By Ankita Ramgopal & Aditi Saraswat

A businessman in front of his burnt footwear shop in Ashok Nagar in New Delhi on February 27, 2020. | Money Sharma/AFP

Mohammed Asif and his family narrowly escaped death when a rioting mob arrived at their home in North East Delhi’s Shiv Vihar on the evening of February 24, 2020. The terrified family of four took shelter at a relative’s home in nearby Babu Nagar for almost a week. When they returned, they found their home vandalised. Jewellery and other items worth Rs. 600,000 had been looted.

Unable to read or write, Asif (name changed to protest identity) sought the help of his 14-year-old daughter to file his claim under the compensation scheme announced by the Delhi government for riot survivors. Since he did not have a bank account in Delhi, he gave the details of his account in a bank in a village in western Uttar Pradesh.

In the last week of May, while the nationwide lockdown was still in place, Asif received a call from the office of local Sub Divisional Magistrate asking him to collect his cheque of Rs. 50,000. Even though the amount was grossly inadequate, he collected the cheque and travelled almost 180 km to deposit it in his village bank. Two months later, the amount had not got transferred to his account.

He approached the Sub Divisional Magistrate’s office to inquire about it and was asked to approach the bank. He travelled 180 km again to his bank, where he was advised to apply for a fresh cheque at the Sub Divisional Magistrate’s office in Delhi. But the office refused to give him a new cheque because the bank had not provided any reasons for why this should be done.

Worn down by the process, he went back to the bank where he was informed that his cheque had bounced. Unable to comprehend the issue with disbursement of their compensation money, Asif and his daughter kept travelling 360 km back and forth from Delhi every week in the hope of getting an opportunity to speak with the bank manager. But he refused to entertain them until they got a new cheque.

By the time the compensation amount of Rs 50, 000 was finally credited to his account in January, Asif had already spent a significant amount of money travelling frequently from Delhi to his village. Left with no means to sustain his family, he now plans to move the Delhi High Court asking for the amount of compensation to be enhanced.

Scared and shattered survivors
Asif’s story is only one of the numerous stories of torn-apart lives of thousands of residents of North-East Delhi post the violence in February 2020. The riots had broken out on February 23, on the eve of a two-day visit of the United States President Donald Trump. The four days of violence, the worst in the national capital in four decades, left 53 people dead, 38 of them Muslim.

The tell-tale signs of the communal carnage, the smoke and rubble of the razed houses and shops, were still visible when our team of young lawyers, students and volunteers from the Karwan e Mohabbat communal harmony organisation decided to set up a legal and medical aid camp in the narrow lane near Shiv Vihar Tiraha to help the survivors.

We filled compensation forms, drafted police complaints (without which, the claim of compensation is not accepted at the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s office), assisted the scared and shattered survivors to the police stations, and arranged medicine, ration and shelter for them. In the course of doing this, we witnessed first-hand the havoc that administrative hurdles and state apathy can wreak on precarious lives. This was followed by further disruption once the Covid-19 lockdown was announced.

Though we continued to extend legal assistance to the survivors over the phone, a substantial number of violence-hit families were left out as most of them did not have access to smart-phones to enable the exchange of documents needed for new claims of compensation or follow up of their pending claims. Thus, with the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, we resumed our efforts by setting up a tinyoffice located in Shiv Vihar.

The picture remains bleak even a year later. In the process of assisting 300 families with their compensation claims, our team has filed more than 150 letters to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate and 150 Right to Information applications but have received no satisfactory answers for delayed and inadequate disbursement of compensation, and rejection of claims.

Moreover, in a separate mapping exercise done by the team in the affected areas, we found that out of 200 families, 143 have received part or no compensation at all, 47 have been granted their amount as per the scheme, and give have not filed for compensation at all. These numbers indicate the lackadaisical attitude of the Delhi government in granting money to the victims.

Devastated lives, inadequate compensation
Mobin Ali’s voice carried devastating disappointment. “They burnt our life-long savings to ashes right in front of our eyes,” he said. “We live in a capital city, Delhi is such a big city. But the riots went on for 72 hours, no one came to our rescue.”

