Break in India: How Muslims’ Businesses Built Over Years Were Destroyed in a Day

Lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down by targeted violence in one north east Delhi village – and only two people have so far been arrested.

New Delhi: That Old Garhi Mendu, surrounded by wild scrub, is Gujjar dominated becomes obvious even before you enter it. As you walk towards the village along a long dirt road near Khajuri Chowk, a busy intersection in north-east Delhi, two-wheelers whizzing past with milk cans dangling from them have “Gujjar” inscribed on them.

As you enter a clearing with lanes leading off from it, a big sign says “Gujjar Chowk”. “What happened here?” I ask one of the young men in tight t-shirts giving our little group of volunteers with questionnaires long, assessing stares. “Nothing happened,” he replies blandly.

Minutes later, I am in Younus’s devastated workshop. The tin roof has caved in. Gaunt metal frames and piles of burnt goods, being meticulously sorted by type, tell the story of a successful business doused in petrol and set aflame. There was no riot in Old Garhi Mendu – because it takes two sides to make one.

Younus in his gutted factory. Photo: Shadab Alam

After Hindu-Muslim violence spread in north-east Delhi on February 24, a group of young men from this village launched an unprovoked attack of a kind not witnessed here in living memory. Benaqab, or without masks – in more ways than one – they entered the modest Mubarak Masjid just as the evening prayer was to start and beat up the elderly muezzin, Mehboob Hasan, and others with wooden sticks and rods.

After calling the police to no avail, the village’s vastly outnumbered Muslims had no choice but to scoop up their families and flee, leaving their homes and businesses unprotected. The few who stayed on the next day had to make an even more terrified exit, with gangs of youth banging on their doors and threatening them. More than two weeks later, most of these people, included the muezzin who is recovering from a head injury, do not spend the night in the village.

Forty-year-old Younus, who has no surname, was at his fabrication unit, which makes stalls for exhibitions, on the evening of February 24. It was abuzz with activity because a fleet of trucks was shortly to leave with stalls for a medical fair in Mumbai.

But when he heard the mosque had been attacked, the father of three, who lives in the properly urban Vijay Park, locked up and left. He did not want to risk his own life or those of his workers. The next night, his unit was set on fire. The flames burnt so intensely that an adjoining Hindu owned unit seems to have been singed by them. On February 29, when it became safer to return, it was all over.

As we walk, he itemises: 600 8×4 boards, 300 partitions, 1,000 concealed lights…an estimated Rs 30-32 lakh of stock and investment reduced to cinders.

Hamein sadak par khara kar diya hai (They have left us on the road),” says the Class 12-educated man who apprenticed at Rs 10,000 a month to learn his skills and managed, over 15 years, to build a business with a Rs 2-crore turnover. Tragically, he did not get around to insuring it.

An exhibition stall created at Younus’s factory. Photo: Special arrangement

Everywhere you turn in this village, among the lanes where Muslims live or work, there is a gutted or looted enterprise. A painting and denting business had its clients’ cars burnt; a maker of computer tables who sells on Amazon and Flipkart was so efficiently looted that he cannot produce a single table. A young man who makes protective boxes for sound and other equipment that is also picked from this muddy place by online firms, had his stock stolen and his little workshop gutted. The three-storey home-cum-workshop of a mattress maker was set on fire, after he estimates, machines, other goods and about a hundred completed mattresses, were lifted. With police absent, the marauders clearly had all the time they needed.

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Behind many of these enterprises is a backstory of a family – complete with “tiger mothers” organising apprenticeships for school dropout sons – that is moving up a difficult ladder. To crystallise what the economist Abusaleh Shariff told me in a conversation, many Muslims seek to rise through small businesses for a combination of reasons: their artisanal bent, their comparatively poor education levels, rising at a lower rate than those of non-Muslims,  and skewed government policies that keep them out of organised employment, where they are now, he estimates, just 2-4% of the workforce.

A range of businesses, from tyre and auto parts shops to hairdressing saloons, from little units printing wedding cards to teashops, were cut down in the north-east Delhi violence. As social activist Maimoona Mollah put it, “People who were standing on their own feet had their backs broken.”

Younus’s burnt factory. Photo: Shadab Alam

Old Garhi Mendu is a microcosm of the larger story of the forensic targeting of Muslims’ homes and businesses in north-east Delhi, especially from February 25, under the nose of the police, but in an even starker form.

It is harder to blame the violence on mysterious “outsiders” in this slightly isolated and self-contained village, though that doesn’t stop Gujjar “elders” from giving the media this spin. It was an inside job, a police officer conversant with the case told me in an off-the-record conversation. “Gaon ke log the.”

When asked why, after two weeks, only two youths had been arrested, he claimed Muslims were too scared to name names. They want this village matter (gaon ki baat) to remain within the village, he claimed. However, young Muslims especially say the police do have the names, including those of children of the village elite. They also report that when they return to the village, Gujjars walk up to them and ask questions like, “So, you’re back?” and “Is it true you have named me?”

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Violence and impunity apart, Old Garhi Mendu is also a microcosm of the trauma being suffered by those re-entering violated homes and destroyed workplaces, and trying to get their lives and livelihoods going again.

In official speak, this trauma is being papered over. “We organised a peace meeting between the two communities, there is total harmony in the village and most residents have come back to their homes,” said a district official overseeing the arrangements who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Save for the stage-managed “peace meeting”, which one victim acidly referred to as a “meeting with the perpetrators”, the other claims are laughable. Most Muslims are too fearful to return. In some cases, they have nowhere to return to.

