POLITICS
11/03/2020 7:32 AM IST | Updated 11/03/2020 7:32 AM IST

Delhi Riots: Modi Govt Should Have Asked For A Court-Monitored Probe, Says Journalist Who Covered 1984, 2002 Violence

Manoj Mitta, who has researched on and written books about the riots in 2002 and 1984, looks at the past to make sense of the communal violence in 2020 in this interview.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters
People mourn next to the body of Muddasir Khan, who was wounded during the communal violence that occurred in North-East district of Delhi over three days in the fourth week of February, 2020. 

NEW DELHI—Learning from the incidents of communal violence in 1984 and 2002, the Narendra Modi-led government, if it is earnest about probing the recent violence in the national capital, should have sought a Delhi High Court monitored investigation led by police officials from outside the Delhi Police to instil confidence among citizens, author and journalist Manoj Mitta said in an interview with HuffPost India

“The lessons that were clear for all to see from 84 and 2002 were that you should have an SIT from outside and it should ideally be court monitored,” said Mitta, who spent several years researching and writing about communal violence that occurred in 1984 and 2002—years which have come to represent the anti-sikh violence in Delhi and anti-muslim violence in Gujarat, respectively.

When asked if he believes, like in the case of probes relating to the violence in 2002 and 1984, the Supreme Court should have also taken over the monitoring of the SIT probe as well, he said, “They could have asked the Delhi High Court, need not be the Supreme Court, to monitor investigation proactively on the pattern of 84 and 2002. To instil confidence.” 

Days after the communal violence, the Delhi Police set up two Special Investigation Teams led by its own officials to conduct a probe and bring perpetrators to book. Mitta feels, given the allegations of complicity in the communal violence against some police officials, the police officers probing the violence could do it “with the preconception of shielding their colleagues”.

The author of ‘When A Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage And Its Aftermath’ and ‘The Fiction Of Fact Finding: A Study Of The Gujarat 2002 Investigations’ also feels that both Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi were one-sided in a similar way and against the respective minority communities which were targeted under their rule. 

“When Modi was making his peace appeal, there was a certain one-sidedness that you saw in Rajiv Gandhi’s speech in 1984. His peace appeal was made at a stage that was more sensitive than Rajiv Gandhi’s. Rajiv Gandhi’s speech was made at a stage where violence had subsided and he had kicked off his election campaign with that very unfortunate display of discrimination against minority community,” he noted.  

“Whereas in 2002, this happened at an early stage of the violence which went on for several weeks. So it was there for all to see, the signal, at an early stage. At a sensitive stage of the violence. So I see that one-sidedness in 84, 2002 and unfortunately, much to my disappointment and shock, even in 2020.”

Mitta similarly drew many parallels and also listed differences in the incidents of communal violence that occurred in the national capital in 2020 and 1984 as well as in Gujarat in 2002. 

In this exhaustive conversation, he also dwelled upon the often contentious issue of the apt definition for the three incidents of communal violence cited previously. Riots, pogroms or communal clashes—which term captures the reality of the ghastly violence more accurately?

“In the case of 2002 and 1984, the expression I have often used is carnage because it conveys far more than just this expression ‘riots’. And it also, to my mind, conveys this element of how violence was allowed to take place. I avoided using the word pogrom because it puts too much responsibility on me to establish clearly the role of the state in that systematic violence. Because not everything can be done by the state machinery. It could also be done by non-state actors so it becomes very messy, so I preferred in my writing ‘carnage’ or ‘targetted violence’ and I would also use ‘genocidal killings’ given the definition of genocide. That’s a legally tenable definition. It fits the international framework,” he explained. 

Speaking about the communal violence in Delhi in 2020, Mitta said, “What is clearly the case, given the scale of violence and its fallout, is that it’s very reminiscent of targeted violence that one saw in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. This was far from just a clash between two communities, there was something heavily loaded against the minority community.” 

