“The situation on the ground is really pathetic,” Kurian Joseph, a former Supreme Court judge, said as he walked out of a government-run relief camp run at the Eidgah grounds, in Mustafabad, for families affected by the violence that swept northeast Delhi in the last week of February. “We need to build confidence among the people so that they can still go back and have a normal life.” For three hours on the evening of 5 March, Joseph and two other former Supreme Court judges, Vikramjit Sen and AK Patnaik, made a surprise visit to the violence-affected areas in Shiv Vihar and then to the Mustafabad relief camp. “The most important” aspect of the rehabilitation process, Joseph said, was to “address the question of rebuilding confidence in the people. That something unfortunate happened, that it will never happen in the history of the country.”
The former judges said they were visiting out of “personal concern” for the victims, noting that they would not be making any “assessment” of the loss of lives or property due to the violence. They interacted with residents of the areas and the displaced residents at the relief camp that had been set up at Mustafabad’s Eidgah—an open ground used for Eid prayers and religious gatherings. While the former judges did not make any collective statement, at both Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad, they faced multiple questions from journalists on the ground about the judiciary’s response to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 and the subsequent violence. Lawyers who were present in the area to assist the victims file police complaints and seek compensation, also conversed with the former judges and expressed their frustration over the judiciary’s conduct.
According to Patnaik, the judges wanted to have a first-hand account of what had happened in the violence because everything that they had seen so far was through the media. When questioned about the lack of public trust in the Supreme Court, Joseph said that the apex court alone should not be blamed for failing the Indian public and it should be the “collective effort” of the government and the judiciary to rehabilitate the victims. All of them spoke of the extensive scale of losses they had witnessed. “There is so much damage,” Patnaik noted.
At 5.30 pm that day, the judges made the first stop of their visit, at a house that had been burned and looted, situated near Auliya Masjid in Mustafabad. Outside the house, one of the nearby residents informed Patnaik that he returned to his house only on 29 February, four days after his neighbourhood came under attack during the violence. The resident said he was still scared because the police stationed there did not instill any confidence in him that violence would not break out again in Mustafabad again. Patnaik asked whether the rioters were outsiders or locals, and the resident responded that they were all “local Hindus.” He added that he could identify the rioters but he needed the protection of the police. “If the police or the administration put some pressure on them, then I can name all of them,” the resident said.
As Patnaik was returning to his car, after patiently hearing the residents and inspecting other houses with the two other former judges, a journalist sought his opinion about the judiciary’s response to the CAA. In January this year, the Supreme Court held its first hearing on a batch of 143 petitions challenging the CAA and seeking an interim stay on the operation of the law. But the Supreme Court refused to issue the stay and granted the central government four weeks to respond, failing to show any urgency. The decision had come in the backdrop of a growing spate of protests against the law across the country, which witnessed tens of thousands of people come out on the streets, and a brutal police crackdown against them.