Communal violence in northeast Delhi’s Brijpuri on February 25 left behind a torched school, a damaged mosque, burnt smouldering shops and homes, and at least four dead men. Ashfaq Hussain, Mehtab Khan, Zakir Ahmed, and Manish Singh were slain here on the third, and the bloodiest, day of the carnage that claimed 53 lives in the capital early this year.
In July, the Delhi police’s Special Investigation Team filed three separate chargesheets related to the killing of Ashfaq, Mehtab and Zakir. In the preceding three months, the police had arrested four Hindus and one Muslim for lynching the three men with sticks, scissors and swords on the Brijpuri road.
In the , and parts of this series on the ongoing investigations into the violence, Newslaundry explored how the Delhi police have accused Muslims of killing Muslims in the middle of a communal carnage.
For the murder of Ashfaq, Mehtab and Zakir, the police have relied on call records, CCTV footage and witness statements to arrest Mohammad Arif, a mason in Brijpuri, and four Hindu men. They have been booked under eight sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those related to murder and criminal conspiracy. The police have used statements by a single eyewitness to implicate all five. Two other eyewitnesses produced by the police have claimed that Arif was part of a rioting mob. None of them, however, have claimed to have seen him lynching the three men. One of the slain men, it turns out, was Arif’s uncle.
Newslaundry found, from extensive ground reporting, that Arif may not have been involved in the killing, or even been with a rioting mob. The police’s basis for slapping the other four accused with a murder charge also appears weak.
Our reporting also found that the police have packaged three separate killings as a single act of triple murder, allowing them to arrest the same set of five men, deploy the same witnesses, and produce three near-identical chargesheets which are vague and inconclusive.
The chargesheets ignore the police’s alleged role in the communal violence and the three murders. Residents of Brijpuri and neighbouring Mustafabad allege that on February 25, Brijpuri’s Farooqia Masjid – the site of a peaceful protest against the new citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens – was stormed by men in police uniform who then torched it and assaulted the worshippers.
The police claim they are still investigating the case – looking for more accused, suspects, witnesses – and any new findings will be produced in a supplementary chargesheet.
Zakir Ahmed, Ashfaq Hussain and Mehtab Khan were killed in Brijpuri on February 25.
The day Brijpuri burned
Ashfaq, 22, an electrician in Mustafabad, was returning home from nearby Brahmpuri on the evening of February 25. Zakir, 24, of Brijpuri, had gone to offer evening prayers at Farooqia Majid. Mehtab Khan, 22, a student in Brijpuri, had gone out at around 6 pm to buy milk.
None of them came back home.
They were found lying on the Brijpuri road. They were taken to the Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital in Dilshad Garden where they were declared brought dead.
February 25 was the third and the bloodiest day of communal violence in northeast Delhi. Two days earlier, BJP leader Kapil Mishra had told a gathering in Maujpur that he would take the law into his own hands if the anti-CAA protest at Jafrabad was not dispersed. Stone-pelting between Hindu and Muslim mobs began shortly after.
At around noon on February 24, the Delhi police clashed with anti-CAA protesters on the Wazirabad road. The clash soon mutated into a violent showdown between Muslims on one side and the police and Hindu rioters on the other. Makeshift borders appeared in Khajuri Khas and Shiv Vihar, dividing the mobs that stone-pelted and petrol-bombed each other from afternoon until late in the evening.
At around 1.30 pm on February 25, a mob collected at the site of the anti-CAA protest on the Brijpuri puliya, which separates Muslim-majority Mustafabad from mixed-population Brijpuri. About 300 metres away, another mob began milling on the Brijpuri road, which branches off from the Wazirabad road that veins through northeast Delhi.
The violence was subdued at first. Hindu men travelling on motorbikes were stopped at the puliya and told to walk the rest of the way while their vehicles were torched. Muslim men were treated similarly by the other mob on the Brijpuri road. The situation worsened at around 3 pm, when the Muslim mob marched down the road, broke the shutters of shops owned by Hindus, looted and set them on fire. The arson appeared planned, Asiaville , given the mob had arrived with a cart carrying oil drums, stones, and bricks.
The puliya and the Brijpuri main road leading up to it.
The Brijpuri main road two days after the violence.
The Hindu mob was pushed back, and gunshots were fired in the resulting violence. Manish Singh alias Rahul Thakur, 22, of Brijpuri, had reportedly to see what all the chaos was when he was hit in his chest. He succumbed to his injuries at the GTB Hospital later that day.
