Delhi violence | When the Centre cannot hold — on communal fault lines, state apathy and hope that lingers amidst despair

In the worst communal violence in recent times, mobs went on a rampage in north-east Delhi for two days, killing 53 people and destroying homes, schools and shops. Bindu Shajan Perappadan and Anuradha Raman report on the communal fault lines, state apathy, and the hope that lingers amidst the despair

Updated - March 07, 2020 12:04 pm IST

Published - March 07, 2020 12:15 am IST

A view of Medina Mosque in Shiv Vihar after the violence.

A view of Medina Mosque in Shiv Vihar after the violence.

On February 27 afternoon, a few days after deadly riots rocked north-east Delhi , the busy marketplace of Maujpur is deserted. On the road lies a shoe and some charred clothes, reminders of the violence three days earlier. A tea shop, singled out and vandalised, is shut. “ Ab yeh hain toh shanti hai (now that they are here there is peace),” says the owner, Wasim Khan, pointing to the men in varying shades of khaki and blue who are keeping vigil in the neighbourhood. Apart from the Delhi Police, personnel of the Rapid Action Force march in small batches in what is often referred to as an area domination exercise to secure peace. Khan is grateful that he is alive.

On February 24, an agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) quickly spiralled out of control when both CAA supporters and protesters ran amok in the neighbouring colonies of Maujpur. Jaffrabad, Shiv Vihar, Mustafabad, Chand Bagh, Brijpuri, Babarpur, Karawal Nagar, Khajoori Khas and Yamuna Vihar are all infamous — together these areas have lost 53 people to the violence; 250 are injured.

Delhi violence | Looted, burnt out homes offer little welcome to Shiv Vihar’s riot victims

In the vast, squalid urban sprawl that is north-east Delhi, pockmarked with open drains, Swachh Bharat is a distant dream. The development plank of the re-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) does not resonate here. There are no tarred roads, only galis (streets) with numbers. They are often referred to as ‘20 foota’ and ‘25 foota’, indicating the width of a particular lane. Migrants from the populous States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar live in these areas that are chock-a-block with houses and shops.

On February 24 and 25 , as rioters from the Hindu and Muslim communities, armed with swords, guns, stones, rods and bricks, targeted shops, madrasas, masjids, schools, vehicles, and people, both the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government in Delhi and the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in the Centre simply watched.

Khan speaks softly. His lips quiver and his fingers shake as he talks of his shop being vandalised and his refrigerator being emptied out in the dark of the night. “I have no enemies,” he says. His neighbours in the marketplace say Khan will sell his shop soon and move out of the area.

Further ahead is Gonda Chowk where the skeletons of buses and auto-rickshaws lie on the road. Suddenly, there is a huge explosion. A thick plume of smoke goes up in a house behind a departmental store. In moments, the wail of a fire engine pierces the day. The sound is enough for everyone to down the shutters. In a battery-operated auto-rickshaw, a man whispers as he shares with us an incendiary WhatsApp message: “Wait till Friday”.

Friday, February 28 , goes off peacefully. The faithful offer their prayers.

In several ways, that terrible week of February was a week of many firsts. For the first time in the history of independent India, a U.S. President’s visit to the country coincided with the worst communal violence in recent times. For the first time in recent memory, schools were targeted and burnt; ambulances were denied access to the grievously injured; and journalists were beaten up. The State and Central governments offered little help to the battered, setting off questions about why there was not even a semblance of control as marauding mobs took over the streets. In Votes and Violence , Steven Wilkinson wrote, “Abundant comparative evidence shows that large-scale ethnic rioting does not take place where a state’s army or police force is ordered to stop it using all means necessary.” From all accounts, for the first 26 hours since the riots began, the police did not do their duty. Instead, they watched as property was destroyed and people were lynched. Sometimes, shockingly, a few even participated in the violence.


Stabbed, burnt, shot

D.M.A. Anwar is supervising all those who walked into Al-Hind Hospital. A week after the riots, a ramp built in the hospital to facilitate the movement of wheelchairs is overflowing with people. People thronged Al-Hind Hospital in Mustafabad soon after the violence broke out. Anwar recalls how over 500 patients, just the first lot, were brought to the multi-storey building on the first two days alone. The number swelled over the next few days. “We have only 15 beds and five staff members. But people kept coming, so we just spread out bedsheets and carpets on the floor to accommodate the victims. There was blood everywhere,” he recalls.


