Communalism

The aftermath of the Delhi riots

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Moiuddin, whose house was blasted with a gas cylinder. The daily wage earner and his family have been staying at the Idgah Relief Camp. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

At the Idgah Relief Camp in Mustafabad. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Lives and livelihoods in North East Delhi remain shattered as riot survivors struggle to reconstruct burnt homes and rebuild shops and other businesses.

MORE than three weeks have lapsed since riots engulfed parts of North East Delhi from February 23 to February 25, claiming 54 lives and leaving hundreds scarred. Homes, shops, shrines and schools were torched with gas cylinders and other inflammable materials, causing colossal economic and social damage. The irony is that even a month after the riots, the rebuilding of homes and establishments is yet to seriously begin. Not much attention is being paid to the deep social divisions that have opened up after the violence.

Frontline visited some of the worst-affected areas in the second week of March, only to find that people displaced by the riots were still staying either in government camps or with relatives, while some had packed up and left for their villages. Restoring confidence among riot survivors does not seem to be a priority for either the State or the Central government. Efforts to facilitate the rebuilding of homes and rehabilitation of riot victims are tardy. Both the State and the Central governments seem reluctant to offer generous compensation packages, and people say little assistance is forthcoming to help them rebuild their homes and lives.

General neglect

Charred homes and shops remain a visible testament to the recent violence. Frontline spoke to people in the camps and in the lanes and bylanes of Khajuri Khas Extension, Brijpuri, Shiv Vihar and Karawal Nagar, some of the worst affected neighbourhoods, only to hear stories of disappointment, hopelessness and despair. People in these generally impoverished areas queued up for relief, both riot survivors and those not affected by the riots. Even a soap costing Rs.10 or a small packet of biscuits was received with gratitude. Precautions of social distancing to ward off COVID-19 infection made little sense.

The riot-affected areas are inhabited mostly by people working in the unorganised sector, self-employed people and daily wage workers: loaders; tailors; bakers; grocers; confectionery owners; painters; carpenters; scrap dealers; welders; rickshaw pullers; auto drivers; barbers; embroidery workers; wedding band musicians; electricians; petty shopkeepers who sold mobiles, electrical and electronic equipment, hosiery and garments; petty salesmen; mechanics and people working in auto service centres. The slightly better off among them, not more than a dozen in all, were owners of two-wheeler showrooms, auto service centres, footwear stores or medical shops. Frontline met two practitioners of Ayurveda, too, one in Shiv Vihar and the other in Khajuri Extension, whose shops had been looted and burnt.

Congested roads, narrow lanes, dwellings and establishments heaped together cheek by jowl, garbage mounds and open drains told a tale of neglect of the government in Delhi’s underbelly, which contributes substantially to the economy. A Jan Swasthya Abhiyan team that had set up medical camps for riot victims found there was no primary health care centre or a mohalla clinic in densely populated Mustafabad. Volunteers and doctors of the team found themselves attending to the general population for common ailments.

Victims spoke to Frontline of losses ranging from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.15 lakh, of homes that had to be built from scratch, vehicles that had been burnt, and production units such as bakeries that had been destroyed. People who had to flee their homes suddenly in the night could not collect the money they had at home. Some showed burnt remnants of cash in their torched homes. Some 125 motorcycles were recovered from a drain that cut across the entire area.

In Brijpuri, a footwear store and an auto showroom were ransacked and burnt. Haji Ajmeri, the owner of the four-and-a-half-floor high Faizal Footwear, the biggest footwear showroom in the area, was in deep shock. He refused to leave his shop and slept there amid the charred interiors. “We had all the brands. I have lost close to Rs.1.75 crore worth of goods in the shop and the godown, which was on the top floors,” he told Frontline. Mohammad Zaid who ran some coaching centres in the Hindu-dominated areas of Brijpuri and Yamuna Vihar said that people were advising him to relocate. “There is a fear of economic and social boycott now,” he said.

