July 19, 2024

Saluti Law Medi

Rule it with System

The trials of an Indian witness: how a Muslim man was caught in a legal nightmare | India

The trials of an Indian witness: how a Muslim man was caught in a legal nightmare | India

This is how Nisar Ahmed remembers it. On 24 February 2020, at about three in the afternoon, an uproar outside his house brought him to his window. A large crowd of men was passing through Bhagirathi Vihar, his neighbourhood in north-east Delhi, chanting “Victory to Lord Ram!” and “Wake up, Hindus, wake up!”. Ahmed conferred with Asma, his wife. They decided, somewhat uncertainly, that the procession was probably harmless to Muslims like them.

“It felt like the usual political sloganeering,” Ahmed recalled. Politics was politics, but this was a neighbourhood where Muslims and Hindus called one another over for chai and sat outside together late at night. That brotherhood was protection enough. If there was any disturbance, elders would settle it. That was the hope anyway, and Ahmed was a man who lived on hope. His house overlooked a sewage canal, but when he looked out of his window he would choose to see instead the unbroken sky. Small things like this brought him inordinate pleasure.

Ahmed had come to Delhi from the countryside when he was 11. Soon after he arrived, he found a job at a garment factory and worked his way up, and eventually started a small business of his own. At 47, he felt that financial security was finally within reach. From the ground floor of his home, he designed denim garments and sold them across Delhi. There was enough of a demand for him to buy the house, three motorcycles and travel to prospective buyers in other cities.

Peering through their window, Ahmed and Asma saw the procession move down the street. They were unsettled by the many unfamiliar faces they saw in the crowd, but Ahmed was just as surprised by some of the faces that he recognised. Some he had known as children. Back then, they would not have dared even open their mouth in front of him; now they were part of a crowd announcing their dedication to the god Ram outside his house, turning what was usually a gentle greeting into a war cry. When he thought of these boys, piety was not the word that came to mind. “One of them used to lie intoxicated in the sewage canal,” he told me.

After a few minutes, the chants intensified. Asma told Ilma, their daughter, and Sumaiya, their pregnant daughter-in-law, to leave before real trouble began. “We thought that they wouldn’t be able to run,” Ahmed said. Asma had other fears – the women were in their early 20s. Suhail, Ahmed’s younger son, was ordered to drive them to a relative’s house in a nearby neighbourhood. Ahmed stayed behind with Asma and their other son, their nerves frayed, until Suhail returned 20 minutes later. Then Ahmed slipped out to follow the crowd’s progress.

Eventually the crowd came to a stop at a low bridge over the sewage canal where four roads met, a few minutes from Ahmed’s house. They put up barricades and brought out large speakers. The crowd were there to show their support for a new law that had become the focus of fierce protests and counterprotests over the previous few months. The law, known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), made it easier for persecuted religious minorities in south Asia to become Indian citizens – provided that they were not Muslim. Critics of the law feared that, in combination with an imminent national registry of citizens, millions of Muslims could suddenly have their citizenship thrown into question. Protests against the law became a rallying point for India’s liberals and leftists, who saw it as the ruling Bharatiya Janata party’s (BJP) most brazen attempt yet to undo one of the country’s founding ideals: the promise of equality to its citizens, regardless of faith.

Between December 2019 and February 2020, there were at least 600 protests against the law across India. At many, the police set on protesters with fury. Videos emerged of police gathering around and beating injured Muslims and, in one case, standing by while an armed extremist shot at a peaceful demonstration. Protesters viewed the police not as upholders of the law, but as enforcers of the BJP government’s religious nationalism.

As the protests against the new law escalated, members of Narendra Modi’s party did nothing to calm tensions. On 3 January, a member of the government warned Muslims that Hindus made up 80% of India’s population, while they were only 20%. Two weeks after that, government minister Anurag Thakur roused crowds at an election rally in Delhi with the slogan: “Shoot the traitors.” And on 23 February, the day before Ahmed heard the chanting men passing his house, Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader from east Delhi, told police that if they failed to remove anti-CAA protesters from Jafrabad, a neighbourhood not far from Bhagirathi Vihar, he and his supporters would take to the streets and do it themselves. Standing next to Mishra, like a bodyguard, was the deputy commissioner of police for north-east Delhi. To observers familiar with India’s grim history of communal violence, it was clear what would come next.

