Betrayed by friends, state and fate: A year on, Delhi riots victims struggle to pick up threads

February is said to be short and sweet. But in Delhi in 2020, the month was bitter, toxic and violent. The carnage in Delhi was an eerie echo of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, which too happened in February

 Muslim women look inside a charred mosque in Mustafabad area of North East Delhi after it was set on fire by a mob during the riots in February 2020 (Photo by Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Muslim women look inside a charred mosque in Mustafabad area of North East Delhi after it was set on fire by a mob during the riots in February 2020 (Photo by Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Ashlin Mathew

“If we move from Shiv Vihar where we have been staying for more than 20 years, where will we go? How long will we run? We live in fear, but running away is not the answer. What is the assurance that the violence will not follow us to the new locality?” asked Hashim Ali, secretary of Madina Masjid in Shiv Vihar.

He was arrested on April 4, 2020, sent to Tihar Jail, and then transferred to Mandoli Jail in north-east Delhi. He was eventually released on bail on May 18, 2020.

A year after the carnage ripped through most parts of north-east Delhi in which 53 people were hacked to death or burnt alive and more than 200 were severely injured, almost all visible signs of the carnage are fading away in Jaffarabad, Bhajanpura, Shiv Vihar, Mustafabad, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Park, Noor-e-Ilahi, Gokulpuri, Krawal Nagar, Chand Bagh and Maujpur.

While charred buildings are being renovated and burnt vehicle hulks no longer visible, new markers have come up. Many houses in the area have either saffron flags or the Indian flags fluttering on their terrace, but never together.

In the intervening year, 2,193 people have been either detained or arrested in connection with the riots. Police records in the first week of March last year had listed 79 houses as having been completely burnt, 168 houses ‘substantially burnt’, 500 vehicles including two-wheelers set on fire besides 327 shops which were first looted and then gutted. In addition, five godowns, four mosques, three factories and two schools were also damaged extensively by the rioters.

Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Umar Khalid, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Ishrat Jahan, Meeran Haider, and Khalif Saifi continue to be incarcerated in connection with the clashes which began between pro and anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act groups after a call by local BJP politician Kapil Mishra.

It escalated into communal violence between February 23 and 28 with rioters taking to streets armed with swords, batons, stones and guns. Now as memories of the horror are being dredged up to mark the anniversary, stories of people and communities hobbling towards recovery are the main threads in all these localities.

Justice has not been dispensed. There is no official data on the religious identity of those who have been arrested, but residents and lawyers state that young Muslim men form the majority of those arrested.

Ali underscored that the system was unfair because thousands of young Muslim men have been jailed in connection with the riots even though Hindus attacked them.

“However, there are several like me fighting cases. My house was burnt and FIRs have named the perpetrators, all Hindus, as they were mostly from the neighbourhood, but they have not been arrested,” added Ali.

He was arrested in April because his face was captured in one of the CCTV footages where has was seen shepherding children from the Madina mosque to safety.

In the aftermath of the riots, several people fled from Shiv Vihar to Loni to rebuild their lives. A few like Ali have returned, but two of his sons haven’t. “Since I filed cases against those who burnt my house and the mosque here, a counter case has been filed against my sons. The rest of the family has returned,” maintained Ali.

For Salim Qasar, bringing up memories from the riots adds to the pain he has been living with. During the riots, his brother was burnt alive and he saw it from across the road. His home, autos, rented taxis and two furniture manufacturing units were set on fire. His wife Nasreen recollected that they were afraid they would get killed and added, “We are alive only because our Hindu neighbour sheltered us until we could escape in the middle of the night.”

His daughter’s marriage had been fixed for March 15, 2020, so Qasar had stocked items meant to be given to her. The rioters looted it all –refrigerators, gold jewellery and money. He suffered losses to the tune of Rs 75 lakh, and he got only Rs 2.5 lakh as compensation from the Delhi government.

Qasar shifted from Shiv Vihar, where he lived for 35 years, to a two-room rented house in Mustafabad. “I am afraid for my life as I have identified those who burnt my brother and my buildings. Most of them were local BJP leaders and several have put pressure on me to withdraw the cases. How can I? I watched my brother being pushed into a fire. One of those whom I have named is the son of a policeman,” said Qasar.

He had wanted to sell his land in Shiv Vihar soon after the orchestrated violence, but he was being offered only Rs 7 lakh for 270 square foot land. He had bought it for 21 lakh. This drop in rates has stalled his plans to sell the plot.

“The Waqf Board has not helped too. The money we got during the lockdown was used for household expenditure during the pandemic. We went to AAP leader and Mustafabad MLA Haji Yunus for assistance. He did not give us a patient hearing either,” said Qasar.

Two of the NGOs working in the area gave him an autorickshaw 10 days ago. He has begun driving it along with one of his older sons. “Whatever we had has been taken away,” underscored Qasar.

India is no stranger to riots and violence, but there is still no standard protocol or even Standard Operating Procedures for compensation and rehabilitation. Compensations to most people have been delayed and even the meagre amount has come after the victims ran from pillar to post. Their resilience comes despite lack of governmental support. Most people failed by the State depend on charitable institutions.

