That afternoon, half a dozen policemen in helmets and riot gear converged on the 23-year-old Faizan, a meat-shop worker. Wielding batons and wooden sticks, they first beat him, repeatedly striking his head, and then taunted a group of injured men — including Faizan — to sing the national anthem. The assault was caught on multiple videos.
Later that night, Faizan, who used only one name, was held at a police station without charge. When he was released the next night, he could barely walk, recounted his mother, Kismatun, 61.
“They beat him mercilessly,” said Kismatun, who also goes by one name. “When we got him home, I had to cut off his clothes. He couldn’t even raise his hands.”
He died at a hospital the following day. The postmortem report detailed 20 wounds on his body and said he died as a result of a head injury.
Faizan was one of more than 50 who died in the deadliest Hindu-Muslim violence in Delhi in over seven decades. Police were later criticized for failing to quell the clashes and in some cases were accused of participating in them. Hundreds of people from both communities have been arrested in many of the killings. But more than a year later, no one has been charged in Faizan’s death, raising questions about the police department’s ability to act as an impartial investigator in instances of police brutality.
In response to a petition filed by Faizan’s mother seeking a court-monitored inquiry into his death, the police said an investigation of the identity of policemen in the videos was underway. Chinmoy Biswal, a spokesman for the Delhi police, said he would not comment on matters under investigation and ongoing in court.
The riots in Delhi broke out after months of protests led by Muslims across the country over a controversial law that expedites citizenship for migrants of six religions but excludes Islam — the faith of 200 million Indians. Critics called the law unconstitutional.
Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sought to paint the protests as the handiwork of traitors. The violence in India’s capital erupted after a speech by Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, threatening to clear a sit-in by Muslim women.
Most of those who were killed were Muslims. More than a dozen Hindus also died, including a police officer who was shot and an intelligence officer who was stabbed. Hundreds of Muslim families fled their homes in Hindu-majority neighborhoods where they had lived all their lives. Mosques were vandalized, shops looted and homes ransacked in clashes that lasted over two days, while President Donald Trump was in Delhi for a state visit.
The uproar over the citizenship law was only the latest point of friction between religious groups during the tenure of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has pursued his party’s agenda of Hindu primacy in the secular republic of over 1.3 billion people.
The government has revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state; passed the citizenship law amid robust opposition; and laid the foundation of a grand Hindu temple where a mosque was razed illegally by a mob led by members of the BJP in the 1990s. During the coronavirus pandemic, the emergence of a Muslim missionary group’s gathering as a superspreader event unleashed a wave of Islamophobia in the country.
Two recent global democracy reports downgraded India’s status, citing a decline in freedom of expression, the harassment of journalists and its conduct toward religious minorities, especially Muslims.
Faizan and the other men beaten by the police on camera were “being targeted on account of their religious identity,” said Vrinda Grover, a lawyer representing Kismatun. “This is a very clear and lethal illustration of institutional bias present in our law enforcement agencies.”
An investigation by Amnesty International India six months after the riots documented a “disturbing pattern of grave human rights violations” committed by Delhi police that went unpunished.
The police responded to the Amnesty report by issuing a statement that questioned the credibility of the organization, calling it “lopsided” and “biased.” Amnesty International ceased its human rights work in India in September after authorities investigating the group’s funding sources froze its bank accounts.
Police charge sheets describe the riots as a “sinister conspiracy” to embarrass the Modi government during Trump’s visit. But critics, including a group of retired Indian police officers, say the probe of the riots has been flawed. In cases of murder and possession of weapons, 212 Muslims and 178 Hindus have been arrested, according to reporting by Indian Express, even though twice as many Muslims were killed. No action has been taken against leaders of the ruling party, such as Mishra, whose speech preceded the violence.
Among those charged by the police with conspiring to engineer riots are more than a dozen Muslim men and women, including student leaders, many of whom have spent months in jail under a stringent anti-terrorism law. One of those arrested included a pregnant student leader who had created a WhatsApp group to coordinate protests, one of the few suspects to be granted bail on “humanitarian grounds.” Two Hindu student leaders of a feminist collective have also been arrested on conspiracy charges.
The charging documents in the case also mention a leading human rights activist, a professor and two filmmakers — all critics of the Modi government. The investigation in the riot cases “has been fair and impartial,” said Biswal, the police spokesman. “There is no question of any bias.”
In court filings in Faizan’s case, the police say they have enlisted an expert to enhance images from the video to identify the perpetrators of the beating. They claim Faizan was seen “standing” among a mob throwing stones in media footage obtained by them and that he was held at the police station at his own request because of the riots.
The family says the police claim is hard to believe, because Faizan had been beaten by them. They also say that Faizan might have lived if he had received immediate medical care and not been detained. In March, the police told a court that the closed-circuit TV camera at the police station where Faizan was held for over 24 hours was not functional.
Faizan’s elder brother, Nadeem, now looks after his beloved pigeons. For Kismatun, who lost her husband in a road accident when Faizan was a toddler, the wound is deep.
“The police are protecting their own,” she said. “But I lost my dear son. I will not give up.”