Months After the Delhi Riots, Many Victims Still Have Memories of Collective Horror

During our conversations with Muslims who faced targeted violence in Shiv Vihar, Bhajanpura, Jaffarabad and Shahdhara areas, they expressed a sense of resentment and felt the state failed to protect or rehabilitate them.

Ghar banwaye, kiraya de ya khana khayein? Ya toh ek mar jayega ya ek aur attack ho jayega (Should we remake our broken homes now, pay higher rent or manage to get food? Either one would be dead doing all this, or be dead from another mob attack),” says a sobbing Pari, sitting on the debris of her broken home that was burnt down by a violent mob on February 24, 2020.

Pari’s is one of the many families who lost their homes in the targeted violence against Muslim households across the narrow lanes of Shiv Vihar, Bhajanpura, Jaffarabad and other parts of North-Eastern Delhi. Eight months since the violence wreaked havoc on their lives and destroyed their means of subsistence, we spoke to members of grieving families who returned to their homes after escaping. Stories of women like Pari, Rukhsar, Haya and the condition of their families continue to reflect a sense of utter helplessness, and a life that is marked by a constant state of fear and communal tension.

Many people we spoke to still don’t understand what happened or triggered the violence. Asiff, a man in his 50s who lives with his only daughter in Shiv Vihar, says:

“I have been living here for more than 35 years and I have never seen anything like this before. There was communal harmony between Hindu-Muslim households always and there was never any animosity between the neighbours too, irrespective of their caste or religion.”

Breaking down while speaking, Asiff adds, “Within no time, our entire area was engulfed in a thick fire and dense black smoke that made it impossible for anyone to breathe… The smoke stayed in the air for weeks after the violence ended.

“My entire house was looted with all our clothes, my dead wife’s jewellery was stolen,” he said, showing us his broken cupboard.

We asked Asiff it was an external mob that caused the actual violence or was involved in the looting and burning down of houses (as the home minister said in his parliament address). He described this as a “plain lie” that is being sold. He adds:

“It was clear who the mob was targeting… When the mob came here (the lanes of Shiv Vihar) they burnt down houses that were owned by Muslim families. Wherever Muslims were staying on rent (in Hindu owned homes), these houses were either left alone or were looted. If you observe closely, none of those were burnt down (or even looted). How could any external mob know who stays where and who owns which house?”

These observations were reiterated by others.

Haya, a resident in her late 20s in Bhajanpura, cries, as she musters the courage to speak. “They took all my jewellery, our hard-earned money, and our clothes as well. They didn’t even spare our children’s clothes. Our mobile van was burnt down as well”. Pari, who stays close to Haya, continues to narrate her harrowing story and how she dodged an iron rod that was thrown by a masked man. It ended up hitting her relative instead. Her husband, Hashim, worked as a street vendor selling boiled eggs before the violence. It took him decades to build the house that he saw being set on fire.

Mohammed Shamshad and his wife Sannu Begam in an under-construction house at
Shiv Vihar (Phase-7) in North East Delhi on September 22, 2020. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

Kabir who lives in Old Gari Mendu Village (in Shahdara), one of the worst affected areas during the violence, recalls how he and his wife had to run away with their 2-month-old daughter to find a place where they could hide when the mob arrived. “The masked mob kept shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as they kept throwing petrol bombs and burning whatever they could find in ‘Muslim-owned houses and business shops’.”

Each affected family still continues to be in a state of absolute shock.

Also Read: Muslims in Northeast Delhi Sell Homes Below Market Rate to Escape ‘Continuing Harassment’

The systematic targeting of a religious minority resulted in the deaths of at least 53 people, injuring more than 400 people, apart from causing large-scale destruction of private property, homes, shops and markets. That the violence occurred in the national capital region of Delhi signalled a conscious intent to proliferate communal tensions and spread a psychosis of fear to other cities, making an already polarised-social landscape even more precarious. This was the worst communal incident to hit the nation’s capital since the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

For worse, the violence has validated and normalised a culture of institutive impunity to incentivise mobs, rioters, shooters in practising brutish violence, with explicit approval from the state and its agents (in this case the police on the ground).

Riswana Parveen and her husband Mohammed Hussain pose in front of
their house at Old Garhi Mendu village, Shahdara in Northeast Delhi. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

When asked what the state and Central administrations have done since February to provide relief or rehabilitate those who lost their houses, business-shops and other belongings, each person’s response evokes even lesser hope.

