Persecuting the innocent in the name of punishing the guilty:  

State terrorism in name of ensuring justice

On March 12, replying to a discussion in Parliament on the savage violence that engulfed Delhi in the last week of February 2020, Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared that what took place in Delhi was a “well-planned conspiracy” which was being investigated.

Shah praised the role played by the Delhi Police. Announcing that his government had identified, through facial recognition software, over 1100 people who had participated in the violence, he declared that the guilty would be punished. He also announced that his government was planning to recover damages for property destroyed during the violence, from the perpetrators.

It has been well documented by journalists as well as masses of people that a pogrom targeting Muslims took place in North East Delhi for over three days during February 24-26, 2020. In the course of this pogrom, people were brutally murdered, mosques were destroyed, the homes and properties of thousands of people were burnt down. A provocative speech by a leader of the ruling BJP in the presence of a top police officer was widely propagated.

It has been documented that gangs consisting of hundreds of people with their heads covered by helmets in order to make it difficult to identify their faces, went about their murderous activities. Eyewitness accounts from victims have pointed out that they received no help from the police. The police either stood by while they were being attacked or actively participated in the violence. Videos have shown how police were throwing stones, and how they brutally beat up youth, one of whom later died as a result of his injuries.

The Delhi police has yet to file FIR’s against well-known leaders of the ruling party who made hate speeches or incited the attacks on Muslims. On the other hand, it has arrested hundreds of ordinary people.

On March 18, the chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission Zafarul Islam Khan wrote a series of letters to the Delhi Police to provide information on those detained or arrested and to the District Magistrate to furnish the area wise compensation forms filed by those who had suffered. The chairperson wrote: “We are getting reports of haphazard arrests of youth in the age group of 20-30 years. They are arrested in your area in dozens every single day without any charges or warrants.” He pointed out that the Commission was getting information that “arrested youth are being pressurised to own up or to implicate others in crimes they apparently did not commit”. According to Khan, in some cases, youth arrested in this manner are forced to pay huge bribes and if they do, they are let off.

Amongst the false cases registered against Muslim youth, is that of two Muslim youth, who had safeguarded a temple in their street. Despite Hindus living in the area vouching for their innocence, these Muslim youth have been arrested.

The Minorities Commission Chairperson also pointed out that in several cases, where there was clear evidence of who had perpetrated the violence, the police had taken no action.  In his letter to the police, he has asked that the police provide a station wise list of all detainees, copies of all FIR’s lodged, and copies of all complaints not converted into FIR’s. The Commission has alleged that the violence was premeditated and planned. A large number of people from outside had stayed in schools in the area before launching attacks on the hapless citizens.

Earlier, on 5 March, three former Supreme Court judges—Kurian Joseph, Vikramjit Sen and AK Patnaik—visited northeast Delhi’s violence-affected areas and a relief camp in Mustafabad.  “The situation on the ground is really pathetic,” Kurian Joseph said. Lawyers working in the relief camp told Justice Sen that the police had not listed the names of accused individuals in the FIR’s registered by Muslim victims even though the complaints had identified them by name. When the judge asked the lawyers to bring this out in the Courts, a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court said that they couldn’t. The lawyers even refused to disclose their identities saying they feared contempt proceedings for criticizing the Supreme Court.

Nobody can disagree with Amit Shah that what took place between February 24 and 26 in North East Delhi was a pre-planned conspiracy.  However the minister’s statements in parliament and the actions of the Indian state since then show a concerted attempt to portray the victims as the guilty and to justify unleashing state terrorism in the name of ensuring justice.

The Central government wants to deny that what took place in Delhi on those days was a state-organised communal pogrom targeted against Muslims. The police was an active participant in the attacks on Muslims. What took place was not a fight between two communities. The gangs that attacked the Muslims were organised and armed with petrol bombs and other weapons. It was because it was state-organised, because it had the support of the state that it continued for three days. Many senior retired police officers have pointed out that whenever the state wants to stop communal clashes it can do so in a few hours.

