A War of Narratives: Understanding 2020 Delhi Violence in India


Meet the rioters who say they killed Muslims in Delhi violence

by Hisham ul Wahab P         26 October 2020

It is, in fact, not the event per se would be incorporated into the annals of history, but a multiplicity of narratives compete with each other to be visible and potent in tomorrow’s gaze. Hence, endeavors to narrate the events through the prisms of particularities often find curious masses, who in turn attempt to win over rhetorics of quotidian living. In such endeavors, various propaganda tools are used to transform a narrative into the one and only real truth. In the modern world order, it has been legitimately called public relations management through print, visual and online domains. Diverse means of propaganda have been utilized to push forward the imaginaries of events with persuasive authenticity as part of the soft power of nation-states and ruling regimes. Such propaganda, as Noam Chomsky (1988) argues, aims at manufacturing consent among the people concordant to the vested interests of the power and in turn create a collective conscience that supports the regime in times of legitimacy crisis.

In the context of widely discussed violence occurred in the capital of India in February 2020, various reports have come up to inform us about the event. As the documentation of events has gained importance among various groups in India and abroad, multiple narratives are surfaced on Internet-accessible with much ease during this pandemic condition. Both governmental and non-governmental fact-finding teams inquired about the violence in detail with a firm backup of ground-level experiences of survivors as well as perpetrators. In order to substantiate their narratives, they have utilized eye-witness accounts, videos taken by individuals present there, and newspaper reports. Even though the events that happened on the ground have been recorded as well as accessible to the public with better accuracy and substantivity, narratives built over such events differ vehemently from conflicting perspectives.

In this era of social media, apt time management of news and narratives with an agenda of diverting people’s attention from what they deserve to know to what they should discuss has become quite an easy task. So, pushing a fabricated narrative to the mainstream political rhetoric can be achieved through a sophisticated network of social media ‘bhakts’ (devotees) or ‘army’ (IT Cells) with the help of a content-generating team of ‘trend-setting’ analysts. As social media encourage individual engagement and interactive communication on almost every kind of content, trending and ‘viral’ campaigns would spread the intended propaganda to the minds of millions without much scrutiny and assessment (. In turn, megalomaniacs would reap the benefit of the manufacturing consent for manipulated political narratives. As a recent study on Facebook activities shows, social media are largely accused of data-breach, privacy violations, partiality, and dissemination of hate across the globe (Duarte 2020: 06).

Naming the Violence

The narratives on Delhi violence disagree upon the naming of the event itself. Delhi Minority Commission’s Fact-Finding Report discusses this matter in its opening chapter: “Critical questions have been raised in the public sphere of the importance to accurately define the violence that took place, particularly to avoid automatically naming mass violence as “riots” when the violence may have been targeted against a particular community rather than a spontaneous breakout of violence between two sides” (DMC Report 2020: 17). But ironically, this report was titled “Report of the DMC fact-finding Committee on North-East Delhi Riots of February 2020” by naming the event as ‘riots’ to denote ‘neutrality’ from the part of the government. Another report by Youth for Human Rights Documentation (YHRD) titled: “An Account of Fear & Impunity: Preliminary Fact-Finding Report on Communally-Targeted Violence in North-East Delhi, February 2020” uses the term ‘communally-targetted violence’ in order to emphasize the specific communal agenda of the perpetrators as opposed to the secular norms of the country. A detailed report of Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Shoot the Traitors’: Discrimination Against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy” focuses on the discriminatory approach of the CAA and locates the Delhi violence in the larger spectrum of anti-Muslim violence after the protests erupted across India.

The report published by the Group of Intellectuals and Academicians (GIA) of Advocate Monika Arora (Supreme Court of India) titled “Delhi Riots 2020: Report from Ground Zero – The Shaheen Bagh Model in North East Delhi: From Dharna to Danga” and the report by Nupur J Sharma and Kalpojyoti Kashyap of OpIndia titled “Delhi Anti-Hindu Riots of 2020:  The Macabre Dance of Violence Since December 2019” share relatively similar views on the characteristic of the violence as ‘Anti- Hindu riots’. While discussing the naming of the violence in its concluding chapter, OpIndia report strategically prefers the term ‘communal riots’ over ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’: “The violence that occurred in Delhi was not an ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’ as has been alleged but communal riots in which people of both communities lost their lives” (Sharma and Kashyap 2020: 228). GIA report defines the violence as an outcome of the Far Left – Urban Naxal radicalization of minorities: “The Delhi riots are not genocide or a pogrom targeted at any community. They are a tragic outcome of a planned and systematic radicalization of the minorities by a far left-Urban Naxal network operating in universities in Delhi. Both communities have suffered greatly as a consequence. The presence of Jihadi organizations like Popular Front of India (PFI) at dharna sites has been observed” (Arora 2020: 01).

