Detentions, arrests, interrogations: Fear reigns in Muslim neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi

The Delhi Police picked up several men from Muslim neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi in the first week of March. Some of the detained men were brought to the Sunlight Colony Police Station, located in southeast Delhi, near Ashram. On 7 March, the Sunlight Colony station had been locked down and at least half a dozen uniformed men guarded the locked gate from inside. Anyone who came close to the gate was being yelled at and asked to stay away at least 200 yards from the gate. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
11 March, 2020

“They were at least ten to twelve men, in plain clothes,” Rehan Ali, a shopkeeper in his early twenties, told me as he recounted how Delhi Police personnel arrested his family members on 7 March. “None of them were in their uniform. Two of them carried guns. Without ringing the doorbell, they walked straight into my home.” Rehan is a resident of Gali Number 4 in Moonga Nagar, a small locality in northeast Delhi’s New Mustafabad area. Somewhere between 5 pm to 5.30 pm that evening, the police arrested his oldest brother, Riyasat Ali, who is in his thirties, and his father, Liaqat Ali, an elderly man in his sixties, in connection with the communal violence that engulfed northeast Delhi in the last week of February. Till 7 March, the Delhi Police had registered 693 cases and either detained or arrested 2,193 individuals over the violence. There is no official data on the religious identity of the detainees or the arrested, although inputs from residents, activists and lawyers suggest that Muslim men were taken into custody in large numbers.

“Every day, they are picking up two to four men from our area,” Mustaqim, a resident of Kabir Nagar in Babarpur who runs a grocery store, told me on 8 March. His brother, Mohammad Shamim, had been picked up that day and taken to the Welcome police station, in Shahdara, where he was kept in detention overnight. Mustaqim was not allowed to see his brother or even enter the police station and it was only the next day that the family was told that Shamim was going to be booked under various charges relating to the violence in their area. Mustaqim’s ordeal echoed almost every testimony I came across that week, including the Ali family.

When I met Rehan at his house around 8 pm on 7 March, he told me that the police said that Riyasat and Liaqat were being picked-up for “pooch-taach”—enquiry; refused to give the family any details about the arrests; and one official asked him to check with the Sunlight Colony police station—located near Ashram, almost twenty-four kilometres away—if they wanted any information. Rehan runs a business of selling plastic sheets along with his father and four older brothers, and the family lives in the floors above the shop. That day, there were at least twenty men, ranging from local community elders to teenagers, gathered there. They were working out a strategy to approach the police and enquire about the arrested men, because they were afraid that they, too, would be taken into custody if they went to the Sunlight police station. Along with the Ali family, a third man from the locality, named Nafees had also been picked up. Nafees, who is in his late twenties, lived in the same lane and worked in a dairy.

Half an hour later, as I was leaving for the police station, Liaqat’s brother-in-law, Ilyas Ali, and a neighbour, Qamurrudin, asked if they could join me. They told me the presence of a journalist would make them feel secure when they met the police. All the men agreed that this was sound strategy. Nafees’ family kept away out of fear of the police. Yunus Saleem, a local resident and a social worker who acts as a liaison for the community and had informed me about the Ali family’s predicament, had to be convinced to accompany us. He, too, was fearful of the police.

The renewed fear and mistrust of the Delhi Police in Gali Number 4 is a pattern that echoed across Muslim neighbourhoods in the North East district. Between 1 and 9 March, I visited the neighbourhoods of Mustafabad, Khajoori Khas, Kardampuri, Kabir Nagar, Chand Bagh, Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Babarpur, Seelampur, and in all these areas, residents said that they had witnessed dozens of arrests and detentions by the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch. But it was not just the detentions and arrests that had stoked fear among the Muslim residents.

The arbitrary manner of the detentions by Delhi Police had become an unending nightmare for the residents of communities which are barely limping back to normalcy. The police was employing tactics like picking up one male member of a family to coerce another member to present themselves before the police; and refusal to share any details with the families, lawyers, social workers and journalists. Denial of legal access and access to family members over extended periods was a common feature in all the testimonies. In some instances, the police would lock down police stations where the detained men were being held; and information was being shared with pro-establishment media houses even before the families were informed. Residents complained about the subsequent profiling of male members of the Muslim communities. Testimonies described how at least three other police stations in east Delhi— Khajoori Khas, Dayalpur and Welcome—were resorting to these same tactics.

