Living with the Mob: In Shiv Vihar, Were Local Rioters Paid to Target Muslims?

Outsiders or neighbours, sponsored or spontaneous, one year after the communal violence in North-East Delhi, Hindus and Muslims have starkly differing views of who the perpetrators were and who the victims.

New Delhi: “Pradeep and I were like brothers,” Sameer said. “We used to go out and eat together and he used to eat from my plate.

When Pradeep owed Sameer Rs 5,000, it didn’t bother Sameer. The money was in the family, as it were. They would square it eventually.

But on Tuesday, February 25, 2020, Sameer, hiding from a mob, watched his friend set houses on fire.

That morning, as Sameer had returned from Seemapuri to Shiv Vihar in his auto, a group of about 30 men started chasing him near the samshan ghat (crematorium) at Gokulpuri nala (canal). Panicked, he looked for a hiding place, but when no road seemed safe, he finally abandoned the auto and ran inside a building where he knew a fellow Muslim lived, three doors down from his own house. He huddled on a small balcony on the third floor and peered through a railing as a mob rampaged through the streets below.

An auto driver, Sameer also worked as a painter and plasterer and Pradeep, who lived nearby, was a colleague. They spent a lot of time together, Sameer said. If one of them got a job, he called the other. They had been working together for nearly three years.

Sameer, Shiv Vihar.

“He used to drink and smoke in his uncle’s house,” Sameer said. “He had been part of so much gundagardi (hooliganism) even before the riots that his father made him live in a separate house and couldn’t get him married even though he is over 30 years old.”

Sameer sounded bitter as he described his former friend, though none of this had bothered him before.

That afternoon as he sat in someone else’s house, watching the mob run through the streets, he instantly recognised Pradeep among the rioters. “He was breaking up bricks and giving them to other people to throw and throwing them himself. I thought, okay, everyone is doing some patharbazi (stone throwing) and he is caught up in that, so what,” Sameer recalled.

But as twilight began to creep in, he said, he saw a white Gypsy jeep pull up to the top of the road. In the thin light, as the mob walked towards the vehicle, Sameer saw 20-odd gas cylinders in the bed of the jeep, along with crates filled with bottles and canisters of petrol. Then, he said, he saw the mob breaking down the doors of houses on the street, running inside to drag out anything of value, then tossing lighted bottles of petrol into the houses and watching the fires burn.

Pradeep was one of the arsonists. “I know he did it because I went and talked to him about it later,” said Sameer.

‘The Muslims had a plan’

Gali #12 in Shiv Vihar ends at Madeena Masjid and starts a few minutes away from the main Karawal Nagar road, near the Hanuman Mandir Marg bridge. Most of the Hindus in this lane live near the temple. Most of the Muslims live near the mosque. The whole street takes ten minutes to traverse at most, with gates at intersections.

“The Muslims knew what was going to happen before it happened. They had a plan,” alleged Kanta Goswami, speaking of February 24, 2020, though she was not entirely certain of the date.

“Our men had gone to work, we were at home, nobody was here. Then we were told that there was a lot of fighting near the schools, near DRP school,” she said.

There are two schools in the area – the DRP Secondary School and the Rajdhani school. The first is a convent school run by a Hindu, Pankaj Sharma. The second is run by a Muslim, Faisal Farooque.

“In the morning, Muslim parents went to the school and demanded to take their children back with them. Though the teachers asked why, they (the Muslim parents) started to pull their children out of their classes, saying, ‘Give us our children, give us our children,’” Kanta said.

Also read: Delhi 2020, the Real Conspiracy: What the Police Chose Not to See

Kanta’s granddaughter, seven-year-old Jagriti Goswami, said: “Some of my Muslim school friends told us, today our parents will come to take us home early.”

“They knew it before,” said Ritu, Kanta’s daughter-in-law.

“Rajdhani school is right next to our school. When we saw the news, they told us there were catapults and bombs there. The Mohommedans had taken them there,” said Jagriti. One large-sized iron catapult was found to have been installed on the terrace of the Rajdhani school, according to the prosecution in the case against the school’s owner.

A mob followed shortly after.

“I won’t lie, nothing happened to my house,” Kanta said. “In this lane the houses were not touched, we all stood on the roofs.”

The property damage in the area began with two parking garages being set on fire. Members of both faiths had used the service and both sustained commensurate damage.

“The Hindus came out to protect their houses. If they had not done that, even these houses would not have been safe,” said Kanta. “The police were there in large numbers. There were army forces also. But they [the mob] had so many people throwing stones at the police, they could not do anything.”

Divya, Kanta’s other daughter-in-law, added: “The military (sic) was also stationed here later. The day Trump [the then US president, Donald Trump] was there [February 24], there was no military. But the next day they came. That night we didn’t sleep. If they hadn’t come who knows what they [the mob] would have done.”

