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Wisps of smoke still rise from torched vehicles and shops. Streets littered with brickbats remain mute spectators to the maelstrom that ravaged these parts of Delhi. Over two dozen people lost their lives, hundreds of others were injured while countless houses, shops and offices were burnt down or damaged in a mayhem that singed northeast Delhi since late evening on February 23. Paramilitary forces—Rapid Action Force (RPF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)—were deployed amid allegations of inaction and even complicity of Delhi Police personnel in the clashes that hit hard areas such as Maujpur, Jafrabad, Chand Bagh, Karawal Nagar and Gokulpuri, among others.
The violence was a tragic commentary on the state of affairs in the country’s capital, where law enforcing agencies failed to ensure the safety and security of thousands of people who spent nights out of fear of being shot or lynched. How and why did the situation worsen to such an extent? Who started it? Why no prompt action was taken to nip it in the bud? Questions are being asked by those who faced masked, armed rioters on a rampage through localities. Political parties, religious communities and apolitical organisations are blaming each other. The precise answers are yet to be found.
Outlook spoke to a wide spectrum of people across religious and social strata to dig out what really happened on February 23 and how it spiralled out of control to tear apart the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Protests Spark Violence?
Pinjra Tod, a women’s association of students and alumni of various colleges, have been organising and mobilising women against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in various areas in northeast Delhi since mid-December. They started with small marches and then organised day-long sit-in demonstrations. To continue the protest, they held candle-light marches between December 24 and January 12.
A car set on fire by rioters.
Then they decided to hold round-the-clock sit-in protests at various places. They first chose Khajuri Khas on January 12 for their dharna and then Seelampur from January 15, with hundreds of women replicating the Shaheen Bagh model. In another week, the protests spread to other areas like Kadampuri and Chand Bagh in northeast Delhi. All these areas saw largescale violence. “When they felt that they were agitating for so long, but without much effect, they decided to block the Jafrabad road on February 22 coinciding with the call of Bhim Army’s countrywide shutdown,” says a representative of Pinjra Tod, dismissing allegations that the organisation was responsible for the violence. “Everything was peaceful till the time BJP leader Kapil Mishra came on February 23 and made an incendiary speech… by evening right-wing goons gathered at Maujpur Chowk. Had the police acted against these people, the riots wouldn’t have erupted,” she adds.
However, Ovais Sultan Khan, a civil society activist present in the area, blames Pinjra Tod for creating a situation that provided an opportunity to Kapil Mishra to deliver a provocative speeech. “The members of Pinjra Tod are outsiders. It is an extreme left organisation that has been active for the past few months in mobilising other women for roadblocks and protests,” Khan says. He adds, “Relations between Hindus and Muslims had deteriorated after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, but improved with the passage of time. Now, due to these left-wing groups, communal tension has flared up once again.”
Is Kapil Mishra to Blame?
Residents of Maujpur, said to be the epicentre of the violence, say that till the evening of February 23, everything looked normal though they could sense tension along communal lines. “It was around 3.30 pm that Kapil Mishra reached Maujpur to address a group of people supporting CAA,” says Rahisuddin Ahmed, a local leader from Seelampur, who claimed to have been present at the venue where the BJP leader addressed his supporters. “I heard him and his supporters talking about sending a lot of messages to others to gather at the venue,” Ahmed says, adding that the DCP (northeast) was present when Mishra threatened that if the police couldn’t get the area vacated within three days, he would get it done on his own with his own people. Though the DCP left after the address, Mishra stayed put.
“I heard him talking to people. Yahi sahi mauka hai. Isse bhuna lo. Ab chook gaye to dubaara mauka nahi milega. (This is the right time. Exploit it. If you miss it, you won’t get another opportunity),” Ahmed says, quoting what he claims to be Mishra’s conversation. Mishra apparently left around 4:30 pm. According to Ahmed, “I saw them sending messages from their mobile phones. I left after about an hour or so and later came to know that riots have broken out.”