On 27 February, the Delhi Police formed two special investigation teams to investigate all the cases related to the violence. The SITs are headed by Rajesh Deo and Joy Tirkey, both deputy commissioners of police. BK Singh, additional commissioner of police (crime branch), is supervising the SITs. In a short profile of the duo following the constitution of the SITs, The Wire reported that Deo and Tirkey “have been known to support pro-government groups in their investigations.” Deo is also in charge of the investigation into the police crackdown on students of Jamia Millia Islamia on 15 December 2019, and Tirkey is leading the investigation into the attack in Jawaharlal Nehru University on the night of 5 January.

I interviewed local residents, families whose male members had been arrested or detained and interrogated several times in the last week, social activists and lawyers who have been voluntarily working on the ground to help the victims of the communal violence since 26 February. Almost all of them told me the crime branch was detaining and arresting Muslim men in large numbers. And on 7 March, I witnessed first-hand the fear, anxiety, humiliation and helplessness of the Ali family and that of their Muslim neighbours who felt that they could be next.

I reached Rehan’s home around 8 pm, after Saleem called me to tell me that the police had picked up some men from the area and that the residents were scared to reach out to the police. Rehan told me the police were looking for his father and oldest brother. Liaqat was not at home and was offering namaz when the police came. Rehan said the police first took his brother, Riyasat, and said that he would be released after questioning. He said the police refused to tell him why the men were being detained. The police then walked Riyasat to the house of Tahir Hussain, a local Aam Aadmi Party councillor who was arrested by the crime branch on 28 February, for his alleged involvement in the murder of Ankit Sharma, an Intelligence Bureau staffer who was killed during the violence. Hussain’s house, which has been sealed since 26 February, is barely 200 yards away from Rehan’s.

Rehan told me that minutes after Riyasat was taken away, his father Liaqat returned home. Two of the police personnel who had picked up Riyasat came back and took Liaqat. Rehan told me he was so shocked with the arrests that it took him some time to regain his senses and follow the men who were escorting his father through the narrow lanes of Moonga Nagar. “For two days during the riots, on 24 and 25 February, we were locked in our homes while the mobs roamed in our lane and on the main road,” Rehan told me. “I don’t know why the cops picked my family.” He said that as soon as he came out on the main road, he saw his father and brother were being pushed into a police van along with Nafees. The police had come looking for Nafees’ brother, but he was not around at the time, so the police detained Nafees instead, to ensure that his brother would turn up for questioning. Rehan ran after the van, but it sped away.

By that time, word had spread around the neighbourhood. Other residents told him that the crime branch office was also located at Sunlight Colony police station. Accordingly, they surmised that the plain-clothes personnel were from the crime branch.

At Rehan’s home, many of young men were glued to their phones as they watched the news channel Aaj Tak. A few of them told me that an hour after Riyasat and Liaqat’s detentions, the television channel had run a ticker that said they were arrested in connection with Sharma’s murder. Over the last week, Aaj Tak had been running footage of the violence and flashing still images of the faces of Muslim residents of the affected areas. The residents said that the news channel was only showing Muslims pelting stones, but never the Hindu mobs. There was a deep apprehension of shame and humiliation that someday their faces, too, would be flashed on the news channel, as rioters. An elderly man, from among the gathering at Rehan’s house, told me, “Liaqat sahib used to sit and smoke hookah with Tahir’s father sometimes. We are all neighbours.” He said that this proximity was being used by news channels to distort the local residents’ image as rioters. Most residents I spoke to believed that the individuals whose pictures were shown by news channels had been similarly implicated.

As I got ready to move to the Sunlight Colony police station, I got a call from a lawyer who had been providing legal assistance to residents in the violence affected areas. She did not want to be identified in order to protect the men she was helping. That night, she was at the Khajoori Khas police station, she said. An elderly man from Khajoori Khas had been picked up on the afternoon of 7 March and she had been trying to get access to him. She said that the police had come looking for his son, who was not around, and detained the old man instead. She had been at the police station for a long time but was not being allowed to meet the old man. “The cops are so hostile it seems like they will detain me too. Neither are they telling me anything, nor are they letting me go inside,” she told me over the phone.   