While Al-Hind was the first port of call, the patient load soon spilled over to the Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital in Shahdara. “Twenty eight people died within the first three days of violence and another 10 died in the hospital. Some bodies were brought in totally charred,” says hospital superintendent Sunil Kumar. Both the hospital infrastructure and the patients’ endurance were being tested at the same time, says a hospital staff member. A list released by the hospital showed that several victims had died of assault and burns (from acid and fire). Many had died of gunshot wounds. Of the 298 injured, 170 people had suffered assault and burns and 67 had been shot.

Salmani’s brother was dragged out of his auto-rickshaw and chased down the lanes by men wielding iron rods. “We brought my injured brother out of Karawal Nagar on a push-cart because there was no vehicle in the neighbourhood. The police refused all our distress calls. It was neighbours who came to our aid,” says Salmani. His brother battled for life for two days before passing away.

Also read | After checking 25 bodies, a father still waits for his son

Two days is what it took Ram Kumar Paswan, a rickshaw-puller, to identify the body of his son in the mortuary. Nitin, 15, had stepped out to buy noodles on February 25. He never returned.

Harjit Singh Bhatti, ex-president, RDA, AIIMS, was part of the first team of doctors to reach the riot-hit areas as a volunteer. He says it took him 12 hours to reach patients with gunshot injuries and multiple fractures. He recalls a patient with a deep gunshot wound in the stomach who refused to leave Mustafabad. “After convincing him to leave, we put him in an ambulance and headed towards GTB Hospital. We were stopped four times by the police. They inspected the patient by opening his bandages. That was the level of inhumanness on display,” says Bhatti.

Meanwhile, Al-Hind Hospital continues to receive patients who have gathered the courage to step out of their homes. Some have stab wounds and some have been hit with blunt objects.

Also read | At Al Hind camp, 23-year-old marries cousin to save family honour

Targeting schools

Shiv Vihar resembles a battlefield. Charred shops line the streets and burnt cars sit in a parking lot. On February 24 and February 25, two schools, Rajdhani Public School and DRP Public School, were targeted and burnt. The owner of Rajdhani Public School, Faisal Farooq, is distraught as he speaks about the future of his 1,400 students. One hundred and thirty students were preparing to write the Class X Board examinations which began in the rest of the country on February 27. The examinations have been postponed, but Farooq doesn’t know whether the students will be in the right frame of mind to take them. In a classroom, a clear message is written with chalk on the blackboards: ‘No NRC (National Register of Citizens), no CAA’. The clock ticks as Christ the Redeemer looks down from a poster on the wall.

Riot victims get relief kits in Mustafabad.

Riot victims get relief kits in Mustafabad.


Both schools share a wall, but that is all. Rajdhani Public School faces the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood of Shiv Vihar and DRP Public School is where the large Muslim neighbourhood of Mustafabad begins.

By a stroke of luck, the students are safe as the riots took place after the school had closed for the day. While rioters set the reception area of Rajdhani Public School on fire, the neighbouring DRP Public School suffered a worse fate. Chairs lie around, upturned, broken, burnt. Twisted fans hang from the ceilings. “Mobs scaled down the common wall with ropes and set fire to this school,” alleges DRP school owner Pankaj Sharma. He says his school was the best in the entire neighbourhood. It has students from all communities, he says, hinting that it was singled out by the attackers for its popularity. Both schools have filed an FIR against unnamed persons. However, the AAP MLA from Mustafabad, Haji Yunus, says the schools were targeted for a different reason. “I think the rioters thought that people of the other community would flock to the schools to seek refuge,” he says. Some say that the owners of these schools had pledged their allegiance to the AAP and the BJP, and were therefore targeted.

Also read | Father meets baby first time after riots

Arun Public School in Brijpuri was also burnt down. So was a mosque nearby. The owner of the school, Abhishek Sharma, says: “This is predominantly a Hindu neighbourhood. Eighty students from Class XII and 100 students from Class X were going to write their Board exams. I made 30 calls to the police and fire engines. No one answered.”

