The Delhi riots in February 2020 marked one of the darkest chapters in the Capital’s political history. It reflected frayed social tensions between Hindus and Muslims. It came in the wake of a deeply polarised political climate — the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). It happened in the backdrop of the Delhi elections, where there was violent rhetoric — especially by functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was a deep embarrassment to India internationally with the riots taking place during United States President Donald Trump’s visit. And it reflected gross State failure, where for over 48 hours — before there was a de facto reshuffle in Delhi Police and national security adviser Ajit Doval walked the streets of northeast Delhi — the Delhi Police was unable to quell the violence.
The Delhi riots saw violence from both sides, and in that aspect, it was different from the 1984 violence — which systematically targeted the Sikhs. But there is a lesson from 36 years ago. There has never been any meaningful justice in the 1984 violence, with perpetrators, often with political sanction, having got away. That, then, bred a culture of impunity — which enabled subsequent riots and pogroms. There has to be justice not just because it is the right of victims and for closure, but also to send a message that violence and promoting enmity between communities is unacceptable, and irrespective of political affiliations, there will be punishment.
Instead of conducting an impartial investigation into the riots, the Delhi Police, however, has spun an elaborate theory — it rests on how those who were critics of the government in general and CAA in particular, including respected political leaders, civil society voices, students, instigated the riots. But the police has been unable to show direct evidence connecting their speeches with the subsequent violence. Instead, this theory appears to be the framework being used to intimidate critics of the government, even as the role of those who may be aligned with the ruling party is carefully sidestepped. The Delhi Police had a simple job — identify the perpetrators of the violence irrespective of their religion and political affiliation, review its own performance during the riots, and build a case. Instead, it has fallen for a legally dubious, ethically questionable, politically vindictive approach which will not help deliver justice. This may allow the real perpetrators — on both sides — to get away.