A few of them have been compensated meagrely by the Aam Aadmi Party-led government in Delhi and even fewer by the Delhi Waqf Board. Realising the severity of the problem and governmental apathy, several religious organisations and NGOs such as Human Welfare Foundation, Society for Bright Future, Aman Biradari, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind have worked extensively to help those in the area.

Ali acknowledged that he would not have been able to renovate his house without help from organisations. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind helped to rebuild his home. It’s not only Ali. Mohd. Arif, whose four-storey garment manufacturing unit in Shiv Vihar was gutted in the fire by a violent mob on February 25, has begun to renovate his manufacturing unit with help from Human Welfare Foundation and Society for Bright Future.

Arif is one of those who have filed FIRs at Karawal Nagar police station. “The entire building was burnt, but there has been no progress in the case. My son and workers escaped from here by the skin of their teeth,” he said. He suffered losses of more than Rs 30 lakh.

“The local AAP MLA has not helped at all,” pointed out Arif. Just after the lockdown, he got Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation from the Delhi government and Rs 10,000 from the Delhi Waqf Board as Eidi. Arif used the meagre compensation to run his household during the lockdown triggered by Covid-19.

The Shiv Vihar MLA is BJP leader Mohan Singh Bisht, who has been named in one of the FIRs for leading a mob and allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at a house. Arif had approached Mustafabad MLA Haji Yunus.

National Herald sent questions to Delhi Police asking about the delay in investigations and lack of support from the police for those affected by the riots. No response has been received. This article will be updated as and when the Delhi Police responds.

Hindus in the area continue to maintain that the violent mob did not consist of men from the area. “There have been no instances of confrontation since last February. Several people have returned. The homes of Muslims in this lane were not burnt down as we had blocked the entrance after the first day. Most of those in the mob were people from elsewhere. None of the local youngsters were part of it,” contended Reena Goswami, who runs a small store in Shiv Vihar’s Gali No.22.

However, this was countered by Miraj and Aleem Khan, who used to live in the same street. Aleem Khan’s rented flat was looted and burnt, while Miraj’s house was attacked and broken into.

Gunjan Sachdeva’s furniture shop on the main Karawal Nagar road was burnt down on February 24. “I had not expected my shop to be burnt down. Most Hindu-owned buildings in the area remained safe,” said Sachdeva, whose loss amounted to Rs 18 lakh. He got Rs 3.4 lakh as compensation from the government.

“For a year we couldn’t do anything with the shop. It was expensive to repair it. Human Welfare Foundation and Society for Bright Future helped renovate the shop and got me initial raw materials to help me re-open the shop. I couldn’t have done it without their help,” underscored Sachdeva.

In Khajuri Khas, Burra Khan, whose corner fruit shop-cum-residence was set on fire, has begun to sell fruits in the same shop without renovating it. “We cleared the ground floor to stock fruits soon after the lockdown ended. Repairing it will take a lot of money and for that we need to begin our business. Our lives have not ended, so we cannot sit idle,” said Khan. His brothers who used to sell meat and dry fruits in the adjoining shops have also begun on a small scale.

Twenty-three-year-old Akram Khan has only just come to terms with the loss of his hands during the pogrom. On February 24, as he was escaping from his house in Old Mustafabad, lathi-wielding goons beat him up. Soon after, a crude bomb hit his hands. His right hand had to be amputated from below the elbow and on his left hand, fingers fused together.

“I was undergoing treatment at GTB Hospital. They grafted skin from my stomach to partially reconstruct the left palm. Now, I need a prosthetic right arm to be able to earn any livelihood,” said Khan, who used to work as a tailor.

He got Rs 5 lakh from the Delhi government in three instalments, the last of which was deposited on January 15, 2021. What gives him hope is that two NGOs working together in the area have scheduled a doctor’s appointment for him.

Mukhim Husain, who used to run a table manufacturing unit in Khajuri Khas, suffered losses to the tune of Rs 1.25 crore. His factory and car at the entrance were burnt down by a mob. The Delhi gave him Rs 5 lakh as compensation.

“We got the compensation in December, but that amount is not enough for the repairs. In despair, I had gone to meet AAP leader and Okhla MLA Amanatullah Khan as he is the Delhi Waqf Board chairman. He flatly refused help and added he can give Rs 10,000. I did not take the amount. He also directed me to another person. I did not go as I did not want to be shunted around,” pointed out Husain.

The worst sectarian violence in Delhi in three decades and the continued reluctance of police and the politicians to help those affected haunt men and women as they attempt to rebegin their scarred lives. The rehabilitation of Muslims, who lost their houses and business, and a few Hindus, whose shops were burnt in the fire, is still underway. Suspicion and hate linger in almost all localities with ghettoization of Muslims having worsened.

While there is a palpable sense of resignation, there is also bitterness at receiving little or no substantial help from their local MLAs or from the government. A year later, survivors are struggling to pick up the threads.

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