Indian media has made Tahir Hussain the face of Delhi riots. What’s the evidence?
Media

Indian media has made Tahir Hussain the face of Delhi riots. What’s the evidence?

The expelled AAP councillor is accused of ‘orchestrating’ communal violence based on social media. He calls it ‘dirty politics’.

By Ayan Sharma

Published on :

A municipal corporator has become the face of the Delhi riots. More than 36 hours have passed since the name of the Aam Aadmi Party’s Nehru Vihar councillor, Tahir Hussain, surfaced in news headlines for allegedly orchestrating the violence in the Khajuri Khas-Chand Bagh area.

The communal violence in Delhi has left at least 42 people dead and over 200 injured. The dead include Ankit Sharma, a resident of Khajuri Khas who worked for the Intelligence Bureau. Ankit went missing on February 24. His body was retrieved the next day from a drain not far from Tahir’s house.

On Thursday evening, an FIR was registered against Tahir at the Dayalpur police station. He was booked for arson and murder. The AAP immediately suspended him.

The primary source of the allegation against Tahir was a tweet from journalist Rahul Pandita on Wednesday evening. Pandita cited allegations levelled by some Hindu residents of the area against the AAP councillor. Pandita also tweeted a video that purportedly shows a mob on the rooftop of Hussain’s house, hurling stones and petrol bombs.

Soon after, a number of other videos began circulating on social media. In many of these, dozens of rioters can be seen hurling stones, bricks and petrol bombs from the terrace of a building that Tahir owns. In one video, Tahir himself is seen holding a stick on his terrace. There are a few other men around.

TV channels quickly picked this up to feed their 24*7 news cycle. Since Thursday morning, they have stationed several of their reporters at Tahir’s four-storey building. Republic TV reporters denounced the building as a “riot factory”. Going up to the terrace, its reporters “exposed” crates of petrol bombs, catapults, bricks, and acid packets lying around.

“This entire terrace area is entirely proof of how Tahir Hussain was involved in the entire case and how Tahir Hussain’s goons were executing the entire violence,” said Sumi Rajappan, one of several reporters fielded by Republic TV in the area.

On his primetime show on Thursday, Republic TV boss Arnab Goswami was more bombastic. “Mountains of proof have emerged, clearly proving Arvind Kejriwal’s right-hand man and Aam Aadmi Party-elected senior leader called Tahir Hussain, who is 43 years old, led one of the biggest riot attacks in North East Delhi,” Goswami said. “He led a group of anywhere between 300 to 400 hardcore rioters.”

Zee News followed suit. Its editor-in-chief, Sudhir Chaudhary, decided to do a “DNA test” on Hussain’s “riot factory”. Taking a dig at other media houses for not showing “the bitter truth”, Chaudhary said, “Today, when the Zee News team once again visited Tahir Hussain’s house to know the truth, there appeared a strong merit in the allegations of the locals…To sum up, Tahir Hussain’s tahkhana, cellar, was filled with weapons of rioting.”

It should be mentioned that Chaudhary has a penchant for these “DNA tests”: he did one to shame Delhi’s voters when exit polls predicted an AAP victory in this month’s Assembly election.

A Sudarshan News reporter all but concluded that a woman was “killed” inside Tahir’s building. The “evidence” was burnt clothes lying on the floor. A man — whom the channel said was a witness — claimed the woman had been killed in the building and later thrown into the same drain where Ankit’s body was found. The reporter alleged that Tahir had been harbouring “jihadis” in his building. Sudarshan, of course, made these outlandish claims without a shred of proof.

India Today’s consulting editor, Rajdeep Sardesai, also hailed the police’s action against Tahir.

Tahir rejected the allegations. In a video released on Twitter on Wednesday night, he says, “A mob broke my office gate and forcefully entered inside and got to the terrace. I kept requesting the police for help. Only after several hours their forces arrived here.”

The situation came under control soon after, he added.

“In the presence of a police officer, the entire building was searched,” Tahir said. “The police suggested we leave the premises and move somewhere else for safety. I requested the officer to keep his forces stationed around the building so that rioters could not barge in again.” He requested the police because he feared rioters might take “advantage” of his building in their absence.

Tahir said he returned the next day, to "save his house from rioters".

Rejecting the allegations as “totally false”, Tahir added, “This is dirty politics. I have been wrongly dragged into this.”

