The focus of Delhi Police special cell's investigation into the northeast Delhi riots is a WhatsApp group consisting of Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) activists, called the Delhi Protest Support Group (DPSG), The Quint has learnt.
For about two months now several members of the WhatsApp group, who are members of the civil society, have been called in for questioning. They've been called multiple times, for hours at a stretch and in several instances their phones have been confiscated.
The police's deadline to submit the charge sheet in this case, which is FIR 59/2020, is 14 August. The significance of this FIR stems not only from the fact that it is tasked with investigating the alleged conspiracy, but that it is the only FIR where the strict anti-terror law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) has been invoked.
The Quint is in possession of the WhatsApp chats of this group, right from the moment the it was formed on 28 December up to as late as 9 July when another member left it.
In this story we will first break down what the Delhi Protest Support Group is and then proceed to specific exchanges that the police is using to pin the tag of 'conspirators' on these activists.
The aim is to ensure the exchanges on the group are read within a context, that would otherwise elude a plain reading of the WhatsApp discussions.
WHO WERE THE MEMBERS OF THE DPSG?
The group was created by Saba Dewan, a documentary filmmaker based out of Delhi-NCR, on 28 December last year. The administrators of the group, other than her, were Rahul Roy, also a filmmaker who founded the platform 'Not In My Name' and 'Artists Unite', as well as Rakshita Swamy who is a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme. There were about 70 members in this group including Khalid Saifi, Umar Khalid, Nadeem Khan and Banojyotsana from United Against Hate (UAH).
Other members included Ovais Sultan Khan who has worked with human rights groups and till recently with the Delhi Minorities Commission, ND Jayaprakash who is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and National Coordination Committee Member, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, Pinjra Tod members Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, Karwan-E-Mohabbat members Harsh Mander and Natasha Badhwar, Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, advocates Anas Tanwir and Nilesh Jain, Swaraj Abhiyan members Yogendra Yadav, Anupam and Mujeeb, Jamia Milia Islamia and JNU students, RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj, CPI-ML politburo member Kavita Krishnan, Major Priyadarshi among others. There were also local young protesters like Athar and Shadab that also grew to be active in the group.
WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF DPSG?
The DPSG met for the first time on 26 December at the Indian Social Institute in Delhi. The WhatsApp group was formed two days later. The first few messages posted after the formation of the group was an outline of its purpose.
Just as indicated above, the members of this group didn’t intend to become leaders of local protests. Repeated discussions on the group show that the members encouraged the spontaneous and student-led spirit of the anti-CAA protests.
A reading of approximately 3000 screenshots of the chats reveals that the group was proactive in coordinating activities. This included sending student-led fact-finding committees where there were instances of police brutality, arranging for experts and artists to speak and perform at various sit in protests to engage the audience and ensuring legal support every time someone was detained at a protest site.
It was also due to the timely intervention of Rahul Roy from the group during the northeast Delhi riots, that during a midnight hearing in Delhi high court, safe passage of patients was ensured from Al Hind Hospital to GTB hospital on 25 February.
It is crucial to understand then, how a group that occupied no leadership role in the CAA protests, seems to have become the focus of the police’s theory on the alleged conspiracy.
During the hours that DPSG members have been grilled, The Quint has learnt that the police has focused on specific exchanges that took place between 17 and 23 February. Let's look into these.
SPECIFIC EXCHANGES OF DPSG TARGETED BY DELHI POLICE
1. 17 FEB: THE FULL PICTURE BEHIND THE DEBATE ON BLOCKADE
The idea that something problematic could happen in northeast Delhi was first flagged on the group on 17 February. This happened when Ovais Sultan Khan had an argument with a local of Chand Bagh called Athar on the group regarding blocking the road.
However, what a plain reading of the chat does not clarify is that this was not the first time that debates regarding strategy of anti-CAA protests were being discussed.
This had been an ongoing debate in the Chand Bagh and Seelampur protest sites. Several conversations had transpired for at least a month prior to 17 February regarding differences of opinion regarding strategy. In a meeting on the intervening night of 16 and 17 February close to the Chand Bagh protest site, the same concerns were raised.
While there was one side which wanted to block the road there was another side which did not. An eyewitness of the meeting told The Quint what happened in this meeting on the condition of anonymity.
These debates had turned sour with local politics coming into play. There were ‘whisper campaigns’ and groups are said to have begun bad-mouthing each other.
It was the same difference of opinion which was then reflected on the WhatsApp group in the form of an argument between Athar and Ovais.
Here he is talking about the spat that had transpired hours before close to Chand Bagh. Nadeem Khan from UAH said he had heard of a plan to block roads, to which Athar said it was a brainstorming session however 'some people were there with a aim to disturb that meeting'. To caution Athar, Nadeem also spoke about how several people from the time of the December violence in Delhi continued to fail to find work.
Ovais then asserted that the locals in north east Delhi do not support the idea of a road blockade.
Athar retorted to Ovais and said 'no one asked anyone to block any road.' Ovais again responded by saying that local people have evidence about what Athar had said the night before. "So, don't play with fire because it will not hurt you. It will hurt us badly," Ovais cautioned.
