POLITICS
29/09/2020 10:21 AM IST | Updated 29/09/2020 1:08 PM IST

Umar Khalid Case: Delhi Police Months-Long Delay Means Vital Video Evidence Destroyed

The Delhi Police waited for five months before asking the Delhi Metro for surveillance footage pertaining to the Delhi riots in February 2020.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Muslim women protest at a candlelight vigil against Delhi riots at Mumbai Bagh on February 27, 2020 in Mumbai, India. 

At least three separate investigations into the 2020 Delhi Riots seek to establish exactly what transpired at the Jafrabad metro station in the last few days of February. 

These investigations are the reason that political activist Umar Khalid and university students such as Safoora Zargar of Jamia Millia Islamia, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a recent MBA graduate Gulfisha Fatima are in prison.

This metro station is also a short walk from the spot where Kapil Mishra of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave his now infamous speech on 23 February at Maujpur Metro Station, hours before the violence started, giving the Delhi Police three days to disperse protestors opposed to his government. “After that we will not listen to you,” he said in the presence of a senior policeman.

The video evidence was deemed so important that activists moved the Delhi High Court as early as 25 February 25, when the riots were still in progress, to request all surveillance footage and electronic evidence be preserved. 

Five months later, on 26 July, an additional sessions judge of a district court at a bail hearing was pushed to harshly criticise the police’s “inscrutable indolence” in gathering the CCTV footage.

Defence lawyers argued that the footage was essential to exonerate their clients.

Yet a reading of the chargesheet in Khalid’s case shows the Delhi Police, inexplicably, waited for five months before writing to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation on 30 July 2020 to preserve the video footage captured by the surveillance cameras installed at the Jafrabad Metro Station and the Maujpur Metro station, 1.5 kilometers apart from each other. 

The DMRC promptly replied, three days later on 2 August, stating that they delete their footage after seven days. The footage from those crucial days in February was lost forever.

The Delhi Police’s delay in securing vital evidence only adds to the growing impression that the police investigation into the national capital’s worst communal riots in a quarter of a century is a pretext to arrest those who oppose Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) majoritarian politics, the CAA and NRC, rather than an honest even-handed attempt to prosecute the guilty.

The Delhi Police has maintained it is carrying out an unbiased investigation into the communal violence that claimed the lives of 53 people, mostly Muslims, in the face of civil society, academics and retired police officers. 

Defence lawyers say they want footage from CCTV cameras installed in the violence-hit areas in northeast Delhi as well as videos made by people, journalists and photographers instead of contending only with the videos the police claim that its personnel made amid the violence. 

“Even an ordinary person would say where is the CCTV footage in the case,” said Abdul Gaffar, a defence lawyer representing at least three men accused of violence near the Jafrabad Metro Station. “The investigating agency should have this footage so we can mount the best defence for our clients.” 

The Delhi Police did not respond to HuffPost India’s request for comment.

CCTV footage deleted 

The CCTV footage from the Jafrabad Metro Station is important because the area around this station in northeast Delhi is named as the scene of the crime in at least three cases — FIR 48/2020 Jafrabad Police Station registered on 24 February, which invokes rioting and assaulting a public official, FIR 50/2020 Jafrabad Police Station registered on 26 February, which invokes murder, and FIR 59/2020 Crime Branch registered on 6 March, which invokes the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s anti-terror law, against students and political activists in their twenties and thirties including Khalid, Zargar, Narwhal and Kalita, and accuses them of conspiring to engineer the riots.

The Delhi Police say these students incited local women in northeast Delhi to block a thoroughfare near the Jafrabad Metro Station on 22-23 February, and this was the trigger for the Delhi riots, even though the violence started in earnest almost 24 hours later.

In addition to at least three Delhi riots chargesheets relating to the violence that the police allege occurred at the Jafrabad Metro Station, there are others that mention the violence as part of the “chronology” of events that have been inserted into them whether or not the actual crimes in the case occurred at Jafrabad or not. 

