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  • Writer's picturePritika Chowdhry

2020 Delhi Riots, Citizenship Amendment Act Protesters, and Echoes of the Partition Violence

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

The history of the 2020 Delhi riots

The cycle of Hindu-Muslim riots in India is never-ending. Today is the second anniversary of the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) riots that broke out in Northeast Delhi last year on Feb 23. What followed was six bloody days of communal violence targeting the Muslim minority population. Another echo of the Partition violence of 1947.

Today, as I remember the victims of the CAA riots, I cannot help but think of my anti-memorial Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition because the trace memories of the intense and brutal partition violence continues to drip into the present day through these recurring communal riots.

What is the Citizenship Amendment Act?

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, introduced in 2016 in India, was designed to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, in order to recognize specific types of illegal immigrants, segregated by religion and country of origin. It was enacted on December 11, 2019 as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA).

Under the CAA, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who had migrated from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan to India prior to 2014 are no longer considered illegal immigrants and can more readily achieve citizenship. Left out of the six religions granted special privileges are Jews and Muslims, thereby making official a discriminatory policy against Islam and Judaism in India.

Anti-CAA protests

The protests began throughout India from December 2019 in response to the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which permits fast-tracked naturalization for immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan belonging to six religions in the country. The bill was considered to be disproportionate to Muslim communities in India.

The rioting began at Jaffrabad, in North East Delhi, when a women's sit-in against the CAA, was blocking a portion of the Seelampur–Jaffrabad–Maujpur route. On February 23, 2020, Kapil Mishra, a leader of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), asked the Delhi Police to clear the roadways, threatening to "strike the streets" if they did not.

Women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in North-east Delhi
Women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in North-east Delhi

2020 Delhi riots

The 2020 Delhi Riot, or North East Delhi Riots, was largely caused by Hindu mobs attacking Muslim people. Two thirds of those killed were Muslims, and the victims were shot and burned repeatedly. The dead included a policeman, an intelligence official, and more than 12 Hindu villagers and soldiers. Hundreds of wounded were left stranded at the end of the day in squalid hospitals with inadequate medical care while bodies were found in the drains.

The 2020 Delhi riots, also known as the North East Delhi riots, were a series of waves of killing, property damage, and rioting in North East Delhi that began on February 23, 2020, and were mostly triggered by Hindu mobs targeting Muslims.

Implications of the Delhi riots

Two-thirds of the 53 individuals killed were Muslims who were shot, stabbed repeatedly, or set on fire. Among those killed were a police officer, an intelligence officer, and more than a dozen Hindus who were shot or attacked. Hundreds of injured people were still being treated in understaffed healthcare facilities at least a week after the violence stopped, and bodies were being discovered in open sewers. many Muslims were still missing by mid-March.

The Delhi police said that the rioting had claimed the lives of at least 53 people. The newest fatality had been Naresh Saini, a 32 year old, who died as a result of gunshot wounds. Chants of "Jai Shri Ram" ("Victory to Lord Rama"), a religious phrase popular among Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, could be heard.

For three days in the Shiv Vihar area, gangs of aggressive Hindu males assaulted Muslim homes and businesses, often firebombing them with cooking gas cylinders and destroying them with little opposition from the police. In other cases, Muslims responded to potential threat with violence; for example, on the 25th, a group of Muslim rioters attacked a Hindu neighborhood, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails and shooting guns. During this period, rumors circulated of Sikhs and Hindus rushing to the rescue of besieged Muslims; in certain neighborhoods, religious organizations banded together to defend themselves from violence.

Investigation into the riots

In February 2020 Delhi Police said the formation of a special investigative team based on the investigation of violent incidents was ongoing. The two Deputy Commissioners of State were DCPs Joy Tirkey and Rajsh Deo. The addition of BK. Singh as head of the police branch was to supervise the SIT activities. On 27 February 2020 forensic scientists arrived to examine the scene to collect evidence. In March 2019, police reported about a thousand FIRs and over 2200 individuals were arrested.

Why riots happened in Delhi?

On February 22, over 1,000 rioters launched a sit-in protest at the Jaffrabad metro station in Northeast Delhi, obstructing a section of Seelampur-Jaffrabad-Maujpur road as well as the access and exit to the metro station. The demonstration was said to be in support of the Bharat Bandh organized by the Bhim Army, which was set to commence on February 23.

On February 23, hours before the communal violence in North East Delhi erupted, BJP leader Kapil Mishra sent an "ultimatum" to police to disperse anti-CAA demonstrations that were blocking highways in the region. In response to the obstruction by individuals opposing the new citizenship legislation, he encouraged people to rally at Maujpur Chowk in favor of the CAA.

