At least 43 people were killed in violent attacks in Delhi when Hindu mobs targeted Muslim-dominated areas for several days - the worst sectarian riots since 1984. Photo: Money Sharma / AFP

The recent riots in Delhi were the worst sectarian violence in the Indian capital in nearly four decades, with more than 40 people killed and hundreds more injured.

The attacks on Muslim-dominated colonies by armed Hindu mobs from neighboring states appeared to catch intelligence and police chiefs unaware – an extraordinary security lapse considering they occurred during the visit of US President Donald Trump.

As the national capital, Delhi has a complex system of dual government control. It has an elected state government that has severely limited powers. The bulk of the powers, including law and order, lies with the federal government and is run through the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Currently, Amit Shah, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest confidants and a former Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) president, is the Home Affairs Minister. But the ministry runs Delhi through the office of the Lieutenant Governor, an official who is not elected but appointed.

Through two of the three days of rioting, Shah was busy handling arrangements for Trump’s visit to his home state of Gujarat. Practically the whole federal cabinet shifted to the city of Ahmedabad, where Trump and Modi were slated to address a rally on February 24.

But trouble in Delhi started on the night of February 22 and there were enough indications that the city was sitting on a tinderbox. Protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have been raging across India since December after the Modi government passed the controversial law in Parliament. The law discriminates against Muslims and coupled with a planned National Register of Citizens (NRC), threatens to make millions of them stateless.

Officials ‘blind’

On February 17 and 24 two crucial meetings were held between the Lieutenant Governor, Home Affairs officials and the Delhi Police commissioner. This was to review the security situation in the city ahead of Trump’s visit on February 25. In both meetings, officials failed to appreciate the rising tension and the subsequent violence that erupted, according to two senior government officials.

“We were anticipating protests against the CAA to rise during the President’s visit. But not only did we fail to anticipate its intensity, we also missed obvious signs of the impending violence,” one of the officials conceded.

Minutes of both the meetings bear out this testimony. On both days, the Lieutenant Governor asked the police commissioner to address the protests. They feared that a major turnout by the protesters would embarrass the federal government in front of a foreign dignitary. On February 17, the police commissioner Amulaya Patnaik assured the Governor that they would increase their intelligence scan to ensure they were not taken by surprise.

But on February 22, protesters in North East Delhi suddenly appeared out of nowhere and gathered around the Jafrabad Metro Station and occupied an arterial road and blocked traffic. Led by women, the protesters caught the police napping. They immediately deployed to counter them but were worried that a forcible evacuation would lead to more tension and violence ahead of Trump’s visit.

That night the arrival of a BJP leader exacerbated the situation. Kapil Mishra, who lost the recent Delhi state election, led a mob to Jafrabad and threatened the protesters and the police. In a video that he posted on Twitter, he threatens the protesters and the police and warns them of vigilante action if the protesters are not cleared within three hours. Police can be seen in the video standing next to him as he delivered his ultimatum.

Within hours armed crowds began to arrive in the region, with the police completely clueless about what was going on.

Intelligence failures

The police also depend heavily on the federal Intelligence Bureau (IB) an agency tasked with gathering information from across the country. The IB was also the key liaison with the US Secret Service for Trump’s visit to India. A specific department of the IB looks after VIP security and gathers all intelligence. The IB also has a unit called the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau in each state including Delhi.

Reports from the IB remained generic between February 17 to the 24th. They say protests were expected across Delhi, but had no specifics in regard to violent attacks or even any plans to escalate tension during the visit. They assured their US Secret Service counterparts that all was well. Ironically, the US was one of the countries to express its concern to India that the citizenship law would be seen as a move that persecuted Muslims.

Officials also noted that their Delhi unit has been starved off people and resources for years. As a result, it was too stretched and did not have any intelligence that a major attack was being planned in the northeast of the capital.

The biggest lapse by all agencies, federal and state, was the arrival of armed attackers by bus from Delhi’s neighboring states. This, officials have since realized, was a clear sign that an aggressive attack was planned in advance, given the use of guns – mostly locally-made small arms that can fire single shots.

Nearly 80 people were admitted to hospitals with gunshot wounds during the protest.

The attackers were primarily Hindu mobs and the areas that saw the brunt of the violence had a large number of Muslim families. Many of their houses had been earmarked for a planned assault.

On February 24, when officials from Delhi Police met the Lieutenant Governor, the riots were in full swing. Two of the most senior police on the ground in the areas that were hit, Satish Golcha and Praveer Ranjan, called for more support from outside the area. They had two worries – not only were they significantly understaffed, they feared that local police were compromised by sectarian tensions. The presence of officers from outside the state was needed, they said.

But in a meeting on February 24, no official request for additional support was made. And no effort was undertaken to arrest Mishra for issuing threats, or to even investigate if he had incited the riots. The fact that armed arsonists had arrived in the city was completely missed in all assessments on that day.

The Intelligence Bureau was mysteriously blind to these events. In fact, one of their staffers who stayed in the affected area was slain. His body was recovered from a drain days later with 400 stab wounds.

Federal ministers missing in action

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah only arrived in Delhi on the night of February 24 to take charge of the situation. By then the violence had raged across northeastern Delhi for 48 hours.

When the prime minister arrived with President Trump the next day, most top officials were busy attending bilateral meetings – miles from areas where violent attacks were taking place. Soon after Trump’s departure, the prime minister asked his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to take charge of the situation.

This was unprecedented, and Doval, a former police officer and head of the Intelligence Bureau, rushed to the affected areas.

By this time the government had ordered shoot-at-sight orders to contain the violence. But Doval’s initial visit found armed attackers driving around on motorcycles despite this. A police constable was already dead and a senior officer gravely injured.

By February 26 the police, with additional men on the ground, finally regained control of the areas targeted in the attacks. The armed arsonists from neighboring states appeared to get away as police failed to seal off these districts.

In one instance, a police officer from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh crossed into Delhi when he witnessed a mob gathering. Neeraj Jadaun, a young superintendent did not have jurisdiction in the capital, but rushed in with a small force to prevent a massacre.

It was left to individual actions by officials like Jadaun or trapped citizens to save each other while the police and intelligence agencies remained strangely ineffectual for nearly 72 hours. Observers are now comparing the failures of 2020 to infamous riots 36 years earlier.

In 1984 Delhi witnessed a pogrom against its Sikh population in the aftermath of the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi led by leaders of her party.

The riots of 2020 seemed to have been sanctioned by some within the BJP or national government, and coupled with multiple failures by police and intelligence officials, led to very high casualties.

Critics say these dramas risk putting the country on a dangerous and volatile path.