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Aug 03, 2020

How Delhi Police Turned Anti-CAA WhatsApp Group Chats Into Riots 'Conspiracy'

In what appears to be a repeat of the Bhima Koregaon case model, the Delhi Police is attempting to hold anti-communalism activists responsible for the communal riots which took place in Delhi in February 2020.
Policemen patrol in a riot affected area in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

New Delhi: Ever since communal riots in North East Delhi claimed 53 lives and led to the destruction of property worth crores of rupees, the Delhi Police and Sangh parivar alike have pushed the notion that the violence between February 23 and 25 was a “deep-rooted conspiracy” by activists who had been peacefully protesting against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens (NRC), and the National Population Register (NPR).

Over the past few months, the Delhi Police has arrested several anti-CAA activists for allegedly planning and executing the riots. At the same time, it has been reluctant to pursue allegations against Bharatiya Janata Party leaders like Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur and several other Sangh parivar activists who publicly gave inflammatory and communal speeches ahead of the riots.

An analysis of the nature of riot cases and chargesheets filed against multiple accused persons indicates the Delhi police’s investigation are marred by selectivity. Many media reports have also shown how a number of riot chargesheets filed by the police contain little or no evidence about the actual complicity of the arrested persons in the riots.

A careful scrutiny of recent chargesheets, FIRs and summons suggests the police has begun to systematically target members 0f a WhatsApp group called Delhi Protests Support Group (DPSG), created on December 28, 2019, by cultural and political activists who were publicly opposed to the CAA, and intended to support the spontaneous pan-India community protests against the Act and NRC. Already, some member of the group have been arrested and charged with stringent laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The group had more than 100 members, including  filmmakers Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan, political activists Kavita Krishnan, Yogendra Yadav and Annie Raja, and social activists Harsh Mander, Gautam Mody, N.D. Jayaprakash, Apoorvanand, Anjali Bhardwaj, Nadeem Khan and many others. Pinjra Tod founding member Natasha Narwal, former JNU student Umar Khalid and United Against Hate activist Khalid Saifi, all of whom have been booked on UAPA charges, were also members. Of the last three names, Umar Khalid has not so far been arrested.

The Wire has learnt from sources familiar with the investigation that the Delhi Police is trying to buttress its claim about the riots being a “deep-rooted conspiracy” by referring to some discussions that happened in the DPSG. The sources said that many civil society members who have been called by the Delhi Police Special Cell for its ongoing riots’ probe have been asked about the DPSG.

Also read: Delhi Riots: LG’s Order on Appointment of Prosecutors Smacks of Bad Faith, Immorality

What does the Delhi Police say?

That DPSG and its members are at the centre of the probe is reflected in a few documents the Delhi Police has produced in courts.

For instance, in an arrest memo, the Delhi Police has claimed that one anti-CAA activist, Shadab Ahmad, who was booked following the riots, named some DPSG members and said that they frequently visited protest sites and gave “inciting speeches”. The police also claim in Ahmad’s disclosure statement that many DPSG members advocated the use of violence as a protest strategy.

The first page of Shadab Ahmad’s disclosure statement.

In a statement given to the police, Ahmad, who is from Bijnor but has been working in Delhi, said that he was introduced to critical sentiments about the CAA and NRC by his friends and one WhatsApp group called “People Against Fascism”. He then started participating frequently in anti-CAA protests in Delhi and gradually became one of the stage managers at different protest sites. He added that he met members of the DPSG at these protests, and kept in constant touch with them because of his stage management work.

His statement identifies a few of the members of the DPSG, which he calls “Delhi Protests Solidarity Group”, and goes on to say how the group members met at the Indian Social Institute, Delhi on January 22 to discuss the possibilities of giving the anti-CAA protests an “offensive” character. His statement goes on to allege in some detail how DPSG members justified the use of violence and militant protests like “chakka jam” or roadblocks. He said that some of the activists spoke about storing “red chilli powder”, sticks, iron rods, petrol bombs and acid to use on the police if they disrupted their militant protests.

The overall thrust of his statement is that many of these activists wanted to destabilise the Narendra Modi government through the protests, especially when US President Donald Trump was visiting India, and that they held secret meetings and created “secret codes” to plan their agitations.

Women’s Day (March 8) at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: PTI

Interestingly, Ahmad pointed out some instances when DPSG members differed with each other during the course of his participation in the anti-CAA riots. These were incidents which had also led to heated exchanges between DPSG members on the WhatsApp group. The police are using Ahmad’s statement to corroborate their claim that DPSG members allegedly planned the riots.