Edited excerpts from  interview:

What is your understanding about the comparisons and linkages that some commentators have made between the incidents of communal violence in 1984, 2002 and 2020?

Since you mentioned that the Delhi riots lasted three days, the first similarity that occurs to me is that in 1984 too, it was essentially for three days. Of course, the scale of violence and nature of violence was different. Different in the sense that, as you very well know, the casualties then were far, far greater. And the official death toll which they arrived at three or four years later, was 2733. And this was in Delhi alone, in a span of three days. 

The nature was also different in the sense that it was almost entirely one sided. The situation was so overwhelmingly against the targeted minority community—in that instance, the Sikhs—that there was hardly any instance of them having exercised their right to self-defense and causing any casualties in the process. 

Now, here again, there was an instance of it being reported—I have not been following the news too closely of Delhi riotsbut what I remember being struck by was that there was this headline about shoot at sight orders. So there was something to that effect during 84 riots also. There was curfew that was imposed, however belatedly. But it was imposed, say, during those three days. It was not there from the beginning but in the course of the carnage that was unleashed. But it was hardly effective. 

The police was there, the army was being deployed gradually right from November 1, which was the first day of the violence, district-wise. It was introduced on the first day in two districts of Delhi. It gradually spread to other districts in the course of those three days. But even then, violence was spreading despite the induction of the army. 

And then what was seen then was that, on the third day, around the time of the official cremation of Indira Gandhi, which took place near Rajghat, around that time the violence suddenly subsided. It was as if somebody had turned off the tap. It’s often mistakenly assumed that it is because the Army was introduced then. No. Army was introduced right on the first day in a couple of districts. Then by the second day it more or less spread to the whole of Delhi. Even then violence was going on.

Why I am mentioning this is because, in the case of Delhi 2020, in the course of violence it was suggested, there were certain demands, that Army be called in but that didn’t happen thankfully; even before that stage came, violence had subsided. 

The similarities are also to do with the conduct of the police. Very extensively people saw the police either making themselves scarce, looking the other way, being completely ineffective or mute spectators to violence, and in several instances they were even found to be complicit. 

But what happened in 84 which did not happen at all in 2020 was police clearing the path for rioters by going to these targeted areas where a lot of members of the minority community live; going as some kind of an advance party for these rioters, and disarming them. Going and telling them, “Look we have come. We are there to take care of your security. To prevent any clashes and escalation of violence, we want you to give us your weapons. Your kirpans, licensed firearms you may have.” So they went home after home and disarmed Sikhs. Once they disarmed them, they would disappear from there and the mob would come, take over that place. And these people would be completely at the mob’s mercy. 

There were two clear patterns in 1984 which I think did not happen in 2020. And I am pointing this out for whatever it is worth. They disarmed them and wherever the Sikhs were present collectively, because there was still scope for them to offer collective resistance, they would tell them to disperse, to go back to their homes, to render them to be vulnerable to more attacks. The police would then disappear, and not stay true to their promise of being their guardians. 

In ’84, lot of journalists said that they missed out on the scale of violence initially because they were preoccupied with covering what was happening at Teen Murti Bhavan, because that is where the body of Mrs Gandhi lay in state. There were foreign dignitaries from around the world and there were state leaders and thousands of others. 

So all the drama was focused on that and stories of what happened to her, how that killing took place by the bodyguards. As a result of the obsession with that, the violence against Sikhs fell through the cracks. They didn’t get the attention they deserved. 

Something similar happened in 2020. Contemporaneously, this issue of violence in north-east Delhi, though it wasn’t anything as unforeseen as 84, because that happened as a result of the assassination, here it was building up. Despite the tell tale signs, journalists were missing in action, distracted, diverted by the Trump visit.  

I want us to discuss the role of the police in detail a little later in the interview. I also mentioned the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. So what are the similarities or parallels in the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 and in Delhi in 2020? If you think there are any. 

