North East Delhi: As Relief Volunteers, Locals Set Example, Govt Remains Conspicuous by its Absence

Compassion is not dead in the riot affected areas. Where communities are willing to work together to rebuild what has been lost, all that is wanting is coordination.

New Delhi: The first time I saw a Sikh speaking fluent Tamil was in early 2005 in Tamil Nadu.

That is one of the reasons I still remember Gagandeep Bedi, the then collector of Cuddalore, who coordinated rescue, relief, and rehabilitation efforts in his district in the wake of the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami that hit several countries in South and South-East Asia.

I was a relief and rehabilitation volunteer at the time, and I remember Bedi chairing weekly meetings with representatives of the various NGOS who had converged in Cuddalore, streamlining their efforts and giving them the support that they needed.

I also remember him being quick to call out dodgy NGOs but giving space to those who were doing good work on the ground. 

Ten days after the violence first erupted, I walked through the streets of Shiv Vihar, one of the areas worst affected by the violence in North East Delhi and wondered why the relief operations there felt so different from my experience in Cuddalore 15 years ago.

Then, everyone, even a newcomer like me, knew that the place to go to for information or help was the district collector’s office. 

True, that was a natural disaster, and this was man-made violence, but that is all the more reason to have a visible, hands on, communicative and accessible coordinating body on the ground – something only the administration is able to provide, having a sense of the larger picture and specific requirements at the same time. 

The residents of Shiv Vihar and its surrounding localities, however, have not been so lucky. Both the victims and the NGOs trying to provide relief are having to find their own way forward without the help that an alert and responsive administration can provide.

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Just off one of the main streets in Shiv Vihar, not far from the Babu Nagar crossing, is a banner that reads ‘Citizen’s Collective for Peace – Medical and Legal Relief Camp’.

A young PhD student volunteering there says, “We have a lot of relief supplies. What we really need is people on the ground to distribute it, and people to figure out where it needs to go.” Ideally, that is a role the administration ought to be playing. 

There are many such stories. Just across the street from where the Citizen’s Collective is camped, there is a volunteers’ medical camp of sorts operating out of a small school. I ask Danish, one of the young men running it, as to what is needed the most immediately. He is kind enough to draw me a map of the area and show me where the most affected families are.

“These people can’t live in tents any longer. It rained and the ground is muddy and wet. We need to urgently get people off the makeshift relief site and into temporary pakka houses or halls till such time as they can find more permanent accommodation.”

A student from Jamia accompanying has a good suggestion:

“Schools are closed till March 31 as measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps the Delhi government can allow some of these families to stay in some of the sarkari schools in the area.”

It’s a good idea. I call someone who knows someone in the AAP government to consider the option.

One wonders why this idea did not come from the administration, experienced as it is in handling such situations.

We leave the crowded main street and head into the innards of Shiv Vihar. A young man called Shoaib offers me a ride on his motorbike, driving through a labyrinth of galis and mohallas, squeezing his bike through piles of rubble.

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He takes me to the Taiyyab mosque which has been blackened by fire but is still standing. Everything inside is burnt to soot. The smell of ashes and burnt wood is strong. Several other houses on this street are also gutted.

An eerie stillness envelops the lane. 

The people on this street, predominantly Muslim, are in a state of shock. They look dazed. Having lived together with their Hindu neighbours for over 25 years they just cannot understand the sheer brutality of the violence wreaked on them.

All they know is people with helmets and masks descended on them and set fire to their houses and shops – not once, not twice, but three times, and over three days. 

It is very obvious that one of the most urgent tasks at hand is to see that the relations between the two communities are not permanently scarred. If ever a healing touch was required anywhere, it is here.

In fact, in the midst of the most barbaric acts of inhumanity that Shiv Vihar has witnessed, there have been the most amazing displays of courage and humanity. This need to be acknowledged, shared and lauded, just to show that human goodness is alive and well even in the face of the worst kind of hatred and evil.

Sunil, for example, is a biryani seller who saved the lives of 30 people by putting himself between a mob of a few hundred attackers and the Muslim families in his neighbourhood. He also stopped the mosque we are standing in front of, from being completely gutted. 

Right opposite the Taiyyab mosque is a house on whose front door is written “Sunil” and “Jai Shri Ram’. I ask him what that’s about. 

He says, “That’s Imam saheb’s house. The day the mob came, I quickly painted my name and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on it so they would leave it alone.”

In awe of his courage, I ask him, “In your opinion, what is the first thing that needs to be done here?”

He says, “We need to repair this mosque so that my Muslim friends can offer namaz here again.” 

Shoaib’s voice breaks as he tells me that the one thing that has hurt him the most is the attitude of some of the people in his community who have been telling him not to interact with or trust people from “the other religion”.

The fact that there are voices like Sunil and Shoaib in the midst of such madness is heartening; now it is for the Delhi government to show it is committed to communal harmony.

We are joined by three gentlemen who have come from Mumbai. One is a dentist, the second is a lawyer, and the third is a sales executive. They are friends. The three of them have collected ten tons worth of relief materials in Mumbai and trucked them down to Delhi.

They were children during the violence in Mumbai following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, but nearly three decades later, the pain of displacement is still fresh in their minds. They are going from door to door, talking to the victims and helping in whichever way they can. 

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After being conspicuous by its absence during the first few days of the violence in north east Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government has roused itself.

But one spoke to nearly one hundred persons across Karawal Nagar, Shiv Vihar, Babu Nagar, Mustafabad or New Mustafabad who have lost houses, shops or property or have had to flee their homes, and they all say they have not had a visit from any government official. 

There is no dearth of compassion and goodness in the hearts of people who want to help. 

Good Samaritans are everywhere, but what is sorely needed at the moment is coordination and infrastructural support, which only the government can effectively provide, given the scale and brutality of the violence, the number of lives lost and the destruction of homes, business establishments and mosques. 

One hopes that the Delhi government will rapidly close the gap between its efforts and the needs of the victims on the ground.

The sooner it sets clear and visible systems of response, relief and rehabilitation in place, the better. It is imperative that as residents of Delhi and citizens of India we prevail upon our elected representatives to actually do what they pride themselves on –delivering last mile services to every last person whose life has been devastated by violence. 

It is even more important that the AAP government does everything in its power to restore and rebuild the social fabric of north east Delhi which has been so brutally ripped through calculated acts of communal violence.

The question is, does it want to?

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at [email protected].