"Everyday we are hearing six-seven men are being picked up by the police from Brahmapuri, Shiv Vihar, Jaffrabad, Seelampur, Chauhan Banger, Karawal Nagar and other places. They come in plainclothes, engage in small talk and take you away in their van. Before you know you've been sent off to jail and you don't even know for what crime."
A week into the lockdown towards the end of April, Delhi police stepped up their investigation in the case of the northeast Delhi violence where 53 people died, hundreds injured and property worth crores destroyed between 23 February and 26 February. While two-thirds of the 53 who died were Muslims, the rest were Hindus. In the middle of an unprecedented lockdown, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise, Delhi police officials are taking rounds of the ravaged sensitive areas of NE Delhi to arrest people.
Most of the reports of people being picked up have come from Muslim dominated localities.
At a time when the courts are partially functioning and the media is not able to rigorously report, The Quint interviewed the families of three men who have been arrested, as well as their lawyers, and found stories of heartache, anger and confusion.
'The Man Who Died Was the DJ At Our Wedding'
(*Name changed to protect identity of the accused and his family)
"The man who died infront of Brahmapuri Gali No 1, Vinod, he is a DJ. My husband was friends with them,” Aafreen*, whose husband Akhter* was picked up by Delhi police on 30 March. says, adding that he was arrested in the FIR filed for Vinod’s death.
“On the contrary, when we got married a decade ago, it was Vinod Bhai only who was the DJ at our wedding. But a few days of these riots and there is so much distance between us. I can't even call them, I do not know what they are thinking," Aafreen*, whose husband Akhter was picked up and then arrested by the police on 30 March tells The Quint.
He has been booked in the FIR registered for Vinod bhai's deaths, written by his son Nitin who was also brutally thrashed on 25 February when the riots were at their peak. While he survived, his father died on the way to the hospital.
The FIR does not name any accused. Akhter has been booked under Section 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 153 (provocation with intent to cause a riot), 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. He was sent to Tihar Jail on 3 April.
"My husband was downstairs at his small shop. These policemen came in civil clothes and asked him to assist in the investigation for 10 minutes. He went ahead and helped them. They took him to Yamuna Vihar police station first, then he was told he will be taken to Dwarka. When we resisted him being taken to Dwarka, the policemen said, this is only for the purpose of investigation. He is not at fault, but we need to ask him questions and then we will leave him. Within 2 minutes, despite our requests, he was taken to Dwaraka," Aafreen recalls feeling distrustful of what the police was saying.
"My husband was not involved in anything, it is just that we live in the area where the NE Delhi violence broke out. This is our permanent home. Which is why we are being troubled. They have not shown us any evidence, in the three days they had him he told us that they had not even shown him any evidence,” Aafreen says, adding:
“If there are riots in the area, and this is our home, tell me why we will not defend our own property? Can I not stand under my house and defend it? Are you saying we should have just stayed home and waited for it to be charred to the ground?”
She has two children, parents and a brother-in law who is always sick. “Only 15 percent of my mother-in-law’s heart functions. My father-in-law can not work. My younger child keeps asking for her father and I keep lying to her,” she says.
She says she and her lawyer have tried to apply for interim bail, but the court did not list the matter. "They said it is not an urgent matter. If his mother dies while he is in jail, who will that be on? Also, if granting him bail is not urgent, then why was arresting him urgent? Were we going anywhere in this lockdown?"
Lawyer for Aafreen, Akhtar Shamim told The Quint that the rights of Akhter, who is an accused, are being compromised.
"While the police is conducting their investigation like they want to, the biggest problem here is that the rights of the accused are being compromised. After the 15 days of the judicial custody, the police and the accused and their lawyers have to come infront of the magistrate. Here the police has to underline the evidence they have where as the accused gets a shot to argue for bail. This is not happening under the lockdown as only urgent matters are being heard. It is an unprecedented situation and we are trying to file a PIL so that the rights of the accused are maintained," Akhtar said.
'Our House Was Burnt, Looted & We've Been Arrested'
57-year-old Haji Hashim Ali, who earned a meager income as a tailor in Shiv Vihar, was arrested on 4 April. His son Rashid tells us that the police, again in plainclothes, asked for his assistance in recognizing people. Hashim obliged, "But then when we saw from a distance, we saw him being made to sit in a van and taken away. I got scared and called my father up, he said he was coming back and this was only for investigations.The same night he was sent to Tihar Jail."
32-year-old Rashid Ali, Hashim's son who sells cosmetic products in the weekly market, told himself to calm down. The family discussed how their own property, worth Rs 10 lakh was burnt during the riots and how there was no way that their father could be picked as an accused. Another two-odd hours passed, Rashid called again. "While I asked my father what was happening, the policemen took the phone away saying 'jaldi jaldi phone do' (give me that phone) again and again. All my father could tell me was that he was being sent to jail."
The policemen came the same night and returned Hashim's money, wallet and his phone to the family. With four sons and one daughter at home, the family is unsure about the FIR or the sections that have been slapped on the father. "The cops said something about how my father’s arm was visible in some video. Our home was burnt during the riots. Our auto and two bikes which were parked on the ground were burnt. My father saw it burning in front of him. His hands were raised as he gesticulated to tell us to get out of the house. There is no evidence of him actually indulging in rioting," Rashid claims.
While the family ran away from home, the mob came to the first and second floors of the house and stole the fridge, washing machine, money and jewellery. "He is a Haji and worked as the secretary in the local mosque," Rashid says. The family had filed a complaint with the police about the loss and damage of property to them, "We had filed a complaint and believed that the accused who set our house on fire and looted everything will be arrested. We thought we had no reason to worry about the police, our home was burnt, our stuff was looted. At one point we were thinking of compensation from the government, now we are trying to prove we are innocent."
