Delhi Riots One Year On: As Ashok Nagar Mosque Went Up in Flames, So Did Bonds Between Neighbours

Before February 25, 2020, Ashok Nagar had little history of communal hatred. Now, a year after the only four Muslim families in the area were attacked by armed mobs shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, there is an atmosphere of wariness.

New Delhi: One year ago, on February 25, a mob made its way to Ashok Nagar, Galli (lane) Number 5, in the early afternoon, shouting the slogan, ‘Jai Shri Ram’. 

The Muslim families in the area locked their doors. 

The mob entered a mosque and, still shouting slogans, began to destroy the interiors, tearing up copies of the holy book, shattering glass windows, breaking the furniture.

After the insides of the mosque were destroyed, gas cylinders were tossed inside and the premises set ablaze. In the explosion that followed, a major part of the mosque was laid waste, with gaping holes in the sides of the building where the walls fell. 

One year later, the mosque is still being rebuilt. The window frames are still charred.

The mosque on fire in Ashok Nagar. Photo: The Wire

In the lane adjoining the mosque, four Muslim families live in homes surrounded by Hindu families. Their houses share a wall with the mosque. The area is a maze of lanes, making it difficult for those unfamiliar with the neighbourhood to find any particular house without help.

Also read: Delhi Riots: Mosque Set on Fire in Ashok Nagar, Hanuman Flag Placed on Minaret

When the mob arrived, the Muslim families in those four homes frantically made calls to the police, who did not arrive till after the damage was done. “If they cannot come to help us, then why are the police there? For whom do they come, on whose orders do they work?” asked Parveen, 31, a homemaker who lives in a house that shares a wall with the mosque. Members of her family nodded. They all believe that if the police had acted professionally, the violence in North-East Delhi last February could have been prevented. And at least they would have been spared.

“The police didn’t even try to catch them [the rioters],” said Bilkis, 51, who lives in the building beside Parveen’s. “They would come, leave and come back. They didn’t stay to make sure they could stop this. If they had just stayed, all this would have been saved.” Bilkis no longer feels safe in her neighbourhood. Every time there’s a fight here, she’s struck with fear. 

Parveen, whose house next to the Masjid was burnt down. Photo: Devi Dutt/The Wire

By Parveen’s reckoning, three different groups were involved in the violence that took place here on February 25, 2020: the ones who tore down the interiors of the mosque, the ones who set it on fire and the ones who looted the houses. For one hour, they just focused on destroying the mosque, she says. The police arrived well after they had been called, by when the rioters had made themselves scarce. 

When they eventually came, they insisted the Muslim families come with them for their own safety. Reluctantly, most decided to go along. Parveen and her family waited in the police station for about an hour when they received a call telling them that the rioters had entered their home and were setting it on fire.

“Was the police made for all of us, or were they designed for religion?” she asked. “What was our fault that they did not help us?” 

Under attack

Even when the police did arrive, said Mursalin, a student whose family was living in one of the four houses behind the mosque, he felt he could not trust them. He and his family had locked themselves in their home, listening as the mob, armed with guns, swords and sticks, started to demolish the mosque. When he saw the police finally, Mursalin said, he mustered up all his courage and went to the balcony, where the police were asking his family to come out. 

Also read: In the Aftermath of Delhi Riots, These Women Rebuilt Their Own Lives and Those of Others’

“The mob was not being dispersed. They were there in those streets and amid that, they asked us to come out. So, I asked the station house officer (SHO) of the Jyotinagar police station whether they could deploy a force to stay with us so we could be protected and the demolition would also be stopped. It would be as simple as that, right?” asked Mursalin.

But this reasonable expectation was not met. Mursalin said the SHO refused both his requests.

Bilkis’s son, 19-year-old Talib, added, “They said to us, do you think we’re just going to stay here for you? We have other places to be.” 

