected". On 27 July 2020, the court restrained the Delhi police from issuing any statements and communications naming Kalita in relation to the case concerning the Delhi riots till the commencement of trial against her.
Jamia Millia Islamia student Tanha, too, had filed a petition alleging leak of his “confessional statement” and supplementary chargesheet by police to the media even before it was considered by the court, the alleged leaks emerging just as Tanha’s bail application was up for consideration.
The Delhi police denied Tanha’s allegations. When the Delhi police submitted a vigilance report on the alleged leak, the court called it “half-baked” and “a useless piece of paper”.
#8 Refusal To Provide Hard Copies Of Chargesheet
As many as 15 accused in the Delhi riots sought court orders to direct the police to provide hard copies of chargesheets to them and their counsel.
In November 2020, the trial court at Karkardooma ordered the police to provide hard copies, noting that soft copies were not enough as per section 207 of the CrCP. "Even though it may be desirable to have soft copies of the chargesheet the law still mandates that a hard copy be made available to the accused", the Court said.
The police claimed they did not have money to provide hard copies to each of the accused and sought 15 days to get the Delhi government to finance the photocopies. The judge was unimpressed by the police’s argument.
Later, the police challenged in the Delhi High Court the trial court order on providing hard copies of the chargesheet to the accused. It became evident that the police were willing to refuse a basic, yet important legal right to the accused: the right to know and access information that would be used against them by the prosecution.
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#9 Manhandling Lawyers Representing Riot Victims
On 26 February 2020, when a team of lawyers, some of whom were women, visited Jagatpuri police station to visit the anti-CAA protestors detained by the police, they were reportedly manhandled and assaulted by police personnel. The lawyers then wrote to the Delhi commissioner of police, demanding action against the concerned police officials.
Access to legal representation is the right of every accused under Indian law, and the police attempt to hinder lawyers in the discharge of this right and restraining lawyers from meeting detenus is a violation of the law.
On 24 December 2020 when the police raided the office of advocate Mehmood Pracha, one of the lawyers appearing in the Delhi riots and CAA cases, they were accused of illegal search and seizures, amounting to breach of attorney-client privilege, and intimidating lawyers or several riot victims and accused.
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#10 Communal Bias
On 8 July 2020, Praveer Ranjan, special commissioner (crime & economic offences wing) had written to senior officers heading probe teams and asked them to “suitably” guide the investigating officers to note that the arrests of “some Hindu youth” from riot-hit areas had led to a “degree of resentment among the Hindu community.”
“Due care and precaution” must be taken while making such arrests, he wrote.
Ranjan’s letter was challenged before the Delhi High Court as being indicative of communal bias and unlawful interference in investigations. However, the court held that the letter was not prejudicial because the chargesheet in that particular case had already been filed.
Whether the order had any prejudicial effect in other cases is something we may never know, as the number of Muslim and Hindu arrests after Ranjan’s order remain unknown.
According to complaints received by lawyers representing Muslim victims of the riots, the police had threatened to falsely implicate the victims in criminal cases, if they filed any complaints against the rioters.
#11 Dodgy RTI replies
In his Lok Sabha speech on 11 March 2020, home minister Shah had claimed that 52 lives were lost during the riots. However, in a response to a right-to-information (RTI) application of 13 April, the Delhi police quoted 23 deaths.
Since the Delhi police fall under the jurisdiction of the union home minister, it is unclear why the death toll did not match.
The police also attempted to change the narrative about when the riots first broke out. Contrary to what they said in RTI replies, the Delhi police Report of 2020 identified the first day of the riots as 23 February 2020.
However, an RTI reply to the Deccan Herald stated that the district police put the start, “as per the report of all SHOs (Station House Officers/NED (North-East Delhi),” a day later, on 24 February. Media reports suggested that this was being done to protect BJP leader Mishra, seen inciting violence on 23 February.
The Wire also accused the police of stonewalling RTI queries under the garb of “sensitive” information, even though leading RTI activists suggest such a response was patently illegal.
(Mani Chander is a lawyer based in New Delhi.)