Similarly, the Delhi Police’s focus on DPSG comes across vividly from a flowchart in the chargesheet on constable Ratan Lal’s killing on the first day of the riots. The flowchart seeks to establish a connection between the alleged rioters and many prominent civil society activists, including some DPSG members, who are termed as “conspirators”.

The ‘flowchart’ from the Delhi police chargesheet.

What was the DPSG?

Formed after a December 26, 2019 meeting of prominent activists – all of whom have distinguished records as advocates of Indian secularism and social justice – the group remained active for a little more than two months. Over this period, it became a virtual meeting point for activists of varied political hues to discuss the nature of their support to the anti-CAA protests, while also functioning as an information platform and resource group. Before creating the group, members had agreed that it would not be a coordinating body between different protests, which were spontaneously being led by communities across India, but would restrict itself to “sharing information and supporting sites by identifying speakers and artists”.

The Wire has accessed details of the group’s chats in the form of a file that ran to hundreds of pages. Like most such advocacy groups, members discussed and debated how best to support the anti-CAA protests. Even while differences turned into heated exchanges, members tried to resolve them democratically.

One such difference of opinion on which the Delhi Police has been trying to advance its “conspiracy” theory was over Pinjra Tod’s attempts to mobilise anti-CAA women activists to block roads as a measure of protest.

Watch: Why a Lawyer Representing Delhi Riots Victims Has Questioned Police Probe

Far from revealing any conspiracy to trigger confrontations and violence, as the police claim, the chat transcript shows DPSG group members reacting to and analysing – in real time from February 22 night to February 25 – news coming in of anti-CAA protestors in different locations, especially Jafrabad, spontaneously resorting to chakka jam or roadblocks, and of counter-mobilisations by BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra.

Some members saw in these developments the danger of communal violence breaking out and said the women should not have blocked the road, while others noted that it was inevitable the protest had become “confrontational” as “there was a certain desperation to being heard and acknowledged”. There was nothing prescriptive or actionable about these exchanges, which were conducted openly in the group which had more than 100 members.

The transcript shows how members of the DPSG argued among themselves about the turn that events had taken, with some blaming others for having been “adventurist” in supporting the various sit-in protests which had emerged in different parts of Delhi loosely modelled on Shaheen Bagh.

Given the fact that the sit-in dharnas over the previous two months hadn’t moved the government to reconsider its decision on the CAA and yet protestors had to face police beatings, some members of the WhatsApp group were reluctant to fault the protestors for their sudden decision to block the road. However, others felt that the timing of the chakka jam was wrong, given the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearing on a petition that challenged the Shaheen Bagh protest on the grounds that it hampered normal traffic. Some others were also mindful of any action that could give Hindutva activists a window to unleash a communal conflagration.

However, this was a debate over the pros and cons of events which the group members were clearly not driving, even if the sudden build-up of tension at Jafrabad led some members to accused others of being morally responsible, a charge the latter denied.

More importantly, these arguments were happening in a democratic atmosphere, where members were freely articulating their viewpoints. The DPSG chats show that it was anything but a secretive group hatching a conspiracy. Instead, it highlights the complications of democratic protests. It shows how, unlike an authoritarian group, democratic groups articulate their differing views without fear and try to formulate a common minimum agenda.

Consider one such exchange on the group from February 17:

A: Yesterday, we at chandbagh tried to organize a meeting of 5 protest site namely 1)Chandbagh 2)Mustafabad 3)Kardumpuri 4)Zafrabad & 5)Sunder Nagri.

We invited only organizers for meeting.

Sunder Nagri didn’t participated and some uninvited and disturbing elements somehow got aware of meeting time and venue and as a result meeting failed. Our agenda was how to sustain the on-going protests and how to coordinate between these protest sites as they within 5km radius.

B: Sandeep Pandey arrested. Taken to Thakurganj thana in Lucknow

C: Some ppl are saying they discussed about 1 protest instead of 4 and some road block plan

A: This message was deleted

A: It was a brainstorming session but “Some ppl” were there with a aim to disturb that meeting.

D: *I was there in a meeting. And many of us clearly stated that we don’t want any Road Block in our Protest sites.*

E: If the aim is to raise public consciousness about the issue, and sympathy and support for the cause, “road block” is the worst form of protest. Please don’t adopt such tactics.

D: Locals from any protest sites are not willing to block the road. Because they are locals and they will suffer.

