New Delhi: Two weeks after riots claimed 53 lives in the National Capital, north-east Delhi remains tense. Men in khaki are now viewed with suspicion.
For most Muslims, the police inspire as much confidence as armed Hindutva goons as they walk the streets filled with ash, broken glass and rubble. The victims all claim that the police were very much present when armed goons attacked their homes and shops and set them on fire. They stood there, with their hands folded, allowing safe passage for the men who reportedly arrived in three buses on the night of February 24.
When Union home minister Amit Shah praised the police on Wednesday for ending the violence within 36 hours, as he put it, people here can only shake their heads in disbelief.
Sixty-year-old Kishmathoon, a resident of Kardampuri extension, is inconsolable. Her 26-year-old son Faizan was killed in the violence that rocked the national capital. What makes her story even more heart-breaking is the fact that her son was not killed by rioters but died because of injuries sustained while in police custody.
Faizan was one of the boys who were seen in a video, lying on the road, bleeding and singing the national anthem as policemen kicked them and poked them with their rifles and asked if they wanted ‘azadi’. “We had seen the video but we had no idea that Faizan was also there. He was lying on the ground on his side. It was only later when we zoomed into the video that we realised it was him.”
He was then reportedly picked up and detained at the Jyoti Colony police station. Kishmathoon says, “I ran to the police station with a passport size photograph of my son. It was close to 1 am on February 25 morning. The policeman on duty looked at Faizan’s photograph and confirmed that he was in fact in custody, but refused to allow me to see him. He said it is too late and women are not allowed inside the cell.”
She reportedly went to the police station again the next morning but was turned away. The fraught mother then approached a local Aam Aadmi Party leader, who called the police station but was unable to get her son released.
That same night, at 11 pm, she got a call from the AAP leader asking her to reach his house. Two other mothers were also there. They were asked to go to the Jyoti Colony police station and pick up their sons. Kishmathoon and the other mothers rushed to the police station, where they were handed over their bashed and bruised sons.
“After Faizan had been handed over to me I asked the policeman how they had allowed me inside after 11 pm, because the night before I had been told that it was against the rules.” Kishmathoon claims she was not given any document by the police to show that Faizan had been in custody for close to 36 hours. “They told me to be thankful that I had been given my son back and told me to get lost. By the time we came back home it was almost 1 am. He was in great pain and was restless all night. We took him to a local clinic in the morning. The doctor referred us to a bigger hospital but the doctors there said that it was a police case and they needed to see some police documents. We had no paper work. We finally managed to get him admitted with some help but by 11 pm he was dead.”
A mother to five sons and four daughters, Kishmathoon’s husband was killed in a road accident 20 years ago. She raised her children alone and was looking forward to seeing them all settled when tragedy struck again.
About 3 km from Kardampuri, on National Highway 9, is Chand Bagh in New Mustafabad. The small, lower-middle-class settlement gets its name from the mazaar (grave) of Chand Baba Syed, which is located on the main road.
The mazaar, which stands barely 15 feet away from a police post, was also targeted by rioters. Its small green minarets have been broken, green and white tiles on the outside have been damaged, and the black marks suggest an attempt to burn it down. Why the police could not stop the dargah from being vandalised is anyone’s guess.
Across the road from the dargah is another burnt building covered with soot. Piles of burnt oranges lie on the road outside the shops, making a bright collage of black, orange and green.
Part of the shelves on the walls that remain are lined with little-ash covered bottles that were once filled with colourful liquids, used to add essence and artificial flavour to glasses of fruit juice and milk shakes. Inside the shops there is nothing but piles of fluffy ash and pieces of deformed metal and plastic.
The shops belonged to Bhure Khan Phalwale, a fruit seller, and his brothers. The family ran one fruit shop, one juice centre and one chicken shop on the ground floor, and the first floor was occupied by Bhure Khan, his wife and children. The other two brothers had moved out of the building and taken a flat across the road a few years ago because the apartment on the first floor was becoming too cluttered for the joint family.
In hindsight, this was a good decision because all that remains of Bhure Khan’s house is burnt and broken walls.
“We saw rioters pelting stones and shouting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ running towards us. They set my car and motorcycle on fire. When we ran out to douse the flame, they threw tear gas shells inside my house. We realised that the police was accompanying the rioters. It did not make any sense to stay back and hope for any sort of protection. I told my family that we will have to flee. We ran to our terrace and jumped over the boundary wall to the adjacent house. We covered at least 4-5 houses like this.