In the speeches on the bridge at Bhagirathi Vihar, religion and nationalism were mixed into a poisonous stew. By the evening, there was a wildness in the crowd. They chanted “Make the circumcised run away” and “Set their houses on fire”. Then, finally, “Kill the mullahs”. Ahmed ran home, lowered the shutters and locked the door.

As night fell, numerous witnesses later attested, the crowd dissolved into smaller groups that patrolled Bhagirathi Vihar’s intersections. The men demanded the identification papers of anyone who appeared to be Muslim, judging crudely by skin colour, nose, beard and skullcap. If there was any doubt, they ordered men to lower their pants for confirmation. Peering out of his first-floor window, Ahmed saw men staggering down the road after having been beaten, and others protecting their heads as crowds slapped and kicked them. His sons hissed at Ahmed to get back, but he wanted to see.

A few hours after sunrise, Ahmed heard a commotion below his window. He looked out and saw some of the rioters breaking into his neighbour’s house. They stripped the residence bare, even pulling off the ceiling fans. Ahmed realised that hiding was pointless. The mob seemed to know where each Muslim home was. He tried reasoning with them, calling out from his window. The men responded with stones and iron rods through his window. One of the rods struck Asma.

Soon, Ahmed told me, about 40 of the men were banging on his door, breaking through the shutters, entering the house. Ahmed, Asma, and the children ran to the rooftop, locking a gate behind them. Downstairs, the mob dragged out the motorcycles Ahmed kept inside the house, doused them with fuel, and set them on fire, along with sacks of clothes meant for distribution. Then the men swarmed up the stairs and tried to pry open the gate on the roof.

Burnt-out properties owned by Muslims after clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in Delhi.
Burnt-out properties owned by Muslims after clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in Delhi. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Ahmed panicked. He was dimly aware that people on nearby rooftops, some of whom he probably knew, were watching the show and pelting them with stones. He took Asma by the hand, helping her over the roof wall and lowering her with one hand to the top of an adjoining house. But the roof of that house was too low for her to jump safely, and she dangled above it. The owner of the house happened to see them, and he quickly brought a ladder and helped Asma down. Ahmed and his sons followed. The neighbour did not dare try to shelter them, and Ahmed did not ask for his protection. They hurried across more roofs, scrambled down to the street, and ran into the home of a close friend, a Hindu. The friend ushered them deep inside, away from the windows, and gave them chai. There they caught their breath and wept.

The family waited for hours for the madness to pass. Then, sometime that afternoon, there was finally silence – the rioters had withdrawn. Ahmed looked out and noticed two policemen. It was an opening. But when he and his family stepped out, the police had gone. A mob of 30 or 40 men recognised them and ran over. The family stood cornered. “Let us go,” cried Ahmed, hoping for a miracle.

To his surprise, a man who he had once considered a friend came forward from the crowd. “He shouted that nobody would touch us. That if anybody did, he would kill them,” Ahmed said. Hindu neighbours watching from their homes came out and gathered around the family, forming a protective barrier between them and the rioters. The neighbours helped the family hurry out of Bhagirathi Vihar, and left them near a solitary cop.

“What did we do after that? We ran,” Ahmed told me. “I didn’t even turn around to look at my home.” He couldn’t explain why the man he knew had chosen to save him. It made no sense to him. Nothing about that day made sense to him.

Official records state that 53 people were killed in the Delhi riots of February 2020. Hundreds more were injured, their bodies evidence of hatred: a young man shot through the groin, a cleric blinded by acid in a mosque. The Muslim witnesses I spoke to insisted the riots were really a pogrom. Forty of the 53 killed were Muslim, and an affidavit by the Delhi police revealed that more than four times as many Muslim-owned shops were damaged than Hindu-owned shops. Reports emerged of hospital administrators allegedly turning away injured Muslims, accusing them of rioting. For weeks after the violence finally ended, earth movers in east Delhi’s sewage canals fished out bodies swollen like inflated dolls.