It has been a pattern in almost all the anti-Muslim violence in India that to call it “communal riots” in order to avoid the supposed blame over the perpetrators from the Hindu fold as well as to narrate it in a balanced/neutral way as both the communities involved in it are occupying equal and parallel power. However, an assessment of such a narrative with the help of various reports including the Sachar Committee report would be sufficient to explore the historical disparity and discrimination against the Muslim community in terms of socio-political-economic and educational parameters. Analyzing various attempts over naming the violence, Irfan Ahmad argues that “naming is critical to the diagnosis of the problem as also to its prevention. Indeed on naming rests, in many ways, life as well as death. To safeguard the chastity of language, and my own ethical integrity, I will, therefore, not call the violence in Delhi a riot, as it’s being widely called. But let me name it what it truly is: a pogrom”. As most of the reports examine, the complicit and participant role of the police in a violent situation aggravates the dangerous condition of the lives and properties of Muslims. A wall writing in North-East Delhi puts this fact in clear letters: “Who do you call when the police murders?”. This anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi has often been compared to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, and 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, while highlighting the complicity and support of the state governments in killing the minority community, destroying their worship places, selectively attacking their business and financial assets.

In his work on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Mahmood Mamdani puts forward interesting insights on the nature and process of genocide. Demarcating the narratives between the ethnic massacre and racial genocide, Mamdani (2002: 24) argues that “it was a genocide by those who saw themselves as sons—and daughters—of the soil, and their mission as one of clearing the soil of a threatening alien presence. This was not an “ethnic” but a “racial” cleansing, not violence against one who is seen as a neighbor but against one who is seen as a foreigner; not violence that targets a transgression across a boundary into the home but one that seeks to eliminate a foreign presence from home soil, literally and physically. From this point of view, we need to distinguish between racial and ethnic violence: ethnic violence can result in massacres, but not genocide. Massacres are about transgressions, excess; genocide questions the very legitimacy of a presence as alien”. In a similar way, the genocidal projects in India against the historically marginalized minorities – who have a long legacy of mutual life experiences- can be analyzed as racial cleansing. Otherization of minority communities in general and Muslims in particular by differentiating as ‘alien’ and ‘foreigner’ through legal and policy mechanisms would lead to a project of massive elimination and extermination in near future. The existence of detention camps for the ‘illegal migrants’ under the pretext of the National Register of Citizenship is pointing out to the condition of citizenship denial and statelessness of Muslims devoid of ‘the right to have rights’(Arendt 1951: 296).

The Beginning

While discussing the starting point of the violence in Delhi, the fact-finding reports make various conflicting analyses. The approval of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in both houses of parliament was a watershed moment in the history of India, which paved a way for anti-Muslim religious discrimination in the matters of citizenship and equal rights, would eventually, as Tanweer Fazal argues, “denationalize Muslims”. The mounting threat of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the NPR (National Population Register) from the part of BJP ministers -even without outlining its implementation procedures- pushed the Muslim community to the streets across India. M R Shamshad, the Chairperson of the DMC Report writes in his forward to the report, “We stand at the threshold of a crucial stage. Most victims of the religious minority have stated stories and put forth illustrations reflecting religious bias against them, inasmuch as being treated as a separate and distinct ‘community’ rather than citizens of the country. I have no doubt in stating that the same discriminatory bias and hate became the reason for the minorities to take a lead in the protests against the discriminatory CAA. The protests were legitimate and peaceful. Seemingly, to crush the protests, with support of the Administration and Police, a retaliatory plan of pro-CAA protesters was worked out to trigger violence at a large scale which led to the loss of lives and damage to hundreds of properties owned mainly by the Muslim religious minority” (DMC Report 2020: 14).