Another AAP leader and MLA from Mustafabad, Haji Yunus, too blames Mishra and said that there was no violence before his provocative speech. “Hours after his speech, goons attacked minorities and started torching their houses and religious institutions in Maujpur,” Yunus says.
However, BJP leaders of the area contradict the story and refute Kapil Mishra had any role in the violence. Jagdish Pradhan, a local BJP leader from the violence-hit Mustafabad assembly constituency, exonerates Mishra of all allegations. “Kapil Mishra didn’t make any provocative statement. He simply asked the protestors to clear the area and requested not to create another Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. I don’t think his statement was a provocation.”
Mobs on the rampage.
BJP Blames Minorities
Pradhan and other leaders have another theory, holding the minority community responsible for starting the violence. According to him, the protestors who blocked the Jafrabad road first started behaving violently with commuters. “They stopped a guy, asked him to get out of his car and burnt it. It happened around 1:30 pm, close to the Maujpur metro station. This angered commuters,” Pradhan says.
He also alleged that protestors were allowing only vehicles of Muslims to pass through the blockade. “Hindus were stopped and their vehicles were put on fire. About 20 to 30 cars were burnt initially. The vehicle-owners were also beaten up. That’s how it started from Maujpur and spread towards Brijpuri and Chand Bagh,” Pradhan alleges.
Allegations of “outsiders” being brought in to do the dirty job also abound. Locals allege that truckloads of people carrying arms arrived in Maujpur before the violence began. Ali Mehdi, a Congress leader of the area, says that none of the rioters were locals. “There were about 50 to 60 armed goons, some with their faces covered, who arrived late in the evening on February 23 at Shiv Vihar Tiraha and started attacking people and burning their shops,” he says. Another resident, who was unwilling to identify himself, says that he has been living in the area for the past 30 years, but none of the faces looked familiar to him. “They came well-planned to disturb the harmony and first targeted areas like Shiv Vihar and Chand Bagh because these have a mixed population and it is very easy to disturb the fragile environment. At some places, if locals turned violent, it was in self-defence. No resident initiated anything,” he says.
Residents also say that the coordinated manner in which the goons operated, moving from locality to locality, was indication that the attacks were planned beforehand and that the violence was not a spontaneous reaction to Mishra’s speech. “Interior areas of Jafarabad were targeted, where there was no mediaperson. I received incessant calls of locals for help. I am thankful to the DCP (East) who sent a team on time,” Mehdi says, adding that about 35 people were shifted to RML Hospital late in the night on February 25.
Police Inaction Led to Flare-up?
The role of Delhi Police has come under the scanner with allegations of inaction flying thick and fast. AAP leaders from almost all affected constituencies—Babarpur, Gonda, Karawal Nagar, Gokulpuri, Mustafabad, Shahadra and Rohtas Nagar—allege that police initially showed some purpose and promptness, but gradually left the people to their fate.
Police fence off a picket in a riot-hit locality.
Even BJP leaders admit that police reaction was too slow, too late. “Rioters were more than the police. If paramilitary forces were deployed on February 24, it would have made some difference,” says Pradhan. Many locals allege that had police wanted to stop the violence, they would have stopped people on Maujpur Chowk, where the problem started. “It looks like a well-organised programme to target minorities at such a time and place so that blame comes to people who are protesting against CAA, NPR and NRC. The anti-CAA protest has remained peaceful and secular. We treasure constitutional values,” the Pinjra Tod representative says. She says that the 24x7 sit-in protest is still on in Seelampur. However, they have called off similar protests in other places after attacks on women.
Some have a different take altogether. A resident, who requested anonymity, says that though some are trying to make it a Hindu-Muslim issue, many believe that it is an anti-CAA and pro-CAA fight. “Let the government give it a communal colour. We still believe that it was not Hindus who attacked Muslims, but goons who attacked anti-CAA protestors,” he says.