Nisar Ahmed in Delhi.
Nisar Ahmed in Delhi. Photograph: Siddharth Behl/The Guardian

Throughout the days of violence, countless witnesses in north-east Delhi later told journalists, judges and fact-finding committees that the local police, who are under the direct control of Modi’s home minister, and only 2% of whom are Muslim, were largely either absent or impassive. In some cases, witnesses took video footage of police beating and throwing rocks at Muslims. (Delhi police have denied accusations of anti-Muslim bias and say they did everything possible to restore law and order. Speaking in parliament in March 2020, home minister Amit Shah praised them for having done a “commendable” job.)

In October 2021, as the pandemic wound down, I travelled to Delhi to look for witnesses to the violence of the previous year. A photojournalist who had ventured into the city’s alleys during the riots took me to a charitable hospital in Mustafabad, where I interviewed the doctor in charge. The building was unfinished, and patients lay on beds alongside construction material. In the days after the 2020 riots, the hospital had filled up with people who had been stabbed, beaten or shot. The doctor kept photographs of wounds that he had treated at the time. “To stab a person that many times?” he said, showing me one hopeless body. After we had talked for a while, the doctor said he would call over a man whose house had been torched. He said the man was resolute, but that his resolve had been tested lately. Providing testimony in court was grinding him down. The man was Nisar Ahmed.

Half an hour later, Ahmed showed up. He was slim, with shiny hair, and dressed in a crisp white salwar. His shoulders were straight, but he hunched slightly, as if he were physically weighed down by his burdens. His glasses sat low on his nose. I marked him as a reader. Ahmed waited patiently, his legs tucked under him, as the doctor spoke about the riots. When the doctor was done, Ahmed told me his story.

He had migrated to Delhi soon after 1984, when a Sikh guard had murdered the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and her supporters had killed every Sikh in sight. Like every event of mass violence in India, this too was eventually reduced to memory and two numbers: a government estimate of the dead, and the unofficial toll, at least 2,700 and anywhere between 8,000 and 17,000, respectively. At the factory where Ahmed learned to sew, witnesses to the violence told him what they had seen, what they could not forget. Ahmed had remembered these stories dispassionately over the years, for the memories were not his. It was only 36 years later, when a group of men tried to kill him and his family, and incinerated the possessions he had accumulated over a lifetime, that he started to understand.

About a week after he fled his home, Ahmed had visited the local police station, bearing a complaint written on two sides of paper. The city government had recently announced a compensation relief programme for victims of the riots. It would pay 1m rupees (about £11,400) to the families of adults who had been killed. There would also be compensation for property destruction and looting. To prevent fraud, riot victims would be eligible for compensation only if they filed a police complaint.

Ahmed duly handed the officers the document detailing what had happened, a list of lost possessions, and the names of those in the crowd who he recognised. The police asked him for a shorter complaint, with no names. “We can always add the names later,” he said they assured him.

Ahmed needed the money. He had lost assets worth close to 3m rupees. But he paused. Failing to name names would be akin to pretending the riot had just happened, as if it was a natural disaster rather than the responsibility of those who had carried it out. Who really knew if their names would be added later? His conscience would not allow it, he said.

It was the first of several times Ahmed would encounter resistance to recording his testimony fully. As one of the few witnesses willing to testify, Ahmed was sent repeated summons to speak to the police in relation to multiple cases. On many occasions, though, he would struggle to persuade police to write a full account of events in the first information report (FIR), the document that would form the basis of any future investigation. He noticed that names or facts might be omitted. “The police work is very loose,” he told me. In one case, the police combined more than two dozen complaints, involving different accused and different victims, into a single FIR. A judge overseeing some of the cases observed that this was “basically to protect the accused”.

