The gunman shouted “Victory to Lord Ram,” the Hindu deity, before pulling the trigger into the left eye of Muhammad Nasir Khan, which sent a bullet.
Khan put his shaking hand over his bloody eye socket and slid deep into the wound with his fingertips. Khan was sure at that moment that he would die.
When it engulfed his neighbourhood in the Indian capital 12 months ago, Khan ended up surviving the violence that killed 53 others, mostly fellow Muslims.
But one year after the worst communal riots in India in decades, the 35-year-old is still rattled and his assailant is still unpunished. Khan claims that because of a lack of police involvement in his case, he has been unable to get justice.
“My only crime is that my name identifies my religion,” said Khan at his home in the North Ghonda neighbourhood of New Delhi.
Many of the Muslim victims of the bloody violence of last year say they have consistently faced the police’s refusal to pursue allegations against Hindu rioters. A few hope that the courts will still come to their rescue. But some now claim that the justice system under the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been stacked against them.
In addition to the sense of injustice, accounts of Muslim victims as well as reports from rights groups have shown that during the fevered terror, leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the New Delhi police force tacitly assisted the Hindu mobs.
The New Delhi police did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but they insisted last year that their investigation was fair and that almost 1,750 persons, half of them Hindus, had been booked in relation to the riots. Likewise, Junior Home Minister G. Kishan Reddy informed Parliament that the police were behaving quickly and impartially.
But five months after the riots, a letter sent by a senior police officer to investigators seemed to indicate that they were going easy on Hindus accused of crime, drawing criticism from the High Court of Delhi.
In India, communal clashes are not recent, with sporadic violence after the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 breaking out. But, analysts note, in the last seven years, religious polarisation fuelled by Modi’s party’s Hindu nationalist base has further deepened the fault lines and increased tensions.
Many claim a fiery speech by Kapil Mishra, the leader of Modi’s party, was the cause for last year’s riots. He issued an ultimatum to police on Feb. 23, 2020, ordering them to break up a sit-in by protesters demonstrating against a new citizenship law Muslims believe is discriminatory, or he and his supporters will do it themselves.
It caused pitched street battles as his supporters marched in, which soon turned into riots. Hindu mobs rampaged through the streets for the next three days, chasing down Muslims, burning them alive in their homes in some instances, and torching entire neighbourhoods, including shops and mosques.
Mishra denies the notion that he is responsible for the riots, calling the allegations “propaganda” to cover up the “pre-planned Muslim genocide of Hindus.” He said his party had no ties to the violence on Monday, but added, “What I did last year, if necessary, I will do it again,” referring to his speech hours before the riots began.
Many in the Hindu community in the region accuse Muslims of initiating violence in an effort to make India look poor.
A year on, in fear of more bloodletting, many Muslim victims of the riots are still cowering. Hundreds have fled their gutted homes and have moved elsewhere. Many who wanted to remain, in the event of further mob attacks, protected their neighbourhoods with metal gates. Many claim they are afraid that those responsible will never be held responsible.
“Since the riots, everything has changed,” Khan said. “I think I’m losing all my hopes of justice slowly.”
After being wounded, Khan spent 20 days recuperating in the hospital. Since then, he has been looking for justice, which he claims has been impeded at every turn by the police.
Seen by The Associated Press, Khan’s official police complaint identified at least six Hindus from his neighbourhood who he said were involved in the attack.
In the lawsuit, Khan said, “The accused are still coming to my home and threatening to kill my entire family,” adding that he was willing to name them in court.
His complaint was never acknowledged officially.
However, the police lodged a complaint on their own. It gave Khan a different version of events and places at least a kilometre (0.6 mile) from where he was shot, implying that he was injured in the crossfire between the two groups that clashed. His assailants didn’t know them.
A similar trend is followed by the tales of several other Muslim victims. Hundreds of allegations against Hindu rioters have been rejected by police and investigators, citing a lack of evidence amid numerous eyewitness accounts.
They include a man who saw the fatal shooting of his child, a father of a 4-month-old baby who witnessed the torching of his house, and a young boy who lost both of his arms after a crude bomb was hurled at him by Hindu mobs.
Today, several make frequent trips to the office of Attorney Mehmood Pracha, hoping for justice. Very few saw their assailants put behind bars. Many more are currently waiting in court to hear their lawsuits.
At least 100 riot victims are represented free of charge by Pracha, a Muslim. “He said there were several instances in which videos of Hindu mobs were provided to the police, many with links to Modi’s party, “but it seems like the police were eager to include Muslims in the riots.
In several instances, he said, Muslims were even threatened with the removal of their grievances.
Pracha said, “The police have acted as partners in crime.”
Several videos of the AP’s riots show police egging on Hindu crowds to throw stones at Muslims, smashing security cameras, and beating a group of Muslim men, one of whom died later.
The role of the police in the riots was reported by several international fact-finding missions and rights groups.
In June 2020, during the riots, Human Rights Watch said that “the police failed to respond adequately” and were “complicit” in attacks against Muslims at times. It claimed that authorities “failed to carry out impartial and transparent investigations.”
Haroon, who goes by one name, said on a recent night that he was “still afraid to go out in the evening.”
He saw his brother, Maroof, fatally shot during the riots by his Hindu neighbours. Despite numerous eyewitnesses, the police never named the accused in his lawsuit.
In turn, Haroon said, the police and the accused were pressuring him to withdraw his complaint.
Then we were alone and now we are alone,” he said, almost in tears, as the two children of his dead brother were sitting beside him.”
Haroon looked at them and said: “I have no idea what to do.”
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