POLITICS
22/04/2020 4:46 PM IST | Updated 22/04/2020 4:46 PM IST

Delhi Riots Death Toll Halved, Arrests Vastly Reduced In Delhi Police's Reply To RTI

The Delhi Police reported 52 deaths to the home ministry but cited the much lower figure of 23 deaths in its reply to an RTI query.

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A man grieving inside his burnt factory of Sarees in Shiv Vihar, a neighbourhood that saw some of the worst instances of communal violence in late February. 

NEW DELHI— The Delhi Police has given vastly divergent figures about the number of people who died in the Delhi riots in February— and the number of people it arrested in connection with the violence—to the union home ministry and in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application, documents reviewed by HuffPost India show.  

Junior home minister G. Kishan Reddy told at least three Rajya Sabha MPs in written replies on 18 March that, according to information received from the Delhi Police, 52 people lost their lives due to the communal violence. This is the number that has been used in several news reports as well.

However, Delhi Police public information officer-cum-deputy commissioner of police (crime) Dr. Joy Tirkey quoted a much lower figure—23 deaths—while responding in writing on April 13 to RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak’s application. 

There is a similar lack of clarity about the number of arrests made by the police in connection with the communal violence. The junior home minister, in response to specific questions from the three Rajya Sabha MPs about the number of people arrested, wrote that “3,304 persons have been arrested/detained”, basing this on information provided by the city police.

But Tirkey—in response to Nayak asking for a list of people arrested in connection with the communal violence—wrote, “Total 48 persons have been arrested in communal violence in Delhi.”  

He also refused to reveal the names and other details as displayed in the police’s control room, which Nayak had requested, claiming that sharing these details was exempted under section 8 (1)(h) of the RTI Act

Effectively, Tirkey argued that sharing the information could hinder the police’s probe or prosecution of those linked with the communal violence but did not explain how. 

Interestingly, more than a month ago, on March 12, Delhi Police PRO MS Randhawa told reporters in a briefing that “over 200” people had been arrested “and this number will further increase”. A recent report in The Indian Express, apparently based on information shared by officials off record, put the number of people arrested in context with the communal violence in excess of 800. 

HuffPost India reached out to Tirkey to understand why there is such stark variance in official figures pertaining to the number of deaths due to communal violence, and those arrested in connection with it, but did not receive a response. This report will be updated if and when he responds. 

The Delhi Police’s handling of the riots that broke out in northeast Delhi in the last week of February has been heavily criticised. The police were slow to react to reports of violence and eyewitnesses have said that often, the personnel were unable or unwilling to step in and control the violence. 

On Tuesday, the police booked former JNU student activist Umar Khalid and two Jamia Millia Islamia students under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Sections pertaining to terrorist acts or their funding were imposed on them. The police have not yet taken any action against BJP leader Kapil Mishra, whose incendiary speech allegedly incited the violence.

WHY TRANSPARENCY IS ESSENTIAL

Venkatesh Nayak, who is presently the Programme Head of the Access to Information Programme at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told HuffPost India that he has filed an appeal against Tirkey’s response, arguing that it was “misleading” and “false information”. 

“The Public Information Officer’s reply on both counts—vis-a-vis the figures of deaths and arrests—are in complete variance with the data tabled by the home ministry in Parliament during the debate on the communal violence and also in response to an unstarred question. It’s worth noting that the RTI application was submitted prior to the tabling of this data in the House,” he said, explaining that this compromised an essential principle relating to the transparency legislation.

“So, in effect, the RTI Act’s noble principle that information that cannot be denied to Parliament, must not be denied to any citizen, has been given the go-by in many ways. Because the arrests and related details are information that should anyway be public under section 41C of the criminal procedure code,” Nayak noted. 

The Public Information Officer’s reply on both counts—vis-a-vis the figures of deaths and arrests—are in complete variance with the data tabled by the home ministry in Parliament during the debate on the communal violence and also in response to an unstarred question. It’s worth noting that the RTI application was submitted prior to the tabling of this data in the House.Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Head, Access To Information Programme, CHRI

This information relates to the identity of the persons arrested and the charges that have been imposed against them, among other things. 

The RTI applicant also pointed out that since this was information relating to the life and death of individuals, the response should have been given under 48 hours but the reply was sent several weeks later. 

When asked what prompted him to seek data about the number and identity of those who died and those who were arrested in connection with the communal violence, Nayak explained that it was important for the public to know who lost lives. “Right now, we do not have any authentic source from official circles about such information. What we know is reports compiled painstakingly by the media houses so it would be in public interest for official authentication of such information,” he said.

Former Indian Police Service officer and Central Information Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad also disagreed with the reason given by DCP Tirkey for rejecting Venkatesh’s application for information.  

“I don’t think it will impede investigation. I don’t understand how by giving the number of deaths or number of people who are arrested, it impedes investigation,” he said. 

Azad also said that Tirkey’s reply was not legally sound.

“In RTI, you can’t just quote a section. You have to justify the section. Justify how by giving the information it will impede investigation,” he said.

He explained that earlier, the police wouldn’t share details about how many victims suffered and which communities they belonged to to prevent an adverse public reaction. But he noted that the police should become more transparent as times had changed.

“These are old theories. Today they don’t hold water. Truth should come out. Today the truth does not impact anything; I can understand if it were to impact national sovereignty or security. I would myself say that it should not be given. But on the face of it, I would say that information should be given. Unless they prove to the CIC that it’s so sensitive that giving out this information will tamper the investigations or it will create problems,” he said.

EVEN MPs AREN’T GIVEN CLEAR ANSWERS

Rajya Sabha MP Vandana Chavan, who was one of the three politicians to have received the response from the junior home minister cited earlier in this report, told HuffPost India that the variance in number was “serious” and that she would ask a question in parliament about it in the a future session of the upper House. “Which is true: this or that number? Maybe this session or the next. Parliament is the only forum where this can be asked,” she said. 

Chavan revealed that, not just Nayak’s RTI, even her own questions in Parliament relating to the communal violence in Delhi did not get a proper response. 

“There was a specific question asked whether the government has taken or proposes to take action against those inciting violence through hate speeches. Now these speeches were all viral, we all know who they were. There is no question of referring it to an SIT. But the answer is that teams have been constituted to arrest the culprits and collect evidence,” Chavan informed. 

The Nationalist Congress Party MP said that she felt that “they are deviating from the direct action which needs to be taken”. By this, she meant “arresting those who have made those hate speeches, which have resulted in incitement of violence”.   

The Nationalist Congress Party MP Vandana Chavan said that she felt that “they are deviating from the direct action which needs to be taken”. By this, she meant “arresting those who have made those hate speeches, which have resulted in incitement of violence”.

Nayak explained why he was seeking full details under section 41C of the CrPC about those who were arrested. “The data about arrests is part of the exercise that we had started since 2014 to get police departments across the country to comply with the transparency requirements under section 41 C of the CrPC,” he said. 

The transparency campaigner noted that, as on date, the Delhi Police is  only“compliant in a minimal way” about data relating to arrests. In practical terms this means the Delhi Police officials put up such data only for 24 hours. 

“Older data is not available, unlike that of Kerala, where information about arrestees is available district wise and every police station from April 2014 onwards. So the ultimate goal is to get the Delhi Police to comply not only with the right to information act but also with the transparency obligations under the criminal procedure code,” he said. 

There are also several “data fields”  missing from data about arrests, including the offences for which suspects have been identified, he added.