Northeast Delhi Violence: Why We Cannot & Should Not ‘Move On’

Two Delhi-based lawyers, Arun Sri Kumar & Aditya Chatterjee, went to volunteer at NE Delhi. This is what they saw.

Updated20 Mar 2020, 09:48 AM IST
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9 min read

On 7 March, Aditya Chatterjee and I decided to volunteer some time in the riot-hit areas of Northeast Delhi, to help people seeking legal assistance. Here is a brief account of our day, and some observations.

We set off from East of Kailash at around 1 PM, and called a few lawyer groups whom we knew to be volunteering on that day in the area, to understand how best we could be of help. Someone suggested we join the SCBA-supported help desk at Shiv Vihar, Karawal Nagar – and so we headed there.

War-Like Ruin of a Society

Our over one hour journey took us to an overcrowded and forlorn neighbourhood that is struggling to come to terms with the death and destruction it has witnessed. One would not have celebrated this neighbourhood as an achievement of modern India even in the pre-riot days: the streets were littered with garbage, and the sewage flowed openly on the roads and into a nala that feeds eventually into the Yamuna. The riots, however, added a layer of war-like destruction to a society already ravaged by poverty and absence of government.

We found the SCBA desk (Aditya had been to this area the previous week to distribute relief supplies, and was familiar with the territory) and joined a group of 4-5 advocates who were earnestly helping people with their paperwork. The task before the team of lawyers was two-fold:

  • to help those seeking compensation fill out a form issued by the state government which promises some basic compensation to those who have suffered any injuries, or loss of property (including motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars etc), damage to homes, or loss of businesses (ranging from Rs 15,000 to 10,00,000 in case of death of a family member)
  • writing down simple police complaints in Hindi, in respect of any assault / injury or loss of property, to be lodged thereafter by the lawyers with the jurisdictional police (in one of three neighbouring stations, based on the situs of offence).

‘Grievous Hurt’ or ‘Simple Hurt’?

We quickly got down to penning the complaints and filling out forms, inviting people from the milling crowd to come forward and share their stories.

My first case was a differently-abled Hindu man (he has no use of his legs), who peddles around the city on a hand-peddled cycle-rickshaw begging for alms. He had brought his own copy of the AAP government’s compensation form (crumpled and folded in his pocket – clearly it was at least a few days old), and he wanted my assistance in filling it. He had his Aadhaar card with him, but nothing else by way of paperwork. His hand was tied in a soiled cast, and he said that he had injured it when some rioters rained blows on him. He wanted me to classify his case as ‘grievous hurt’, though the norms set out on the form would perhaps only qualify him for compensation under the category ‘simple hurt’.

Since this man did not know his bank account details, he asked that I call his son to check the details from his passbook at home. (He carried his son’s phone number scribbled on a small chit of paper, and does not himself own a phone.)

I spoke with his son, who promptly shared a picture with me (via WhatsApp) of his father’s passbook: the account had been opened for him some years previously in the Karkardooma court complex to deposit compensation that had been awarded to him as the victim of a motor accident.

We needed a photocopy of the Aadhaar card, and so a Muslim gentleman who was waiting his turn volunteered to go and get a copy from the nearby shop. He refused to take the Rs 2 we offered. (Our claimant had no money to make a photocopy.)

A Burnt Factory, No Record of Insurance

My next case was that of a Muslim boy, aged only about 20 or so, whose elder brother (aged 25) ran their family business – a ‘jeans pant’ stitching unit. Their godown, in which 500+ pairs of jeans had reportedly been stored, had been burnt to the ground in the riots. Their ‘factory’ (which sounded to me like it was only a small shop premise, where labourers used to work on sewing machines) had been looted, and thereafter burnt. He had brought photographs of both locations to support the claim. He had already managed to lodge an FIR with the police, and did not need our assistance for this. He assessed the loss of stock at Rs 8 lakh, and the loss of the ‘factory’ at Rs 10 lakh: the government scheme caps compensation payable in the event of loss of business at Rs 5 lakh.

My third case was a Muslim gentleman whose motor car – a Hyundai i20 – had been burnt in a massive parking lot fire. His insurance papers had apparently been kept in the car, and he had no SMS or email record of his policy – he did not even know which insurer he had taken a policy from. He was hoping to get whatever he could from the government, as there was no hope of a recovery from any insurer.

How the Mob Identified Targets

The next person who came up to me was a Muslim lady – an NGO worker with 2 daughters and 2 sons – who had penned her own complaint in great detail, and was angry that the police were refusing to register it for the past 8-10 days. She said she had already met the SHO, the DCP and even the DCW Chairperson, to try and have an FIR registered, and had even posted her complaint to the station, but there was no help forthcoming.

The SHO had apparently advised her that she would have to delete the sentence “my house was attacked by a mob brandishing swords and guns and shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’”, and instead simply state that an “unknown” mob had attacked her premises, if she wanted an FIR registered.

However, the lady was adamant that she get to report the facts as she saw them: in fact, she claimed that she also positively recognised two of the young men who had led the mob into her house, as there had been some previous dispute between them which had even resulted in a court case (and a settlement) a few months ago.

Though she did not now recall their names, she was confident of pulling out the old court records and identifying them to the police as the persons who had directed the mob to her house. (This lady had been living in a rented accommodation atop the house of a Hindu landlord, and her barsati room was allegedly identified only because these two men had directed the mob there. Needless to state, her landlord had evicted her after the incident.)