Residents of Brijpuri allege that the police and paramilitary forces stationed on the Wazirabad road refused to stop the stone-pelting and arson. “When I saw a police car I lay flat in front of it asking for help,” recalls Ashok Solanki, secretary of the Brijpuri Residents Welfare Association. “A few constables stepped out, lifted me by my hands and legs and put me aside. They said they didn’t have orders to intervene.”
The police and paramilitary forces showed up shortly after 6 pm. The Muslim mob retreated from the Brijpuri road back to the puliya. The Hindu mob, numerically weaker until then, launched an offensive, setting alight properties belonging to Muslims along the Brijpuri road. At around 6.30 pm, the mob, which included men in police uniform, stormed Farooqia Masjid near the puliya. Armed with sticks, rods, swords and knives, they assaulted the men praying inside the mosque and the women protesting outside. They set fire to the mosque and sacked the protest site.
Zakir, 24, was killed in the attack on the mosque, his brother Gulfam says. The brothers ran a welding shop in Brijpuri. “He was at the mosque for the evening prayers. At around 6.30 pm, I got to know that his body was lying near the puliya from where it was taken to the Mehr Nursing Home in Mustafabad,” he adds. The nursing home did not admit Zakir, and he was carried to nearby Al Hind Hospital on a cot. “He died on the way. It was around 8 pm.”
At Al Hind, Zakir’s body was kept beside the corpse of Indira Vihar resident Ashfaq Hussain. Ashfaq’s mother, Ali Fathima, had last heard from her newly-wed son over the phone at 6.30 pm. “He could not speak but it seemed as if I heard him taking his last breath,” she says.
At 7 pm, the family learned that Ashfaq’s body was lying near the puliya, spattered in blood. “That night, and the next day, many women came to our home and told us that Ashfaq had been killed as he was trying to defend them at the mosque,” says his father, Aagaz Hussain.
Mehtab’s corpse was found 40 metres ahead of the mosque that same evening. Mehtab, his family and neighbours claim, was mentally challenged. His mother, Khusnuji, says he had gone out to buy milk at around 6 pm when he was caught in the violence and killed. “A fire burns inside me,” she seethes, her voice trembling. “Whoever did this will be punished.”
Zakir’s brother Gulfam Ahmed runs a welding shop in Brijpuri.
Ashfaq’s father Aagaz Hussain lives in Mustafabad’s Indira Vihar.
Mehtab’s mother Khusnuji at her home in Brijpuri.
Where was Mohammad Arif?
On February 28, the Dayalpur police station filed FIR 77/2020 regarding the murder of Ashfaq, Zakir, Mehtab, and one Jamil Haq. The FIR was registered after medicolegal certificates, or MLCs, regarding their deaths were issued by the GTB Hospital. Three weeks later, and a fortnight after the investigation was transferred to the SIT, separate FIRs were filed for each killing – 159/2020 (Ashfaq), 163/2020 (Mehtab) and 158/2020 (Zakir) – at the Dayalpur station.
The rationale was that the police investigation had revealed that the four murders were committed at different places at different times.
Now, the SIT is contradicting its findings. The chargesheets filed in July claim that Zakir, Mehtab and Ashfaq were slain together by a Hindu mob outside Gali 10 on the Brijpuri road.
One consequence of treating the three murders as a single act of triple murder is that all three chargesheets read almost the same – featuring the same accused, same witnesses, same circumstances, same maps. Just the names of the slain men and their addresses are different.
Near identical chargesheets explain how Mohammad Arif pretended to be Hindu.
The police claim that Arif, 35, was part of the Hindu mob that carried out the alleged triple murder. The chargesheets state that he saw “some Hindu gathering” catch hold of three boys and brutally beat him.
“He also stuck there due to fear, he tied hanky on his face,” they go on. “Therefore, to disguise himself, he also started raising the same slogans. He also beat these three boys to save him. These boys fell down and were apparently dead. He managed to escape from the spot. Later he came to know the 3 boys were Muslims.”
What evidence do the police have to back up this theory? Not much. They have a disclosure statement, purportedly signed by Arif, proffering the same theory. This statement, made in police custody, is inadmissible in a court of law. The police also claim the location of Arif’s phone “has been found on the spot at the time of incident”.