Okay. So I just now drew parallels between 84 and 2020. Now let me draw some parallels between 2002 and 2020. The one thing that occurs to me is that, after a gap of two days or so, Modi reacted to it through his tweets. Now, those tweets were strikingly similar to the manner in which Rajiv Gandhi spoke at that November 19, Boat Club speech. 

What is that similarity? He just made an anodyne appeal for peace.  Okay. In the case of Rajiv Gandhi, he didn’t have to make an appeal for peace because by then violence had subsided. But essentially there was this silence on the part of both Modi the Prime Minister and Rajiv Gandhi the Prime Minister on the violence that had taken place. There was no word of condemnation of the perpetrators.  There was not even a word of sympathy for the people who had suffered. 

This is very significant. All the more so because there is this narrative that 2020 can’t be called anti-Muslim violence because there were casualties from both sides. Though evidence suggests that it was more anti-Muslim than anti-Hindu. And the reason for that is not too far to seek. There are all these videos which show that the police behaved in a certain way. So that also could have tilted the balance that way. 

In 2020 instance (Modi’s lack of condemnation of the perpetrators) is more curious because the victims are supposed to be equally of both communities. So in spite of that, Modi did not say a word. Which suggests that deep down they know it’s not what they are claiming; both communities being equally affected is not true. Had that been the case I would have expected a self-confessed Hindu nationalist to be very mindful of people who are very hurt in his community and go out of his way to express sympathy for them. So if the damage was equal, then I wouldn’t have expected Modi to be silent on the question of expressing sympathy.  So that was one thing. 

As far as 2002 is concerned, he responded very promptly, the very next day. If you remember, it began with the violence in Godhra on 27 February 2002. The train burning incident in which some 59 karsevaks, we don’t know for sure if all of them were kar sevaks because seven of them were never identified, but they were all essentially from one bogie which caught fire. He talked about how Hindus had been killed in that incident. He talked about it very extensively in his appeal for peace, which he recorded on the evening of February 28 from Ahmedabad. It was a recording he gave to Doordarshan. A peace appeal which was run several times in the course of the next few days. 

In that, his focus was entirely on the casualties that were suffered in Godhra and he didn’t have a word of sympathy or concern for what happened that very day on February 28, 2002—the day he recorded that message at 6 pm—in Ahmedabad. In the course of that day, before 6 pm, there was retaliatory violence in Ahmedabad. There was one big massacre that had already taken place by then. 

By 4 o clock, 69 people had been killed in a Muslim majority residential area called Gulberg society. Ten more than Godhra. And he was recording his message two hours later when the massacre had been completely executed. This was also the time when Modi was not only the Chief Minister, he also had the Home portfolio. 

By his own admission, he was constantly monitoring the situation. As you would expect from someone who takes pride in being a very hands-on political leader, who is strong on law and order issues. So he was getting information on a real time basis. And yet, when he was issuing his peace appeal a couple of hours later, he did not say a word about a massacre that had already taken place. And a massacre that was already going on in a suburb of Ahmedabad, Naroda Patiya—not very far from where he was speaking. That was an even bigger massacre with 96 people dead. He didn’t say a word about that.

I see that one-sidedness in 84, 2002 and unfortunately, much to my disappointment and shock, even in 2020.

The point I am trying to make is that when Modi was making his peace appeal, there was a certain one-sidedness that you saw in Rajiv Gandhi’s speech in 1984. His peace appeal was made at a stage that was more sensitive than Rajiv Gandhi’s. Rajiv Gandhi’s speech was made at a stage where violence had subsided and he had kicked off his election campaign with that very unfortunate display of discrimination against minority community. 

Whereas in 2002, this happened at an early stage of the violence which went on for several weeks. So it was there for all to see, the signal, at an early stage. At a sensitive stage of the violence. So I see that one-sidedness in 84, 2002 and unfortunately, much to my disappointment and shock, even in 2020. I thought given the global profile he acquired and given the need for him to appear fair and even-handed, he would be more forthcoming in condemning violence, be more forthcoming in promising strong action against the perpetrators; but all we got in that very belated response in a couple of tweets was an anodyne appeal for peace. 

