A year on, India's riot victims say justice still unserved

NEW DELHI (AP) — The gunman screamed, before pulling the trigger to send Muhammad Nasir Khan's right eye, "The Victory of Lord Ram."

On his bloody eye socket, Khan put his shaking hand and his fingers slipped deep into the wound.

Khan was confident he would die at that time.

Khan ended up surviving the bloodshed that killed 53 other Muslims largely as he swallowed up his neighbourhood 12 months ago in the Indian capital.

But the 35-year-old is still rattled a year after Indian's deadliest communal upheavals in decades and his abuser remains unpunished.

Khan argues he did not get justice in his case because of a lack of police involvement.

"My only crime is that my name identifies my religion," said Khan at home in the North Ghonda district of New Delhi.

Many Muslim victims of bloody unrest last year claim that the police have consistently failed to investigate allegations of Hindu rioters.

Some hope that the courts will also support them.

But some are now of the view that the justice system under the Hindu Nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stacked against them.

Added to the feeling of discrimination is the fact that Muslim victims' accounts and claims by rights organisations have tacitly assisted the Hindu mobs during fibered harassment by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and the New Delhi police.

New Delhi police did not respond to repeated requests for responses, but last year they insisted they had a fair investigation and almost 1,750 people had been booked on riots — half of them Hindus.

Junior Minister for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy has assured Parliament that the police behaved rapidly and impartially.

But five months after the disturbances, a letter from a senior police official sent to the investigators stating that they go quickly to Hindus accused of crime, which drew condemnation from the Delhi High Court.

There are no new communal clashes in India, with occasional unrest since the British separation of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

But the past seven years, analysts conclude, have been characterized by the religious division fuelled by Modi's Hindu nationalist base.

Many claim that the cause for the riots last year was a fiery speech by the Modi party chief Kapil Mishra.

He issued an ultimatum to police on February 23, 2020, warning them to break a sit-in by protesters protesting a proposed Muslim City Law that he and his followers are racist or do so themselves.

When his followers marched into it, heavy road fighting turned into riots.

In the next three days, Hindu citizens rampaged down roads and hunted Muslims – burning them live in their homes in some cases – and torching whole neighbourhoods, including shops and mosques.

Mishra opposes the notion of the revolts, calling the allegations "propaganda" to mask "Pre-planned Hindus Genocide by Muslims." On Monday, he said his party had no associations with violence, but added, "What I did last year I will do again when needed."

Many in the Hindu community of the region suspect Muslims of beginning violence in an effort to make India look poor.

In fear of more bloodletting, many Muslim victims of the unrest are already cowering a year later.

Hundreds have fled their devastated homes and moved elsewhere.

In the event of further mass assaults, those who wanted to survive fortified their neighbourhoods with metal gates.

Many claim they fear the offenders will never be held accountable.

"It's all changed since the riots," said Khan.

"I believe I lose all my hopes of justice slowly."

After being wounded, Khan spent 20 days recovering in the hospital.

Since then, he has been looking for justice and he claims the police have been stopped at any stage.

The Associated Press' official police complaint to Khan identified at least six Hindus who he believed engaged in the violence from his neighborhood.

"The person charged with being accused of killing my entire family still comes to my home," Khan said in the lawsuit, adding that he was able to remember them before the judge.

He never publicly admitted his complaint.

However, the police themselves lodged a lawsuit.

It offered a separate account of events and locations at which Khan was shot at least a kilometer (0.6 miles) and indicated that he was wounded in the fire between the two bouts.

He did not identify his killers.

Many other Muslim victims have a similar theme in their accounts.

Police and prosecutors have denied hundreds of charges against Hindu rioters, citing a lack of evidence amid numerous reports by eyewitnesses.

Among them is a man who saw his brother being shot fatally; a father of a four-month-old kid who saw his house being torched; and a teenage boy who lost his arms after Hindu mobs bombed him.

Most now go regularly to Mehmood Pracha's lawyer's office in hopes of revenge.

A few had their assailants put behind bars.

Many more are still waiting to hear their cases.

Pracha, a Muslim, serves at least 100 victims of riots free of charge.

He said that there have been many incidents where the police have been receiving videos from Hindu people, several with ties to Modi's group, "but the police seem to be eager to involve Muslims in the riots."

In several cases, he said that Muslims were also "threatened to withdraw their complaints."

"Crime partners have been the police," Pracha said.

Several recordings of the protests that the AP has seen have policing pointed at Hindu crowds to throw stones at Muslims, to smash cameras and to beat a group of Muslim men—one of whom died later on.

The role of police in the protests has been reported by many international fact-finding missions and rights organisations.

In June 2020, Human Rights Watch said that "policemen failed to respond properly" during the protests and were often "complicit" in attacks on Muslims.

Authorities also said that "the investigations have not been unbiased and transparent."

In one last night, Haroon, who is named after him, said he was "still afraid of going out at night."

During the riots, he saw his brother Maroof shot fatally by his Hindu neighbours.

Despite many eyewitnesses, the police never named the perpetrator in his lawsuit.

Haroon said, in turn, that he was intimidated by the police and was accused of withdrawing his complaint.

"At that time we were alone and now we are alone," he said almost tears, as the two children of his dead brother stood next to him.

He glanced at them and said, "I don't know what to do." What to do?