Paperwork Woes, Hope For Compensation

The fifth case was that of a handicapped Muslim youth, who again was confined to a hand-pedalled rickshaw (much like my first case). His father had brought him to us, to complain that a small paan shop operated by the boy had been ransacked and razed to the ground, thus leaving him with no means of livelihood. I asked him to estimate the ‘loss’ to his business, as required by the claim form: he confided that he had had only about Rs 200-300 kept in the stall (which was stolen), and some leaves and paan which would not be worth more than Rs 1500. The stall itself was demolished. He hoped the government would reimburse this loss.

Since this small an amount would likely not be worth either the paperwork or the wait, we decided to recommend his case to the SCBA to arrange for some ad hoc payment from donations being collected from the legal community.

The procedure the group had evolved for this required a spot inspection to be conducted by one of the volunteer advocates, and photos to be collected and witness statements to be recorded from neighbours who could vouch for the credibility of the claim.

Accordingly, I accompanied the man (a young chap called Shamshaad) and his father (who pushed along his hand-rickshaw) to the spot half a kilometre or so down the road, where the paan stall had once stood. It was barely 30 metres outside a Hindu temple. Curiously, even though around 8-10 people vouched for the facts, only one was willing to sign a witness statement – even though I took pains to explain that this was not for any court case or police case (or even claim to be made with the government) but only for our volunteer group’s own record.

Shamshaad had an old picture of the stall (attached). I took photos of what was left of the spot today (also attached). He was hoping to get relief of about Rs 15,000 to restart his stall.

Broken Pots, Broken Dreams & The Stench Of a Missing Administration

A potter who claimed his pots had all been broken by the mob at his roadside stall enquired if his case could also be recommended to the SCBA. However, he decided to pursue his claim with the government only, and said he would come back the following day with his Aadhaar card and past photos of his stall.

As I turned back from the site to head back to the SCBA desk, I noticed the nala yet again. It had woven its way to this part of the neighbourhood; I wondered how true the rumours that suggest many more bodies will come to be found from here may be.

Piles and piles of garbage were floating on the water, and the stench of garbage was perhaps only made worse by the rotten smell of a missing administration.

I spoke with three CRPF men stationed near the nala, and asked them if there was any tension still in the area. Cautious at first, one of them soon opened up to me when he learnt I was from Bengaluru – he had been stationed for years at the CRPF post in Adugodi, and remarked that the weather on that day reminded him of the 'ooru. (It was now quite overcast and windy.) He confided that some bodies had been fished out from the drain over the week and sent to the morgues – but the exercise of looking for more corpses had now been abandoned, he said, because there were no more reports of missing people. (This is not true – as of 7 March there were several people still looking for missing relatives.)

The Remains of the Day

Back at the SCBA stall, I learnt that I had just missed Arundhati Roy and Saba Naqvi, who had passed by and interacted with the volunteers at the desk.

The dark clouds opened up, and we hurried into the house of a local Muslim gentleman who was kind enough to arrange for tea and biscuits. There we divided the day’s paperwork into separate bundles, and identified many where we would need to call the complainants afresh the next day, since the paperwork was not complete (for example, bank details not fully filled in, Aadhaar copy not enclosed, photos of property damage not enclosed, etc). Some of the volunteers who had manned the desk through the day had collected incomplete paperwork, and clearly the processes agreed to had not been uniformly followed.

A Conspicuously Absent State

  • There are a lot of people, both young and old, with the energy, enthusiasm and resolve to make a positive difference in these trying times, and they are hitting the ground and also actively contributing their time. This includes: organising and distributing relief materials, filing complaints, helping in getting medicines, in one case, taking a pregnant lady to a nursing home to deliver, etc. But these volunteer energies are not structured, and some of their efforts may lead nowhere.
  • The interface for volunteer groups with the State is not easy. We do not know how many of the complaints we recorded on 7 March will be looked into at all, or when – and how many of the claims will ever be processed for compensation. The volunteers on the ground are only conduits, and cannot assure action – even though the affected people all looked to us for assurance that we would get their work done.
  • The State was, as of 7 March, entirely absent on the ground. It should, frankly, have been the district administration taking steps to open these stalls and collect paperwork from the affected, both for compensation claims and also for assistance in filing police cases. If doorstep delivery of services is one of the AAP’s achievements, it certainly can do better at this, especially at this time, in the riot-hit zones.

Why We Cannot & Should Not ‘Move On’

  • The affected are all people on the margins – even the small business owners would be in the city’s bottom 25 percent. These are not people with insurance, or safety nets of any sort. The State is already failing them in every possible way: it continues to fail them when they’ve been deprived of whatever little they once had. The compensation amounts are meagre, and will not fully give these people what they have lost.
  • There needs to be more done to pin the Central government for not setting up any commission of enquiry, not holding any persons accountable, not launching any investigation into the larger ‘conspiracy’, and completely abdicating all responsibility for relief to the riot-affected. These individual FIRs, even if registered, will not result in any chargesheets or prosecutions, much less convictions – it will be well nigh impossible for the State to pin individual offenders, even if apprehended, to individual FIRs which are limited in scope. The State must approach this differently to ensure the rioters face justice.

And finally, we cannot and should not ‘move on’. This is a critical moment in defining whether we are still a functioning democracy that has a semblance of rule of law – if all institutions can wash their hands off on this one, we may as well concede that we are just another ‘failed State’ in the neighbourhood.

(Arun Sri Kumar is Founder-Partner at Keystone Partners, Delhi. He tweets @arun_srikumar. Inputs by Aditya Chatterjee, who is a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India and High Court of Delhi. He tweets at @adityachatjee. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 19 Mar 2020, 07:08 PM IST
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