200227 Delhi riots
Delhi Riots: Security personnel stand in the streets of a Muslim-dominated area called Jafrabad in East Delhi on Feb. 26, 2020 (File) Image Credit: New York Times

“When history will look back at the worst communal riots since Partition in Delhi, “the failure of the investigating agency” to conduct a “proper investigation … will surely torment the sentinels of democracy”.

Those were the scathing words of an Indian court on Thursday, the latest in a series of orders by trial courts and the High Court in the Delhi riots cases, which have come down strongly on the police probe and called it out for shoddy evidence multiple times.

In this latest case, the court discharged three men accused by the police, with the judge blasting the investigation for “pulling the wool over the court’s eyes”, saying a “large number of accused persons. have been languishing in jail for the last one and half years merely on account of the fact that the trials in their cases are not being initiated.”

Delhi communal riots

53 people were killed February last year and over 400 injured after communal riots broke out in Delhi while protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were on in many parts of the country. According to ‘The Indian Express’, of the 750 riot cases, 150 cases have been received by a Delhi court for trial and charges have been framed in 35 cases.

On Friday, the Delhi High Court granted bail to five people who police had claimed were involved in the murder of a Delhi police head constable, saying that “the sole act of protesting” cannot be used as “a weapon to justify the incarceration” of those exercising this right. The court said the law must not “become a tool for targeted harassment”.

Earlier this year, in June, the High Court granted bail to three student activists who made headlines for being jailed under the stringent anti terror law, the UAPA.

Natasha Narwal, Devanagana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha walked free after over a year as the court observed that in “its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.” The court went on to say there was no evidence that the protests by these students incited violence.

Maintaining checks and balances

In a country which has seen the judiciary more often than not, failing to uphold civil liberties, the orders of various courts in Delhi over the last few months have been significant, underlining how important independent courts are to maintain checks and balances.

From the beginning, the Delhi Police has faced severe criticism of its handling of the riots probe. Activists and students were quickly arrested but a ruling BJP leader openly seen and heard on camera making an inflammatory speech just hours before the violence started, was not touched.

The court’s verdicts therefore are a strong indictment of the Delhi Police, which reports to the union home ministry. Over the last few months, one riots case after another has unravelled, with the courts finally finding their voice, and calling out shoddy evidence and what has clearly been a shoddy probe.

This week, another prominent prisoner in the riots cases, student activist Umar Khalid, had his bail plea heard. The final order is awaited. His lawyer described the charge sheet against his client as something like a 9pm TV news script, saying the police’s entire case against Khalid was based on truncated video clips of a speech Khalid had made, which was not even verified by news channels, who simply took the edited clip from a BJP leader’s tweet. Republic TV admitted “the footage was not recorded by our cameraperson. It was tweeted by Amit Malviya..”

The police had claimed Khalid made an incendiary speech, but the actual clip, which was played out in court, shows him calling for uniting the country and talking about Mahatma Gandhi’s values.

Importance of free judiciary

While Delhi’s courts have been doing their job, the same cannot be said of other courts, despite the words of the Chief Justice of India who recently said the people of India knew that “when things go wrong”, the Supreme Court, as the guardian of the largest democracy, “will stand by them”.

Several activists arrested in Bhima Koregaon cases have been languishing in jail for over 3 years on very questionable evidence, even reports that incriminating documents were planted on their laptops. In this case, the judiciary has not stood up for civil liberties.

There are many lessons from the Delhi riots cases: the very real consequences of a police force working under political pressure rather than by the law; attempts by the state to crush dissent; and the importance of independent courts. These are lessons we all need to learn.