It was not only when giving evidence to police that Ahmed felt pressured. A local BJP councillor called him, he said, to ask whether he had named an acquaintance of the councillor as a participant in the riots. A few months after the riots, when Ahmed returned to his old home with a forensic team that would assess the damage, the relatives of another man he had accused of rioting threatened to kill him and his children. Others rang to ask if he had named them, or to suggest that he change his mind. In May 2020, Ahmed told the police he no longer felt safe. They ignored him. A year would pass before a judge ordered that Ahmed be given police protection.

To come forward as a witness in India is an act of extreme bravery, possibly madness, because witnesses are themselves on trial. In 2009, a professor named GS Bajpai attempted to quantify the lived experiences of Indian witnesses. His researchers interviewed 798 witnesses to a variety of criminal offences, including theft, attempted murder and rape. The report put numbers to what was already suspected: that it was common for witnesses to return to court as many as six times to provide their testimony and that more than two-thirds of poorer witnesses had faced assault. A quarter of witnesses said they feared harassment by the police, and nearly two-thirds thought that the police had colluded with the accused in some way. A witness in India risks so much, all the while knowing that there is absolutely no guarantee that their testimony, filtered through India’s tortuous legal system, will result in justice.

Nisar Ahmed a Muslim man in Delhi
Photograph: Siddharth Behl/The Guardian

Still, Ahmed dreamed of standing before a court and explaining what he now knew about his country: that a poison had spread through India’s veins. He was shaken by the knowledge that his neighbours had raised men who might be capable of looting or even killing. “Every person, even the ones I have known, are starting to look slightly changed,” he told me once. I wondered how much of this darkened view was shaped by the daily stream of video clips that friends and relatives sent him on WhatsApp. During gaps in our conversations, he would scroll through them: videos of tirades against Muslims; clips of mechanical diggers flattening Muslim homes and shops. The videos were a silent conversation between his friends and relatives, like glances shared when no words were possible. Amid this stream of videos were forwarded messages with inspirational slogans. “An age of justice is one in which witnesses are not needed,” said one.

When I visited Ahmed at his new home in Mustafabad one morning in late April 2022, half a year after our first meeting, I found him deflated. He had managed to rebuild his business with loans, but it was not the same as before. He was slouched against a wall below a fluorescent light, and looked exhausted. “My nephew sent me a video last night,” he said, giving me his phone. It was a short clip: a muscular young man appealed to his “Hindu brothers and sisters” to collect acid and weaponry and defend themselves on 2 May, the date on which the Muslim festival of Eid would fall. “What a big thing to say,” Ahmed said. “To tell people to keep guns ready. What a big thing to say.” He spoke as if feeling was wasted energy. He appeared thinner than I remembered, and his walk was slower. A back injury he had suffered during his escape had grown worse, and he could not find a comfortable way to sit or stand.

In the weeks and months that followed, he sent me messages at all hours of the day and night. “Bhai,” he wrote. Brother. “Brother, the country is going to pay the price for this, and people are dying hungry. Instead of this, we should all help each other and live peacefully and lawfully.” He wanted, more than anything, for someone to tell him where the antipathy to him and his kind had come from.

Perhaps, he thought, a satisfactory answer would come from a judge.

In May 2022, I followed Ahmed to court number 71 on the fifth floor of the Karkardooma court complex in east Delhi. It was an immense structure, visible from miles away. Up close, it was covered in stickers with pictures of lawyers campaigning for the local bar association elections. Ahmed had been summoned to give witness in a Delhi government case against 14 rioters accused of killing nine Muslims after checking their identification papers. He arrived at 9am, trailed by an unarmed constable who was there for his protection.

By now, Ahmed was painfully familiar with Delhi’s courtrooms. Since the hearings began in late 2020, he had been summoned many times, only to end up waiting around while nothing happened. The process had lasted so long that the current judge was now the third to hear the case, the first two having been transferred. One of the previous judges, Vinod Yadav, had distinguished himself by publicly criticising the sluggishness and ineptitude of the Delhi police investigation. “I have not been able to persuade myself about the efficacy and fairness of the investigation carried out in the matter,” he observed in one case. “This is a very sorry state of affairs,” he wrote at another time, after the police had failed to interrogate three people it had accused of crimes. Such direct criticism of authority is so rare that a legal news website celebrated the judge’s observations in a listicle.

