New Delhi: Late on February 26, day four of the communally targeted violence that ripped through north east Delhi, a video emerged on social media of a man lying on his stomach being beaten with stick by a group of men. The face of the man was not visible, the video had likely been taken from a window or terrace at least two floors above the narrow street where the violence was happening.
The beating was merciless and from the absolute lack of reaction from the victim, it was evident that he was at best unconscious.
The video was shared on pages that have systematically attempted to broker peace between communities in the time of the riots. They came with heavy trigger warnings. The location of the attack was mentioned as one “Gali no. 8” in Brahmpuri. The time, as 9 pm.
A day later, on February 27, there was little that Brahmpuri’s locals would agree to say on the alleged incident. What they did say or did not, however, went some way in offering a picture of a deeply divided neighbourhood.
Brahmpuri is one of the areas where heavy violence broke out almost immediately as reports began emerging of a riot-like scenario emerging in north east Delhi. On Monday, February 24, one Vinod Kumar was allegedly stoned to death while returning home with his son, Monu, who sustained serious injuries. Vinod was between 45 and 51 years old.
Monu spoke to several news outlets and said that not one person – either Hindu or Muslim – came out to help them when he knocked on successive doors in the neighbourhood after having been attacked.
It is unclear if the video could have shown Vinod and emerged much later than when the violence actually took place. The pages which shared it have not responded to queries yet.
On Thursday, February 27, all entrances to Brahmpuri had paramilitary and Delhi police manning the entry and exit of vehicles. The autorickshaw which the correspondent took from Seelampur metro station to Brahmpuri ended at one such security forces’ outpost. On one side was Seelampur, on the other, Brahmpuri.
As is well known by now, Seelampur has emerged an exemplary locality where Hindus and Muslims have flat out refused to be drawn into the violence. The Wire‘s Srishti Srivastava, in her detailed report on the area, had noted how residents were consciously impervious to attempts to polarise them.
Those living on the cusp of Brahmpuri, however, live in a fear that is unique to their location.
Among them are 82-year-old Rashida, her daughter-in-law 35-year-old Mehrunissa, and their neighbour Rahul, a young father in his twenties who works at an MNC which gave him time off from work.
As neighbours who share a wall, the families are aware that Seelampur’s convenient location offers them refuge. “But my sisters and sisters-in-law who are young mothers in Golakpuri and Brahmpuri. They have been repeatedly calling me for help in procuring milk for their young children. There is no way I can go that side,” says Mehrunissa.
The two families watch the news all day but ask not to be photographed. They are, however, okay with their children featuring in photos.
Mehrunissa worries that her eldest son Umar’s Class 6 exams could be delayed. Umar himself is not affected. He plays cricket with neighbours.
Small and big lanes connect Brahmpuri to Seelampur and the sudden quiet of the latter is a palpable indicator of a shift in atmosphere. As is the mound of charred vehicles and the soot covered street.
The driver of a ‘totorickshaw’ agrees to take the correspondent to Gali no. 8. “I feel bad charging you Rs 100 instead of the usual Rs 10, but safety, both mine and yours, makes this an expensive ride,” he says.
On either side of the main Brahmpuri Road are narrow lanes. All of them are barricaded by sheets of tin and lengths of bamboo. The barricades are firm and final, they, in fact, have no rudimentary gates either.
“On one side is Hindustan, on the other is Pakistan,” says the driver, who does not give out his name but says that he has spent his life on the streets of both ‘countries’.
A Hindu, he says, he can only travel through the ‘Hindu side’ of the street. Unwilling to spend more time on the main road, which is deserted with the exception of police and paramilitary personnel, he takes a detour through the Mouni Baba Mandir Road, which offers passage inside the ‘Hindu side’ through one un-barricaded lane.
“I have had to paste some stickers on the front of my vehicle to ensure my safety…We would play cricket here. And now look what has happened. The members of some communities like to stay inside their houses. The members of others like to spend their time on the streets. They are the ones who cause the problems,” he says.
Minutes later, he stops after being hailed by a woman in a headscarf and offers to drop her nearby free of cost.
Once firmly inside the ‘Hindu side,’ shops are open and large gatherings of men make it imperative for the vehicle to stop at several points in the narrow lane. Though the shops look full, the flow of food and necessities is affected under the circumstances, says the driver.
At a place where there are saffron flags down a lane, the rickshaw driver says those where put up during Shiv Ratri and did not have anything to do with assertions of Hindutva.
On the ‘Hindu side’, at each barricade, are groups of men who refuse to speak or be photographed but question the correspondent on the news organisation she belongs to and intent.
Notably, all of them say nothing happened on the night of February 26. Even when asked about the video from Gali no. 8, and even at Gali no. 8 itself, men on the streets refuse to speak. A common refrain is “yahan kuchh nahin hua hain.”
At one point, a group asks the driver, who is known to them, to “get out” but the tone is not violent.
The ‘Muslim side’ remained unchartered by the correspondent. If there were ways inside, then they remained, at best, a secret. At a particular barricade, a man who identified himself as Anwar, got off an auto with his family of three. All of them carried bags of food.
When asked how he planned to enter the lane, Anwar smiles and says he will see. Like in the ‘Hindu side’, the ‘Muslim side’ too has people on the immediate other side of their own barricades. But they refuse to speak.
The street in the middle is strewn with all manner of things, a lot of which is burned. Objects of particular ire were vehicles.
At several places on the main road was graffiti derogatory to Muslims. The Wire is choosing to withhold at least one photograph of abusive words written in English on a downed shop shutter.
Several shops on the main road were gutted and ransacked. It appeared that buildings on the main road had borne most of the brunt, with alleged firing, stone pelting and throwing of petrol bombs taking place from either side of the barricades.
A particular three-storey building was entirely covered in soot, which had allegedly been set on fire on February 25.
On the ground floor was a lock and key shop which smelled strongly of burning metal, embers alive even on the afternoon of February 27. On the floor were mountains of keys and locks, some melded into others. The shelves were reduced to skeleton.s
Children, a man and three women were picking out what could be salvaged and putting them inside a sack.
At a particular point, the correspondent and another journalist were hailed by two men from the balcony of their house. Upon descending down the stairs, the men – one of whom claimed to be a Delhi Nagar Nigam pharmacist – said his motorcycle had been set on fire by Muslims. Beside his house was indeed a charred motorcycle.
“I was not at home, but my children were. They recorded a video,” he said. In the video he then played on his phone – in full volume and in the presence of an ITBP officer – men wielding sticks are visible, but not much else.
There is no sign of a motorcycle being set on fire.
The men said they have been able to sleep better because of the security forces’ presence since February 25.
Northwards, towards Ghonda, ITBP men showed the correspondent and another journalist a bullet shell which they claimed had been fired from the ‘Muslim side’ and said the latter had been violent towards Hindus.
At Ghonda, however, there were no tin barricades. Amidst reports of a Muslim man having been shot dead by the ‘Hindu side’, men and women of both communities were eager to assert that efforts were being made to cut the tension down among people who have always lived together.
In these neighbourhoods, the lanes are serpentine and houses close enough to each other to block out the sun but offer opportunity for easy communication.
The violent riots in Delhi have killed 42 so far. Injuries have crossed 200.
In the video below, a Muslim man and the priest of a temple speak on their bond as food arrives for the neighbourhood from a gurudwara – in yet another example of the bonds that bind Delhi’s neighbourhoods.