Asiff says:

“I tried to submit all the records to claim compensation for loss in property but haven’t received anything from the state administration. Despite the SDM (sub-district magistrate) promising relief for everyone affected, less than 30-40% of families have actually received any money or support. When we go to his office now, his staff keeps saying there is no money available to offer relief… The pandemic, it seems, has made our lives even worse.” 

Pari adds:

“Not even social organisations who visited our houses, promising aid and support have come out to help the affected. We have been left to manage everything on our own. Some of us borrowed excessively from relatives and others while returning to Delhi and are not sure if we can even return this borrowed money… Debt is eating us up.”

Hashim adds it is extremely difficult for the street businesses to pick up as local consumer demand continues to be weak in the area.

A field-researchers inquired, “How do you see the role of the police in all this?” On hearing the question, most of the respondents’ faces turned red with anger and expressed a deep-seated resentment.

Kabir still asks and wonders why the police failed to handle the situation well in time.

Also Read: Delhi Riots: Accused Mock Victim for His Faith in the Law; Police Fail to Act

But ‘impunity’ is a vague term.

Its vagueness resides in the subtle tension between what it suggests and what it hides. Jorge Vinuales’ conceptual illustration of what it means is a useful start. Impunity, according to Vinuales, can be understood as “the absence, or inadequacy of penalties and/or compensation for massive and grave violations of the human rights of individuals or groups of individuals…” This definition in a broader context of international law, is applicable to not only civil and political rights, but also to economic, social and cultural rights, and collective/communal rights.

An institutive form of impunity may extend this very definition to one, where, institutions of the state (via police), or those to check powers of the state (judiciary), may themselves be seen responsible for creating a social, political scenario for impunitive actions to be allowed or enabled by individuals, or a group of individuals.

A very disturbing account of Zakir (from Bhajanpura) emerges here, as he told us:

“I saw the SHO of the police getting a call from a local political leader… I heard him speaking loudly in front of me, as he said, ‘Koi nahi sir ji, aaj ek bhi katulla nahi bachega.’ (Don’t worry sir, not even a single circumcised man would be spared today.) How could anyone expect that we would get any help from the police.”

Asiff adds:

“When we went to report the damage done to a local police station, as most members of state-administration advised us to do so after the violence stopped, the local police were rounding up anyone who was there, saying they are the actual perpetrators who caused the violence. Are we the ‘perpetrators’ or the ‘victims’?” 

Cars that were burn during the violence. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

Rehabilitating selves

When asked how the affected families are rehabilitating themselves now and trying to get their ‘normal’ lives back, most were grateful for whatever little help they could find from local organisations, NGOs and community-based aid support that was made available. It was hardly enough to manage one’s subsistence, but at least there was some help on offer. Salman, from Jaffarabad, says, “How long could we have lived in someone’s else’s house in fear, even if they are our relatives? We needed to come back and try to begin our lives somewhere.”

Though, the initial thought of returning to their houses and shops in Delhi startled them with horror. Ahmed says:

“There has been no work since the violence. Everything of mine was destroyed. Adding to that, the pandemic and the lockdown’s damage on business has almost made it impossible for us to recover. It will take years now.”

Most affected families are now living with high debt and have taken loans in cash (or through other informal sources) to rebuild their broken homes and restart their businesses. Many like Asiff, who didn’t have a permanent job before, find it difficult to last on a frugal pension under the current circumstances. Pari and Haya too feel there is little hope of their kids completing their school education as they can no longer manage to pay the school fees.

A chimaera of justice

When asked: “Do they expect justice for what happened in February?”, we saw most respondents communicating their responses with a long silence, one reflecting hopelessness and a lack of faith in the current police and judicial due process.

Zakir says:

“No one answered our calls when we were desperately asking for help… I even gathered all the videos I managed to take when my shop was being broken into and burnt down, and sent it to the SHO of the local police station but it has been months, despite having all the proof, there has been no investigation, let alone arrest of the perpetrators.”

Hassan, from Old Gari Mendu Village (Shahdara), says:

“No one has been arrested for the attacks even though the police know who they are… We know who they are but can’t say anything. They are all roaming free in front of us.” 

Many respondents (who didn’t want to be identified) said they have all filed cases and petitions against certain identified individuals, even politicians and police personnel, for their involvement in the violence. No action has yet been taken.