No matter how many hours Ahmed spent in court, the judicial process remained strange and forbidding to him. At court that day in May, a friend of his, Sagar, a small, stocky man who occasionally worked in films in Mumbai, accompanied him for moral support. (On other occasions Ahmed brought different friends. Only once in five court visits did I see him alone.) Now and then during proceedings, Ahmed would look around for Sagar or me, smile slightly, and nod.

Having endured delay after delay, Ahmed still clung on to hope. That was at the heart of everything he did: his optimism told him that if he continued to appear in court, he would eventually shame the law into action. Faith that the engine would start if he turned the key one more time. When Ahmed was out of earshot, Sagar, who had known him for years, said to me: “You won’t find a braver man.”

The courtroom was small, 10 paces from one end to the other, and filled with chairs covered in tattered plastic wrapping. As police and lawyers filed in, it grew stuffier. There were air-conditioning vents above us, but no air conditioning. Four overhead fans moved slowly. At the head of the room, on a raised ledge behind a sheet of plexiglass, clerks quietly formatted documents at their computers. Behind them, on a higher stage, was judge Pulastya Pramachala’s chair. What elevated the chair, more than its raised vantage point, more than the emblem of the Emperor Ashoka and the words “Truth Alone Triumphs” directly behind it, was the presence of a white towel draped over it. One of the perks of power in a humid country is the expectation of a dry back.

A few minutes after 10, the judge arrived, and Ahmed straightened up in his seat. Pramachala was bald and spectacled, and spoke with total authority. Seeing how sternly he addressed the police, Ahmed felt optimistic. He smiled at me as if to say: Did we land a good one? At one point an advocate announced he would make an oral submission, rather than a written one. “I’m not a god, and I’m not Akbar. I have to go by the law, and so do you,” responded Pramachala witheringly. The lawyer was given 10 minutes to print his submission.

At 2.15pm, Ahmed was told to be ready to give his testimony. The accused, some of whom he had known since they were children, were brought to the stand for the defendants – a wooden bracket, waist high, that could be slid across the floor. A lawyer asked Ahmed to come to the front. But before he could begin, Justice Pramachala asked the prosecution about some footage that was apparently stored on a compact disc. He wanted to know if the evidence was necessary for the case. The prosecution said it was. “Then why isn’t it here?” asked Pramachala. The prosecution answered that they had added a document to the file. Nobody knew what this meant. The judge pressed his fingers together on his lips and looked down at the policeman and the prosecution. “Tell me,” he said so politely that I braced myself, “how should we proceed? Tell me.”

There was no response. The judge turned to Ahmed and softly asked how long he had waited to give his testimony. Two years, Ahmed replied. The judge apologised for keeping him waiting, an unusually considerate act in the courtroom, and assured him that he would have his chance soon. He gave the prosecution 10 days to put their evidence together.

Ahmed smiled weakly, folded his hands, and left. He was satisfied with this outcome.

“Pramachala made them tight. Now they’ll be good. They’ll have to do as he says.” True, it was another delay, but he registered this fact serenely, as if observing someone else’s fate, rather than his own.

Four days later, on a Saturday morning, Ahmed returned to Pramachala’s court to give testimony in a different case related to the riots. While I waited outside for him, the corridor filled up with Muslim men who said they had been wrongly arrested during the riots. “I was just standing there,” a laundryman said. He was a defendant in eight cases of rioting. “There’s nothing. No photo, no evidence,” he said. This man, too, had been summoned to the court over and over. Near him, a boy who plastered walls for a living, said mournfully that he was a defendant in 13 cases. Their guilt would be decided by the courts, but it was true that Muslims had been violent too, survivors told me, explaining that the alternative to violent self-defence was almost certainly death.

When Ahmed was called shortly after 10, he stood up from his chair and walked to the front of the room. But, once again, there had been some kind of procedural error, and the matter had to be adjourned. Once again, Pramachala apologised to the witness. Ahmed pressed his palms together in a show of respect to the judge and sighed when his back was turned.