At noon on February 24, 2020, 60-year-old Ali was heading to his bike repair shop in Shiv Vihar when he saw violent mobs carrying lathis, chanting slogans of Jai Shri Ram. On the advice of his neighbours, he shut shop and went home. The situation got worsene. Soon after, he received news that his shop had been attacked. He called the police but there was no response.

“The embers were still there,” he said. The shop had been looted before being burnt down. He was one of many survivors whose residence and workplaces were both affected. He received a meagre compensation amount of Rs 55,000 as an ex-gratia payment under the Delhi government’s Assistance Scheme. He had filed a claim of Rs 12.5 lakhs.

As we work with the survivors of the pogrom, it is frustratingly apparent that not only is the state unwilling to provide fair compensation, but it also has no intention to make the process easier for the survivors. Like Ali, there are hundreds of survivors who have been struggling to claim their right from the government.

Some survivors have not been able to file their claims at all. Sme of those who were able to have not received any compensation. Others received only part of the amount and some have received an amount disproportionate to their claims with no justification.

The Delhi government scheme has devised an exclusionary categorisation of damages for which compensation can be sought. For instance, while there is mention of damage to e-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, there is no mention of cars, bikes and pushcarts, which are crucial for livelihood in the violence-affected areas. Because of the ignorance of the lived realities of the citizens in the violence affected areas, the Delhi government has left out a significant section of the survivors from the ex-gratia relief granted by the scheme.

Hope in the judiciary
The inadequacies of the compensation scheme have been raised before the Delhi High Court. Yet, in March 2020, the High Court refused to intervene in a plea challenging the meagre compensation announced by Delhi government, on the grounds that it was a policy decision by the government and “the courts would be very slow in interfering with the same”.

A writ petition was filed on September 14, 2020, in the Delhi High Court on behalf of two survivors, one of whom had sustained a bullet injury on his left leg, and the other on the groin during the violence. The survivors were each granted Rs. 2 lakhs compensation in accordance with the scheme under the category of “serious injury.

Under the government scheme, a “serious injury” warrants compensation of Rs 2 lakhs. “Permanent incapacitation” warrants compensation of Rs 5 lakhs and “minor injury” Rs 20,000. The petitioners argued that the amount of money they had already spent on their treatment would equal the entire compensation amount. They insisted that the sanctioned amount was insufficient as they were both earning members of their families who were now unable to provide for their families as a result of their grave injuries.

In addition to the stipulated compensation amount, they sought reimbursement of their hospital expenses.

It was also pointed out to the court that on February 27, 2020, the Delhi government had announced the Farishte Sscheme for free-of-cost medical treatment at private hospitals to be extended to violence affected families. However, the benefits of this scheme have not been made available to riot survivors at all, forcing them to spend money from their own pockets, after borrowing from money lenders under distress.

In the absence of clear guidelines for assessing compensation proportionate to injuries of riot survivors, it is left to the discretion of state officials. The petition is currently pending in the court.

Opaque process
This unfair and opaque administrative process of disbursement of monetary compensation, as discussed above, often robs the affected survivors of the will and resources to claim even their basic entitlements. Among such helpless families, only a few manage to crawl through the tiresome and expensive process of claiming compensation and take to the courts to seek justice.

The Supreme Court in the Nilabhati Behara and DK Basu cases upheld strict liability for the state where it can be shown that there was state failure to uphold Constitutional rights of citizens. According to a study done by Centre for Equity Studies in 2012, various High Courts have upheld that state’s failure to prevent death as a result of violence by non-state actors, including terrorist attacks and communal violence, entitled survivors to damages under public law.

While we await favourable orders for such compensation claims in the courts of Delhi, it needs to be emphasised that it is a moral obligation of the State to repair the loss of the survivors in a wholesome way by providing them restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and an assurance of non-repetition of such violence, in addition to monetary compensation.

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