Has Delhi become a communal tinderbox?
Rajeev Deshpande Rajeev Deshpande | 22 Apr, 2022
Jahangirpuri after reports of communal clashes during a Shobha Yatra on Hanuman Jayanti, April 16 (Photo: Getty Images)
A WEEK AFTER the 2020 anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) riots in Delhi had subsided, the then Delhi Police Commissioner SN Srivastava was getting ready to call on a former colleague on a Sunday evening when the quiet of the weekend was abruptly interrupted. A flurry of messages about a large gathering in south-east Delhi forced the city’s top cop to alter his plans and quickly direct senior district police officers to get a report on the situation on the ground even as television channels began to flash news of fresh trouble brewing. For a city that had just about begun to breathe easy, it took very little to disturb the fragile calm. As things turned out, the reports were incorrect and a swift inquiry revealed the source of misinformation to be a series of posts on the social media platform, Twitter. A senior officer went on air to issue a statement denying that an illegal mob had collected and the media soon carried reassuring reports that nothing was amiss. But it was a close shave.
In the days that followed, a police investigation of the Twitter posts revealed operators across the border in Pakistan working with the fairly obvious motive of sparking fresh violence in the city. There was no overt mobilisation of a mob, but the idea was to provoke a clash by playing on suspicions and resentments following the north-east Delhi violence, which the police said was instigated to coincide with the arrival of then US President Donald Trump in India on February 24-25. “The intent was to create mischief and spark trouble. Timely action and cooperation of the media that played the police statement helped prevent any violence,” said Srivastava, recalling events of that March 1 morning. As a detailed investigation revealed, there was a meticulous plan to spark violence much in advance of the US president’s visit that ran counter to claims that the riots were spontaneous or the result of provocations on the day they broke out near the Jaffrabad Metro station. The cases related to a conspiracy to instigate rioting are in court, and while some of the accused have offered several grounds for their defence, including not being present at any of the scenes of violence, the Delhi Police special branch was able to gather crucial evidence by way of explicit WhatsApp chats in particular WhatsApp groups that show a set of persons acting in close concert.
The violence that broke out in front of a mosque in the Jahangirpuri areas on April 16 as a Hanuman Jayanti Yatra was passing is a rude reminder that the capital remains a communal tinderbox, more than two years after the riots that engulfed the Jaffrabad-Seelampur area against the backdrop of the opposition of certain groups to the CAA. While the particulars of the recent incident, including antecedents of the accused held so far, is being investigated, a pattern of communal mobilisation intended to keep the city on the boil is evident. The lengthy Shaheen Bagh blockade where a sit-in against the CAA was organised in late-2019, became a focal point amid violence that accompanied protests against the CAA, which seeks to grant non-Muslim minorities from India’s neighbouring countries a legal path to Indian citizenship. Apart from violent incidents in many parts of the country, the heated rhetoric of the protests that often warned Muslims that they would “lose” their Indian citizenship if the CAA was implemented, served to stoke emotions as also a counter-mobilisation among saffron groups. In some ways, serving and retired police officials familiar with the events agree that the Shaheen Bagh blockade lit the long fuse to the anti-CAA riots in February 2020. In between, there were incidents of arson and clashes in Delhi, and in mid-December, heavy violence broke out at Jamia Millia Islamia University where protestors clashed with police. As was to become a frequent template, the anti-CAA protestors were well equipped with Molotov cocktails, sticks, bricks and carried blankets drenched in water to smother tear gas shells. While university authorities said no students or faculty members were involved in the violence, it was clear that the mob was intent on forcing a showdown as it was in no mood to listen to the police requests not to proceed towards Parliament. The widespread rioting in north-east Delhi followed a couple of months later and while a set of the accused were charged for conspiracy, links to international jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) emerged with the police arresting those connected with the group. The role of IS-linked persons as well as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) surfaced in electronic chatter tracked by security agencies that pointed to ISI’s effort to provide funding to amplify the anti-CAA protests. In the course of investigations, the alleged role of Pakistan-backed Khalistanis also emerged, according to revelations by one of the accused in the riots cases who said certain individuals had been present at the Shaheen Bagh site.
