Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar of the Wire, interviewed Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan
New Delhi (2 November 2020): Former Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) chairperson Zafarul Islam Khan, whose residence in Jamia Nagar in South Delhi was raided by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), in connection with a terror-funding case, has denied any involvement with the Kashmiri separatist movement. He, however, insisted that he has and will always oppose human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.
The investigating agency had claimed that Khan’s Charity Alliance was among the six NGOs about which information was received that they were collecting funds in the name of welfare activities but were diverting these through hawala and cash couriers for “secessionist and terrorist activities in J&K”.
Talking to The Wire about the raid, Khan said while the NIA seized all the laptops, computers and documents belonging to him and his family members, the agency did not tell him about the complaint nor did they interrogate him.
Khan also expressed surprise that only a team of Republic TV reached as far as his residence, while the other media groups were held back, despite the road being blocked from both ends by the police during the raid. He claimed this made him believe that the raid came as part of the ruling dispensation’s “larger design”.
The former DMC chief also expressed apprehension that the raid could have been conducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which he believes will lose the Bihar polls, for political gains.
He said the party has attacked him ever since he came out with, first, a preliminary report on the northeast Delhi riots in early March, and then a detailed report, prepared by a nine-member team, which was presented in July this year. This report had accused Union home minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath of “fanning communal sentiments” ahead of the riots and accused the Delhi Police of being “complicit” in the attacks.
Khan also attacked the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government of not placing the Delhi riots report or any other report of the DMC in the Delhi assembly despite the statute providing for this. He also said that Delhi government officials, who were supposed to support the victims, were often found making fun of them or implicating them.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Following the raid, you denied any links to Kashmiri secessionist movement or organisation saying: “It seems there is an attempt to implicate me in some terror or riot case.” What do you have to say about the charge and your charity work in J&K?
For the last many years I have had no connection with Kashmiris and I have not visited Kashmir for the last six-seven years. We have never supported any separatist movement over there or even in any of our statements. I was president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, which is the apex body of Muslim organisations, for eight years. I never supported the separatist movement.
Whatever I said was against the atrocities and human rights violations which have happened over there. I have always said and even now I would repeat that the Army should be taken away from the residential areas and put on the borders. Its job is not to sit in villages or towns or mohallas or chowks. This is the job of the police. When it happens there is friction.
We have always spoken against human rights violations in Kashmir but we have never supported the separatist movement. Our (Indian Muslim) community never wants Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan, we want it to remain with India. This is our country, our land, and we want Kashmiris to be proud members of our community.
When the Hurriyat took a stringent stand against the Amarnath Yatra, I personally persuaded Geelani sahib (Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani) to retract his decision. I was leading a delegation of the Mushawarat then as its president. After that, he relented that the Amarnath Trust may have Kashmiri Hindus but not Hindus from outside. This settled the issue at that time.
During the time of the floods in 2014, we did do some work there like distributing food kits, free medicines and blankets, but that was the only time we did something big. Otherwise, we have given some scholarships or helped some poor.
Did the NIA officers question you or did they share a copy of the case to you?
No, they did not. I asked them but they did not give me anything. They only showed me a search order on the screen of their mobile.
And they did not question or interrogate me. They only took whatever they wanted from the residential area and the office.
They had blocked my lane from both sides. But I must also say that I am really aggrieved that this raid was so sensitive and secret and we were actually taken as hostages inside our homes and even then the car of Republic TV was there, parked right outside my house at 7 am. There were so many journalists who were not allowed to be close to my house, except journalists from Republic TV.
After the channel’s journalist started speaking rubbish over there, saying that ‘these people are smashing my camera’ though nothing like that was happening. Then people got angry and they drove her [the channel’s correspondent] out.
So this is how the government was in cahoots with and hand-in-glove with a channel which is spewing venom all the time, and especially against me.
You also connected this issue to Bihar elections saying, “I think the raids are related to BJP’s dwindling chances in Bihar elections. Today’s papers say the raids are in preparation for the forthcoming FATF meeting. Every move by BJP is well-planned and choreographed.” Why do you think so?