But some outsiders who claim to facilitate the protests, they are planning to block the roads.

A is saying disturbing elements to some of us who are strongly opposing any road blockade in our trans Yamuna protest sites.

We want nonviolent protests. We can’t allow road block plans. 

A: D, no asked anyone to block any road. And last night also when you mentioned this is a “Women Led Movement” please tell uss how many women were there with you in that meeting ?

A: If we are saying this is a Women led movement let them lead.

A: Please stop showing male dominance everywhere.

A: Let it be. I sent this message to make all aware of that meeting and our core agenda of that meeting- Sustainability of protests and Coordination.

I’m not willing to get indulge in any debate nor i was willing to debate last night.

D: Two people from our organising team said.

And you deleted your own message where you mentioned about the road block plan.

I was there in my individual capacity. I was not representing any group.

You can’t distract the issue, please.

We don’t want violence in our areas. And we will prevent violence at any cost. 

You may label me with anything. I will not let violence happen.

E: You are right but they all are first time protestors ,who will tell th about the consequences.

35 of them who arrested in delhi gate area ,4 of them can’t work till now ,all of them were daily wage workers . So we have to see the other part of coin and that is our real responsibility .

A: We have to work with them. But what really happening is we are working on behalf of them.

Shaheen Bagh on Republic Day. Photo: Raghu Karnad/The Wire

There was definitely a difference of opinion, in which some thought that “the lack of perceptible impact of the sit ins” had led to “a certain desperation to being heard and acknowledged”, and this may lead to protestors trying out new strategies, one of which could be a peaceful chakka jam. A senior member of the group noted that the next phase of this movement could be confrontational and they would have to “wait and see the outcomes”.

Yet another chat, days ahead of the riots, also had members disagreeing.

X: Women are sitting peacefully (talking about a roadblock on February 22)

Y: *Because of your fantasies, we the locals of Seelampur and trans-Yamuna are in great trouble. All localities are worried.* We still have wounds of 1992, 2006, and recent violence against us by state where none of you stood with us. Very very irresponsible behavior. In Delhi Gate Daryaganj, you did fight with Police, but none of you got arrested. You ran away. Our local people got arrested and facing trials.

For your adventures, we suffer badly.

Z: Aur Subha court Mai hearing bhi hai

X: We have been quiet for a while listening to whatever false rumours you have been spreading but this is crossing all limits. It’s completely false. And if you want to see what the local women are saying, please come here and see for yourself. And please stop negating their agency. They are the ones leading.

M: Can we all meet and discuss this ? To have better clarity on things

X: I request all of you who have doubts, please come here and see for yourself. Thousands of women are on the streets. I don’t think they are so foolish that we can make them do something completely against their will. Please stop negating their agency. Humble request

N: +1

O: +1

There were other exchanges in which senior members of the group categorically said before the riots that the anti-CAA activists should be extremely careful not to provide any opportunity to Sangh parivar activists to unleash violence at the protest sites.

Also read: ‘Tear Them Apart’: How Hindutva WhatsApp Group Demanded Murder, Rape of Muslims in Delhi Riots

There were multiple messages from different members in the group to prevent any situation at the sit-ins that may escalate.

“At least we should not appreciate more sit in Muslim dominating areas. Plus if there’s any plan for sit-in then do it on the strategical location where your voice can be heard, not at your safe zone where hardly anyone cares and affect locals. People will exhaust their resources out of emotions (sic),” one member said.

Similarly, another warned on February 23, “What needs to be ensured at all protests is that it doesn’t slip into a communal confrontation. And that will be the biggest danger as this second phase becomes more confrontational. It would be sensible to take two steps back if there is any danger of a communal conflagration. The Hindutva brigade has been extremely restive and confused by the nature and language of the protests until now. They also know how critical the NPR boycott is for the movement and will try their best to bring this to the field they are most comfortable with – communal tension and divide. This movement needs to be hyper aware of this probability and not let it happen.”

In this context, one message – in fact, the first on the group just after it was launched on December 29, 2019, read thus:

 “The State’s reaction should be predicted , and we must be prepared for it
– They can discredit by lying
– They can discredit by pitting hindus vs muslims
– They can discredit by calling it an urban naxal instigated phenomenon
– Use force to crush
 Variations of all the above are already in play”.

The same lengthy message on the group also notes, “The Central Government is intent on stamping out the movement or converting the protests into communal confrontations. It would be disastrous to fall into that trap.”