At the same time, in its recent affidavit, the Delhi police, alleges that the episodes of violence were “not instigated in a spur of moment (sic)… but were carefully engineered by mischievous elements… who, in pursuit of their motivated agendas, instilled a false fear and panic in the minds of a section of society and provoked/instigated them to take law and order in their hands and resort to violence”.

And, if the police itself is to be found as a party to the offence (and violence perpetuated), the question would be the same as Justice Krishna Iyer once asked, “Who will police the police?”

Asiff (63) with his daughter Albina Saikia (14) at their residence in Shiv Vihar (Phase-7) in North
East Delhi on September 22, 2020. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

For seeking nyaya, the court of law itself can be seen responsible for perpetuating this culture-implicitly incentivising mob sentiments of ‘justice’ (matsyanyaya) to override due-process of what justice (nyaya) means and is. In terms of judicial and administrative due-process, there is still no clear separate process between safeguarding law and order for all and ensuring fair (independent) investigation, as both, are required to be done by the (same) police force at the time (unless the case is passed on to the CBI later). So, if evidence is destroyed at ground zero by the same police (destroying CCTV cameras), as attested by Hassan and Asiff, there is very little an investigative body, or special team can do later.

The consequential meaning of nyaya or justice in any society has little or no meaning for those seeking it, if the niti of due-process and those enforce it for nyaya fail to follow within a swift, time-bound manner. With Delhi’s violence (similar to what was seen in UP during the Muzaffarpur riots), the niti of nyaya is skewed towards the establishment of a culture of impunity-designed to encourage communally divisive mob sentiments for a coercive political contract’s realisation.

Also Read: Delhi Police Affidavit Shows Muslims Bore Brunt of Riots, Silent on Who Targeted Them and Why

Living in fear and mistrust

It was important as researchers for us to also try and understand if, despite all the violence seen and experienced by affected victims, was there any evidence of societal and community-led efforts to restore peace, or develop an environment of mutual trust between Hindus and Muslims, or has the situation continued to worsen. The response(s) received indicated the latter.

Haqim, from Shiv Vihar adds:

“They (Hindu neighbours) turn their faces away from us. It is not the same anymore. What did we do? The mob robbed us, killed, us, destroyed our buildings. And we received no help from our own neighbours since then.”

Mohammed Mumtaz shows photos of a burnt car and damaged houses on a mobile phone at
Bhajanpura Extension. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

Most affected families spoke of living in a constant state of fear for their lives and experiencing collective-suspicious, an ‘othering’ and isolation from the others.

Imran, a mechanic who used to have a shop in Bhajanpura, tells how he decided to relocate his shop to another locality but worries that it would not make much difference as “people who used to take my mechanic services now prefer someone from their own community… The work clientele for most of us has radically changed after the violence”. The violence, and turn of events since then, it seemed, were a manifestation of the deep-seated feeling of “otherness” to be entrenched in the local societies.

Yunus said his factory and house were burnt to the ground and he has tried to build it all back. “There is still a deep sense of fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen next.” Wasim, who like Yunus, managed to rebuild his business godown (selling furniture), tells how many people next to his godown still taunt at him saying, “Taj Mahal bana liya toh kya, phir se tod denge!” (Even if you have remade your business warehouse like it was Taj Mahal, we will take it down again.)

The economic damage, the psychological trauma, fear and anxiety surfacing from the memories of violence experienced by a community has now been aggravated by the constant day-to-day scoffs; exclusion in help with lack of support from local state-administration, along with a conscious ‘othering’ taking place, shows, what Asiff says “is the idea of Modi’s vikas in Naya Bharat”.

Note: Names of the respondents have been changed to protect their identity. All photographs have been taken by Jignesh Mistry (PAIGAM). This field-analysis is part of a visual storyboard field-initiative undertaken by Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) in collaboration with PAIGAM (People’s Association in Grassroots Action and Movement). The team would like to especially thank and acknowledge the invaluable support and contribution received on this visual storyboard from Akriti Bhatia (founder and director, PAIGAM) and Kunwar Hari Om (PAIGAM). Please see the photo essay released here.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of economics and director, CNES, Jindal School of Liberal Arts, O.P. Jindal Global University. Jignesh Mistry is a freelance photojournalist currently working with PAIGAM. Shivani Agarwal is senior research analyst with CNES. Sarah Ayreen Mir is research analyst with CNES. Shrrijiet Roychowdhary and Tarini Mehtani are both senior research assistants, CNES.