“We finally climbed down the stairs of a house towards the back lane but the exit door was locked. We called them up and took permission to break the lock and then ran for our lives. We called the police helpline number and the fire brigade, but no one came to help us. Almost eight hours later when we called the fire brigade again, they sent a fire engine and doused the fire. Everything had been destroyed by them,” recounts Bhure Khan as he stands on a pile of ash inside his house.
Down the road from Bhure Khan’s shops, there are several others that have been reduced to ash. But shops with Hindu names on the hoardings have been spared. It is clear the violence here was not all mindless – it was carefully planned and executed to target the Muslim community.
A group of men standing outside the burnt shops claim that there are several localities which witnessed large-scale violence, but the police has still not reached these areas. Two of these men offer to take me to their home in Shaheed Bhagat Singh colony.
“Come with me, I will show you how they have singled out homes of Muslim families and even set a mosque on fire. There has been no documentation of the violence there,” says Mohammad Imran. He sports a long white beard and is dressed in a white kurta-pyjama and a skull cap. He flags down an auto and we sit inside. Imran shouts and calls the others. By the time we are ready to leave, there are two men sitting with the auto-driver in the front and two others at the back. The auto driver seems reluctant and says that he doesn’t want to go into the interiors. Imran reassures him that everything is safe and we start off.
After a kilometre, he asks the auto driver to stop. Another man with a flowing beard joins us. The men all get off and after a short discussion decide that only two clean shaven men will accompany us. “I have a beard and it is easy for people to tell that I am a Muslim. It is not safe for me. Only those who are clean shaven should go. You cannot make out their religion by looking at them. The police has still not reached there and the place is still unsafe.”
The two men, Mohammad Idris and Bhure (which seems to be a common name), who are given the task of accompanying me and my video journalist, look extremely uncomfortable. One of them turns towards me and says, “If something happens, you will have to save us.”
I look at this old man with ruffled grey hair, a white stubble, paan-stained mouth, dirty morning eyes and old, well-worn clothes and wonder why he is willing to take this risk for a journalist he has just met. I wonder how scared someone like him would be to ask a woman to protect him in case of physical violence.
“I will do whatever I can to keep you safe and if I get into trouble you will help me, I suppose,” I tell him. He is quiet for a minute, as if judging whether the risk is worth taking, and then agrees. We pack up in the auto and leave.
The road soon melts into a dirt track with giant pot holes. Water from overflowing drains fills the streets that are lined with piles of garbage. Another downside of the riots is that sanitation workers have stopped picking up garbage from violence-affected areas, but unfortunately hygiene is not a priority for anyone here. Staying alive is.
One hour and almost 10 km later, we reach Shaheed Bhagat Singh colony. The locality has clearly let the revolutionary freedom fighter, after whom it has been named, down. In one of the by-lanes that houses close to a hundred Hindu families, there are five or six Muslim homes and it does not take much to identify which house belongs to Muslims.
From washing machines, fridges, gas stoves to clothes, books, pots, pans, plates and spoons…everything has been dragged out of these houses, thrown on the street and destroyed. This despite the fact that these houses had no visible exterior motif or signage to suggest that the occupants were Muslims.
Outside several homes, Idris, Bhure and I pick up torn pieces of the Quran that are strewn around or stuffed in the narrow open drain that runs on both sides of the lane. When asked how they knew which houses belonged to Muslims, Idris whispers to say that the locals pointed them out. “They are all the same. Even if some of them are well meaning, all it takes is one man from the street to identity the houses. It is easy to get them drunk and make them talk.”
And it is not just homes of Muslim residents but even a mosque in the same by-lane that has been ruined. The four-storey ‘Allah-wali masjid’ is covered with soot and ash on the outside and a statue of Hanuman has been installed on a narrow shelf in the wall. The gate of the mosque is locked with a loosely tied plastic pipe.
Idris opens the gate and takes us inside. It takes a few seconds for our eyes to adjust. The entire place has been reduced to ash. Even the plaster on the ceiling and walls has peeled off. The fans that remain on the ceiling have melted and look like wilting flowers. Piles of ash lie on the ground. Everything inside has been destroyed.
A half-burnt Quran lies on a shelf in the wall. There is another one on the floor that has been reduced to black wafer but the shape still holds up. The fire in the mosque that raged for several hours was not put out by anyone. It died on its own after there was nothing left to burn.
On our way out, I notice graffiti in white chalk on the soot covered walls. It says ‘Yahan peshaab karen (Urinate here)’. Some of the locals who have walked inside the mosque make disapproving noises as I click pictures. “We don’t know who wrote this. It is completely unnecessary.”