Outside, he caught up with a lawyer he knew and asked about his payment as a witness. (Witnesses are entitled to batta, a minuscule sum paid when they appear in court.) “You’ll get paid next time,” the lawyer said.

“I keep coming here again and again,” Ahmed said, frustrated. “I haven’t been able to give my testimony.”

The aftermath of the violent protests in north-east Delhi.
The aftermath of the violent protests in north-east Delhi. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The lawyer, who was much younger than Ahmed, seemed to be finding him irritating. “You shouldn’t take tension about this,” he said. “You just come to the court when he calls you. Let the other guy take tension. You go now.”

Outside the court complex, as Ahmed waited for his taxi, he said: “I don’t know what’s going on. I want to give my testimony, but they don’t seem to want it. If you don’t take testimony, it’ll be like the riots never happened.”

In these moments, it felt to Ahmed that his country was governed not by a set of written laws but by an unwritten set of rules that had never been shared with him. The arrival of Judge Pramachala had suggested the possibility of a fresh start, an honest attempt to reach the truth. But endless delays turned recent crimes into distant ones, and turned memories brittle, weakening a witness’s resolve.

The taxi arrived, and its driver immediately announced that Ahmed’s home was too deep inside Mustafabad for his car. It didn’t matter what some satellite in the sky said was possible, the roads were too narrow and his car was expensive. The driver explained that he would drop Ahmed at the bridge at the edge of Mustafabad. From there he would have to find his own way. It was half an hour by foot. For a second Ahmed wanted to protest, but the feeling left him just as quickly. Drivers made all sorts of excuses when the destination was a Muslim locality. He gave me an awkward hug and stepped inside the car with a tight smile.

We talked once or twice a month, sometimes more when we were in the same city. The conversations were uneven, ricocheting from a throwaway line on unemployment to a metaphor about uprooted trees, eventually landing on an assertion that politicians hampered police work. Before I could contemplate one utterance, Ahmed’s mind would float elsewhere. Words would gallop out of his mouth, parables and philosophies ready for every moment.

At times, he would fall into despair. His prayers for accountability, for the rule of law, for an end to irrational hatred had gone unanswered. The country he had been promised had disappeared and he mourned that broken promise. At other times he was filled with sudden optimism, as he considered how little was needed to bring guilty men to justice. “It just needs five more people like me to stand up,” he said. “Imagine what could change.”

In the last days of July, his turn as a witness in the case that had been adjourned finally came. When I arrived in court, I noticed judge Pramachala was trying out a beard, and he had grown a slight mullet at the back. Little else had changed. Pramachala still spent much of the day schooling lawyers and policemen on their failure to do what they should have been doing, and they attempted to placate him. (I asked a criminal defence lawyer for his views on the judge. His reply was terse. “He is honest.”)

During an intermission that day, three young defence lawyers in the back row told me conspiratorial stories about Ahmed. One of them said in a low voice that Ahmed had been paid the equivalent of $20,000 by the Delhi government and an Islamic religious organisation to implicate his client.

. The whole thing was a conspiracy to frame a BJP councillor, he claimed. When I asked how he knew this, he told me he had evidence. “On paper?” I asked. “You hear things,” he said, with a look that said he was in the know.

The lawyers were eager to cross-examine Ahmed. “I told my client that I’m going to skin his hide,” said one. “I’m going to turn him into a rag doll,” replied another, not wanting to be outdone. They slapped palms and laughed, sure they had found a hole in the testimony Ahmed had given to the police.

Ahmed’s moment to speak came that afternoon. The accused, all of them young men, stood behind the wooden bracket. Each of them was assigned a policeman who held them by the hand. There were no handcuffs, only intertwined fingers. (This strange arrangement was the result of a supreme court ruling that prisoners cannot be handcuffed unless they pose a serious danger.)

Ahmed sat at the front, facing the judge – 887 days had passed since his escape, and now his memory would be tested. Pramachala asked Ahmed’s address, then told him to give his testimony.