The SIT has relied on CCTV footage to indict Arif and the four Hindu accused. The chargesheets do contain some footage of the Hindu men – carrying sticks, throwing stones – but there’s none of Arif.
They also feature statements of three supposed eyewitnesses against this Muslim-turned-Hindu rioter. The statements, made in police custody and accessed by Newslaundry, state that the witnesses saw Arif lead the Muslim mob, riot and torch properties. Neither of them, however, claim to have seen him assaulting and killing Zakir, Ashfaq and Mehtab.
Newslaundry spoke with the three eyewitnesses – Brijpuri Residents Welfare Association secretary Ashok Solanki, its president Surendra Sharma, and one Shashikant Kashyap.
“We only saw Arif burning shops and rioting, not killing anyone,” says Sharma, 61, adding that the accused was wearing a helmet. “I identified him only because he’s from our colony.”
Sharma clarifies that he went to the Brijpuri road only after the violence ended and the local SHO arrived. “I went to the puliya with the SHO and saw Arif there without the helmet,” he adds.
Sharma was under the impression that his and Solanki’s statements against Arif – which are eerily similar – were collected to prosecute a case of rioting, not one of triple murder. He seems surprised when he learns from Newslaundry what the statements are being used for and readily calls Solanki to inform him.
Ashok Solanki and Surendra Sharma at the latter’s home in Brijpuri.
One of Sharma’s neighbours, Shashikant Kashyap, 30, runs a mobile phone shop in Ghazipur. He’s the primary eyewitness of the purported triple murder. The police say he not only saw Arif riot and commit arson, but also witnessed five Brijpuri men lynch Mehtab, Ashfaq and Zakir. One of them, Praveen, is said to be absconding while the others – Ashok, Ajay, Shubham, and Jitender – have been in jail for months. A site map attached with the chargesheet purportedly shows that Kashyap saw the murder from barely metres away.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Kashyap contradicts his statement to the SIT. “I heard Mehtab had been killed. I saw two men being killed by the Hindu mob. It happened when there was a shuffling between the two mobs that day,” Kashyap claims. Told that his statement to the SIT specifically states that he saw three men, Kashyap replied that the police ”might have added one man”.
This prime witness claims that he identified the Hindu rioters to the police by their “posture”. “It was night so one could not see. I could tell who’s who from their build and movement.”
Contrary to the allegations of Sharma and Solanki, Kashyap claims that he saw Arif’s face during the rioting and that he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Was Arif with the mob beating the two men? “He could have been,” Kashyap replies. “I only caught a glimpse of the mob attack for 15 seconds or so.”
There’s one thing about Arif that Brijpuri’s residents never forget to emphasise: he is a “BC”, or a bad character, with a history in police lockups. “The police always went after my boy,” says Parveen, Arif’s mother, who lives in Brijpuri. “He committed a mistake once and after that the police would show up randomly and take him away for no reason.”
The chargesheets list 24 cases that have been filed against Arif since 2005. He has been convicted in only one of them, however, of trespassing and theft in 2004. He is awaiting trial in two cases, has been acquitted in one and discharged in the rest. One case has been cancelled. Arif was arrested six times between 2009 and 2015.
“He has been in jail since April. We have no money to hire a lawyer and apply for bail,” says his mother. “Police are lying. During the violence, he stood guard outside our street all day. He did not go to the puliya.”
Parveen’s neighbours corroborate this. “He used to sit outside our street for 24 hours during the riots,” says Bhikkam Singh, a neighbour, who runs a milk shop at the entrance to the street. “Hindus and Muslims would stand guard together in those days.”
Ali Hasan, another shopkeeper, claims that Arif never went near the puliya. “He never left this place when the violence was happening,” Hasan says. “Policemen who knew him came in plain clothes to pick him up in April. He asked them to leave him alone. They put him in the car and took him away.”
Arif’s mother Parveen outside her home in Brijpuri.
Arif’s neighbours Bhikkam Singh and Ali Hasan say he guarded their street during the carnage and did not participate in the violence.
Arif, it turns out, is a distant nephew of Mehtab, one of the slain men. “Arif addressed him as mama,” says Mohammad Rashid, Mehtab’s older brother.
So, the police are claiming that Arif disguised himself as a Hindu man during the communal carnage to lynch his own uncle on the Brijpuri road.
Where and how were they killed?
The police’s claim that Zakir, Ashfaq and Mehtab were lynched together by a Hindu mob that included Mehtab’s nephew, Arif, rests on several contradictions.
