A year later, victims of the Indian riots say justice has yet to be done

NEW DELHI (AP) – The attacker shouted “Victory for Lord Ram,” the Hindu god, before pulling the trigger that sent a bullet into Muhammad Nasir Khan’s left eye.

Khan placed his trembling hand on the bloody eye socket and his fingers slid deep into the wound. At that moment, Khan was sure that he would die.

Khan ended up surviving the violence that killed 53 other people, mostly fellow Muslims, when it took over his neighborhood in the Indian capital 12 months ago.

But a year after India’s worst communal unrest in decades, the 35-year-old is still in shock and his attacker remains unpunished. Khan says he has been unable to obtain justice due to the lack of interest from the police in his case.

“My only crime is that my name identifies my religion,” Khan said at his home in the North Ghonda neighborhood of New Delhi.

Many of the Muslim victims of last year’s bloody violence say they have repeatedly been met with the police’s refusal to investigate complaints against Hindu rioters. Some hope that the courts will continue to come to their aid. But now others believe that the justice system of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has turned against them.

Adding to the sense of injustice is that accounts of Muslim victims, as well as reports from human rights groups, have indicated that the leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the New Delhi police force tacitly supported Hindu mobs during the feverish violence.

The New Delhi police did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but insisted last year that their investigation had been fair and that nearly 1,750 people had been arrested in connection with the riots, half of them Hindu. Interior Minister G. Kishan Reddy has also told Parliament that the police acted swiftly and impartially.

But a letter a high-ranking police officer sent to investigators five months after the riots seemed to suggest that they behaved calmly towards Hindus suspected of violence, prompting criticism from the Delhi High Court.

Intercommunal clashes in India are not new, with periodic violence since the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. But in the past seven years, observers say, religious polarization fueled by the Hindu nationalist base of Modi’s party has deepened. even more the failures and high stresses.

Many believe the catalyst for last year’s unrest was a spirited speech by Kapil Mishra, a leader of Modi’s party. On February 23, 2020, he gave police an ultimatum, warning them to break up a sit-in of protesters protesting against a new citizenship law that Muslims say is discriminatory, or that he and his followers would do it themselves.

When his supporters entered, pitched street battles broke out that quickly escalated into riots. For the next three days, Hindu mobs rampaged through the streets chasing Muslims, in some cases burning them alive in their homes, and burning entire neighborhoods, including shops and mosques.

Mishra rejects the idea that he is responsible for the riots and calls the claims “propaganda” to cover up the “previously planned genocide of Hindus by Muslims.” On Monday, he said his party had no ties to violence, but added, “what I did last year I will do again if necessary,” referring to his speech hours before the riots began.

Many in the Hindu community in the area accuse Muslims of initiating violence in an attempt to make India look bad.

A year later, many Muslim victims of the riots still cower in fear of more bloodshed. Hundreds have left their destroyed homes and moved elsewhere. Those who chose to stay have fortified their neighborhoods with metal gates in the event of further mob attacks. Many say they fear those responsible will never be held accountable.

“Everything has changed since the riots,” Khan said. “I think I am slowly losing all hope of justice.”

Khan spent 20 days recovering in hospital after being shot. Since then, he has been seeking justice that, according to him, has been hampered by the police at all times.

Khan’s official police report, seen by The Associated Press, names at least six Hindus from his neighborhood who he said were involved in the violence.

“The defendants keep coming to my house and threatening to kill my whole family,” Khan said in the complaint, adding that he was willing to identify them in court.

His complaint was never officially accepted.

The police, however, filed a complaint on their own. He gave a different version of events and places Khan at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from where he was shot, suggesting that he was wounded in the crossfire between the two opposing groups. He did not identify his attackers.

The stories of many other Muslim victims follow a similar pattern. Police and investigators have dismissed hundreds of complaints against Hindu rioters, citing a lack of evidence despite multiple eyewitness accounts.

Among them are a man who saw his brother shot dead, a father of a 4-month-old baby who witnessed his house set on fire, and a boy who lost both arms after Hindu mobs threw a bomb on him.

Now, many make weekly trips to lawyer Mehmood Pracha’s office, awaiting justice. Very few have seen their attackers jailed. Many others are still waiting for their cases to be heard in court.

Pracha, a Muslim, represents at least 100 victims of riots for free. He said there were several cases in which police received videos of Hindu mobs, many with ties to Modi’s party, “but it appears that the police were eager to implicate Muslims” in the unrest.

He said that in many cases Muslims were also “threatened with withdrawing their complaints.”

“The police have acted as an accessory to the crime,” Pracha said.

Multiple videos of the riots seen by AP show police inciting Hindu mobs to throw stones at Muslims, destroying surveillance cameras and beating a group of Muslims, one of whom was later killed.

Several independent fact-finding missions and rights groups have documented the role of the police in the riots.

In June 2020, Human Rights Watch said that “the police did not respond adequately” during the riots and were at times “complicit” in attacks against Muslims. He said the authorities “did not carry out impartial and transparent investigations.”

On a recent night, Haroon, who has a name, said that he was “still afraid to go out at night.”

He saw his brother Maroof shot dead by his Hindu neighbors during the riots. The police never identified the defendant in their complaint despite multiple eyewitnesses.

In turn, Haroon said, he was threatened by the police and the defendants to withdraw his complaint.

“We were alone then and we are alone now,” he said almost crying as the two sons of his dead brother sat next to him.

Haroon looked at them and said, “I don’t know what to do.”

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