Instead, according to the false narrative being created by the government, what took place was a “conspiracy by anti-India foreign forces” who egged on Muslims”. The question arises, that if the government indeed has proof that some foreign agency was actually working to destablise India, then it should take action against that agency.

The truth is that the state is raising the “foreign hand” to paint Muslims as foreign agents and as a bogey to divert people’s attention from its own role. The Indian state did not expect the victims to fight back in self-defence, as they did in many places. It did not expect people of all communities to come together in each other’s defence, as they did in several colonies. The state is also using the “foreign hand” storyline to justify persecuting the victims through false charges and arbitrary arrests, as subsequent events have borne out.

Muslims who bore the brunt of the attacks are being terrorized and punished for “daring to fight back”! The announcement of Home Minister Shah that his government plans to “collect damages from perpetrators of the violence”, must be seen in this context. When the state itself is the organizer of attacks on people, how can people expect the state to punish the guilty? Instead, what we are seeing is that the victims are being persecuted for the violence they suffered.

The developments in Uttar Pradesh over the past 3 months reveal this clearly. In the wake of the anti CAA protests that shook Aligarh and other places in Uttar Pradesh in December, the Uttar Pradesh government unleashed a savage reign of terror. Thousands of people were arrested, including leading human rights activists. The UP Government put up huge hoardings of pictures and addresses of human rights activists and other political activists, accusing them of being responsible for violence during the anti CAA protests. While the Allahabad High Court ordered the removal of such hoardings by March 16, the UP government has refused to do so. Instead, on March 15, it promulgated the Recovery of Damage to Public and Private Property Ordinance.

This ordinance gives wide ranging powers to tribunals that it sets up, to collect compensation from people whom the government accuses of damaging public and private property. The ordinance allows the tribunal to do so without giving a hearing to the person accused of damaging property. It makes the orders of the tribunal binding by stating that the award of compensation made by it will be final and cannot be appealed before the courts. It also empowers the tribunal to cover the “cost of action” taken by police and administration for safeguarding public properties. As in other fascist laws like TADA, POTA, MCOCA and UAPA, those accused of vandalism will have to prove their innocence and that they had no connection with the protest, hartal, strike, bandh, etc. during which the property was destroyed. The ordinance states that while liability will be borne by the “actual perpetrators of the crime”, anyone who “instigates” or “incites” the crime would share the liability as per the decision of the claims tribunal.

For the past two months, thousands of innocent people in Uttar Pradesh have been forced to sign “good behavior” bonds by the UP police. The vast majority of these people are Muslims. Many of them have never participated in any agitation. They include teachers, students, small shop keepers, etc. Most of these people are poor, who agree to sign the bonds because they are relieved they are not being falsely arrested. The bonds are similar to the ones people with criminal cases must sign when they are released on bail.

About 70 people in Sambhal, 2,000 people in Aligarh, and more than 100 in Lucknow are amongst those who have been ordered to sign such bonds. The bond amounts range from a lakh to even 50 lakh rupees. Those served notice have to deposit a one-time fee of Rs 300 after signing the bond and appear before a sub-divisional magistrate or police commissioner. If they do not, an arrest warrant can be issued. The notices are aimed at terrorizing the people and humiliating them. People are forced to appear before the authorities as criminals and they have to live with the fearful prospect of being arrested and their property being taken over by the government. Every fortnight, they have to take off from work and appear before the SDM. Those signing such good-behaviour bonds know that they have no hope of getting any justice.

There is abundant evidence that the violence that took place in various places in India in December during the anti CAA protests, including in UP, was state organised. So also was the case with the attacks on Muslims that took place in North East Delhi in February. Police forces and provocateurs were caught on camera indulging in violence. People were protesting peacefully against the CAA and NRC. They did not destroy public property. The victims of the pogrom in Delhi did not destroy their own properties. However, this is what the Home Minister is effectively saying. This is what the state is trying to portray.

Neither the Central government, nor the UP government is interested in ensuring justice or preventing the destruction of public or private property. What the developments are showing is that in the name of providing justice, state terrorism is being escalated against the people.

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