New Delhi: It was a night of panic in several colonies of south and west Delhi, with colony gates clanging shut and shops closing shutters amidst rumours of riotous mobs on the prowl. But, unlike the case with the Delhi violence, the police did take steps to scotch the rumours and patrol areas to provide assurance to residents.
During the day, tensions had started to rise as an extreme right-wing group, Hindu Sena, had called for protesters to be cleared from the Shaheen Bagh site, where a sit-in demonstration has been staged since December 16. The outfit later called off its ‘protest march’.
However, the Delhi Police imposed section 144 in Shaheen Bagh, as the protesters were planning to take out a peace march to pay tribute to the victims of the Delhi riots. The peace march was also called off due to the restrictions imposed by the police.
But lingering tensions, along with the call to clear Shaheen Bagh, seem to have triggered the grapevine. The memory that Delhi riots began a few hours after local BJP leader Kapil Mishra had issued an ultimatum for clearing out Shaheen Bagh, had not yet faded.
A report by the Times of India said the first unsubstantiated stories started to circulate around Madanpur Khadar area of southeast Delhi, close to the Shaheen Bagh protest site, at around 7:30 pm. But, it spread like wildfire throughout south and west Delhi, areas which had remained unaffected in the previous violence.
A resident of Rama Park in Uttam Nagar in West Delhi stated that there had been panic all around for nearly two hours until people realised it was only a rumour. “It reminded us all of the days of the 1984 riots, when there would be similar rumours of people from another community getting together to attack colonies,” he said.
For those couple of hours, the residents started to prepare themselves for the worst. “The men came out on the streets with rods and sticks or whatever they felt they could use for self-defence. The gates were barricaded and people stood around waiting to respond to whatever situation would arise.”
Khyala, a few kilometres from Uttam Nagar, may have been the epicentre for the rumours, which started to spread after police started to chase some of the men who escaped after a raid on a gambling racket in the area. As people started to watch the chase, tales began to spread across by word of mouth that rioting had started
— DCP West Delhi (@DCPWestDelhi) March 1, 2020
At around 8 pm, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation started to close entry and exit of metro stations of Tilak Nagar, Nangloi, Surajmal Stadium, Badarpur, Tughlakabad, Uttam Nagar West and Nawada metro stations for a short period of around 15 minutes to half an hour – which further fuelled anxieties.
Another resident of Uttam Nagar said that she had heard people in her neighbourhood talking about the killing of a person from the minority community in her area. She had a flight to catch at 2 am, but her neighbours advised her to cancel her travel plans.
“Colony ka main gate aur saari dukaane band kar dee gayi hain aur auto ya rickshaw kuch bhi nhi mil raha (All the colony gates and shops have been closed. I could not find any autos or rickshaw),” she said.
It was only around 10 pm that she decided that things were normal. “I didn’t hear any more noise outside and I was monitoring television news.” She did finally catch her late-night flight.
In South Delhi, colony barricades in Chittaranjan Park, which usually go up at midnight, were closed at 8 pm. The security guards at the gates asserted that “Muslims were gathering in Kalkaji and Govindpuri” for a mob attack.
A TV journalist who lives in Govindpuri stated that she first started to receive a barrage of messages at around 8:30 pm. “A friend from Rohini texted to say that rumours were afloat that ‘everything was shutting there’, including shops, eateries and gates. Soon after, another friend texted from Vasant Kunj. News had reached her that a friend in Sagarpur was afraid that he was in danger. A friend then messaged that there was suspicion of violence at CR Park and Kalkaji,” she said.
Here too, all the colony gates that branch off from the main road and lead to residential societies were closed ahead of their scheduled time. Throughout the night, sirens from police vehicles echoed through the empty roads.
At around 9:30 pm, police arrived at CR Park and tried to convince traders to re-open shops in the markets. They also told everyone gathered not to forward any WhatsApp messages.
Senior officers and personnel interacting with members of the public to dispel any rumour mongering.We are alert and on the ground. Do NOT believe in any rumours@CPDelhi @LtGovDelhi @DelhiPolice pic.twitter.com/5ZEyTCmXfv
— DCP South Delhi (@DCPSouthDelhi) March 1, 2020
While south and west Delhi were the worst hit by the rumours, sections of north-west Delhi also shut down completely on Sunday evening. In the evening, people were saying that there was a riot situation in Mongolpuri, which led to a domino effect in the nearby middle-class colonies of Rohini, Avantika and Buddh Vihar.
“As soon as this rumour began, the whole market of Rohini and Avantika shut down. Usually, the markets are open until 12 at night but last night they were all closed at around 9:30 pm… the roads were empty, there was not a single bus on the road,” said a resident of Rohini.
All the road-side vendors also quickly packed their stuff up. “I wanted to take an auto from Rithala metro station to my home, but no one was ready to ferry me. An auto driver agreed, but only after I agreed to pay extra. He told me that there were some riots in Mangolpuri”.
According to NDTV, around 481 calls were received between 7 pm and midnight by the police control room, from people requesting help over claims of communal tension. While 148 came from Tilak Nagar, 143 came from Khayala police station limits.
Panic calls were also made from Rajouri Garden, Punjabi Bagh, Hari Nagar, Moti Nagar and Janakpuri areas, with residents claiming that communal riots were unfolding in their area.
NDTV reported that security agencies monitoring the situation in the capital since the unprecedented violence broke out in northeast Delhi have noticed a trend in which panic is being created in parts of the city by making bogus calls to the police control room. “We did this sampling study in northwest Delhi in Jahangirpuri police station also on February 27,” a senior officer said.