For one, FIRs 158,159 and 163, filed in March, all state: “During the investigation, it was found that the above mentioned four were killed in the riots, and their location and time were different.”
FIR related to the murder of Mehtab Khan.
The police maintained this position until as late as June. In a letter written to the department of forensic medicine at the GTB Hospital, Inspector Surendra Kumar, the officer investigating Mehtab’s murder, clarifies, “During the investigation, it was revealed that all 4 deceased namely Zakir, Ashfaq, Jamil and Mehtab were killed at different places and at different times.”
Kumar wrote the letter on June 22, just two weeks before he filed a chargesheet claiming the exact opposite.
Inspector Surendra Kumar’s letter to GTB Hospital on June 22.
Rohit, who lives in Gali 10, recalls that after the violence had subsided following the police’s arrival in Brijpuri on February 25, he walked out to the Brijpuri road and saw Mehtab’s body. “I saw Mehtab’s corpse lying on the road, a little ahead of our lane. His body had burns,” he says, clarifying that there were no other corpses on the road.
Solanki and Sharma, the eyewitnesses, second Rohit’s claim. “The truth is that no one died outside the gali. Only Mehtab died near Arun Modern School. I saw his body,” says Solanki. Sharma corroborates, “When the police came, Mehtab was already lying dead on the road. There was one dead body and no other.”
Moreover, postmortem pictures of Zakir, Ashfaq and Mehtab seen by Newslaundry show inconsistency in the nature of the injuries. While all three men received sharp incisions on their torsos – made by a sword, the police claim – only Mehtab has burns on his legs, torso, and hands. If the three men were killed together, how did Mehtab get burn injuries and the others didn’t? The chargesheets claim the accused men were armed with sticks, swords and scissors, but not petrol bombs.
So, where and how were Zakir and Ashfaq killed? Their families claim that they were killed when men in police uniform and a Hindu mob stormed Farooqia Masjid at around 6.30 pm. No family member was at the spot when the murders occured, but their allegations are based on accounts they have gathered from other residents of Brijpuri.
The electricity pole outside Gali 10 in Brijpuri where the police claim the three men were lynched.
Farooqia Masjid in Brijpuri. The adjacent road was the site of an anti-CAA protest in January and February this year.
Farooqia Masjid, sacked during the carnage, is being repaired.
There are people, however, who did see Zakir and Ashfaq dead.
Naseem-Ul-Hassan, 58, a businessman from Mustafabad, went to help rescue children from the madrassa behind the mosque when it was attacked in the evening on February 25. “I went to the madrassa’s terrace and looked down. At least five men lay dead at the entrance, Ashfaq and Zakir among them,” he claims. “The mob and the police took away three of the men when they left, while Zakir and Ashfaq were carried to Mehr Nursing Home by our people.”
Mufti Mohammad Tahir, the imam of Farooqia Masjid, and Feroze Akhtar, a tailor from Mustafabad, were among the worshippers assaulted inside the mosque. “The rioters and the men in uniform attacked us during the namaz,” Tahir tells us over the phone. “I learned later that men were killed during the mosque attack, Zakir was one of them. I don’t know about others because I myself was beaten unconscious by the policemen.”
Feroze, who was badly injured in the attack, wonders what happened to his fellow worshippers. “There were six people inside the mosque when the police and the rioters stormed in. I know about the assault on muezzin sahab and Imam sahab. But I could never find out what happened to the other three men,” he says.
Why then, if eyewitness accounts and their own FIRs say otherwise, do the police claim these deaths were a triple murder? For one, by insisting that Zakir and Ashfaq weren’t killed at the mosque, the police can undermine the demand for an investigation into the attack – quite conveniently, since the victims, their families, and eyewitnesses allege that it was carried out jointly by a Hindu mob and uniformed men.
Mohammad Fakhruddin, president of the committee which manages the mosque and the madrassa, notes that despite their repeated pleas the police haven’t filed an FIR regarding the attack on the mosque
But the SIT’s case is weak. Its triple murder theory stands on the testimony of one eyewitness, Kashyap. Hindu families in Brijpuri allege that the police coerced Kashyap into becoming a witness .
Vijendar Singh, father of Shubham Singh, one of the accused, says Shashikant could not have identified Shubham. “The one witness, Shashikant, who claimed to have seen my son did not even know him. Neither did we know who Shashikant is. He is being pressured by the police to name them. Our boy is being wrongly held. There is no evidence against him.”