Long read Delhi anti Muslim riots witnessNisar Ahmed a Muslim man in Delhi who has come forward to be a key witness in a number of trials connected to the 2020 anti-Muslim riots.
Photograph: Siddharth Behl/The Guardian

Held back for so long, Ahmed rushed into his story, as if he feared the judge might be transferred mid-sentence. He spoke about the procession, the chanting on the bridge, the attack on his home, his escape. Under the judge’s questioning he admitted there were things he did not know. He had said, for instance, that there had been chaos and looting all night long. “How did you know there was looting if it was dark? Be specific,” the judge said. “You have to tell me what you saw with your eyes, heard with your ears, smelled with your nose, tasted with your tongue, or felt on your body. Hold this truth in your fist and answer.”

Each of the judge’s questions demanded crisp storytelling, but brevity did not come easily to Ahmed. He struggled to be precise. He forgot the judge’s advice. He rambled on. There had been no preparation, no attempt by the prosecution lawyers to tell their witness what to expect. (The criminal defence lawyer told me that, under Indian law, preparing a witness is considered interference with testimony.)

Beside Ahmed, not four feet away, the accused stood in the dock. On the nights of the 25 and 26 February 2020, according to the prosecution case against them, they had allegedly formed part of a WhatsApp group with as many as 125 members. Their phone chats were part of the police’s charge sheet. One of the accused allegedly wrote of his “team” killing two “mullas”. Another asked if anyone had bullets for a “315”, an Indian pistol. One said: “Brothers … if anyone has any problems, or if you find yourself short of men, tell me. I will bring my entire team. We have everything you need. Bullets, guns, everything.”

The men in the dock acted as if the hearings had nothing to do with them. They whispered in each other’s ears and laughed. As the day went on, they grew restless. One yawned, one twirled his moustache, one picked his nose. Every few minutes one would stare at the clock above my head. One of the accused was a “high-value prisoner”, a nervous security coordinator told me. This prisoner had vermilion on his ears, a religious marking, and his top shirt button was open. He called attention to himself with the way he stood, seeming to swagger without moving. Some of the police occasionally joked with him. On one occasion, a constable vacated a chair for him. On another, he asked that his friends be allowed to sit beside him. The police were amused by his demands, but did what he said. When the judge was not in court, he would leave his cap on.

By the day’s end, Ahmed appeared withered by the effort of reliving the night of the attack. Pramachala noticed. “Ahmed, brother, be brave and be hopeful,” the judge said to him. “There are ups and downs. You are down now, but there are ladders in life too.”

The next day of hearings began like all the others, with stoic resignation on Justice Pramachala’s face, as if he was wondering what he had done to deserve this fate. The public prosecutor had submitted a CD as evidence, but it emerged that the CD only had screen grabs from videos of the rioting, not the actual video footage. “Who will verify where the screen grabs come from?” Pramachala asked. A satisfactory answer was not forthcoming.

At this lull, one of the defence lawyers grabbed a microphone and tell the judge that nothing in Ahmed’s testimony the previous day had incriminated his clients. The judge replied with a laugh: “Give it time, give it time.”

The day passed haltingly and I found my attention wandering, until a moment in the afternoon when everything snapped into focus. Pramachala asked Ahmed about the men he said he had seen rioting. “Can you identify them in this courtroom?”

The room fell silent as Ahmed stood up slowly and took uncertain steps towards the men in the dock. He turned his head to the judge, unsure of how close to go. “Don’t worry,” the judge and the lawyers said, gently encouraging him forward.

Ahmed’s proximity to the men brought his testimony to life. The accused stopped talking and laughing, and instead watched him. Ahmed stood so close they could touch him. The contrast was stark: Ahmed was at least 20 years older than the oldest of them, hunched and moving uncertainly, while the ones in the front stood tense. Ahmed pointed to the man closest to the judge, looked him in the face and spoke his name. The judge asked the accused to confirm his name. Then Ahmed pointed to next accused and named him, and the process repeated itself. Having pointed out nine of them, Ahmed stopped, and told the judge he recognised some of them only by their face.

The moment was procedural, but something had shifted. The act of naming had turned the men from some vague group of suspects, “the accused”, to individuals suddenly present in the room.