Afraid to return

Most of the Hindus and Muslims in Shiv Vihar, the worst affected in the riots, had migrated from parts of Uttar Pradesh. Most of those who fled their homes in this neighbourhood in the intervening night of February 23 and 24 sought shelter in the nearby Muslim-dominated Mustafabad, where Haji Yunus of the Aam Aadmi Party defeated Jagdish Pradhan, the sitting MLA of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a decisive margin. Mustafabad stands out as a densely populated Muslim-dominated area surrounded by the “mixed localities” of Bhagirath Vihar, Shiv Vihar and Karawal Nagar, where Hindus are numerically stronger. A few lanes in Shiv Vihar that were home to Muslims were targeted in the riots, and so were Muslim homes and shops in “mixed community” lanes. Survivors spoke of the “dangai” [rioters] wreaking havoc on the “Pachees Foota” (25-foot road), the Naala Road (road along the drain) and the lanes connecting these roads as the main areas of attack.

Phases 6 and 7 of Shiv Vihar were the worst affected. Witnesses told Frontline that the rioters gathered near a cremation ground at the Naala and targeted Muslim homes one by one. In lanes number 20 and 21, almost all the Muslim dwellings were attacked. Lanes 13, 14 and 23 were also attacked. Shops owned by Hindus but rented out to Muslims, displaying Muslim names, were looted and burnt. The tenants were unsure of receiving any compensation. At a people’s tribunal organised by Anhad, Aman Biradari and others in Delhi, a saree shop seller named Naimuddin from Maujpur said he had suffered a loss of up to Rs.17 lakh. “It all happened because of Kapil Mishra,” he said.

‘Everybody knows’

“The rioters came from Karawal Nagar, Dayalpur, Gangapur and Johripur. Some may have come from beyond Loni [in Uttar Pradesh], which is 15 to 20 minutes from here by road,” said a young man in Shiv Vihar. He and his friends mentioned Jagdish Pradhan, former BJP MLA from Mustafabad, and Nand Kishore Gujjar, sitting MLA from Loni, as the instigators.

Two shops owned by Hindus were burnt, one belonging to a restaurant owner and the other a grocery next to the Medina Masjid. The restaurant owner, Ram Prakash, said he had lost goods worth Rs.14 lakh. A doctor, Amar Pal Singh, said his clinic, owned by a Muslim, was burnt. “I hope I will get some compensation,” he said. Some better-off businessmen in Shiv Vihar, such as Mohammad Arif, suffered bigger losses. His year-old four-floor ready-made garment showroom was ransacked and burnt. He has received only Rs.25,000 as compensation. He claimed he had incurred losses running into Rs.15 to 20 lakh. “It started from lane number 20. My son was in the shop. He told me the shutter was being broken. I told him to escape from the side entrance,” he said. “They came from across the drain.”

According to several eyewitnesses, the rioters came from the side of the drain next to the cremation ground. They were stopped by Muslim men, and on February 24 also by paramilitary soldiers. But the peace was short-lived, and many people fled because they had no protection. On February 25, there was no one to stop the rioters. At 1 a.m. the “force” arrived and escorted those who had stayed back to Chaman Park. “Even though it is less than a kilometre from here, it felt like five kilometres that day,” said Arif.

For four to five days, those who fled from Shiv Vihar stayed with people who were from their community but whom they had not known before. Help in the form of rations and clothes were brought by several groups and individuals who reached out to riot victims, supplementing the efforts of the Delhi government. A Delhi solidarity and rehabilitation committee was formed, which included prominent individuals like Wajahat Habibullah, Brinda Karat and Harsh Mander, with the Delhi unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as a nodal office for coordinating relief. Displaced families were resettled in a camp in Mustafabad with the joint efforts of the Delhi government and the Waqf Board. These were the families of people who did not have relatives in the city and who were mainly from the lower middle and working-class sections.

