New Delhi: Around noon on February 25, a group of Hindus and Muslims were engaged in a pitched battle against one another in the Hindu-dominated area of Brijpuri. 43-year-old Mohammed Ajmeri’s footwear store was being attacked with stones by the Hindu mob, which held the upper hand in the melee.
He pleaded with folded hands to spare his shop, but the mob did not relent. “One of them first pointed a pistol at me and then fired at the top floor of my building,” he told us when we met him at his house. Ajmeri ran for his life.
He returned a few hours later, just in time to see his life’s work, his occupation and his primary means of supporting his extended family go up in smoke.
“The shop was set on fire at 5 PM in the evening. I saw it with my own eyes. They first opened the shutters, looted the shoes and wood panels and then set fire. I had no insurance for the goods that were inside the store or the building. Everything I had, I invested in it,” he says, only breaking down towards the end of the interview.
Ajmeri’s footwear store was located on the first two floors of his five floor building, while the rest were occupied by tenants. It was among the very few shops owned by Muslims in this Hindu-dominated area and would have clearly stood out as perhaps the most high-end retail store in the area.
The insides of the building are now a smoking mess, filled with rubble, soot and dust. The top floors of his shop are deeply scorched, as if by a dragon, and marked by holes made by bullets and stones.
Ajmeri’s store is just one of many that have been ravaged on a two kilometre stretch of road that comes just after Signature Bridge, off the left hand side of the Wazirabad highway. The road runs through key areas of riot-hit North East Delhi, including Mustafabad and Shiv Vihar, which have seen among the worst of the violence in the riots.
This ten-metre wide road, referred to by local residents as both Brijpuri marg and Mustafabad main road, is home to hundreds of eclectic small and medium-sized businesses. General stores, juice shops, pharmacies, clothing and footwear boutiques and even motorcycle showrooms.
In good times, the road serves as an unofficial ‘commercial’ border for multiple neighbourhoods – Chand Bagh, Mustafabad, Karawal Nagar – that have become hotspots over communal riots that initially began as a face-off between those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and those supporting it.
In the last week though, it has become a microcosm of the devastating economic toll that the North East Delhi riots have exacted.
Shop-owners throughout this road, who depend on daily sales to make ends meet, now speak of potentially crippling losses. Most haven’t dared to open their businesses since last Monday (February 24), with only a handful doing so on Thursday evening, emboldened by the presence of local police and regular patrols being conducted by Rapid Action Force (RAF) officers.
The road opens up first into the Brijpuri section of the area, which is Hindu-dominated locality. The neighbourhood does contain a small mosque and locals are quick to point out the few gallis or lanes populated by Muslim families – often without even asking – but most business owners view this as ‘Hindu territory’.
“For three days sir there was a total mob. They came with petrol bombs.. The Muslims from across the nallah [Brijpuri canal] came here and damaged property. We called the ‘100’ line, they kept saying they are coming but did not show up,” says Deepak Bansal, 38, who owns a small, 100-square-feet ‘disposables’ shop that sells everything from plastic plates to specialised packaging material.
Bansal, whose business earns a paltry Rs 500 a day in sales, is the sole wage- earner for his family. Even a day’s loss of business is harsh, and with two children in school, he has one eye on the bleak future.
Astar Ali, 48, owns a small dhaba that serves korma and dal sabzi just ten metres down the road from Bansal and is more guarded in his interaction with this reporter.
Ali and his brother run the dhaba together, with both their families relying on the Rs 500 a day each of them earn on average.
“We have not been able to open up since Monday because of the violence. But now things are slightly better since Ajit Doval came to the area,” he said referring to the visit of national security advisor Ajit Doval to riot affected areas on Wednesday.
Ali repeats to us several times that his shop and his home exist in a Hindu dominated area and he has never felt any threat of any kind, not even during last week’s violence.
Muslim shops clearly targeted
At least three residents and shop-owners that The Wire spoke to in the Brijpuri section repeatedly pointed out how they didn’t allow the mob to attack Muslim-owned businesses in this part of the road, stressing in their conversations how they went to great lengths to protect their bretheren.
How true is this though? Barely a hundred metres down the road though from Bansal’s shop, lies Ajmeri’s burnt five-story building, whose smouldering ruins speak of a totally opposite narrative.
Ajmeri’s decision to invest a little over Rs 1 crore in 2015 and build and operate a business in the Hindu-dominated part of Brijpuri was vigorously opposed by his daughter, who believed that no good would come of it. A tragic warning that came true five years later.
For Ajmeri, the process of re-building will be equally brutal. He and his extended family currently owe over Rs 15 lakh by the end of March to wholesalers in Karol Bagh from whom he sources the raw material and goods for his footwear business.
Initial estimates by the Delhi Chamber of Commerce project that the total economic cost of the violence last week will add up to nearly Rs 25,000 crore.
Advertisements put out by the Arvind Kejriwal government on Saturday morning promised compensation of up to Rs 5 lakh for uninsured commercial units. By this standard of redressal though, Ajmeri will need a miracle to make his payments.
While the businesses on either side of his footwear shop were closed when this reporter visited the area, they curiously appeared to be largely unscathed. When asked how only his business was set on fire – and whether this means that some within the mob likely knew him personally – Ajmeri merely nods in the affirmative, saying very little out loud.