Manoj Mitta/Facebook
Author and journalist Manoj Mitta.

Overall, what do you make of the conduct of the police during the communal violence in Delhi in 2020 compared to 84 and 2002? 

What was so disappointing and shocking was that, even in 2020, when communal violence rears its head in a city like Delhi, this pattern of police looking the other way or being complicit in it has again surfaced. It’s been widely reported and alleged. 

You see greater visual evidence of their complicity in the way they physically assaulted Muslims or indulged in stone throwing etc. On the other hand, what we also never got to see nor did it ever happen in 84 or 2002 was the instance of cops being actually kicked out. They are being attacked. Cops being assaulted, killed. You have the instance of a head constable being killed and an instance of a DCP, an IPS officer, injured on his head. This never happened. There was no such instance at all. What it indicates is there was greater evidence of Muslims acting in self-defence, if they were not aggressors in certain instances. It is evidence of them organising, reacting and mobilising enough strength to hit back in this manner. 

In 2002, there were instances of Hindus being killed but that happened later. In the first few days, when the retaliatory violence was going on, they (the Muslims) were as outnumbered and overwhelmed as Sikhs were in Delhi, but then it dragged on for several weeks. It went on for almost 3 months. So there were, in some instances, Hindus also killed. 

There was a pattern of omnibus FIRs [First Information Report] being filed in 84. In 2002, it was not so blatant. There were many FIRs that were filed unlike in 84. Again, in 2020, you see some 500 FIRs being filed. Which is an improvement. And here I am speaking from the point of view of systems.

What do you make of the role played by courts in providing justice to victims of communal violence? 

In 84, we were at a lower level of evolution in terms of systems. Things that happened in 84 could not have happened in 2002, much less so is it conceivable in 2020. Why? Because our systems have evolved now. Things can’t be so blatant. Besides, of course, the factor that I mentioned earlier which is technology. Everybody is a journalist now in that sense. Everybody can now capture very damaging evidence on their phones, right? 

So systems have evolved beyond just that technology factor. In 1984, there was no National Human Rights Commission. And courts were not so willing to display activism which they, at that stage, were willing to display in the context of softer subjects, safer subjects like, say, bonded labour or environmental damage, PILs. 

In 84, when an attempt was made by some activists from PUDR to ask for an enquiry to be ordered, because Rajiv Gandhi was so blatant in dismissing any demands for enquiry, he said things like, “I don’t want to reopen old wounds so there is no question of holding any enquiry”. So when he was blocking all these demands, these people had gone to the courts and a court dismissed that petition with disparaging remarks. 

Today you raise questions about how the judiciary is not being independent enough. It was not very different in the way they handled questions relating to 84. 

When Sajjan Kumar was being tried, the way in which the trial court allowed the complainant Anwar Kaur to be grilled over an extended period and prolonged dates were given till she, from their point of view, broke down and said something which was going to help them to cast aspersions on the credibility of her testimony. The case was then decided in Sajjan Kumar’s favour. Cases against Sajjan Kumar collapsed in the lower court. Which is why what happened in 2018 in Delhi High Court is so important, when Justice S Muralidhar awarded life term to Sajjan Kumar—the first ever instance of a political leader being convicted in the context of 84 riots. 

But then the sad irony is, by then, the comparable conviction in the Gujarat context, which was of Maya Kodnani, had been reversed that same year by the Gujarat High Court. 

In a further irony, the man who restored semblance of faith in the system, he then became a casualty of the 2020 violence. Not that he was not already going to be transferred, a recommendation had already been made by the Supreme Court collegium. But then the comments he made while hearing the petition relating to registration of FIR on hate speech seem to have rattled the government so much that that very night, they issued this at an odd hour in a manner which they normally don’t do. Which only shows he was also an equal opportunity offender. He was only reacting to human rights violations, on the question of hate speech in the manner in which a judge ought to. But if it is politically inconvenient, this is the way the system reacts. This is a glaring instance of that. 