Search for identity papers

In Phase 6 and 7 of Shiv Vihar, Muslim families who ran small businesses and bakeries have fled their homes and taken shelter in Chaman Park in the homes of their friends. They find solace in numbers, they say. About 200 people have taken shelter here. In gali number 14, all the Muslim families have fled their homes. But it was not always like this, people insist. There was unity, says Harish Pal. “Every time, cries of azadi went up, our Muslim neighbours told us to take shelter, and every time cries of Jai Shri Ram went up, we told our Muslim neighbours to take shelter. We tried to save each other as long as we could,” he says. Pal works in a private automobile company which manufactures spare parts. His narrative offers a glimpse into how communities got deeply divided over the CAA. On the ground, those opposing the law were quickly painted as traitors and those who supported it as patriots.

It is dusk now and Muslim families with the help of the police have come to their homes to retrieve some of their clothes. Riyasat, who has taken refuge in a relief camp, has come to get his clothes and identity papers. He has not changed his clothes since February 24.

Also read | Blood, injustice and anger burn the streets of north-east Delhi

Young girls have taken shelter in old Mustafabad. In a tiny 100 sq ft room above a small bakery, more than a dozen families huddle together. Zainab, 19, who fled with her family as rioters closed in, is worried that her family’s identity papers have been left behind. It is the fear that these papers have been lost or destroyed that has the Muslim community on edge.

The CAA has made it easier for non-Muslim migrants to become full-fledged Indian citizens. Muslims are worried that they may not be considered citizens if the CAA, together with the proposed NRC, is implemented. The BJP-led government’s response to the CAA-NRC protests, which have been spearheaded by Muslims, has often been brutal. A majority of Muslims have opposed the Act and large sections of Hindus have supported it. But no one anticipated that the two communities would turn against each other.

Who attacked first?

People who fled their homes say they will return some day. However, a disturbing question remains unanswered: who attacked first? The answer depends on who is asked the question first.

The Medina masjid went up in smoke along with the house belonging to Naresh Chand. A wall separates the two. Chand, an insurance agent, says he doesn’t know the attackers. “There were some slogans raised and I couldn’t recognise anyone,” he says. He then quietly adds that the crowds came from the Muslim quarters.

Also read | For the first time in 40 years, Friday prayers not conducted at Ashok Nagar mosque

The Auliya mosque too faced the ire of the mobs. There was an explosion of gas cylinders inside the mosque. Maulvi Shahrukh Khan says he is thankful to be alive. “I escaped just as mobs entered the neighbourhood. We had to retaliate in self-defence,” he says.

After the destruction, people have barricaded neighbourhoods with motorcycles, tables and wooden planks. One side is referred to as Hindustan. “That side [Mustafabad] is Pakistan. We have lived here together for years. But things have changed now,” says an old man, indicating that the divisions are here to stay. People have formed neighbourhood patrols. They say they haven’t slept a wink since February 24.

Offering help

After schools, shops, homes and lives crumbled, hope still floats. In Shiv Vihar, in some areas, people saved lives. Some of these streets were left untouched by the rioters. Many people used social media to reach out to one another and offer help. Human rights worker Harsh Mander with his Karwan-e-Mohabbat has been on the streets providing a healing touch. As Mander battles the sedition charge slapped on him by the state, his lawyer friends are helping people draft FIRs. “In all my experience of providing relief, I have never come across a situation where ambulances were not allowed to pass,” he says. Mander is also worried that the state administration did not initiate relief measures swiftly. When he started getting desperate calls from the injured, his only hope was Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court, whose intervention was sought to prevent ambulances from being targeted. The order came, the ambulances moved. The police too obeyed the order from the court.

While the Delhi government claims that 327 shops and 79 houses have been gutted, several NGOs working on the ground say the numbers don’t add up. In the largest tyre bazaar of Gokalpuri, run entirely by Muslims in a Hindu neighbourhood, nothing remains. More than 500 FIRs, a majority of them against unknown persons, have been registered under the Arms Act of 1959 and persons have been detained.

On March 1, rumours again abound in Delhi about possible clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Panic has gripped the capital. But this time, the police is proactive and is busy quelling rumours. And Delhi sleeps fitfully.

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