The BJP, during every election, makes something big like this happen. The incident in Pulwama was condemnable but [see] how they used it for election purpose. Every election, they do something like this and they use it. If there is no issue, they will create an issue. So, now when there is the perception that they are losing over there (in Bihar), they are trying to convey to voters that ‘we are very strict’. It is my perception that the actions of their government in Kashmir have added fuel to whatever anger was there in terms of separatism and terrorism, or anger of the people against the Centre.
Another statement which came from you was that “they are trying to penalise me for my work in Delhi Minorities Commission, especially the report on northeast Delhi riots.” When you were DMC chairperson, a nine-member investigation committee was formed, with advocate on record in Supreme Court, M.R. Shamshad, as its head. In June, it submitted its report which was subsequently made public before you demitted office in July. This report had among other things accused Union home minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and some other BJP politicians of “fanning communal sentiments” through their speeches before the riots. It had also charged that “police were complicit and abetted the attacks” during the riots. Do you think the kind of fact-finding you undertook, and since it blamed the BJP leaders, is another reason behind these raids?
Our problem with the BJP government at the Centre started on March 4, 2020. We had paid an official visit to the (riot) area on March 2 and on March 4 and we published a small report, three to four pages of our assessment of the situation there. In it, we said that the riots were planned, that a certain community, you know which, was attacked. Most of the damage was done to them, most of the people killed are from that community, their houses, their shops, their garages, their offices, their mosques, their dargahs, had been attacked and blasted with cylinders. We saw the horrible images ourselves.
On that very day, they started attacking me that ‘this man is misusing the DMC, misusing his office to slander BJP’.
From February 24 itself, we were intervening in the matter through letters, emails and calls to ask what was happening, what was being done “to control the situation”. This went on.
After the riots, they began arresting Muslim youth, they started changing the narrative or creating a new narrative. Then, there was a problem with the compensation, which in our assessment was meagre. We asked the government to raise it and they did raise it.
So we were all the time active about this and directing the police and asking them questions and sending them notices. This is all documented in our last annual report, which I published before I demitted office.
On March 2, I had also written to the Delhi revenue minister asking him to appoint an official committee to look into the riots. But he did not do anything.
Then on March 9, I formed the nine-member committee to conduct an investigation into the riots. Despite the pandemic and the lockdown, they continued with their work and finally submitted their report in June-end.
Then in July, we got the report published and sent it to the lieutenant governor, chief minister, speaker of the Delhi assembly and all the Delhi ministers. Then we also made it public through the media.
I have been under attack ever since. Recently the Delhi Police commissioner said the DMC report is creating a new narrative and he questioned our right to prepare a report like that.
So through a tweet, I told him, ‘please read the DMC Act before you speak about this’.
This is our job. We are supposed to do this [conduct an investigation]. If we do not do this then we can be held accountable [for dereliction]. This report is very mild. It is not easy for nine people to come around and approve something. But we wanted to include people from all communities in the committee. We did not change a word in the report and submitted it to the government.
You said that as per the statute, the Delhi government is supposed to present reports submitted by the Delhi Minorities Commission in the assembly. But that did not happen in case of the northeast Delhi riots report. Why?
This report and our annual report should all be presented in the Delhi assembly. I must say very frankly that this [Arvind Kejriwal-led] government has not presented any of our reports in the assembly. I wrote personally to Kejriwal that the Act says that our reports should be presented with the action taken report – on what the government has accepted or not accepted. But they did not do it for whatever reason they may have had.
Your [DMC] report highlighted that the investigation was very one-sided or unidimensional. Other fact-finding committees and even high court and lower court judges have also spoken about the bias in the investigation. During this time, there was anger among people about the way things were going. On April 28, you issued a tweet tagging your Facebook post, which created quite a controversy.
You wrote in the tweet: “Thank you #Kuwait for standing with #IndianMuslims! #Islamophobia #Islamophobia In India” and posted a link to your Facebook post. You also tagged a number of leading Arab media groups in this.
In the Facebook post you thanked Kuwait for standing with Indian Muslims and wrote that “the Hindutva bigots calculated that given the huge economic stakes involved the Muslim and Arab world will not care about the persecution of Muslims in India”.