Reports of DMC, HRW, and YHRD  find that the inflammatory speeches by the leaders of BJP led to the entire episodes of violence in Delhi. “The violence which broke out in North East Delhi was clearly preceded by a number of speeches by BJP leaders openly maligning anti-CAA protestors and questioning their motives with no basis, making derogatory remarks laden with communal undertones and open threats of violence, and to cast the Shaheen Bagh protests, particularly, in a negative light to build an “anti-Shaheen Bagh” narrative” (DMC Report 2020: 27). However, the OpIndia report puts forward another story altogether about the beginning of violence. According to OpIndia, “the fact of the matter is, it all began when Ladeeda Sakhaloon, Barkha Dutt’s Jamia ‘shero’, gave a call for Jihad on the 11th of December 2019. The entire cycle of violence in Delhi began soon afterward. And since then, it has never been peaceful. It is also pertinent to remember that the Shaheen Bagh protest was masterminded by Sharjeel Imam, a radical Islamist who wished to cut off North East India from the rest of the country”(Sharma and Kashyap 2020: 15). Here, OpIndia deliberately misinterprets the statements on ‘jihad’ and ‘chakka jam’ (roadblock) given by Ladeeda and Sharjeel Imam respectively in order to depict it as incitement of violence.

In an attempt to depict the objective of Anti CAA movement as Khilafat 2.0, by mentioning the historic Khilafat Movement of Malabar in Kerala during the anti-colonial struggle, OpIndia makes a grand-narrative by selectively picking conspicuous words: “Everything that has happened in Delhi points towards the fact that an attempt was made to repeat the events of the Khilafat Movement. The Radical Islamic Movement of the 20th Century which paved the way for the creation of Pakistan was marked by a massacre of Hindus that is oft forgotten: The Moplah Massacre. It is an objective fact that the Jamia anti-CAA movement was led by people who glorified the genocidal maniacs of the Moplah Massacre”(Sharma and Kashyap 2020: 15). Along with Ladeeda, Aysha Renna, and Sharjeel Imam, OpIndia lists out a couple of activists from Muslim, Ambedkarite, Feminist, Left and Congress circles as the perpetrators of violence in Delhi, while intentionally leaving out the names of BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders, who participated actively throughout the incidents of violence.

On Targets

Analyzing the primary victims of violence, the DMC report finds out that the Muslims were systematically targeted and their properties were selectively destroyed. The report says that “the violence followed an organised and systematic pattern. Different mobs numbering anywhere between 100-1000 people, chanting common slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and even “Har Har Modi”, “Modiji, kaat do in Mullon ko [Modi, cut these Muslims into pieces]”, “Aaj tumhe aazadi denge [Today, we will give you freedom]”, selectively attacked Muslim individuals, houses, shops, vehicles, mosques, and other property…The testimonies reveal that the violence was planned and targeted. As stated above, the perpetrators were armed with lathis, iron rods, tear gas bombs, cylinders, and firearms” (DMC Report 2020: 100). YHRD report affirms the anti-Muslim behavior of violence: “Testimonies gathered during the fact-finding and media accounts of injured and eyewitnesses to the violence indicate planned mobilization of mobs geared to inflict violence and evidence of a large number of arms, ammunitions, and bricks used by the aggressors. These all point towards this episode of violence being a pre-planned, organised attack against the Muslim community” (YHRD Report 2020: 10).

While analyzing the modus operandi of the anti-Muslim pogroms in India, one striking factor can be found as the popular support from the large Hindu fold. Even though the complicity of the state, police, and paramilitary is significant in the spread of genocide, it is in fact the popular involvement that ensures the gravity of violence on the targeted bodies and properties. Mamdani compares such a feature of “popular genocide” in two entirely different landscapes: “we need to realize that it is the “popularity” of the genocide that is its uniquely troubling aspect. In its social aspect, Hutu/Tutsi violence in the Rwandan genocide invites comparison with Hindu/Muslim violence at the time of the partition of colonial India. Neither can be explained as simply a state project. One shudders to put the words “popular” and “genocide” together, therefore I put “popularity” in quotation marks. And yet, one needs to explain the large-scale civilian involvement in the genocide. To do so is to contextualize it, to understand the logic of its development” (Mamdani 2002: 21).

In a context of genocide, fierce methods are often used to harm the confidence and dignity of the communities at the receiving end. In India, rape has been considered by the Hindu radicals as a political tool to show masculine power over the subjugated female bodies. Various reports on the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom investigate this tendency of sexual violence, for the purpose of creating constant fear among the minorities. The YHRD report analyses targeted atrocities against Muslim women, as “there have been reports of sexual harassment, assault and gendered abuse against Muslim women living in Mustafabad, Shiv Vihar and Chand Bagh. Women recounted being beaten up, clothes being torn, molested, and abused during the violence”(YHRD Report 2020: 23).