‘I recognised some people’

Very little was left of Shiv Vihar’s Madeena Masjid after the mob had its way with it.

Mainuddin, a caretaker, was inside the masjid when the mob arrived. They broke down the door, he remembered. There was a grill inside the mosque, which they broke, after which they threw burning plastic into the rooms. He said they used welding tools to tear down the gates.

He was on the roof of the masjid when he felt the walls shake with a blast. The mob had exploded at least two gas cylinders on the ground floor.

These were cylinders that had been brought into the area. “It was all planned,” the masjid’s imam, Haji Hashim Ali, said. “These were people from Shiv Vihar, not outsiders. The ones I did not recognise might have been from outside, but I recognised some and they live here.”

‘No slogans were raised’

Sudha had a shop right next to the masjid, where she sold samosas and chai. Her family owned an autorickshaw which was lost in the fire.

“I can’t say who was throwing bricks. They had helmets on, so I could not say who they were,” she said about the day the riots began.

One of the few Hindus in this area to have personally suffered property damage, Sudha said the mob broke some things and looted others.

She claimed that there were absolutely no slogans being raised at that time – which is curious, given that the destruction of her shop happened at the same time and the same place as the destruction of the Madeena Masjid.

Waqil, Shiv VIhar.

Meanwhile, Waqil, who lived on the other side of the mosque, was hiding in his home while the mob was outside. When he looked out of his second-floor window to see if it was safe to leave, a glass bottle hit him in the face, blinding him with acid. He heard chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

Also read: A Year After the Delhi Violence, a Letter to Our Friends in Jail

“The police gave us a lot of protection,” Sudha said. “The police gave us so much protection that for a few months afterwards, we lived on their strength. Nobody else had come, out of fear, but a few of us remained. They reassured us, told us, don’t go anywhere, stay here.”

Now, said Sudha, she feels as though the Muslims in the area laugh at her. But she cannot articulate why.

‘They’ll kill him if he names who killed his brother’

Nizamuddin had been at a wedding in Uttar Pradesh on February 25, 2020, but when he heard that their house was at risk of being looted, he had hurried back with his brother Jamaluddin, picking up a lock along the way to protect their house.

Minutes before they could reach their house, a mob stopped them. By the time the mob was done with them, Jamaluddin was dead, one of 40 Muslims who perished in the violence.

Nazish, Jamaluddin’s widow, said Nizamuddin knows who killed his brother. “But he won’t tell me, he won’t tell any of us, because he says they’ll kill him if he does,” she said.

‘The mob hit both Hindus and Muslims’

On the day of the riots, Ram Ratan, who lives near Gali #14, had been out on the streets, looking for his daughter who had gone missing. “Woh lapete marte rahe, chahe Hindu ho ya Musalman (They were hitting people regardless of whether they were Hindu or Muslim),” he said of the mob.

He added: “There were mostly Muslims on the streets.”

As he spoke about February 25, 2020, he got heated. “There were no slogans,” he said. “There were bodies dragged out of the nalas here, from cars. There were both Hindus and Muslims, but mostly Hindus.” A total of 12 Hindus were killed in the violence. In addition, a Hindu police officer died of injuries while battling a mob.

Ehsaan, Shiv Vihar.

From Ratan’s perspective, the violence was started by outsiders and when they left, the locals, ‘being prey to a false impression’ – galat fehmi ke shikaar – fought each other.

Ratan, however, says he was not involved in any fights and did not sustain any injuries. He was just searching for his daughter.

“The police did as much as they could,” he said. “They stopped the fighting, put out fires, helped all the poor, those who had lost their homes, asked other people to help if they could not.”

‘Not a single policeman came for hours’

Behind the masjid, as a young woman dutifully listed the items in her house that had been looted, a wedding baraat (procession) passed by, with a groom decked out in garlands of currency notes.

Watching the procession, Ehsaan said, “The Muslims in this neighbourhood lost everything.”

Ehsaan has lived here for 25 years, working with the mosque. “The Hindus here live freely; they have no fear or terror. There are people who come in the night, drunk, stand behind the mosque and shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They insult us and leave,” he said. “[In the riots,] the outsiders may have been 10, 20, 50 people, but the majority of them were from here. And the people who do this kind of thing now are also from here.”

Ehsaan says that since they filed a complaint at the police station about the drunken taunts, it has not happened again.

Jamil, Shiv Vihar.

Only a week earlier, said Jamil Ahmed, a former tailor, he had been walking down the street in the evening when he overtook a Hindu man. As he walked ahead, the man called him back. “Do you know who I am?” he said. Jamil said no, realising the man was inebriated. “You don’t know me,” the man said. “I will cut you up and throw you in the nala.”