Arrests in the Jahangirpuri violence are continuing and the investigation is ascertaining the chain of events amid claims and counterclaims. There are allegations that the participants in the Hanuman Jayanti Yatra behaved in an aggressive and provocative manner as they passed a mosque in the area. Photos and videos are being verified and organisers of the yatra have been booked for not seeking prior permission. The exact role of the procession, according to the police, will become clear once a chargesheet is filed. The violent turn the altercation took can be estimated by the use of bricks, apparently stacked on nearby roofs, sticks and brandishing of firearms. The police party accompanying the procession soon found itself under pressure, and casualties were perhaps avoided as the yatra participants fled the spot. Thereafter, police reinforcements arrived, helping contain the situation and force those leading the violence to retreat or make themselves scarce. Those aware of the investigations said some of the key accused held so far were being investigated for planning the violence, as also claims that they were Bangladeshi or Rohingya living illegally in India. The Aadhaar cards recovered from some of them have been issued in an eastern state, and the police are now seeking the original documents on the basis of which the ID was provided. “Aadhaar card can be issued on the basis of a voter I-card that can be managed. But the investigation will seek more information on their parents and native places claimed by the accused,” an officer said. The police has also moved to charge some of the accused under the National Security Act (NSA), a decision intended to act as a deterrent and make it difficult to get bail. The decision to invoke the NSA is to signal a tough approach to communal violence and make it evident that such acts will have a cost to bear. Soon after being arrested, one of the main accused, Ansar, made a “jhukega nahin (will not bend)” signature (apparently borrowed from the film Pushpa: The Rise) while being taken to the courts. Along with one Alam, he is seen as a key figure behind the violence. Some of the arrested have criminal records and are inured to violence, perhaps explaining why they might have been at the forefront of events. Their profile reveals them to be hardboiled characters with no compunction about causing serious injuries or even death in the course of committing a crime. It is a pattern that police officers say they are increasingly coming across even when dealing with more common crimes. A snatching or a robbery can soon turn to murder, the cost of a life not being seen as much. Though there is no overt communal aspect to such crimes, the nature of the assault and a brutalised mindset is revealing. It is no surprise that such elements are roped in to spark violence in a communal clash. Police officers say every effort is being made to prevent rioting and to extinguish it quickly if it breaks out. The incidents in the capital over the past two years and more have not been lost sight of, and regular reviews involving senior officers emphasise preventing riots. There is a message of accountability and concerned officers are aware that they may lose their posts in case of any slip up. The police are also tracking or keeping an eye for what officers say can be cases of “latent” communal tension when a fight over parking or a birthday party takes a sudden communal twist. Cases of crime, such as the 2018 murder of a young man for a relationship with a woman from another community, have the potential to flare up, besides adding an undercurrent of tension. The investigators are also examining claims that the Hanuman Jayanti procession behaved aggressively, waving swords and shouting slogans. So far, there is no evidence that the procession tried to force entry into the mosque or plant any saffron flags. Some participants have said that they were on the road and were passing by the mosque when a disagreement with some persons present at the spot took place.