According to the DMC report, out of 55 people killed in the violence, around 40 persons are belonging to the Muslim community. While calling the violence ‘anti-Hindu’, OpIndia argues that the number of the dead cannot determine the nature of violence. The report analyzes the violent acts of the Sangh Parivar mob as a means of self-defense as follows: “in the Delhi violence, Hindus and Muslims both suffered casualties, however, whether a riot was aimed against Hindus or Muslims cannot be ascertained by the number of the dead, but by who started the violence and for what reason. What also needs to be analyzed is which side was prepared to perpetrate violence and which side ended up retaliating as a means of self-defense” (Sharma and Kashyap 2020: 16).


In the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom, the Delhi Police started a witch-hunt of anti-CAA activists by accusing them of involvement in violence. A majority of the arrested activists are in prison without getting bail under the charges of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). According to a recently published Amnesty International India report, “as the Delhi police investigate who is responsible for the riots, there have been no investigations till now into the human rights violations committed by the Delhi police during the riots”. Amnesty report points out that the Delhi Police is committing human rights violations including “violence with the rioters; torturing in custody; using excessive force on protesters; dismantling protest sites used by peaceful protesters and being mute bystanders as rioters wreaked havoc”. However, as the report examines, “to date, the Delhi police have not taken any action against the perpetrators leading to a climate of widespread impunity” (Amnesty Report 2020: 4). Human Rights Watch in its report demands the Indian government “release all those arbitrarily detained for protesting against the citizenship law and dismiss politically motivated charges against protesters and civil society activists” (HRW Report 2020: 78).

The apparent partiality and bias of the police in relation to the people in power underline the limitation of naming the violence as a ‘riot’ or ‘clash’ between two communities. On the other hand, it must be called as a part of state-sponsored pogroms against and continuous incarcerations of Muslims in India. Creative attempts need to be made to delineate these narratives in the domain of Islamophobic discourse. As the ruling BJP government tries hard to suppress the rights agencies and activists with an agenda of strengthening the propaganda for Hindu Rashtra, globalizing the experiences of the marginalized would facilitate international solidarities and community-level cooperation. Such attempts must strive to locate the Islamophobic discourse in India with all the nuances and complexities through academic and journalistic methodologies and to push forward to the public conscience by the means of policy recommendations and media narratives.


Ahmad, Irfan. (2020), “Violence after violence: The politics of narratives over the Delhi pogrom”, The Polis Project, 28 March 2020, URL: https://thepolisproject.com/violence-after-violence-the-politics-of-narratives-over-the-delhi-pogrom/#.X3gp7N9fg8o

Amnesty International India, “India: Six Months Since Delhi Riots, Delhi Police Continue To Enjoy Impunity Despite Evidence Of Human Rights Violations”, 28 August 2020, New Delhi.

Arendt, Hannah. (1973), The Origins of Totalitarianism, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Delhi Minority Commission, “Report of the DMC fact-finding Committee on North-East Delhi Riots of February 2020”, 27 June 2020, New Delhi.

Chomsky, Noam and Edward S Herman. (1988), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books.

Duarte, Raquel P G Marcelino. (2020), “Case Study: Facebook in Face of Crisis”, MSc Dissertation, Lisbon: Catolica Porto Business School.

Fazal, Tanweer. (2020), “Geneology of a Pogrom”, The Baffler, 26 March 2020, URL: https://thebaffler.com/latest/a-pogrom-and-its-genealogies-fazal

Group of Intellectuals and Academicians (GIA), “Delhi Riots 2020: Report from Ground Zero – The Shaheen Bagh Model in North East Delhi: From Dharna to Danga”, New Delhi.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Shoot the Traitors’: Discrimination Against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy”, April 2020, United States of America.

Mamdani, Mahmood. (2002), When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sharma, Nupur J and Kalpojyoti Kashyap. (2020), Delhi Anti-Hindu Riots of 2020:  The Macabre Dance of Violence Since December 2019, New Delhi: OpIndia.

Youth for Human Rights Documentation (YHRD), “An Account of Fear & Impunity: Preliminary Fact-Finding Report on Communally-Targeted Violence in North-East Delhi, February 2020”, New Delhi.