Also read: Delhi Riots: In Maujpur, Compensation Paid To Shopkeepers Is Only Fraction of Their Claims

Jamil said the man lives perhaps three or four lanes ahead of him.

Many Muslim members of the community say that it seems the Hindus of the neighbourhood believe they can taunt Muslims with impunity. “Whatever comes to their minds, they say,” Ehsaan said. “We have to take it. We do not say anything, we just bear it. Because see, the police here, the law, it’s not with us. Which is why we have to stay silent. If this law was with us, even we could lift our heads and speak. It’s why we have to be silent. If the law was with us, why would there be riots here? After everything that happened here, not a single policeman came for hours.”

‘Hindus loot, but Muslims kill,’ says local BJP leader

Dekho, Hindu ke mohalle mein reh rahe hai Mohmeddan (See, the Muslims are living in the Hindus’ area),” said Anil Pandiya, a real estate broker and BJP adhyaksh (community leader) in Shiv Vihar.

Hinduon mein kya rehta hai, Hinduon mein ek cheez rehti hai, ya mat maro kisi ko. Loot lo bas. Maron mat, loot lo. Hinduon ka woh rehti, Musalman rehti toh maar doh aur loot bhi lo (One thing which is important to Hindus is that you don’t kill anyone. Just loot them. Don’t kill them, loot them. Hindus believe that, but Muslims believe that you kill and loot as well),” he explained.

In Pandiya’s worldview, Hindus and Muslims should live together peacefully. But he has a condition attached – it can only be done if they live together ‘nicely’. “Imagine – if a Hindu was living in a Muslims’ area and if they picked up your children and threw them [in a nala]. Like Ankit Sharma. Tahir Hussain was with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Why did he [Tahir] kill him [Ankit]?”

Ankit Sharma was an Intelligence Bureau officer whose corpse had been found in a nala during the Delhi riots. Tahir Hussain, an erstwhile AAP councillor, is the main accused in the case.

Sharma’s brother gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal where he said that the rioters outside his house had been chantingJai Shri Ram’ – a quote he later retracted after furious campaigning against the report by the Hindutva brigade. The newspaper, however, still stands by the report.

Pandiya continued: “I have no animosity against Muslims, of course. We all have the same gods and we’ve given them different names. We should all live together in peace.”

In the riots that took place last February, Pandiya said, Hindus were far more badly hit than Muslims in Shiv Vihar.

The riots certainly did affect Hindu property, but reports have conclusively stated that the bulk of the material impact – potentially more than 80% – was borne by Muslims.

When pressed for more detail, he said that an ironsmith who lived by the bridge had had his hut burnt down. “A Hindu wouldn’t do this, no?” Anil Pandiya. “I just want a Mohammedan also to not do this. To live in peace.”

‘You can’t do anything’

After the riots, Sameer met his friend Pradeep again and asked: “Why were you part of that? Why were you burning down those houses?”

Pradeep had seemed contrite, Sameer recalled. Pradeep said he hadn’t realised Sameer’s house had been nearby; that he’d been paid to do it, so he had done it. It was a mistake.

“Pradeep told me that they were giving money to the boys and saying you have to kill and beat Muslims, so he also went there,” said Sameer.

Riot victims have alleged in their complaints that one of the patrons of the rioters was Jagdish Pradhan, the BJP MLA from Mustafabad who, just before the riots, had lost the election to the AAP’s Haji Yunus. At least three complaints filed with the Delhi police during the riots said that the rioters attacking Muslims had been chanting ‘Jagdish Pradhan Zindabad’ and at least one of the rioters had been heard saying that ‘Jagdish Pradhan’s orders were to get rid of Muslims’.

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

When Sameer filed an FIR about the events of the day in which he named Pradeep among other people he had known in the mob, the police refused to accept it, he says. Instead, they made him file a report with generic details on the violence which was added to other complaints and processed in bulk.

Sameer said he then spoke to a journalist who helped him file the FIR again, complete with the names of the people he had seen participating in the violence. Finally, Pradeep was picked up and taken to the police station.

A few days later, when Pradeep returned, he confronted Sameer. According to Sameer, after threatening him, Pradeep told him that the money that he had borrowed from Sameer – some Rs 5,000 – would be returned to Sameer with love, if he kept Pradeep’s name out of the investigation. But if Sameer continued to name Pradeep as one of the people involved in the mob, he wouldn’t get his money back because Sameer was the reason Pradeep had had to shell out money at the police station.

“But it was my money,” Sameer said.

“What are you going to do about it?” Pradeep said to Sameer. “You can’t do anything.”