Mubarak Masjid, Garhi Mendu. Photo: Anjali Mody

Sleeping on a mattress far inferior to the ones he makes, Mohammad Javeduddin, the mattress maker, says he will have to rent rooms for his family if the Samoday Bhawan (community centre) where most of the families that fled are holed up, shuts shop. His three-storey house, which is both his home – “full furnish kiya tha” – and his production centre, is a charred mess. “The building will have to be demolished and rebuilt, the plinth has collapsed,” said the engineer from Bihar who took to making foam mattresses when he couldn’t get a job in Delhi.

Rizwana Parveen and Mohammad Hasan, whose three sons have missed two weeks of school, do not feel safe enough to resume regular life in this village, despite the presence of a paramilitary contingent. “Only Muslim tenants of Hindu landlords sleep here at night,” Hasan says. (This is a side story that played out in the north-east Delhi riots as well, with well-informed mobs venting less fury on homes rented from Hindus.)

Hasan and Rizwana’s burnt pick-up truck. Photo: Anjali Puri

The family’s egg business has been derailed, with trays full of rotting eggs in their front room. We almost fail to notice, until soft-spoken Rizwana points it out, the charred yellow Mahindra Bolero maxi-truck that grew their business. Hasan drove it to Punjab to bring back large stocks of eggs and to transport them for sale in Delhi. The couple, who had recently paid off a loan on the truck, installed CCTV cameras to protect it at night. Efficient mobs destroyed the cameras when they attacked.

In the back room of the two-storey house they built as their business grew, an empty blue jewellery case flung on a chair is the most visible sign of their personal effects being ransacked. But for Hasan and Rizwana, as for Younus and Javeduddin, the most important thing is getting the business going again. They have been forced to hire transport to deliver eggs. They tell me, despairingly, that ten days after Hasan alerted the insurer, Liberty General Insurance, and even had the sub-divisional magistrate speak to them, it is still lying outside his door with no one having come to visit. Discrimination or just inertia? It’s hard to tell.

You can hear birdsong and smell fresh dung as Hasan and his sons accompany us to the mosque where it all began. Clearly subject to more than one attack, and burnt, it looks derelict and abandoned. Hasan identifies a mangled mess of metal as the metal stretcher that was used to take the dead for burial. In a ghastly twist to our little expedition, the children, trying to be helpful, rummage among the cinders and fish out charred remains of the Quran and the books that were used to teach Urdu.

While the Delhi government is handing over Rs 25,000 as instant relief to those whose homes were set on fire, this is not the case for those who only suffered looting. So, 27-year-old Salim Saifi spends his days crisscrossing north-east Delhi, between his home in Shri Ram Colony, the sub-divisional magistrate’s office in Seelampur and his rented unit in Old Garhi Mendu where he was, until February 25, rapidly turning around computer tables.

I keep running into this motor-mouth, immaculately dressed in a striped shirt and pants, and bearing the expression of a man going a little crazy for lack of work. “You have to keep your visibility going to sell online, if you lose it you’re finished,” explains the Class 12 pass son of a carpenter.

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He races me through an account of how, on the back of “ratings and visibility” he went from a handful of orders to around 150 tables a month, and paid off of Rs 40,000 of a Rs 1.5 lakh loan from a friend. No bank loan? “It’s hard with an “M profile” and all the KYC requirements,” he says. That echoes what the Sachar committee observed all those years ago, about the “redlining” of Muslim areas by banks and financial institutions, effectively denying the community credit and other financial services.

However, Saifi seems too irrepressible to be deterred by redlines. He says that after having earned himself a better profile by filing his second income tax return in June, his “next step” was to try again for a bank loan, and his “next step” after that was to buy a new labour-saving machine – and scale up.

Saifi’s looted workshop. Photo: Anjali Puri

At the moment, however, Saifi has no machinery, and lacks the means to buy even a humble cutter. “My workers and I locked ourselves inside the unit after the attack on the mosque,” Saifi recalls. “You won’t believe this, but we even attached live wires to the door to save ourselves if a mob came. We were awake all night, and early in the morning, we locked up and crept out. After we left, my stock was destroyed, and my cutters, grinders and drills were looted, even the music system I got for my workers.”

“Look,” he says tentatively, “my tabletop cutter weighs over 100 kg, you need two men to lift it. Maybe it is somewhere in the village…can it not be found?”

When I ask the police official why stolen goods cannot be recovered from the village, he mumbles something about most goods having being destroyed or moved out. The district official says police investigation and action is not his domain.

To add to their insecurities, Muslims also face the possibility of their numbers dwindling, as those with less to lose may move away, rather than live in proximity to their tormentors. “My life in this village is over,” says Akeel Ahmed a repairman who was beaten with lathis when he unwisely lingered in the village after the mosque attack. It’s ironically the better off and the landed who incurred the heaviest losses, who are more reluctant to disrupt their lives further by getting out of the way.

Younus, who relocated his workshop here 1.5 years ago to be nearer home, plans, at least for now, on assurances of support from district officials, to stay put “and try to rise again”. Javeduddin, who has lived more than a decade in Old Garhi Mendu, wants to shift his business to Noida, but adds, “I will not run away and let them take over my house.”

What did I do wrong, he asks. “I even gave free mattresses to Hindu couples getting married.” Others too insist that they did nothing to provoke their neighbours, which only shows how hard it is for them process the fact that they were primarily targeted for who they were, irrespective of what they did or did not do.

Anjali Puri is a journalist who lives in Delhi.