As the riots unfolded, several prominent members of the group wrote to Delhi Commissioner of Police Amulya Patnaik asking him to bring the deteriorating law and order situation under control.

The letter sent to Amulya Patnaik.

Speaking to The Wire, an activist who was part of the DPSG said, “The group was an open platform for communication, most people did not know each other and as and when either someone from a local protest site or from civil society expressed an interest, they were included in the group.”

“A few physical meetings of the group were called at the Gandhi Peace Foundation or the Indian Social Institute where people from the local protest groups urged writers, artists, activists to come to the sites or assist in identifying others to address the protestors regarding political and social rights, CAA, NRC, NPR and using creative art forms as an expression,” the member added, emphasising that the group was created solely to explore how they could support the “spontaneous anti-CAA movement” led by women across India.

If there is anything the chat transcript shows, it is that the DPSG wasn’t a homogenous group. It had members with differing viewpoints who were united by their faith in constitutional nationalism, non-violence and a multi-faith democracy. Similarly, all of them were anti-fascist and critical of majoritarian governments across the world.

Even while debating whether the chakka jam – a common protest tactic which has been adopted by innumerable social and political movements – could lead to violence or not, the members implicitly held the BJP and the Sangh parivar responsible for potential communal violence, and not one amongst them. They constantly discussed threats by far-right groups like the Hindu Sena and others against the protestors, and warned people against them. Ahead of the riots, when BJP leaders like Anurag Thakur and other made anti-Muslim and anti-Shaheen Bagh remarks during the Delhi assembly election campaign, members of the DPSG feared escalation.

On the day of the riots, when Mishra openly threatened violence against anti-CAA protestors in front of the police, there was again a disagreement over the “chakka jam”, in which some members held others responsible for ignoring previous warnings of escalation.

Police investigations construe disagreements as conspiracy

The group became defunct after the first week of March, when all anti-CAA sit-ins were forcefully removed either by the rioters or the Delhi Police. Yet, the police appears to have based its investigation into the riots ‘conspiracy’ on select exchanges in the DPSG group. Meanwhile, it refuses to conduct a probe into BJP leaders who appear to have a direct role in perpetuating violence. It believes that the call for a roadblock by anti-CAA activists led to the violence, and not the BJP-led communal build-up during the assembly polls or even the mobilisation by Mishra on February 23 which turned out to be the trigger for the clashes at Jafrabad which then spread to other areas of northeast Delhi.

Even if one assumes that some members of the DPSG ignored warnings of violence by some others, there is nothing in the group’s chat transcripts to support the Delhi police theory that the DPSG “created conditions for violence during the anti-CAA riots” or played a direct role in the riots. All the police have is “witness” statements like Ahmad’s.

What gets discounted in the Delhi Police probe is the fact that the anti-CAA protests, which had been peacefully continuing in different parts of the national capital since December, were the first targets of the Hindutva rioters. The violence began with mobs demolishing protest sites in Northeast Delhi, and attacking protestors. In other parts of the national capital, the Delhi Police itself sent its platoons to uproot protest sites. Within the two days during which communal violence was unleashed, all sites of the two-month-long anti-CAA protests were systematically destroyed.

Also read: Despite Senior Officer’s Nod, Delhi Police Refuses to Give Information About Riots

Subsequently, community leaders who were leading these protests on the ground were arrested. Many reports during the riots observed the Delhi Police’s failure in controlling the riots while pointing out its alleged complicity. So much was its role criticised that even the Supreme Court took note of Delhi Police’s “unprofessionalism” during the riots. Even as the courts have begun hearing riots cases, the Delhi high court recently rebuked the Delhi police over a senior police official’s order directing the investigating officers to go easy on alleged Hindu rioters.

Over the last few years, members of the DPSG have emerged as some of the most strident critics of the Narendra Modi government and its policies. They have actively led and participated in movements to consolidate opinion against various decisions of the Union government. At the same time, many of them have organised protests against a spate of communal lynchings and riots, and have spoken out frequently against the alleged political patronage that extremist Hindutva outfits seem to have enjoyed under the BJP-led Centre.

Central investigative agencies have made such critics languish in prison in the Bhima Koregaon case without producing any credible evidence. Attempts by the Delhi Police – which is under the Union home ministry – to hold DPSG members responsible for communal riots reeks of similar political vendetta.

For outside observers, the communal riots clearly looked like a Hindutva plan to crush one of the biggest resistance movements in independent India’s history. In that regard, there was a conspiracy at play, but not the one which the Delhi Police would like us to look for.

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