Mosques as target

Print edition : March 27, 2020

A saffron flag hoisted by the attackers atop the minaret of a mosque in Mustafabad. Photo: XAVIER GALIANA/AFP

The burnt interior of a mosque at Shiv Vihar on March 3 bears testimony to the hate violence of the previous week. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Over half a dozen mosques were set ablaze in North East Delhi on February 24 and 25, as Delhi Police personnel either remained inactive or, worse, colluded with the attackers.

Almost every part of North East Delhi that was ravaged by targeted violence reported its own Babri Masjid. Every other kilometre or so, at least one mosque was either completely burnt down to the accompaniment of “Jai Shri Ram” slogans or damaged by trishul- and iron rod-wielding attackers. Announcing the triumph of belligerent Hindutva, saffron flags were planted atop the main minarets of mosques. Copies of the Quran were desecrated; in some cases, entire shelves of the holy book were burnt. Often, the attackers reminded the faithful: “Har masjid Babri banegi [Every mosque will be reduced to Babri Masjid].”

At all places, the pleas of imams and muezzins went unheeded, as did their desperate calls to the police. The imams either fled or were badly mauled. In one case, acid was thrown at a cleric in Shiv Vihar. Delhi Police personnel stood accused of inaction or, worse, colluded with the attackers.

Take, for instance, the case of Fatima Masjid in Khajuri Khas Extension, the colony where the house of Mohammed Anees, a Border Security Force jawan, was gutted by the mob. The faithful had just completed their Fajr (dawn) prayers on February 25. Young men wearing saffron scarves and sporting tilak on their foreheads gathered in the lane early in the day and raised slogans of “Desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalo ko [shoot the traitors]”. Visibly shaken, Muslim families in the vicinity took refuge inside the mosque, confident that it would not be touched in case of violence. The young men dispersed but were back outside the mosque a few hours later. This time they were wearing helmets or had covered their faces with black cloth and were carrying gas cylinders and petrol bombs. Some had even worn shields in anticipation of retaliatory violence. This helpedthem because as soon as the men tried to break open the mosque’s front door, there was stone pelting by the Muslims inside.

Soon, the door was broken down by the attackers, who went on to demolish everything they could lay their hands on, from benches and carpets to fans and lights and, finally, the shelves that stored copies of the Quran. They used batons, sticks, axes, swords, even hockey sticks. As Muslims retreated in the face of the onslaught, another group of men climbed on to the roof of the mosque, jumping over from the terraces of neighbourhood houses. They hoisted a saffron flag atop the minaret of the mosque as a symbol of conquest. Soon after, cylinder bombs and petrol bombs brought everything down. The floor was ripped apart; furniture, prayer mats, everything was reduced to ashes. Fatima Masjid was covered in soot, its ceiling all black, the verses of the Quran on its walls illegible.

Desperate calls to the police for help went unanswered. The mosque went into mourning. No prayer call has since been made, no restoration work begun even 10 days (at the time of writing this piece) after the assault.

In the nearby Gamri Extension, the mob waylaid a group of Muslim devotees returning from the annual Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Qasabpura on the evening of February 24. The group was travelling to Loni in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh when it was attacked. The group took refuge in Aziziya Masjid, spending the night there. The next morning, as they began to venture out in batches of twos or threes, the mob struck at the masjid. It was around the same time that another mob was attacking Fatima Masjid. Here, too, almost everything inside the mosque, including copies of the Quran, the nimbar (pulpit) and the prayer rows, was destroyed.

Modus operandi

This pattern of destruction was repeated in an almost identical fashion at Shiv Vihar’s Madeena Masjid and Auliya Masjid. Both mosques were similarly attacked with gas cylinders and petrol bombs. Their burnt interiors bear testimony to the hate violence, and their almost impeccable exteriors tell a deceptive tale.

Sitting in a refugee camp in Chaman Park, 68-year-old Khushnura, who had been a Shiv Vihar resident for 40 years before the hate violence struck, recalled: “Madeena Masjid was built by locals. My husband, my son and other men in the vicinity pooled in their money and worked as masons and labourers to build the masjid themselves as they did not have money to pay outsiders. The mosque accommodated around 800 to 1,000 men on Fridays. On the fateful day, the mob first burnt the mosques, then they went for Muslim houses. We ran for our lives. But we could not protect the mosques.”

At Madeena Masjid, two of the four cylinders did not burst, thereby limiting the damage. According to locals, the goons consumed alcohol inside the mosque before setting it on fire. The 54-year-old imam was attacked with acid. Speaking to the media three days later, he said he could not recognise himself in the mirror.

The other mosque burnt in Shiv Vihar was the Auliya Masjid, smaller in size and built as recently as 2009-10. Both the Madeena Masjid and the Auliya Masjid were set on fire on February 25. When this writer tried to enter the Auliya Masjid the next day to examine the extent of the damage, policemen had barricaded the area. It was only on March 1 that one could go close to the mosques.

An acrid smell still hung in the air. Half-burnt pieces of plastic, pages of the Quran, gas cylinders and furniture lay scattered. There was no azaan, no prayer, no entry even to the imam or the muezzin.