At the Sunlight Colony police station, the situation mirrored what the lawyer who requested anonymity had told me. The police station had been locked down and at least half a dozen uniformed men guarded the locked gate from inside. Anyone who came close to the gate was being yelled at and asked to stay away at least 200 yards from the gate. As Ilyas, Qamurrudin and Saleem tried to reach the gate and talk to the policemen, they were herded away. Ilyas kept pleading with the police that his family was detained inside and he wanted to meet them, but they did not listen and pushed them all at least 100 yards away. Saaduzzaman, a lawyer who practices in a lower court, had come to help Ilyas. He, too, was asked to move away from the locked police station and keep a distance of 200 yards. Finally, one policeman noticed me, came up to me and asked me to leave because, “It will be better for you, move away from here.” When I told them that I was a journalist, they reiterated their demand. Two other policemen started yelling at me from inside the gate, “Leave and do not argue.”

I moved from the spot and joined Saaduzzaman. “What kind of law it this? A lawyer can’t even stand outside the police station. They know they can bully us because it will have no repercussions on them,” he told me. He decided to confront the cops again—he went up to the gate and asked for a copy of the FIR or the arrest memo, a legal document that requires the police to give grounds and the time of arrest, of Riyasat and Liaqat. “You are not telling me anything. At least give the FIR or show me the arrest memo. You know the arrest memo is mandatory,” he said to the policemen. Once again, Saaduzzaman was shooed away from the gate. One of the policemen then shouted back at him, “What sort of a lawyer are you? You don’t know anything. Is the accused ever handed the FIR? It is not given, the arrest memo is also not given. Leave from here.” Saaduzzaman and I remained outside the police station till around 11.10 pm that night. At no point in the night was he allowed to meet Liaqat or Riyasat or even speak to the police.

Soon after the confrontation, Ilyas and Qamurrudin were let inside to meet Liaqat and Riyasat. Saaduzzaman was again refused entry. During this time, I saw the police turn away at least three other families who were asking about the whereabouts of their family members who had been detained earlier that evening. Notably, all three groups comprised only women—the men of the families had stayed away because of the pervasive fear that they, too, would be arrested. Among the families was that of Junaid Ahmad. Ahmad worked in Dubai and had returned home to Sunlight Colony two weeks before the violence started. Sunlight Colony falls in southeast Delhi, while the violence was confined to the northeast of the city. Ahmad’s detention was as much a mystery to his family as to other people already gathered there.

Shahin Hussain, Ahmad’s sister, told me, “Actually, right now we don’t know anything. The police said they are picking him up because of the coronavirus.” Dubai has been on alert since 29 January when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the UAE. Shahin is a social worker and had coordinated with the Delhi Police on several occasions for citizen programmes. She was frantically making calls to everyone she knew in the system to get information about her brother. She kept trying to talk to the police but she was neither allowed to meet Ahmad nor told why he was detained.

The Delhi Police had adopted similar tactics in response to the anti-CAA protests in Delhi in December 2019. That month, the Daryaganj police station in the northern district of Delhi had similarly blockaded families and lawyers of the detainees. Ultimately, they were allowed to enter the police station and secure medical help for the detainees only after the lawyers reached out to a magistrate in the middle of the night. Later, the Supreme Court also took cognisance of the matter, specifically in context of minors detained at the Daryaganj police station that night, and sought a response from the Delhi Police. But like Saaduzzaman said, the apex court’s directions have had no repercussions on the police, and they have continued to flout the spirit of the law.

After a while, Ilyas and Qamurrudin walked out of the police station. Ilyas told me that he spoke to Liaqat in the presence of the police. He did not see any injury on him but noted that he felt bad for the elderly man. “I told them, he is so old, how he will indulge in rioting,” Ilyas said he asked the personnel inside. The police responded that Liaqat and Riyasat were “updravis,” or rioters, Ilyas said. The police refused to show or give Ilyas any paperwork, including the FIR. “They didn’t give me anything,” he told me. “Just said, come to court tomorrow. We will give you the FIR at the time of bail.”

By this time, pro-government news agencies such as ANI had already announced the arrests of Liaqat and Riyasat, before the families had even received a copy of the FIR copy or, in fact, received information about whether they had even been booked for any offence. Ilyas, Qamuruddin, Saleem and I finally left the station around 11.15 pm. During my entire stay at the police station, no individual was allowed inside the police station, irrespective of whether the person had an emergency or had come to lodge a complaint. Ilyas was handed a copy of the FIR during the second half of the next day. Riyasat and Liaqat had been charged with rioting, arson, abetment, assault on public servant, among others and were sent to jail that day.