Once outside, Ram Kirpal, a senior resident from the by-lane, tells us that he helped many Muslim residents escape. “When we found out that rioters were targeting Muslims, we asked our neighbours to run away.” Idris and Bhure, who managed to flee with just about the clothes on their bodies, stand by and listen quietly as Kirpal recounts how outsiders wreaked havoc in their neighbourhood.
“We are in a majority here but we are living in fear today,” he says with moist eyes. “Hindus came here and indulged in a riot but what if tomorrow some Muslims show up to retaliate, what are we going to do? There is such a big mosque here, who will come to pray here? There are only five Muslims in this lane. This mosque can only be filled if outsiders come here to pray. And if they decide to do something similar then all our houses here will get reduced to ash.”
They may have lived peacefully together as neighbours for years but today they view each other with suspicion. Houses and mosques will be rebuilt – it is rebuilding of trust that seems to be a bigger challenge.
We leave the neighbourhood and make our way through a labyrinth to finally reach a small shop outside a large open plot of land. Idris gives money to the people inside the shop through the half open shutter and walks inside the gate. He emerges a few minutes later driving an auto rickshaw.
“I had left my auto here in the parking lot and did not have the courage to come back to pick it up. It is my only source of livelihood. My family will not have food to eat if I don’t drive this auto.” We sit inside and are driven to safety.
The Al Hind Hospital in Old Mustafabad has been flooded since riots broke out. Even as most private clinics shut shop, this hospital run by Dr M.A. Anwar not only provided urgent medical treatment to riot victims but also opened its doors for displaced persons.
“Seventy-five percent of the victims who were brought in here had received firearm injuries. Some had pellets imbedded in this skin, some had bullet injuries and a few came in with their legs split up till their stomachs. We provided as much first-aid as we could. There were a few who were bleeding profusely and had to be given stitches so they don’t go into shock and their vitals are maintained,” says Dr Anwar.
The 15-bed hospital has till now treated hundreds of riot victim free of cost. The first floor of the hospital building, which was lying vacant till recently, has been converted into a temporary shelter. Residents who have nothing left to go back to have taken refuge here.
“There are about 150 people here who were rescued by locals. Their houses have been burnt down and all their belongings destroyed,” says Mohammad Rayees, an electrician who is volunteering at the hospital. “I cannot describe the scenes that I have witnessed here. I have seen people with their heads smashed, I have seen people who were butchered with knives, I have seen people with severed thumbs. I took a few photographs as well but I cannot begin to describe what I saw here.”
Carpets and plastic sheets have been spread out on the floor and families sit huddled in small groups. Irshad, a tailor by profession, has sought shelter here with his wife and two children. “There were about 35 to 40 Muslim houses in our locality that were set ablaze by rioters. I do not have my own house, I was living on rent. They burnt down everything, I have nothing left,” he says, without making eye contact.
A little further away from Irshad, his wife sits talking to Shanno, a single mother with two sons. A resident of Bhagirathi Vihar, Shanno claims an armed mob of close to 20 people broke into her house on the afternoon of February 24.
“They were not outsiders, they were local residents who started attacking us with iron rods and risk. They were forcing us to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They were hitting Muslims who started chanting with them and were hitting those who did not. I somehow managed to save my life and run away from there. My sons were at school. I picked them up and we fled the area,” Shanno says.
The story repeats itself in every by-lane and at every street corner. Some victims claim they were targeted by outsiders, some claim their Hindu neighbours turned against them.
There have been casualties among Hindus too, but nothing compared to the loss of life and businesses suffered by Muslims. DRP School in Shiv Vihar owned by a Hindu had become unrecognisable by the time violence subsided. The official list puts the number of Hindu casualties at 15 out of the 51 dead bodies that have been identified. Apart from police constable Ratan Lal and Intelligence Bureau field officer Ankit Sharma who lost their lives in the riot, Rahul Solanki and Vir Bhan Singh’s families have been traced in Delhi. A fifth Hindu riot victim’s family in Uttarakhand has been informed about his death.
Locals claim that many of the victims were migrant workers and it can take months for their families to realise that they were among the dead.
Even as the official death toll has now reached 53, residents claim the actual number is much higher. People are primed to believe the worst now. Some claim two dozen bodies were pulled out from the large open drain that runs through the entire belt like a narrow river of muck and sewage, but the numbers just don’t add up. Some say there are unclaimed bodies stacked up like goods at the government run Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital but no one has any visual proof to back up these claims.
But beyond the number of dead, no one knows the exact number of houses and shops that have been burnt and vandalised and businesses destroyed. It will take months to ascertain the extent of damage and years to rebuild this broken and burnt part of the national capital.
Seemi Pasha is a senior journalist.