This was the case with Farooqia Jama Masjid at Brijpuri Puliya near Mustafabad. This mosque, too, was attacked by a mob on the evening of February 25 after Asar (early evening prayers). According to Mohammed Ishaq, an eyewitness: “They were outsiders. They came ahead of the police. They pelted stones at the mosque from outside. Then they threw petrol pouches and gas cylinders. The media have not shown our side of the problem. We live in the age of corporate media when the problems of the minorities do not get TRPs. On the day they attacked, [the] imam sahib was badly injured. He is still in hospital. But at that time, he helped save the lives of many students of the madrasa here.”

The madrasa attached to the mosque has around 500 students, mostly first-generation learners. At the time of the attack, the imam escaped from the rear door of the mosque into the madrasa and helped the boys escape. “Some of the boys were injured in the attack. Both the imam and muezzin sustained fractures and deep gashes. Two persons, including a boy called Mehtab who was to get married next month, died in the attack,” said Dr Rizwan Ali Siddiqui, who lives in the vicinity.

Incidentally, the premises were attacked twice—first on the evening of February 24 when the mosque was burnt down and then on the morning of February 25 when the madrasa was defiled. On both days, the local residents allege, the goons came in first and the police stood behind them, ready to strike in case of any retaliation from the mosque or the madrasa.

In the firing line

Also in the firing line was Mina Masjid in Bhagirathi Vihar, a five-minute walk from Farooqia Masjid. Here the attempt to set the mosque on fire was foiled as a sizeable Muslim population lived close by in Mustafabad. However, electric wires were cut, water connection was disrupted, and benches used for placing the Quran were destroyed. Unlike Farooqia Masjid, where Friday prayers following the violence were held on the roof and attended by about a hundred men (unlike a normal Friday when about a thousand people attend), this mosque remained closed even a week after the attack.

Separated by a few lanes is Jamia Arabia Madinatul Uloom in Gokulpuri, popularly called the Jannati Masjid. This mosque, too, was attacked around the same time as Farooqia Masjid. The modus operandi was identical—the first assault on the evening of February 24, the second in the intervening night of February 24-25. The mosque was burnt in the first assault; the survivors were attacked in the second onslaught.

Haji Shafique, who lived near the mosque for close to 12 years, said: “A crowd of a few hundred people came chanting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. We called up the police, but there was no response. We went up to the roof, then climbed over to the neighbours’ houses, before finally getting down at the end of the lane. Before getting down, I saw that the mob had set the mosque on fire and planted a saffron flag on its minaret. It broke my heart. I complained to the police once more. This time, a man answered. He said, ‘Tum toh zinda ho? Kafi hai’ [You are alive, aren’t you? That is enough] and slammed down the phone.”

Things were not much better at Ashok Nagar’s Maula Baksh Masjid. Among the oldest mosques in Trans Yamuna, the green-and-white tiled mosque was built in 1974 and is the biggest in the area. Imam Abdur Rahim said: “It was Tuesday, February 25. It was 1:10 p.m., a little before Zuhr (afternoon) prayers. One of the servants of the mosque heard a commotion in the distance. He latched the main gate of the mosque from inside. Within minutes, there was a huge crowd outside the mosque raising the most provocative slogans like ‘Hinduon ka Hindustan. They had blood on their minds. They wanted to hit anybody who came in their way. They started pelting stones inside the mosque.

“The muezzin’s wife left the kitchen on the first floor where she was preparing lunch. The khadim [servant] of the mosque ran upstairs. The crowd threw pouches and plastic bottles of petrol. The moment the bottles hit the ground, there was fire. The people inside the mosque rushed to the top. Soon, it became suffocating due to the fire. They slipped away to the neighbourhood houses from the rooftop. A vegetable vendor, Mubeen Ahmed, called up the police. After a few calls, the police arrived and escorted us out. They did not register any complaint that we, or the mosque, had been attacked. Instead, they wrote that they had escorted so many Muslims safely from Ashok Nagar mosque.”

Even as these people were escorted to the police station for their safety, the mosque burnt for a long time. A saffron flag was hoisted atop its minaret. It was removed only two days later. Three days later, members of the mosque management committee pressed for a first information report (FIR) to be registered. The police declined, insisting on registering a common FIR for the mosque and the houses damaged in the vicinity.

In the vicinity, the much smaller Chand Masjid, built in 1986, was subjected to a similar assault. An attempt to set the mosque on fire was partially foiled as the fire did not spread to the internal prayer hall. It did, however, leave the masjid unfit for immediate use.

Six days after the attack, when this writer visited the mosque, he found it locked, its front portion charred. Exhibiting animosity, Anand Kataria, a man in his fifties, said: “The mosque will not be opened now.” “We will file a complaint with the police if anybody tries to repair the mosque,” he added, pointing to a stack of bricks lying outside the mosque, probably meant to repair it.

Later, speaking to people in refugee camps in Mustafabad, this writer discovered that a Sufi mazaar (mausoleum) in Bhajanpura and a Hanuman temple in Shiv Vihar had been vandalised as well. But the saddest tales emanated from the half-burnt pages of the Quran lying scattered across the floor at Maula Baksh, Fatima and Madeena Masjids.

One of the verses left untouched by fire in Ashok Nagar was part of the last verse of the Surah Hujurat of the Quran. It read: “Allah sees all that you do.”