You also wrote: “Mind you, bigots, Indian Muslims have opted until now not to complain to the Arab and Muslim world about your hate campaigns and lynchings and riots. The day they are pushed to do that, bigots will face an avalanche”.
Subsequently, a resident of Vasant Kunj registered an FIR against you claiming that the post was “provocative, intend to cause disharmony and create a rift in the society.” A case of sedition was subsequently filed against you by the special cell of Delhi Police.
You issued an apology on social media saying that the post was “ill-timed and insensitive in view of the country facing a medical emergency.” In hindsight, do you think it was anger and frustration over the investigation of the riots which led to this post or did you actually mean what you said.
You see the context was the northeast Delhi riots in late February and about 1,500 Muslim youth were arrested after that. They were arresting them because of their identity, not because they had done something. They [the police] used to go there in the morning and if they would find any Muslim youth, in the lanes or in the street, they would arrest them. So this was very disturbing and we were taking note of that in the Commission.
Then I saw this news report about the Kuwait government’s decision to ask their foreign minister to take note of [Muslims being blamed in India for spreading the coronavirus] and to work with the Organisation of Islamic Conference and also with the world community to mitigate the problem that Muslims in India were facing. So, I thought somebody should thank them.
So I wrote that and of course, the situation at that time was responsible for the anger that trickled into that tweet. It should not have gone in the name of the chairman of Delhi Minorities Commission. Actually, I did not do it, it was my office people who put that and tweeted.
When there was an uproar about it I apologised, not because the tweet was wrong but because it was ill-timed and insensitive and it came in the midst of an emergency of the coronavirus pandemic. All that rendered it something that should not have been said at that time.
But I never attacked any community. I respect all religions. What I said was ‘Hindutva bigots’ not ‘Hindu bigots’. Never. It was these ‘godi’ media channels [a reference to pro-Modi/BJP channels] who first said it was ‘Hindu bigots’, then they said ‘Indian bigots’, they kept changing their narrative.
I have prepared a chart of what I said and what they said.
Then they gave a meaning that I was inviting foreign intervention. How can I do that? I can never do that.
I must add here that I am responsible that the issue of Kashmir is not raised in some of the Muslim organisations abroad because I told them what you are saying has no meaning, it does nothing and only complicates matters. So two very big international Muslims organisations have not said anything on Kashmir for the last 10 years – they are Qatar-based World Muslim Scholars Association and the other is Saudi Arabia-based World Muslim Youth Organisation.
But nobody takes note of that.
After the sedition case was filed against you, a petition was also filed in Delhi high court seeking your removal. But the Delhi government stood by you and you completed your term.
I must thank them that they stood with me and did not take any precipitous action. After my three years of work as Commission chairman, the Kejriwal government used to say that it had two very good examples of work to show to the people – one was in the education sector and the other in the DMC which did unprecedented work like giving relief, issuing minority certificates and expanding the peace committee.
When it came to placing DMC reports in Delhi assembly or ensuring that Muslims were not victimised during the investigation of the northeast Delhi riots, a lot of groups engaged in fact-finding found the elected Delhi government wanting in how it could have conducted itself. Some even accuse it of following ‘soft Hindutva’. What do you have to say about this?
I think there is some truth in it. They did not do anything during the riots. After that, they gave some compensation, which was not adequate. We had to intervene and asked the chief minister to raise it and he did. I must be grateful for that.
But the way the government conducted itself, especially at the lower level – the deputy commissioners, the SHOs and many others were found wanting. They were found to be biased. Some officials who should have been helping the victims were not doing so. They were making fun of them, implicating them.
It was the responsibility of the government to look into these things, to intervene, to order, because they had the power. The Commission only had advisory powers. But when we sent them reports – and our Act says every report must be studied by the government and placed before the Delhi assembly with the action taken report – they did nothing about it. No report of ours was placed in the assembly.
I wrote personally to Kejriwal about this and he wrote to some department to take note, but nothing happened. I also sent copies of these reports to every MLA and MP to let them know what was happening and what the Commission was doing.