Bilkis, whose house was burnt down. Photo: Devi Dutt/The Wire

Mursalin’s family had three choices. One, they could leave their house. Two, they could trust a handful of policemen to hold off a violent mob and escort them to a police station. Three, they could stay in their locked house. They chose the last option. “A lot of things run across the mind in situations like this,” said Mursalin. “You can go out, taking women and infants with you and if they attack, the police can’t do much.”

When the mob realised that there were Muslims in Mursalin’s home, they began attacking the building. “They broke down the door. We had fled upstairs and we managed to hold them off – they did not know how many people we were,” recalled Mursalin. “They had set a transformer on fire, so the electricity was gone. We were in pitch dark and then they dragged some vehicles in front of the house and set them on fire. All that smoke started filling the house. We were afraid they would take advantage of the dark and the smoke and come upstairs.” 

Mursalin and his family left their home when a neighbour came out and told them to climb onto his roof to escape. When the police came again, the family had no options left. They went with them. 

“We only had our lives left to save,” Mursalin said. “When we came back, there was nothing left but a bed and fridge.” His house had not been set on fire, but it had been looted. Since it was a rented house, the compensation they received for the loss of their property was minimal. 

Also read: Damning Court Observations Raise Serious Questions on Delhi Police’s Riots Probe

Mursalin’s father used to run a general store in the line of shops outside the mosque. When the mosque was attacked, the shops were also looted and set aflame. Mursalin’s mother had lived in Ashok Nagar for 15 years and cannot bring herself to return. The family now lives with his maternal grandmother in Shahdara. “They [my family] think if the neighbours had come together to protect us, none of this would have happened,” said Mursalin.

Others echoed the same view. “They could not have found out where the Muslim houses were without the help of the locals,” said Parveen. 

Talib said, “When we left the thana (police station), the police made us make a video saying that if anything happened to us outside, we were responsible. If an attack on our lives took place, it would be our fault, because we left the station.” 

Police in North East Delhi in the aftermath of the riots. Photo: PTI/Manvendar Vashisht

Outsiders or insiders?

By all accounts, the destruction in Ashok Nagar was caused by unrecognisable ‘outsiders’ in the same way that the destruction in every neighbourhood that had been subjected to violence at that time was blamed on ‘outsiders’. Zafarul Islam Khan, chairman of the Delhi State Minorities Commission, has claimed that nearly 2,000 people had been brought into these neighbourhoods before the riots began, mostly occupying schools as they formed mobs. 

But rightly or wrongly, Muslim residents of these areas also blame the indifference and inaction of their neighbours during the mob action for the loss of their faith in the security of their neighbourhoods.

Of the four Muslim houses in the neighbourhood of the mosque, three were burnt. The last one shared a wall with a Hindu family. The Hindu family asked the mob to spare that house, for fear that their own house would also be damaged and the mob agreed. 

The Hindu residents say they too were scared and helpless in the face of the mob. “We tried to get them to stop for all the houses,” said Jyoti, a Hindu woman who lives in a building sharing a wall with a building occupied by Muslims. “But they didn’t listen. They [the rioters] were not in our pay. We tried to help our Muslim neighbours as much as we could. See, there are only four Muslim houses here. And if they burned, the fire would have spread to our homes as well. The harm would have spread to us, to our children. Isn’t that right? So we did as much as we could.”

Mamta, another Hindu neighbour of the four Muslim families in the lane behind the mosque, said that her husband had also gone out to ask the rioters to stop. She insisted that all the rioters were outsiders and that nobody from within the neighbourhood was involved.

Mamta and a neighbour from the ‘Hindu’ side of the Ashok Nagar lane. Photo: Devi Dutt/The Wire

Jyoti added: “If someone from here did things like this, they would have considered that their homes would also be affected. They [the Muslims] have four families here. All the rest belongs to Hindus. They [the Muslims] are ours only, no [our neighbours]? Whether you think so or not, accept this or not, we understand this. So that is why we helped them as much as we could. My family brought a hosepipe from another neighbour to help douse the flames.”