It was near the day’s end, and the judge announced that the defence would cross-examine Ahmed the following morning; the burden of attention was not yet off him. Ahmed sat down and wiped his forehead. Later that night he wrote to me; “I spoke haltingly for so long that I forgot some things. I’m also a little worried about being shot.”

The next morning, the cross-examination began with a scrum of lawyers crowding Ahmed, who sat at the front of the room. The first lawyer looked down at him and asked how long he had lived in Bhagirathi Vihar, if his shop was open or closed, if he had employees, what their names were, and what their fathers’ names were. Another lawyer asked how wide the road outside his house was. Someone asked how far the bridge was from his home. Someone insisted Ahmed was nearsighted. Someone asked how many cameras Ahmed’s phone had.

A viewer of legal shows might have read some genius in these lines of questioning: the harmless opening query that ensnares the witness. You could imagine the way the argument might develop, gradually cornering Ahmed into admitting that he was not present, that he could not see the bridge from his home, that his eyesight was unreliable, that he was put up to all this.

But the follow-up questions led nowhere. The lawyers would repeat their questions and ask about irrelevancies triumphantly, at which point the judge would express his disapproval. The lawyer who had declared to me that he would reduce Ahmed to a rag doll asked a series of questions related to the ladder that enabled the family’s escape, but nothing of consequence. There was no rag doll at the end of it.

Nisar Ahmed in Delhi.
Nisar Ahmed in Delhi. Photograph: Siddharth Behl/The Guardian

At 4.11pm, the judge closed the matter for that day. It was unclear if Ahmed’s work in this case was done. He stepped out and ran his fingers through his hair. He was relieved, and his protective escort was relaxed too, for the accused were no longer on the premises.

Ahmed often said that the truly dangerous men, the ones who had started it all, were nowhere near the court. They had encouraged the foot soldiers during the riots, Ahmed said – he saw them with his eyes. Those organisers regularly attended meetings held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the paramilitary group associated with the BJP, Ahmed said, and they were still free. We had begun to discuss this when his police escort spoke up.

“And who do you think is going to catch them?” he asked. The police? Going after the people they report to? his tone implied. You’re joking.

August ended, September came and went, the year turned. By the middle of February 2023, there was still no news about the case. Almost three years had passed since the riots but Ahmed did not seem concerned, now that his testimony was a matter of legal record. “I will help people,” he told me. “I will do what I can. I will bring Hindus and Muslims together. I’ve made up my mind.”

He wondered why more people were not moved to act as he was. In our conversations he sometimes imagined scenarios in which he would persuade ordinary Hindus to reconsider their views. He would start with moral objections, with arguments that might appeal to their humanity, but then change tack and point out that hatred was damaging the economy. India now saw itself among the world’s leading nations. But it was also a place where a house and a business built over a lifetime could be destroyed in minutes. “How will the country progress this way?” he asked. Perhaps that would move people, he thought. If they didn’t see him as a part of the Indian nation, perhaps they would acknowledge him as a cog in the economy, someone who could contribute to the country’s prosperity. But even that reduced role, he sometimes felt, was not enough for this new India.

One day last autumn, I received a frantic call from Ahmed, telling me there had been more hate speeches in north-east Delhi. A few months later, after the charred bodies of two kidnapped Muslim men were discovered in a burnt car, he was distraught. By this point, I had known him for a year and a half, and yet I was still surprised by his capacity to be shocked by what he, of all people, knew better than anyone. He had experienced first-hand the hatred that had consumed his neighbourhood. And yet, every time he confronted it anew, he was taken aback, astonished that people could behave like this. At times I thought of this as naivety or denial. But refusing to see violent hatred as normal was also a type of fortitude. After all, there was no real difference between Hindus and Muslims in India, he said. They eat the same food, drink the same water, and live on the same land. “So why does Hindu-Muslim come into it?”

When he had first filed his petition, in 2020, the local officer in charge of the area had told him that the case would take 15 or 20 years to conclude. “I think he said that to frighten me. But I told him it didn’t matter, because god has saved my life for a reason,” he said. “As long as I’m there, I’ll fight this case.”

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