Athar defended his stance by reiterating that it was only a brainstorming session.
While the debate regarding a road blockade being an effective means of protest or not continued, in successive charge sheets the police has been building up their case by repeatedly saying that the road blockade was used as a springboard for violence. It is this chakka jam that finds repeated mention in the chronology of all charge sheets.
By repeatedly focusing on the call for blockade of roads in north east Delhi, the Delhi Police seems to have absolved in its investigation all other elements. This includes the toxic campaigning against the anti-CAA protests by BJP leaders in the run up to Delhi elections, BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s speech from Maujpur on 23 February which was followed by instances of stone pelting or finding the culprits of the violence that continued to rage for days across various localities of the north east district.
2. 22 FEBRUARY: THE BLOCKADE BEGINS, ARGUMENTS FOLLOW
Back on the WhatsApp group, debate regarding strategies continued. Posters were put up on 22 February announcing a march in solidarity with Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bharat Bandh call against the Supreme Court’s order on quotas.
Concerned about how this march would pan out, Ovais speaks up again accusing one of the protest organisers of culpability if something goes wrong.
Ovais also accused Pinjra Tod members for being irresponsible. Responding to the allegations of the blockade not being something the locals wanted, Natasha Narwal from Pinjra Tod responded by saying that anyone who has doubts should come to Jaffrabad and see the women at the blockade for themselves.
While there are those who were staunchly against the idea of a blockade, several people told this reporter that since the Shaheen Bagh model of a road blockade was as successful as it was, many hoped they would also be able to successfully replicate it in other areas of Delhi as well.
3. 22 FEBRUARY: DEBATE REGARDING BLOCKADE STRATEGY
This is when two members of the group began to strongly object the timing of the decision to block the Jaffrabad road. These two were Banajyotsana from UAH and ND Jayaprakash from Delhi Science Forum.
ND Jayaprakash said the roadblock attempt seems to be a plan to sabotage the Supreme Court hearing.
Ovais again raised concerns and asked, "What are you doing with us? My mother, my sister, aunts and niece go everyday at Seelampur protest site."
4. SUB HEAD: 23 FEBRUARY: KAPIL MISHRA'S SPEECH AND THE RIOT BEGINS
By the morning of 23 February there were thousands of women in Jaffrabad. By the afternoon, Kapil Mishra had arrived in Maujpur, barely a kilometer away from where anti-CAA protesters sat, and issued an ultimatum in the presence of senior policemen. He openly threatened to remove the blockade with force if the police did not do it themselves.
It is obvious by now that there are people on the WhatsApp group who are both for and against a road blockade, while several others may have an opinion but they preferred not to share it.
On the evening of 23 February, Rahul Roy, while responding to another member's criticism regarding starting a brand new protest in Old Delhi, said:
The concern regarding the violence continued while members shared details of what they were hearing and seeing on social media.
At that point, Roy said, “What needs to be ensured at all protests is that it doesn’t slip into a communal confrontation. And that will be the biggest danger as this second phase becomes more confrontational.”
He went on to then caution the people on the group saying, "It would be sensible to take two steps back if there is any danger of a communal conflagration. The Hindutva brigade has been extremely restive and confused by the nature and language of the protests until now. They also know how critical the NPR boycott is for the movement and will try their best to bring this to the field they are most comfortable with - communal tension and divide. This movement needs to be hyper aware of this probability and not let it happen."
It is perhaps worth considering the context at this point. Roy's comment about not letting the protests slip into a communal confrontation comes after a charged election campaign for the Delhi Legislative Assembly, where BJP leaders had repeatedly targeted anti-CAA protesters, and there had been repeated instances of the Jamia and Shaheen Bagh protests being targeted by people with guns. On the very same day, Kapil Mishra had given an ultimatum about clearing the blockade at Jafrabad, following which there had been incidents of stone-pelting in the Jafrabad-Maujpur area. On the previous night there had been an altercation between the police and protesters.
While Roy spelt out the need to be "hyper-aware" of not letting the situation get out of hand, and that "it would be sensible to take two steps back" in the event of a communal conflagration, it is eminently arguable, especially given Ovais' warnings, that the risk of communal violence was already too high.
At the same time, it should also be kept in mind that a high risk of a communal incident does not automatically translate into legal responsibility and criminal liability for a riot, unless and until some further illegal action is taken to incite or instigate the ensuing violence.
DELHI POLICE'S INTERROGATION
Now in its investigation into the alleged conspiracy, the Delhi Police has been asking people why they did not take messages regarding possible violence seriously.
Some of the questions repeatedly asked by the Delhi Police are:
While they've repeatedly asked the members these questions, in several cases instilling fear in members, the police seems to have chosen to sidestep the larger debate that this conversation stemmed from. Reading it without context, attempts are being made to attach the tag of a conspirator to anyone who did not vocally oppose the blockade on a WhatsApp group.
At the end of scanning 3000 pages of these chats, The Quint has not found any direct reference to incitement of violence before, during or after the riots from the exchanges on the DPSG WhatsApp group.
So while some group members are raising apprehensions regarding violence due to the road blockade, the messages of the DPSG members are not tantamount to inciting violence.