His daughter Ujma, who is equal parts distraught and furious, says far more.
“Everyone told father not to open the shop in a Hindu area. But he said it would be safe, that these Hindus are our friends. But what happened? They climbed on the top floor. They looted. And they set everything on fire,” she says in short, punctuated bursts.
Her mother, Ajmeri’s wife, is largely silent and depressed and has refused to eat for the last three days.
Down the road
The 2011 Census says that North East Delhi, the poorer parts of which are dense and tightly-packed colonies, is home to over 22 lakh people. The majority of the population is Hindu, at 68.22%, while 29.34% is Muslim.
There are no clearly demarcated zones that imply one neighbourhood is Muslim-dominated or full of Hindus, but locals nevertheless intimately understand the borders of their territories.
Around 100 metres after Ajmeri’s shop, down the same road, comes the mangled and burnt Arun Modern School. The stinking and rotting Brijpuri canal comes just ten metres after the school and marks the beginning of the Muslim-majority Mustafabad area.
The businesses just past the canal are in far worse condition. The closed shutters of a damaged small business, which apparently once offered tax consultancy services, now read “No GST” along with the omnipresent ‘No CAA-NRC’ slogans written in red paint.
Just past it is a burnt shell of a building that once housed a pharmacy store. Its shelves have all been emptied out, plaintly looted, but whether for emergency medical supplies or to be sold in Delhi’s black market is not clear.
This road, the same that leads from the Brijpuri section but is referred to as Mustafabad main road in this part, is uneven and littered with bricks, matchboxes and pieces of paper. The atmosphere is heavier here too, filled with dust.
By this reporter’s estimate, one in every five businesses on the Mustafabad stretch – which continues for about 700 metres before entering the Karawal Nagar’s Shiv Vihar stretch – is either charred or damaged in some manner.
There appears to be no method to the madness based on which that rioters decided which businesses would live and which would be destroyed. For instance, in one section, several small structures on the right side of the road, which appear to have been car battery stores and godowns, have been completely gutted by fire. And yet, just ten metres down the road on the left, a proper grocery store with a signboard that says ‘Khan Mart’ has been left completely untouched.
Residents of this area are more cautious and reluctant to speak, not venturing out of their densely packed gallis; preferring instead to watch from the small and deserted entrances of their alleys.
62-year-old Mohammed Ali, who is sitting down on a chair at the intersection of one of these lanes, is in a pensive mood.
“I own 4 shops, two of them sell confectionery items while two of them sell joote. They make around Rs 1,000 a day per shop in terms of sales. I have closed them all since Monday,” says Ali, while gesturing to his nearby businesses.
He claims that he, along with elders of the area, prevented the young Muslim men who had taken to violence from damaging Hindu shops and temples in the Muslim dominated area.
“See there are two Hindu shops here. We ensured that they remained untouched,” he said pointing at the shops.
Ali concedes there is toxic communal poison in the air. “There is no doubt that there is hatred and fear among both communities at the moment,” he said.
He lays the blame squarely at the door of Kapil Mishra, who gave an inflammatory speech a day before violence broke out.”There is no way that this violence would have happened had Kapil Mishra not said those words,” he said.
Demolished Hindu shops
The last section of this now haunted two-kilometre road begins just past a three-story-tall Hero Motorcorp showroom, which is where the Shiv Vihar Tiraha area of Karawal Nagar starts.
While the motorcycle store is fine, although it too is closed for business, the rest of the stretch looks like a war zone. The buildings look like they have suffered crippling damage – the kind where it may make more economic sense to raze whatever is left to the ground before building a new structure. The street is littered with burnt-out cars and vehicles that are used to transport cars.
At the very end of the road is a jaw-dropping shell of what used to be a vibrant car garage. Its entrance has been burnt to a crisp and its inside is filled with grey, snow-like dirt; the kind that is produced when metal and wood are burned together.
The owner of this building is Veerender Singh, who also owns six surrounding shops, all of which have been destroyed. While the building now houses over a hundred burnt cars, it was once a banquet hall. Six months ago, it was converted to a makeshift garage which would charge a Rs 30-Rs 40 for people to park their cars.
“It’s too soon to assess the economic cost of the damage,” he said and paused, “or to process that this happened.”
“This was a border area. One side Muslim and the other side Hindu. But we had always co-existed. Don’t know what happened to them [the Muslims]. Where so much anger came from,” he said.
He lives in Karawal Nagar about a kilometre away and his home is intact. He doesn’t know what his next steps are going to be.
“Right now there is a wedding in the family. I want to focus on that and not let this loss spoil the moment. I will assess what has happened after the wedding,” Singh told The Wire in an interview.
It is unclear what exactly happened here, as Singh was not on the scene when it was burnt. A few bystanders, including one police officer, speculate that petrol bombs may have been dropped by a mob from nearby buildings. Whether this was done in defence by Muslim victims, or on purpose by a mob, is unclear.
The road after Singh’s businesses curves and splits in two different directions. To the left, lies a large Hanuman Mandir, and to the right, a muddy path filled with more wrecked buildings.
A public spirited individual on a motorcycle recommends that we take the muddy path and report on the several homes that have been burnt in that area. “The damage you see here will pale in comparison,” he says.