In 2002, if the Supreme Court felt the need to have an SIT—which was the first time it had been set up in a matter of communal violence—it was because of the appalling record of the judiciary in Gujarat, particularly in the Best Bakery and Bilkis Bano cases, in both of which the SC felt the need to transfer them out of Gujarat.  

Getty Editorial
(Left) A protestor stands in a demonstration in November 2019 marking anniversary of the anti-Sikh carnage witnessed across India in 1984. (Right) A rioter believed to be a Bajrang Dal member commits arson on the street of Ahmedabad in February 2002. Both incidents of communal violence remain unresolved legally and politically with justice eluding victims every passing year, even as fears of India becoming a majoritarian republic mount.

Two SITs have been formed under the Delhi Police for probing the violence. Learning from the experience of communal violence in 1984 and 2002, how should the Narendra Modi government have responded to the violence in Delhi? Do you think a court monitored inquiry should have been sought?

Considering that there were these serious allegations of complicity against the police, it doesn’t make sense for the same police, it doesn’t inspire confidence to have a situation where the same police are investigating. Going by the experience of 84 and 2002, what does it show? When outside elements are involved, if it is either court-monitored or you have police officials who are from outside police forces, there is a better chance of some justice being done. 

So if you are earnest, you should logically draw lessons from what happened in the past and say, “Okay. On the pattern of what happened in 2002, let there be a court monitored SIT. Let there be an investigation done by, if not all police officers from outside, at least some key police officers, head of the SIT, from outside Delhi”.  

Then there would be greater credibility. Right now they would go there with the preconception of shielding their colleagues. Which is the reason why these instances have to be borne in mind. We forget, we move on, which makes it easy for the government to act as if it is operating on a clean slate. 

The lessons that were clear for all to see from 84 and 2002 were that you should have an SIT from outside and it should ideally be court monitored.  They could have asked the Delhi High Court, need not be the Supreme Court, to monitor investigation proactively on the pattern of 84 and 2002. To instil confidence. 

The lessons that were clear for all to see from 84 and 2002 were that you should have an SIT from outside and it should ideally be court monitored.

All the three incidents of communal violence that we discussed—84, 2002 and 2020—have been variously described as pogrom, riot and communal clash. How do you describe them?

In the case of 2002 and 1984, the expression I have often used is carnage because it conveys far more than just this expression ‘riots’. And it also, to my mind, conveys this element of how violence was allowed to take place. I avoided using the word pogrom because it puts too much responsibility on me to establish clearly the role of the state in that systematic violence. Because not everything can be done by the state machinery. It could also be done by non-state actors so it becomes very messy, so I preferred in my writing ‘carnage’ or ‘targetted violence’ and I would also use ‘genocidal killings’ given the definition of genocide. That’s a legally tenable definition. It fits the international framework and, as far as Delhi 2020 is concerned, what is clearly the case, given the scale of violence and its fallout, is that it’s very reminiscent of targeted violence that one saw in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. 

Roughly the same number of killings took place and the way so many members of the minority community were internally displaced. They were driven out of their homes, they felt so insecure, so much at threat that they had to move into relief camps and I even saw this appalling picture of a group of them leaving Delhi. It led to a situation where people had to flee the capital of the country to feel secure. That’s very telling about what happened and one should not go just by numbers. It’s not a numbers game. That there were casualties from both communities, that does not bring out all these other aspects of police complicity, of how violence took place for so long. 

And it ’s not just the central government, the Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal displayed a shocking degree of hesitation and reluctance to intervene in this massive breakdown of law and order so soon after they got such a massive mandate. Even that did not give them confidence to get into this. This was far from just a clash between two communities, there was something heavily loaded against the minority community.