On 1 March, Hashim Ali had filed a complaint against the damage caused to his property. But instead of filing a cross FIR, the police went ahead and attached his complaint to FIR number 72.
They then arrested Hashim under the same FIR number for 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 427(Mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees), 436 (Mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, etc) of the Indian Penal Code.
Akhtar Shamim, who is one of the lawyers the family spoke to, said, "The fact that the police attached his complaint to the FIR is illegal. A cross-FIR should have been filed. Here the complainant has turned into the accused in the FIR. This raises questions about the Delhi police's conduct. At the same time the sections against him are non-bailable. We will wait for a few weeks to understand the nature of the police's investigation."
'His Marriage Was Broken Off After News of his Arrest'
29-year-old Mohammad Armaan from Seelampur, who works at a publication agency at Daryaganj, claims that his brother Salman never left the house on 25 February.
"The police came to my home on 3 April. My brother had gone to the market with me. When they called us we said we will take one hour to return. So they picked my father up as a form of reassurance that my brother would have to come to the police station. We felt intimidating. I can testify that my brother never left the home in those days,”Arman said.
After being taken to the Yamuna Vihar police station, Armaan says his brother was taken to Dwaraka. Ever since he has been in Mandoli jail.
Salman has been booked in the nameless FIR number 49, for 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 283 (danger or obstruction in public way or line of navigation), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 427 (Mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees), 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance), 436 (Mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, etc), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 307 (attempt to murder), 302 (murder), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (common intention) of the IPC.
Armaan who was unaware about these charges and what they meant asked in disbelief, "They have to prove all this right? I can assure you my brother was at home infront of me. My parents were not letting either of us step out."
In the repeated visits to the police station, Armaan was told that his brother has been implicated in the Bhajanpura riots of 25 February. "I told them that that was not possible as during those days no one was leaving their homes. Were not even able to reach roads, all gates were closed, how would he have reached Bhajanpura. Then they said they just have to do some investigation, they will show him some photos and let them go after," he said. The last time he saw Salman was at the Karkadooma court when the police produced the charges. “I asked him what the police was doing to him inside, he said, they were only showing him one photo after another asking him to identify people. He kept telling them that he knew no one. The police asked for 2-day judicial remand after which he was sent to Mandoli jail. Since then he is there."
Salman, worked the machines in a dye shop at Daryaganj, his marriage had recently been finalised. “His wedding was to happen. An arranged marriage with a girl in Moradabad in UP. But that has broken off now. They do not pick up our calls ever since they heard from others that he was arrested.”
His lawyer Tamanna Pankaj said, "This person has no past criminal record. When the country is going through a massive health crisis, when borders are sealed and people have to be home, what was the compulsion to arrest? What are the realistic chances of evidence being tampered with or the person being on the run?," Talking about the issues while working under lockdown, she said, "Courts are already partially functioning. Media is also not able to raise this issue properly. It is very hard to reach out to people, seek legal assistance. In the middle of all this the home ministry is telling the police to continue with investigations. It is clear that they are trying to break the Anti-CAA protests by ascribing bad intentions to them. They are misusing the lockdown to harass the protesters, activists and also the people who do not agree with them."
Delhi Lawyers Raise Concerns
In a letter dated April 11 and made available to the media on 21 of the month, lawyers practising in Delhi wrote to the Chief Justice of the Delhi high court highlighting issues relating to summoning, detention and arrest of persons by the police during the national lockdown in connection with the FIRs registered pursuant to the February 2020 violence in Delhi. These lawyers include Sowjhanya Shankaran, Tara Narula, Maneka Khanna and Nitika Khaitan.
In our limited experience with arrests in the riot-related FIRs (preceding the lockdown), several cases had little, if any, material tying the arrestee to the commission of offences alleged in the FIR, particularly to the commission of serious offences such as murder, attempt to murder and arson. The sole basis of such arrests would be, at best, the mere presence of the arrestee at the spot as disclosed in video footage (which ignored the fact that the arrestees were residents of the neighborhoods where the riots broke out) and uncorroborated witness statements. In most cases, no police custody was sought at the time of first production, indicating that the arrestee was not required for investigation.
Moreover, the police had no reasonable basis to presume the arrestee would abscond or tamper with evidence. It is on these grounds that in certain cases, bail was granted to persons arrested in the riot-related FIRs prior to the lockdown.
Tammana Pankaj said, "When the riots happened, lots of videos went viral, where Kapil Mishra and Bajrang Dal leaders were provoking people. Where police officers were beating people up. If you want to arrest arrest the culprits, why arrest people and conduct a crackdown on a particular community and those who are opposed to an ideology you are trying to espouse? No action has been taking against the BJP. Justice Murlidhar was transferred overnight when he ordered for action against people who gave hate speeches. Two months have passed, but no action has been taken yet?"
‘Won’t Be Deterred By False Propaganda’: Delhi Police
On 20 April, Delhi police took to twitter to put out ‘important information.’
They said: Delhi police While investigating Jamia and NE riot cases, Delhi Police has done its job sincerely and impartially. All the arrests made have been based on analysis of scientific and forensic evidence, including video footage, technical and other footprints.
Delhi Police is committed to upholding the Rule of Law and bringing the conspirators, abettors and culprits of NE riots to books and secure justice to the innocent victims. It will not be deterred by the false propaganda and rumors floated by some vested elements who try to twist facts to their convenience. We continue to work tirelessly and relentlessly towards our motto. Shanti, Seva and Nyaya.