Asif, whose pedal rickshaw was burnt in lane number 17 in Shiv Vihar, is afraid to return. Father to three young motherless daughters (the eldest, Arsala, is 12), Asif fears for his family’s safety. “We did not see who the rioters were. We left at 9:30 p.m. on February 25 and hid at Medina Masjid. It was only in the morning that we were taken to Chaman Park, and now we are here,” he said. Asif came to Delhi, which he has made his home, from Gujarat eight years ago. Like many others in Shiv Vihar, he stayed on rent. His landlord was also a Muslim.

Economic havoc

Moiuddin’s two-roomed dwelling in Shiv Vihar was blasted with a gas cylinder. He said his was the smallest dwelling in Shiv Vihar and he would require over Rs.2 lakh to rebuild it and restart his provision shop. He said that he was fearful that the police would pick him up, as they had been randomly arresting people from the area. “I went back to start rebuilding my house when some people in civil dress came, showed me a video, asked me to identify some people. They took my photograph too. I am afraid of even stepping out alone to answer nature’s call,” he said. His fears were not unfounded. Farah, a young woman with four children, said her husband, Dilshad, had been picked up by the police and she did not know his whereabouts.

In the same camp was a 30-year-old daily wager, Imran, from lane number 14. He had a bandage on his head. “Forty nine stitches,” he said, pointing to the bandage. He showed a photograph of his scalp with deep cuts, which had been stitched up. He was attacked by a mob as he returned home on February 24. He was among the few who survived. “I don’t feel safe. I have two children, a wife and an old mother,” he said. All the Muslim families in that lane had packed up and left. Imran said he earned around Rs.300-350 a day but he did not have work on all days of the month. With the riots, things had become even more uncertain.

Thirty-three-year-old Jamaluddin of House No. 508 in lane number 10 was the co-owner of a home-based bakery unit. He and his three brothers were in their village for a wedding when his Hindu neighbour, Billu, phoned him to say that his house-cum-factory unit had been broken into. Jamaluddin rushed back on his Bullet motorcycle and reached Shiv Vihar on the evening of February 27. He was close to his home when he was attacked and killed. The 10-year-old baking unit was looted and machine parts were stolen. The family was yet to come to terms with the tragedy. While Billu aggressively asserted that “outsiders” were involved, Jamaluddin’s Muslim neighbours disagreed: “Local residents were involved. How would outsiders identify the Muslim homes?” Jamaluddin’s younger brother, Kamaluddin, told Frontline that they were all daily wagers earlier and had set up the bakery unit 10 years ago. Muslim homes were easily identifiable as many had name plates or tiles with Quranic inscriptions on them. Some even wrote “Jai Shri Ram” on their doors to avoid getting attacked.

There were close to 30 bakery manufacturing units in Shiv Vihar, which supplied to shops and individual retailers. All those directly and indirectly dependent on these units have suffered loss of livelihood. Most of the Hindus in the area belonged to the Pal community (herders) and were engaged in class four government jobs. The rioters, it was believed, came from nearby Karawal Nagar and Johripur and Loni and Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. The majority were teenagers and men in their early twenties. Hindu establishments and homes at the Shiv Vihar Tiraaha (a junction of three roads) were also burnt. This place was known as the “border”, demarcating Muslim-dominated Mustafabad from Shiv Vihar and Karawal Nagar, both dominated by Hindus. The roughly 8-km stretch affected by riots had several temples and mosques. No damage to any temple in Muslim residential areas was reported.

The riots caused widespread economic havoc. In lane number 19, 12 Muslim homes needed to be rebuilt entirely. On an average, losses run up to Rs.14 lakh for every house that was looted and burnt. The government, however, announced a compensation of only Rs.5 lakh for completely damaged houses. Tenants who had suffered damage would get Rs.1 lakh, while landlords would get Rs.4 lakh. The amount is pathetically inadequate, especially when victims have also lost all earnings.

Government-appointed and independent surveyors are trying to estimate the damage. Irfan, a shop-owner in Khajuri Khas Extension, said: “We cannot leave the site of damage as the enumerators come here asking for details. Everyone notes down something or the other, but funds for reconstruction are not being released. What is there to verify? It’s all there, visible to the open eye.”