The building in question is situated by the Karawal Nagar main road near the Adarsh Lakhpat Model Secondary School. Wracked by vandalism and arson, the entire area has been under curfew for the past two days.

On Thursday afternoon, I walked from Mustafabad to Tahir’s house, passing a series of violence-scarred neighbourhoods. The entire stretch resembled a ghost town. Stones and bricks littered the streets, next to burnt vehicles and felled hoardings. There was no traffic save for a motorbike or two that drifted past.

Police and paramilitary personnel were stationed along the road. At the crossroads, small groups of people huddled, chatted and observed. “Are you from the media? Stop taking pictures. Don’t take any risk and walk ahead,” a passerby told me as I tried photographing the wreckage on a deserted road. The tension was palpable.

Near Tahir’s building, the gatherings were thicker. Neighbours looked on from inside narrow lanes; dozens of security personnel guarded the road. Contingents of journalists were broadcasting live. India Today had brought its bus for its day-long coverage, with top anchors in tow.

A few reporters wore helmets as they went on air. As they approached residents for bytes, troops on duty followed. “The curfew is on. Don’t you know? Get back to your homes,” they yelled at the people waiting in front of the lanes. The journalists’ faces were lined with exasperation. “Are we doing anything illegal that you are stopping us?” an ABP News reporter shouted at a couple of policemen.

Old Mustafabad.
Old Mustafabad.

The residents were willing to speak, however. When Newslaundry met some of them inside the lanes, contrary claims emerged over the violence. The story changed depending on who you were speaking to.

Story in Khajuri Khas

In the lane where Ankit Sharma lived, his neighbours unanimously pinned the blame on Tahir Hussain.

“On Tuesday, Ankit was returning from work. At around 5.30-6 pm, a little away from the entry to our lane, a group of men captured him,” said Mahender Singh, a neighbour. “Ankit was overpowered and he fell down. The group then took him towards Tahir’s building, about 100 metres away.”

Singh said “many Hindus” saw this happen.

Santram, another neighbour, agreed. “Even before Ankit was attacked, the mob was hurling stones and petrol bombs from Tahir’s building throughout the day,” he said. “We guarded our lanes and retaliated with stones.” Muslims would have entered their homes otherwise, Santram claimed.

Mahender and Santram were among a group of people standing near the Sharma home on Thursday evening. The family — Ankit’s parents, his brother, and his sister — had left for their village in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar in the morning, they said.

Rakesh Kumar, who lives in a nearby lane, was also part of the throng. He said there are around 25 lanes in the Khajuri Khas locality. “It is a Hindu majority area. Muslims are in a large number in nearby Chand Bagh,” he explained.

Chand Bagh lies towards the Wazirabad main road, about 100 metres from Tahir’s home. Ankit’s body was found in a drain that runs through the area.

Tahir’s building is divided into several parts, Rakesh said. There is an office, a factory that makes hoardings and billboards, and the residential section. Rakesh claimed Tahir had been “planning” the mob attack for some days. “He got dozens of Muslims from other areas in Delhi for this,” he added. “Also, the stones and petrol bombs were probably being accumulated in his factory.”

A burnt motorcycle showroom on the Karawal Nagar main road.
A burnt motorcycle showroom on the Karawal Nagar main road.
Gali No. 6, opposite Tahir Hussain's building.
Gali No. 6, opposite Tahir Hussain's building.

The family’s version of events threads together with what the neighbours claim. On Thursday, Ankit’s father told BBC Hindi: “The boy was returning from his duty. He went to see the stone-pelting. Then around 15-20 men came from Tahir’s building and took him away…Tahir Hussain is a traitor. He got a lot of people from outside to unleash the violence.”

According to a Wall Street Journal report, however, Ankit’s brother, Ankur, had earlier given a different version of the incident. “They came armed with stones, rods, knives and even swords; they shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ [Glory to Lord Ram]; some even wore helmets,” said Ankur Sharma, in a telephone interview to the Journal. “They started throwing stones and bricks at residents, who rushed to Ankit to help them...Later, his body was found in a ditch.”

Ankur later said the Wall Street Journal was “lying”. The family lodged two police complaints against the publication.

Across the road, in Moonga Nagar, the story stays the same. Ravi, a resident of Gali No 6, said the first round of stone-pelting began at 9.30 pm on Sunday, February 23.

“It began in front of the building and continued for nearly three hours,” he said. “The police came and controlled the situation then.”