This was widely reported as an instigation. Shortly after Mishra's statement, anti- and pro-CAA protesters clashed at Maujpur Chowk, Karawal Nagar, Babarpur, as well as Chand Bagh. To clear the crowd, Delhi police used lathi charges and tear gas. The next day, violent fights erupted in numerous Northeast Delhi neighborhoods, including Gokalpuri and Kardampuri. Arson, property damage, stone pelting, and the burning of places of worship were all hallmarks of the assault. While attempting to suppress the demonstrators, Delhi Police chief constable Ratan Lal was shot and killed.

Anti-CAA riots in Northeast Delhi in February 2020.
Anti-CAA riots in Northeast Delhi in February 2020.

On March 23rd, fights broke out in North East Delhi between armed anti-CAA and pro-CAA demonstrators. The violent incidents began at a community level with 53 deaths over the next 10 days. Hundreds more were hurt.

Who was behind Delhi riots in 2020?

The assailants did not live in the region, according to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and local locals. According to the findings of a preliminary report made by a team of the Delhi Minorities Commission, around 2,000 outsiders or thugs invaded two schools for 24 hours in order to carry out the Delhi riots.

How many people died in 2020 Delhi riots?

By March 6th, the assault had taken an increasingly violent turn with more than 63 people being killed.

Reactions following the Delhi riots

On February 26, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) voiced concern about the rioting and asked the Indian government to provide security to members of all faiths.

Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential contender in the United States, and other US lawmakers voiced their dismay at the actions. "Indians in large numbers, and from all groups, have expressed — mainly peacefully — their opposition to the Act (CAA), and support for the country's historic heritage of secularism," according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

On March 3, the Delhi riots drew harsh condemnation from a number of members of the United Kingdom's House of Commons. They chastised the Modi administration for the Delhi riots and CAA.

On March 5, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the Indian government to battle radical Hindus and their groups and put an end to the massacres of Indian Muslims in order to save India from being isolated from the Islamic world.

The capacity of Delhi police questioned

Multiple sources questioned the Delhi Police's capacity to restore peace in riot-torn districts. There have been allegations of police failing to intervene despite the fact that they were there when the violence culminated in murders. They were claimed to have been slow to send people, even as intelligence reports demanded extra forces to keep the tense situation from deteriorating further.

As per media sources, a video published on social media on February 26 showed a group of guys being pummeled by police while they lay on the ground. The Delhi police compelled them to sing the national anthem.

A Delhi High Court Bench directed the Delhi Police to make an informed decision regarding registering FIRs against those whose comments sparked the disturbances. However, the police and the administration insisted that detaining them would not immediately restore peace. They also advised the court that they would want further time to examine the problem.

Why the Delhi riots echo 1947 Partition violence and the Gujarat Pogrom

Following independence in 1947, the partition riots in Delhi resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Muslims and the exodus of around 300,000, leaving the surviving Muslim population severely reduced, both numerically and politically.

Anti-CAA protesters gathered at Kranti Maidan in Mumbai.
Anti-CAA protesters gathered at Kranti Maidan in Mumbai.

What started as minor conflicts between supporters and opponents of a contentious citizenship bill swiftly erupted into full-fledged religious rioting between Hindus and Muslims in crowded working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of the enormous metropolis.

Unsurprisingly, the ethnic clashes in Delhi have been compared to two of India's deadliest sectarian riots in recent memory. Anti-Sikh riots erupted in the capital in 1984, following the assassination of then-prime leader Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. In 2002, a train fire in Gujarat killed 60 Hindu pilgrims. The Hindu right retaliated with an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, killing over 2,000 people, the majority of whom were Muslims.

Anti-memorial to communal riots

The Hindu Right appears to be out for the blood of the Muslim minority group. I feel that the scope and ferocity of the 2020 Delhi riots strongly recalled the Partition violence of 1947.

Unfortunately, my anti-memorial to these communal riots, Memory Leaks: Specters of the Partition, is still relevant. My hypothesis with this anti-memorial is that the trace memories of the intense and brutal partition violence continues to drip into the present day through these recurring communal riots. Please join me in remembrance for the victims of the 2020 CAA riots.

Pritika Chowdhry. Memory Leaks, installation view.
Pritika Chowdhry. Memory Leaks, 2014. Etched copper pots, burnt newspapers and books, water, prayer mat. 120 in. x 120 in. x 120 in. installed dimensions.


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