While three students Zargar of Jamia, Kalita and Narwal of JNU, and MBA graduate Gulfisha Fatima, among others are accused in FIR 48 and FIR 59, Kalita and Narwal are accused in FIR 50 as well. 

After being granted bail in different FIRs since they were arrested between April and May, they remain incarcerated in FIR 59. 

When it comes to the CCTV footage, the chargesheet for FIR 59 says, “On 30. 07. 2020, a letter was sent to the DMRC to preserve the CCTV footage of Jafrabad and Maujpur Metro stations, covering the road side area and all the entry/exit gates of the metro station for the period of 22/02/2020 to 26/02/2020 for the purpose of investigation vide letter no. 4478/ACP/NDR dated 30/07/2020.” 

The chargesheet says, “On 02.08.2020, in response to communication letter no. 4478/ACP/NDR, dated 30/07/20, a report from DMRC in respect of preservation of CCTV footage of Jafrabad and Maujpur metro stations have been received from I/C Security Control Room, SI I. M. Tiwari that, ‘CCTV footage is available for seven days only, then it gets deleted automatically.’”

The Maujpur Metro Station is where Mishra of the BJP gave his now infamous speech that many have interpreted as a call to violence. 

Mishra, who was questioned by the Delhi Police about his speech on 28 July, two days before the letter for the CCTV footage was sent, said that he meant that he and his followers would also stage a sit-in protest on the road.  

In a tweet last week, Mishra said that he had filed a complaint with the Delhi Police against “those running a hate campaign against me, running false news in the media, protecting real rioters and terrorists, and posing a threat to me and my family’s safety.” 

CCTV footage in courts 

As early as 25 February, the second day of intense violence, human right defenders Harsh Mander and Farah Naqvi moved the Delhi High Court, seeking the arrest of those who made hate speeches before the riots, the setting up of a probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the Delhi riots, and to preserve the evidence and CCTV footage of all cameras in and around the protest sites. 

Mander, whose name is mentioned in the chargesheet for FIRs 59 and 65/2020 Dayalpur Police Station, as well as a Delhi Police affidavit on the Delhi riots, said that his petition came up before Justice S Murlidhar on 26 February.

Justice Muralidhar directed the Delhi Police to file FIRs against three BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma and Anurag Thakur for alleged hate speeches. 

Murlidhar was transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court on the same day as he issued this order against senior BJP members. The matter subsequently came before Chief Justice D.N. Patel. Mander said there have been no further orders on his petition.

Meanwhile a separate plea was filed by the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind (JUH), a century-old Muslim organisation, on 16 March to preserve surveillance footage in violence-hit areas. Mohammed Tayyib Khan, the lawyer for the Jamiat, said they were referring to video footage from cameras installed by the Delhi government as well as videos taken by members of the public, journalists and photographers.

The Delhi High Court bench of Chief Justice Patel and Justice C Hari Shankar sought a response from the Delhi Police. It has been six months, the High Court is yet to pass an order.  

“There has been no order in the past six months,” said Khan. “Only adjournments.” 

On 26 July, while hearing an application to extend the judicial remand for 11 accused in FIR 59, Additional Sessions Judge Dhamrender Rana of the Patiala District Court lambasted the Delhi Police for failing to procure to the CCTV footage from the Jafrabad and Maujpur Metro Stations, saying, “The police seems to be in a state of inscrutable indolence in collection of relevant video footage.”

The Delhi police had told the court they were in the process of collecting the video evidence, Rana said, “They have failed to point out if any notice/request was served upon the concerned official of Metro seeking preservation of the relevant video footage, so as to save an important piece of evidence.”

The court, Rana said, “is duty bound to ensure a fair investigation.”

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a thousand pictures. The police seem to be in a state of inscrutable indolence in collection of relevant video footage,” Rana said. “The indolence is a cause of concern as evidence in criminal matters is invariably ephemeral in nature.”

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