2020 Delhi riots: Govt’s response to violence was insufficient; TV, social media fuelled hate, claims citizens’ committee report

Scene of riots in north-east Delhi in February 2020. | Image: PTI

A citizen committe’s report headed by former Supreme Court of India Justice Madan B. Lokur has called for setting up an independent Commission of Inquiry for an impartial probe into the 2020 anti-Muslim riots in north-east Delhi.

Afnan Habib | TwoCircles.net

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NEW DELHI — An eminent citizens report has criticized the Union Home Ministry for its ‘inadequate’ response to the 2020 anti-Muslim riots in northeast Delhi in which 53 people, mostly Muslim, lost their lives and hundreds got injured with scores of Muslim properties damagaed. The report has also castigated the role of news channels and social media in propagating hate against minorities across the country.

The report titled ‘Uncertain Justice: A Citizens Committee Report on the North East Delhi Violence 2020’ by four former judges and a former civil officer, blames the insufficient response of the Election Commission, Delhi Police and media regulatory bodies for worsening the volatile situation that led to the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in February 2020.

“There were significant warning signs of impending violence – the shooting attempts on anti-CAA protesters – that went unheeded,” the report said. 

A citizen’s committee was formed in October 2020 which included justice Madan B Lokur, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, justice AP Shah, who is also the former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, justice RS Sodhi, justice Anjana Prakash and former Union home secretary GK Pillai. The report, published earlier this week, is the outcome of the citizen committee’s investigation into the 2020 anti-Muslim riots in north-east Delhi. 

Communal violence erupted in Northeast Delhi in February 2020 with a spike in nationwide demonstrations against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), including in the nation’s capital, which was also gearing up for Assembly elections at the time. 

The report claims that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), focusing on the CAA issue, utilized a dividing narrative to portray the anti-CAA protests as “anti-national and violent” during its election campaign. 

“The Muslim community was grappling with deep fears of loss of citizenship, stemming from the combined effect of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), passed in December 2019, with potential exclusion through the National Register of Citizens process. By mid-December 2019, nationwide protests erupted against the law. Delhi emerged as the epicentre of the anti-CAA movement, with North East Delhi as the site of multiple sit-in protests. Against this background, the Delhi Assembly elections campaign gathered momentum in January,” the report states.  

Centre’s failure to take adequate measures
Talking about the lack of will by the authorities to contain the communal hate, the report notes, “All stages of the February 2020 violence – the inception, occurrence and aftermath (investigation of the violence) – are characterized by a frightening undermining of democratic values. Tragically, the communal polarization that heralded the violence has been hardened by state responses to the violence.”

“Repeated assurances on February 24 and 25 by police top brass and government officials that the situation was under control did not match the visibility of violence on the ground,” the report said. 

According to the report, February 24 and 25 saw the highest number of distress calls from the riots, but fewer police officers were deployed on the ground.

Delhi government’s failure to provide compensation
The committee discovered that, as of March 2022, the claims commissioner assigned to adjudicate on compensation claims had only looked at 1,425 of the 2,569 claims. The report states, “The chair [of the Claims Commission] estimates that the process is likely only to be completed by December 2022.”

The report slams the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government for failing to “exert the role of civic mediation and statesmanship to calm the situation.” The report notes that the Delhi government could not ensure timely relief and compensation for those affected by the violence. 

Role of TV and social media in fuelling hate
The report examined Republic and Times Now (in English), Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV, and Republic Bharat (in Hindi). It used this information to conclude how news outlets encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment, resulting in violence in February 2020. 

“The coverage appeared to portray the protests as single-handedly responsible for the unfolding violence. The entire protest movement in Delhi, with a concerted focus on Shaheen Bagh, was shown as violent, conspiratorial, and communal,” the report said. It further added, “Various essential elements of the anti-CAA protests, including their substantive demands and peaceful sit-ins, were left out of the narrative, as was any comment on police violence.”

The report noted a “frenzied and wide use of social media” from February 23, 2020, to February 24, 2020, the days that saw flare-ups and violence in northeast Delhi. 

The report claims that the content of Facebook Live videos disseminated by politicians linked to the BJP and Hindu right-wing extremist groups was “divisive Hindu-Muslim narratives.”

Harsh use of UAPA
The report has criticized the harsh use of UAPA against the accused persons and called for caution in its use. “The UAPA, being a special law to counter-terrorism, unleashes an extraordinary set of harsh conditions on the accused persons. This regimen enables extended pre-trial detention, severely restricts bail, and leads to the demonization of the accused. It must be cautiously invoked only in cases where acts alleged clearly meet the definition of terrorist acts backed by sufficient proof,” the report said while urging for a thorough assessment of this act. 

The committee, while urging an investigation into the North East Delhi violence said, “Only an impartial and rigorous investigation can shed light on the truth, ensure accountability and do justice to the victims of the violence.”

The citizen’s committee has called for setting up an independent Commission of Inquiry for an impartial probe into the North East Delhi violence stating that these communal riots had “set back the internal processes through which a multi-cultural society engenders calm and harmony, forging its plurality into a strength,” adding that the only way forward is for the state to act towards “justice harboured in the conjoined practice of fraternity, equality and freedom.”

Afnan Habib is an independent journalist based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. He tweets at @afnanhabib_