While Parveen and Mursalin’s Hindu neighbours claim that they helped the four Muslim families as much as they could even though they were powerless to stop the violence, they don’t see the riots as an anti-Muslim event or one that had been spurred by anti-Muslim rhetoric from BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s speech at a pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act rally. 

Also read: Kapil Mishra’s Impunity a Signal of Encouragement to Other Communal Trouble Makers

“This government is anti-Hindu as well,” one Hindu woman laughed. “We also had problems during the lockdown.” 

“And bad things did not just happen to Muslims,” Jyoti interjected. “Even the Mohammedans did things to Hindus. All of us were harmed.” However, her own home, she said, had remained untouched during the mob violence.

Perspectives on the violence, it seems, differ sharply between the Muslims and Hindus in the neighbourhoods where the riots took place. While Parveen, Bilkis and Mursalin said the police took time to arrive after they were informed that the mosque was being attacked and that they did not stay to ensure that the Muslim homes were protected but instead came and went intermittently, Jyoti claimed that the police were very much there. “Why would they not be there?” she asked.

Another woman interjected, “They [the rioters] said they would burn us too,” she says. “When a fire truck arrived, they sent it back, saying they would set fire to that as well.” 

“There was a massive amount of police there,” Jyoti said. “But then there were so many people there. All of them [the rioters] were from outside. It’s very bad what happened to them [the Muslim neighbours].” 

Police stand guard in a riot affected area in New Delhi, India, February 28, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Talib, however, has a different story to relate. “People from this lane were taking part,” he said quietly. “They didn’t break the houses or set them on fire,” he added. “But they took part and they looted. We can’t name anyone because we have to live here and we can’t go anywhere else. But we all know – everyone knows – who was there, who was part of it.” 

Not everyone in the neighbourhood participated in the destruction or even ignored what was happening to the Muslims in the neighbourhood, the young man added. “There were some good people. A Pandit across the road offered us his home as the riots continued. But other people said to him, what if something happens to you? Let them go with the policemen.”

Also read: BJP Plans ‘Rath Yatra’ in Delhi’s Riot-Affected Areas to Seek Donations for Ram Temple

Neighbours in arms

Arshi, who lives in the house adjoining the burnt masjid. Photo: Devi Dutt/The Wire

A week or so ago, cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ echoed through this neighbourhood again, but this time for the purpose of raising money. On the corner down the lane is a billboard calling for donations to the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Before the riots, the Hindu and Muslim communities in Ashok Nagar had lived in peace. But after the riots, everything changed.

“I had to go to school to sit my class XII exams,” said Arshi, Parveen’s daughter. “The girls made offensive comments like, ‘Mulle aa gaye, mulle aa gaye, inhe bhagao yahaan se (the Muslim has come, drive her away from here)’.”

Having lost her textbooks, school uniform, shoes and identity card in the fire that consumed her home, Arshi had a difficult time with her exams.

Talib said much the same thing. Young people in the neighbourhood taunted them, he said. They told him, “Look, a riot has happened here. If you say anything faltu (nonsensical), it will happen again.”

Anifa. Photo: Devi Dutt/The Wire

From most accounts, Ashok Nagar had never had a history of animosity between Hindus and Muslims. But Anifa, Arshi’s grandmother, who has lived in the neighbourhood for a long time, does remember an older episode of communal violence. 

“In 1984, the same thing happened to the Sardars,” she said, recalling how she had witnessed a Sikh man who lived in their lane being beaten up immediately after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. 

“There used to be a lot more Muslims living in this area before 1984, but they all left,” Anisa said. “They thought, what if the people here beat us up the way they beat the Sikhs?”

Despite repeated attempts by The Wire to contact senior police officers in the neighbourhood, none of them were available to discuss the allegations made by Ashok Nagar residents.