That day, 8 March was no different for the Muslim neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi. I called up the lawyer who did not want to be identified about the old detainee from Khajoori Khas. She told me that the old man had been detained for the entire night and released on the morning of 8 March. She added that he was kept in detention because the police could not find his son, who was the one they were actually looking for. She said that while the police released the old man that morning, he was called back again the same evening.

The lawyer’s account of the old man’s detention fit a pattern narrated to me by Jaya, a researcher who has been documenting the detentions and arrests, at the Gokalpuri police station in the aftermath of the communal violence. When I spoke to her on the afternoon of 7 March, Jaya was accompanying a Muslim resident who was fearful of lodging a police complaint about a destroyed madrasa. She said that the police was targeting one particular community but doing it in such a way that it was stretching the limits of the law. “Because they cannot keep one detained for more than 24 hours legally, they are releasing the person at the last moment and then picking him up again,” she told me. She also said the police were using informants from within the Muslim community to identify whom to detain. 

That day, I reached out to Shahin, too, to find out what had happened to her brother Junaid. Shahin said that she and her family spent the entire night in uncertainty and fear outside the police station. “They kept saying, ‘we will let him go, we will let him go.’ But in the morning they told us that Junaid will now be handed over to the police of the North East district and we will have to go to Jaffrabad and find out from there,” Shahin told me. She said this created utter panic in the family because till then they had chosen to believe that Junaid had been detained for a possible quarantine due to COVID-19. She told me she rushed to the Jaffrabad police station. “There, they matched all the footage. Again, they could not find anything against Junaid.” Junaid was finally released on the evening of 8 March.

The arrests continued. That evening, the police picked up Mohammad Shamim from Kabir Nagar in Babarpur. His brother, Mustaqim, narrated a similar sequence of events like those of the Ali family. He told me, “They did not say anything. Just came, made us shut our shop and said, ‘We want to speak to you.’ They said this much and took away my brother.” Mustaqim told me his brother was kept at the Welcome police station and he was not allowed to see him or enter the station. He, too, was unaware of why Shamim had been arrested. Sajid Mujib, a social worker who was helping Mustaqim, spent the day outside the police station. He told me that the police had detained at least 12 men at Welcome station that day and none of them were allowed to meet their families or lawyers. Shamim was eventually charged and sent to jail on 9 March, on charges similar to those faced by the Ali family. 

Meanwhile, Saleem told me that on 7 March, he had seen four men—one worked in a chicken shop and another was a daily wager and all four were from Chand Bagh—being detained at the Khajoori Khas police station. On 8 March, he called me again and told me that on that afternoon, the police had picked up the principal of the Rajdhani School, in Mustafabad. The school had been burnt by a mob during the riots. I could not verify these detentions independently and the Welcome police station did not respond to multiple attempts to contact them. 

The same evening, the newspaper National Herald reported that the Delhi Police had detained six Jamia students at the Welcome station. The students were on a fact-finding mission in Kabir Nagar when the police picked them up. I spoke to one of the students, Shumais Nazar, who told me that they were on their way to Chand Bagh “to assess the cost of damage caused during the riots and hear the trauma of the people” when the police detained them because of their Muslim identity. Nazar is a student of mass communication. He said the group had debarked at the Maujpur metro station and was trying to navigate the small lanes of Kabir Nagar—they were looking for a junction from where they could hail a battery rickshaw to Chand Bagh. He said he and his friends were all from Kerala and unfamiliar with the lanes, so they were utilising the Google maps app. At that point, at least eight policemen walked up to them and huddled them into a van. 

The students were taken to the Welcome police station. “At the police station, the cops mocked us because some of us are studying Islamic history,” Nazar said. “They took our college ID and Aadhar card too.” He told me that the police personnel asked them, “Tumhe bhi azadi chahiye kya?Do you also want freedom? The students were released at around 5 pm, after the intervention of a lawyer. The police warned the group not to survey the area again. Nazar shared an apartment with his friends at Zakir Nagar. He told me at around 8 pm that evening, a policeman came to their flat and spoke to their house owner and neighbours to confirm if they were really students. 

Mujib told me the Delhi Police were being selective in their investigations and were only arresting and detaining Muslim men. He said that the multiple FIRs registered by the Delhi Police in the rioting incidents are being used as a weapon to arrest thousands of men by keeping the accused column as “unknown.” “The way I see it … the police are using the detentions and arrests as a tool to torture Muslim men,” Mujib said. “They are picking them on baseless suspicion, then keeping them in detention and releasing them to detain them again. It is a kind of mental torture foisted on the entire community.”