On February 19, the Delhi High court to three men accused of during the communal carnage in Delhi’s northeast last February.
In a chargesheet filed in June, the Delhi police had claimed that Shahid, 25, a rickshaw driver from Mustafabad, was shot dead by alleged Muslim rioters on the roof of an iron warehouse in Chand Bagh on February 24, 2020. And they had arrested the six accused men in March and April, the police added.
The police’s investigation had sidestepped a Hindu mob that stood on the roof of Mohan Nursing Home, a multistorey hospital 78 metres away, that day, with one rioter holding a rifle.
As the case plodded through the legal system, an NDTV India report from March 5, aired on lead anchor Ravish Kumar’s Prime Time show, became a crucial piece of evidence. The police used it to shore up their own theory but the high court relied on it to refute the involvement of three of the accused, Chand Mohammad, Junaid, and Irshad.
We sent the police a set of questions about its investigation and the high court’s ruling. The story will be updated if we receive a response.
This particular story begins in March 2020, when the police wrote to five TV news channels for help in their investigations into the carnage that had left 53 people dead.
Shahid Alam, 25, was shot dead during the Delhi carnage on February 24.
May we have your riots coverage, please?
The first batch of letters went out on March 8, a week after the police filed an FIR for Shahid’s murder. They were sent by Ashish Dubey, an inspector at the office of the assistant commissioner of police, Crime Branch, who was leading the investigation, to India TV, India Today, Zee News, Times Now, and the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati, which runs DD News.
The letters, accessed by Newslaundry, were direct. “As you are aware that on 25.02.2020 onwards, riots in the area of North-East District, Delhi, had happened, injuring various innocent,” said the letter to India TV on March 8. (The violence had started on February 23, not February 25.)
The police had five specific directions for the news channel:
Hand over the footage captured by its cameraman at around 1 pm on February 24 on the Wazirabad road.
Attach a certificate under section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1972.
Provide details of the reporter and the cameraman who covered the violence.
Keep the original video in safe custody.
Furnish “any other relevant information/footage which may assist the present investigation”.
The Delhi police’s letter to India TV.
India TV complied. It wrote back to the Crime Branch on March 17, attaching a CD with four hours of footage captured between 1 pm and 5 pm that day. It also sent the certificate asked for and the names of two reporters and as many cameramen.
A day before, the India Today group had handed over footage from “across various locations in North East Delhi” with a certificate to the Crime Branch. “Kindly note that none of our reporters or cameraperson was present there and we aired the ANI version,” said the media group’s letter.
Zee News, Times Now and Prasar Bharati did not help the police. “We have thoroughly checked our records, however, we could not trace any such footage,” the Zee Media Corporation Limited informed the police on March 16. “It is to further inform you that we don’t have any information/footage recorded on 24.02.2020 related to the incident mentioned in your letter.”
Times Now had storage problems. “We wish to inform you that we do not maintain any raw footage beyond 48 hours due to space constraints on our ingest systems,” the network told the police. “As such we are not in a position to provide raw footage as requested. However, we can submit the on-air coverage of riot incidents if you so desire.”
The Times Network’s reply to the Delhi police.
Prasar Bharati said DD News hadn’t covered the incident at all. “So the required footage is not available with us,” the state broadcaster wrote.
When the police published the chargesheet in the case of Shahid’s murder in June, they did not make a reference to the footage obtained from India TV and the India Today group. Instead, the chargesheet referenced a report by NDTV India that was broadcast on March 5, 2020.
NDTV India, however, hadn’t been asked for footage until two months after the first batch of letters were sent to TV news channels.
Crime Branch writes to NDTV
On May 14, the assistant commissioner himself, Manoj Pant, wrote to the director of NDTV India, asking for videos aired during a March 5 segment anchored by Ravish, along with the certificate under the Indian Evidence Act.
The police’s letter to NDTV.
On May 22, NDTV emailed the videos via a WeTransfer link. Forty minutes later, inspector Dubey replied, asking the “esteemed channel” for the “original source” of the videos.