For damage to commercial properties, the compensation is Rs.5 lakh. For all families who suffered damage to household goods, an immediate relief of Rs.25,000 was announced. But many riot survivors told Frontline that they had not received even that. The only building where reconstruction work had started on a war footing was Arun Modern School in Brijpuri, owned by a former Congress legislator. The compensation to families that lost an adult to the riots was Rs.10 lakh, which many felt was inadequate. Most adults who were killed were young men in their twenties and thirties and were breadwinners for their families.

Irfan’s Hindu acquaintances, Mukesh and Ishwar Chand, argued that for “every action, there would be a reaction”. Ishwar Chand, who claimed to have witnessed everything, said that “stoning began from lane numbers 4 and 5” and windows of Hindu establishments, including Mohan Nursing Home in nearby Yamuna Vihar, were broken. “Why didn’t you intervene when our shops were being burnt,” asked Irfan, to which Ishwar Chand had no answer. Other eyewitnesses said that Muslims tried to prevent the rioters from entering the lanes and stones were thrown in self-defence. No shop owned by a Hindu suffered any damage in this area, barring one Balaji Sweets. In lane number 5, Mohammad Ilyas’ five-floor house from where he operated a boutique was burnt.

Arson and loot

Hurma, a student at Maulana Azad Medical College, said her father sold readymade garments and the family had a godown in their house. On February 24, the family fled Shiv Vihar, leaving everything behind. “We have been in the camp for 22 days now,” said Hurma’s mother, Naseem, unsure of what lay ahead.

“I have lived in Old Delhi all my life, near the Sheesh Mahal,” said Hasmuda, a woman in her seventies. “I shifted to Shiv Vihar 15 years ago. I regret it now. We sold everything to settle here. We have to go back, but the people look at us with anger. I am not blaming anyone as I have to live and die among them only. My Hindu neighbours call me Amma, but none have bothered to inquire about my whereabouts,” she said with a smile.

Shabnam, a tenant from lane number 21, was determined not to return. “They burnt my husband’s auto-rickshaw worth Rs.5 lakh. They looted everything but did not touch the house as it belonged to a Hindu,” she said. Shabnam, her husband, Ikramuddin, and their little son fled with four other families to house No. 339, but the rioters burnt it. Several bikes were set on fire. No compensation has been announced for these, though some compensation has been declared for damaged rickshaws.

Nasiruddin had taken a loan to buy a house in Shiv Vihar. He showed burnt notes of Rs.500, cash that had been kept at home. Some families in lane number 18 said their livestock had been stolen.

Similar incidents of damage and loot took place on the 33-foot road in Karawal Nagar, formerly represented by the BJP’s Kapil Mishra. The Gokulpuri market of tyres, vehicle repair shops and tarpaulin was gutted along with a dozen tractors that were parked for repair. The losses run into crores of rupees. In Garhimendu village near Bhajanpura, 25 to 30 homes were looted and burnt.

In Khajuri Khas area, nearly 200 shops and homes were burnt. The rioters knew whom to target. Lane numbers 4, 5 and 29 were targeted as they had Muslim homes. A shop with the board “Maharashtra Band”, owned by Md Sharif, was looted—the instruments and outfits of the wedding band players were taken away—and burnt. Two others selling the same things were burnt and looted. Sharif said that they had brought down the shutters of the shops on February 24. “We sought refuge in Bihari Masjid and in Chandu Nagar in the safety of our community members,” he said.

Ghettos and gates

The violence ripped apart social and economic relationships between the two communities. Muslims who had lived for more than three decades in mixed localities were afraid of returning as they were aware that some of their Hindu neighbours were complicit in the riots. Some Hindus had also sheltered their Muslim neighbours and helped them to escape, but such instances were few. In all the areas revisited by Frontline, residents were installing iron gates at the entrance of every lane, reflecting the new fears.

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