Delhi Police commissioner Rakesh Asthana noted the use of social media to spread disinformation and warned that this would also attract action. His comments are relevant as the officer says Twitter has often dragged its feet, quibbling over whether a post is related to terrorism or a serious crime
THE CLAIM THAT some of the persons involved in the violence are Bangladeshis or Rohingya, has led to a heated exchange of words between BJP and parties like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress. Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta accused the ruling party in Delhi of having offered support to illegal migrants leading to their role in criminal activities. AAP leaders claimed that the accused Ansar, in fact, had links to BJP. While Delhi BJP has raised the issue of illegal migrants, the central BJP has been more reticent. The central party has taken a more political approach, countering the letter of opposition leaders over communal incidents, saying elements that remain unreconciled to BJP’s electoral success, are finding other means of settling scores. The attempt to tar the government for encouraging polarisation is another means to devalue democratic verdicts. The events have, however, drawn attention to the problems of policing and identifying illegal population that is often dependent on local criminal networks to procure papers and identities. While the Jahangirpuri case is likely to be thoroughly investigated, there is a need for continuous and regular action by the local police, feels a former officer. Though the problem is multifaceted—the border with Bangladesh remains permeable despite a stricter vigil in recent years—identification and deportation of even a small number will signal that entering India without proper documentation can have attendant risks. BJP has alleged that a “soft” approach to illegal immigrants is a security risk, and that the defiance of the accused indicates a confidence that they can get the better of the legal system when the cases are brought before the lower courts. In the case of the main accused in the February 2020 riots, the Delhi Police and the Centre have had to muster considerable legal firepower to oppose bail pleas, arguing that there was seriously incriminating material relating to terror charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Apart from being seen as part of a recurring pattern in Delhi, the Jahangirpuri violence has drawn attention for similar incidents that have disrupted Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions in other parts of the country. There is a concern that violence might flare up in states which are due for polls, such as Gujarat, which has seen a couple of incidents. Experienced law officials feel the incidents are a break from the recent past when the trend of violence during religious processions was declining. There was almost an unwritten understanding that such occasions should pass by without disruption and tensions. Many processions taken out locally do not have any official permission and waving of swords, though highly disconcerting, is seen in processions of various religious hues. The violence may not be unconnected with the tensions that have risen in recent months over rows regarding issues, like hijab and halal, which provide ample grist to communal and religious propaganda. The role of front organisations of the Popular Front of India and others point to an effort to bring communal issues to the forefront, and the assertive reactions to such activism catalyses more conflicts. The militancy is also seen as a reaction to political developments such as BJP’s success in important Assembly elections. The intellectual, political and legal arguments offered to explain a “reactive violence” narrative only strengthen the more harmful stereotypes about minorities and obscure the causes of violence behind the veil of politics.
The Jahangirpuri investigation will be added to a growing mound of cases registered since 2019. Ignoring evidence provided by past investigations can, however, prove costly. During the anti-CAA protests and later ahead of the north-east Delhi riots, there was a concerted effort to involve local mosques and notables in whipping up sentiments. Pamphlets against the Supreme Court’s Ram Janmabhoomi ruling, CAA and the proposed national register of citizens were widely circulated, all adding up to a call for action. The evidence presented by the Delhi Police in its chargesheets points to a determination to prolong protests and provoke showdowns by blocking roads and spreading the action to areas of mixed populations. The meetings of the accused, along with groups like Pinjra Tod, PFI and Social Democratic Party of India, have been documented even as some of the WhatsApp chats reveal concerns of a few participants over women protestors at Jaffrabad being urged to adopt a “do or die” attitude. The investigation into the February 2020 riots was divided into three parts. The relatively lesser crimes were investigated by the district police, more serious cases by the crime branch and the conspiracy angle by the special branch. The evidence was gathered on the basis of witness accounts, CCTV footage, forensic clues and statements provided by “insiders” who were ready to become protected witnesses. The crucial breakthrough in the conspiracy investigation was provided by the detailed WhatsApp chats that the police was able to get hold of. It was also able to argue that a meeting of minds in a conspiracy does not need a physical dimension. Such intent is not always easy to track and establish, but actions planned and speeches given in the prelude to violence can present compelling evidence. Delhi Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana noted the use of social media to spread disinformation and warned that this would also attract action. His comments are relevant as the officer says Twitter has often dragged its feet, quibbling over whether a post is related to terrorism or a serious crime. His remarks underlined the increasing complexities in combating individuals and groups determined to cause disaffection and violence. The initial investigation into the Jahangirpuri case also points to hidden hands behind the immediate perpetrators and highlights the need for proactive policing that involves countering disinformation, including community leaders in peace efforts, and swift action against those who aid and abet the spread of communal hatred.
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