The channel’s legal counsel wrote back over an hour later. “Please note that no NDTV reporter was present at Mohan Nursing Home during the said incident and we had obtained the footage from our sources,” he wrote, dodging the police’s odd request.
The double-edged sword
Two videos from the NDTV India report on March 5 stood out. showed an injured Shahid being carried down the iron warehouse by other men. The showed armed rioters atop Mohan Nursing Home, opposite the warehouse, shooting at Citizenship Amendment Act protesters on the Wazirabad road.
The police investigation swept the possible culpability of the Hindu rioters in Shahid’s murder under the carpet. The chargesheet claimed that “firing from the buildings on the other side especially Mohan Nursing Home is also being looked into”. It also surmised that Shahid’s wound indicated he was shot by a “small arm” and “hence it’s highly unlikely that it could have been fired from Mohan Nursing Home”. This conclusion was preliminary and did not rely on forensic evidence.
Shahid Alam being carried down from Saptarishi Ispat and Alloys. Courtesy: NDTV India
In September 2020, two photojournalists who were present on the roof of the iron warehouse on February 24 Caravan they had seen the rioters at Mohan Nursing Home point the rifle in their direction. “I heard another shot and the screams of those who followed me,” one of them, who fled down the stairs, told the magazine. “They were bringing down the almost-dead Shahid.”
Mohan Nursing Home in Yamuna Vihar, above, and the iron warehouse in Chand Bagh.
For the police, those standing on the warehouse’s roof in the first NDTV video became primary suspects in Shahid’s murder. In June, an unnamed “senior police officer” the Print that Shahid was “accidentally shot at by one of his own men. From the angle he was shot at, it appears to be an accidental shot”.
However, the Crime Branch could not identify the suspects. The chargesheet said they had not found any of the persons seen in the video carrying Shahid because “the pixel broke down while enlarging the pictures”. It added, however, that “stills of news clippings run by NDTV were prepared and distributed in the area and informers were activated to identify the culprits shown in the footage.”
In the absence of electronic evidence, the police arrested six Muslim men on the basis of purported eyewitness statements. In July, the eyewitnesses Newslaundry that their testimonies had been fabricated.
On Saturday, while granting bail to three of the accused, Justice Suresh Kumar Kait said the police theory “is just a conjecture of the investigating agency and is not based on scientific fact”. He added that the eyewitness testimonies were “copied and pasted”, and that “there is no fact which shows the presence of petitioner at the Saptarishi building or identifies him categorically”.
The judge instead analysed the second video. He noted that in the NDTV report relied on by the police, anchor Ravish Kumar says “that a person is firing rifle from Mohan Nursing Home Hospital and is wearing helmet” and that “there’s another person who is covering the weapon with handkerchief and later on, they can be seen in the videos as well”.
Gunman shooting at the Muslim mob from the terrace of Mohan Nursing Home. Courtesy: NDTV India
Kait observed that this video showed that the firing was only done from Mohan Nursing Home and not the “Saptarishi building”, the warehouse.
The bail order also relied on the nature of the wound from the postmortem report to observe that the injury “establishes the possibility that the bullet came from Mohan Nursing home or any building which is on the left side of the Saptarishi building”.
Newslaundry interviewed Chand Mohammad and another of the accused, Mohamamd Firoz, in July when they were out on interim bail owing to the pandemic. At Chand’s home in northeast Delhi, the two read their alleged confession statements in the chargesheet and claimed that the police had fabricated them, because they had simply been made to sign blank papers.
Similarly, Irshad’s employer, Sunil Kumar, told us that Irshad had been at his garage between 9am and 7pm the day Shahid was killed. Junaid’s mother, Ruksana, claimed that on February 24, her son was away in Bawana, where he works in a factory, and had returned only in the evening. Zebun Nisha, the wife of the oldest accused in Shahid’s murder, Akil Ahmed, a taxi driver, told us that she and her husband had left home when the carnage began to look for their children. They had found them by evening and returned home.
Pictures by Ayush Tiwari.