Vijendar Singh, father of the accused Shubham Singh, at his home in Brijpuri.
In July, the four Hindu accused hearing the matter that they were falsely implicated in Zakir’s murder merely because they lived in the same locality. They added that “one of the witnesses was planted” and that one of them, seen armed in the CCTV footage, was merely trying to defend himself from “the riotous mob of the other community”. They were denied bail.
Two Brijpuri residents involved with the case, but not related to any of the accused, claim that Kashyap was kept in police custody for days on end multiple times. “The police told him he could either become an accused or a witness,” claims one of the residents, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals.
Kashyap, however, denies any police pressure on him. “They didn’t beat me or anything. They have to be suspicious. They are also under pressure.”
The chargesheets contain a CCTV grab of Shubham carrying a stick inside his lane on February 25. He is not shown indulging in violence on the main road. “What else do we do if not defend our homes?” his father asks. “There were not enough policemen to stop the Muslim mob on February 25. They had instead asked local boys to assist them in pushing the mob back.”
Newslaundry sent questions to Rajesh Deo, the Crime Branch deputy commissioner heading the investigation, as well as the police’s public relations office.
Deo refused to respond and directed us to the PRO. “We cannot join into any kind of issue or debate that is going on in the media,” he said.
The office of the additional PRO said: “We cannot comment on cases that are currently in court.”
A rigged investigation?
Nearly eight months after Zakir, Ashfaq and Mehtab were slain, their families remain in a pitiful condition. Ashfaq and Zakir were the sole providers for their families, and Mehtab’s brother Rashid was laid off by his Hindu employer soon after the carnage.
They were all in their prime years. Zakir had been married for 10 years with two children. Ashfaq’s wedding had taken place just 11 days earlier. His widow returned to her parents soon after his death. For Zakir’s wife, Muskan, he was everything. “I have no family. No one to support me,” she says, angrily. “My husband was my only source of comfort. How could his killers be so cruel?”
Zakir’s brother insists that none of the five men arrested for the killings are guilty. “They are all innocent,” Gulfam says. “The real culprits came from outside with guns. The police arrested all these boys, but not Kapil Mishra, who was the instigator behind it all.”
On February 26, the morning after the carnage, men in Delhi police uniform showed up once again at Farooqia Masjid and set fire to the madrassa behind it. Mohammad Fakhruddin believes this was done to destroy CCTV evidence as the system for storing the footage was kept in the madrassa.
A video from February 26 obtained by Mojo Story police personnel entering the madrassa, heavy smoke billowing from its windows, and the personnel exiting.
Mehtab’s brother Mohammad Rashid was fired by his Hindu employer soon after the carnage. He is now contracted to repair Farooqia Masjid.
Mohammad Fakhruddin, 50, alleges the mosque and the madrassa were burned and looted by the police.
That the Delhi police abetted the communal carnage in the capital is undeniable, as and have conclusively shown. They worked in tandem with Hindu mobs to target Muslims or refused to intervene and stop the ghastly episodes of violence.
In this context, the police’s maneuver to club the killing of Zakir and Ashfaq in the attack by uniformed men on Farooqia Masjid with Mehtab’s murder seems to be a blatant exercise in self-protection. Arif’s arrest and the shoddy evidence, bizarre theories and contradictory statements produced to establish his role in the violence smacks of a design to implicate a vulnerable man.
In their book about the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, When a Tree Shook Delhi, the journalist Manoj Mitta and the advocate HS Phoolka point out that when Hindu mobs went marauding in the capital after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Delhi police “by and large remained passive spectators to attacks on the Sikhs”. But “when those attacks took the form of killings the next morning, the police did finally intervene...only to abet the mass crime.”
Not much seems to have changed in the past 36 years.
Correction: This report wrongly identified Mohammad Arif's mother as Farheen. Her name is Parveen. Farheen is Arif's sister. We regret the error.
This report is part of a looking at the police’s handling of the investigation into the 2020 Delhi carnage.
This story is part of the NL Sena project, which 159 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Ron Wadhwa, Chirag Arora, Shaikh Haque, Zaid Razvi, Nishant, Rakesh, Sumavarsha Kandula, Hemant Maheshwari, Jayan Cherian, Manisha Madapathi, Akshay A Pande, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next and help to keep news free and independent.