The next day, Ravi said, stone-pelting and arson began at around 2 pm and went on for 9-10 hours. “Tahir remained in the building throughout the day. There were about 150-200 people on his terrace throwing the objects towards us,” he said. “The mob swelled in numbers on Tuesday and similar violence occurred.”

However, the conspiracy theories here also flew thick and fast — though little proof could be provided when they were countered.

For example, Dinesh, who also lives in Gali No 6, claimed Tahir’s building is “mysterious”. “Atankvadiyon ka kaam hota hai waha, PFI ki bhi funding hoti hain,” he alleged. Terrorist activities happen there. They get PFI funding.

The “funding from PFI” spiel has been used before. During the Delhi election, Sudhir Chaudhary claimed the citizenship law protesters were funded by the PFI. Zee News went a step further and said Congress leader Kapil Sibal received money from the PFI to fund the protests. Both claims were debunked by Newslaundry.

Dinesh also claimed there’s a “secret entrance” at the back of the building through which Tahir brought in rioters from “outside”. “Ever since the Shaheen Bagh protest began, we have regularly seen outsiders come in cars to the building and leave it after several hours,” he said.

Both Ravi and Dinesh said Tahir moved to the area only in 2017. He is actually from Mustafabad, they explained. “He bought this plot, around 1,100 yards, from a Gujjar man after winning the municipal corporation of Delhi election,” Dinesh said.

Vandalism and arson in the area destroyed a number of shops on both sides of the road facing the building. On Thursday evening, the ruins had not been cleared away yet.

Shyam Sahni ran a tea and snacks stall opposite Hussain’s house for about 10 years. His shop was vandalised and burned on Monday night, he said, and he lost property and cash worth Rs 5 lakh.

“There were three Pepsi fridges, two ice-cream storage boxes, and a few chairs and tables inside,” Shyam said. “All were gutted in the fire. The rioters also looted four gas cylinders and nearly Rs 35,000 in cash.”

Shyam Sahni.
Shyam Sahni.
Gautam Kumar Verma.
Gautam Kumar Verma.

Gautam Kumar Verma, a resident of Gali No. 6, also fell victim to the violence on Sunday night. He was on his way home from his factory job in Seelampur. Around 10.30 pm, as he neared the Chand Bagh drain, about a dozen men surrounded him and asked his name.

Once he told them, Gautam said, “They started bashing me up with rods. They used a knife to attack me and also punched my face.” He said the men looted Rs 15,000 in cash from him — his salary.

Story in Chand Bagh

People in Chand Bagh contested many of these claims. Step past Hussain’s building and move towards this Muslim-majority area, and the narrative changes at once.

“Tahir himself was a victim of the violence,” said Mahtab Hussain, a resident of Gali No 21 in Chand Bagh. “If he was the mastermind behind the riots, why would he call the police for protection?” This repeats what Hussain himself claimed in his defence.

Mahtab said five police jeeps were stationed in front of the building for hours after Tahir and his family left on Monday evening. “Once the police left, rioters must have broken into the building. There was continuous violence throughout the next day,” he said. “But nobody can ascertain who the mob was. Both communities have been affected.”

He claimed the visuals of Tahir wielding a stick were from Monday afternoon. “Some people had broken the door below and tried to come to the terrace. Tahir went to chase them away,” he explained. “But the group shouted slogans against him: ‘Tahir Hussain hai hai, Tahir Hussain down down’.”

This compelled the councillor to call the police for help, Mahtab added.

Shah Alam, a tailor living in Gali No 21, believed it’s a “conspiracy” against Tahir Hussain. The BJP and a section of the media framed him, he said.

“Why are they not highlighting the fact that the riots started soon after Kapil Mishra’s provocative speech at Maujpur on Sunday afternoon?” Alam said. “Godi media like Republic and Zee News neglected that and are now directly blaming Hussain,” he alleged, using a phrase against the channels as biased to the government.

While several TV channels ran trials and jumped to conclusions about Tahir Hussain’s involvement in violence, only this afternoon, a team of forensic experts visited the building to collect evidence.

The foundation for the allegations against the expelled AAP leader seems to be visuals circulated on social media. This, along with reporters’ “exposés” of “rioting weapons” at his building, fuelled much of their fire at him. Instead of verifying the videos, and waiting for inquiry reports from government authorities, several news channels thought it wise to corner Tahir Hussain as the “mastermind” of the riot.

Meanwhile, the key question of when the video was shot and who shot it remains unanswered.

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