NEW DELHI (AP) – The sniper shouted “Victory for Lord Ram”, the Hindu god, before pulling the trigger that fired a bullet into Muhammad Nasir Khan’s left eye.
Khan placed a trembling hand in the bloody eye socket and his fingers penetrated deep into the wound. At that moment, Khan was sure he would die.
Khan ended up surviving the violence that killed 53 other people, mostly Muslims, when he engulfed his neighborhood in the Indian capital 12 months ago.
But a year after India’s worst communal unrest in decades, the 35-year-old man is still shaken and his attacker is still unpunished. Khan says he did not get justice because of the police’s lack of interest in his case.
“My only crime is that my name identifies my religion,” said Khan 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 encountered police refusal to investigate complaints against Hindu protesters. Some hope that the courts will still come to their aid. But others now believe that the judicial system of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has turned against them.
To heighten the sense of injustice, reports by Muslim victims, as well as reports by human rights groups, indicated that the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata de Modi Party and the New Delhi police force tacitly supported Hindu mobs during feverish violence.
New Delhi police did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but insisted last year that their investigation had been fair and that about 1,750 people had been charged with the disturbances – half of them Hindus. Junior Interior Minister G. Kishan Reddy also told Parliament that the police acted quickly and impartially.
But a letter that a senior police officer sent to investigators five months after the disturbances seemed to suggest that they were easy with Hindus suspected of violence, sparking criticism from the Delhi High Court.
Communal clashes in India are not new, with periodic violence erupting since the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. But in the past seven years, observers say, the religious polarization fueled by Modi’s party’s Hindu nationalist base has further deepened the lines failure and increased voltages.
Many believe that the catalyst for last year’s riots was a fiery speech by Kapil Mishra, a leader of Modi’s party. On February 23, 2020, he issued an ultimatum to the police, warning them to stop a demonstration by protesters protesting a new citizenship law that Muslims say is discriminatory, or he and his supporters would do it alone.
When their supporters moved in, they unleashed street battles that quickly turned into riots. For the next three days, Hindu mobs invaded the streets, hunting 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 disturbances, calling the allegations “propaganda” to cover up the “pre-planned genocide of Hindus by Muslims”. On Monday, he said his party had no connection to the violence, but added: “What I did last year, I will do it again if necessary”, referring to his speech hours before the riots started.
Many in the region’s Hindu community accuse Muslims of starting violence in an attempt to make India look bad.
A year later, many Muslim victims of the riots are still shrinking in fear of further bloodshed. Hundreds abandoned their destroyed houses and moved elsewhere. Those who chose to stay fortified their neighborhoods with metal gates in case of further attacks from the crowd. Many say they fear that those responsible will never be held responsible.
“Everything has changed since the disturbances,” said Khan. “I think I am slowly losing all my hopes for justice.”
Khan spent 20 days recovering at the hospital after being shot. Since then, he has been looking for justice that, according to him, has been prevented by the police on all occasions.
Khan’s official police complaint, seen by The Associated Press, mentioned at least six Hindus in his neighborhood, who he said participated in the violence.
“The accused are still 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.
Your complaint was never officially accepted.
The police, however, filed a complaint on their own. He gave a different version of the events and placed Khan at least a kilometer (0.6 miles) from where he was shot, suggesting that he was wounded in the crossfire between the two confronting groups. He did not identify his attackers.
The stories of many other Muslim victims follow a similar pattern. Police and investigators rejected hundreds of complaints against Hindu protesters, citing the lack of evidence, despite several eyewitness reports.
They include a man who saw his brother being shot, a father of a 4-month-old baby who witnessed his house being set on fire and a boy who lost both arms after Hindu crowds threw a bomb at him.
Now many make weekly trips to the office of attorney Mehmood Pracha, waiting for justice. Very few saw their attackers placed behind bars. Many others are still waiting for their cases to be heard in court.
Pracha, a Muslim, is representing at least 100 victims of riots for free. He said there were several cases where the police received videos of Hindu mobs, many with links to Modi’s party, “but it appears that the police were eager to involve Muslims” in the riots.
He said that in many cases Muslims were also “threatened to withdraw their complaints”.
“The police acted as a partner in crime,” said Pracha.
Several videos of the disturbances seen by the AP show the police inciting Hindu crowds to throw stones at Muslims, destroying surveillance cameras and beating a group of Muslim men – one of whom later died.
Several independent investigative missions and human 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 sometimes “complicit” in attacks against Muslims. He said the authorities “have not conducted impartial and transparent investigations”.
On a recent night, Haroon, who goes by a name, said “he was still afraid to go out at night”.
He saw his brother Maroof being killed by his Hindu neighbors during the disturbances. The police never identified the accused in his complaint, despite several eyewitnesses.
For his part, Haroon said, he was threatened by the police and the accused to withdraw his complaint.
“We were alone at the time and now we are alone,” he said, almost in tears, as the two sons of his dead brother sat beside him.
Haroon looked at them and said, “I don’t know what to do.”