Bhajanpura, Northeast Delhi, February 24 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
It would be a mistake to even assign any chronology, cause and effect to the events of the last few days in Delhi’s northeast. The faultline between Hindus and Muslims, delicately balanced by the necessity of co-existence and co-dependence in a maze of lanes and bylanes, has been accentuated with a viciousness that will be hard to forget now. On February 26th, two days after clashes between the two communities took a violent turn, the worst in the national capital since the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the police and paramilitary forces have now taken over. With India’s National Security Adviser on ground, the stakes to maintain law and order in these parts are high. But the damage is already done. As municipal workers began sweeping heaps of debris of burnt property on February 27th, conversations with people on both sides of the divide indicate that things much more vital than lost businesses and homes need to be mourned. The poison, the sudden breakdown of an increasingly cautious trust, and the breach of an ordinary man’s confidence in a policeman’s uniform is a residue much more overwhelming and in-your-face than burnt cars, books, toys, beds, sofas, trousseaus, ledgers and family heirlooms.
Away from the selfies and stardom of the main Shaheen Bagh, Muslims in these parts had created their own mini Shaheen Baghs for almost as long as the main one. These suddenly gained traction on February 22nd when protestors gathered in large numbers and occupied a portion of road outside Jafrabad Metro station. A march from the nearby Muslim-dominated Chand Bagh to Rajghat was announced, permission for which was denied by the police. The resulting traffic disruption was causing inconvenience to others, but nobody thought much beyond it.
From the night of February 23rd, says Navneet Gupta, who runs a coaching centre at Bhajanpura, people in the Hindu neighbourhood noticed a crowd swelling at Chand Bagh on the other side of the main arterial road. A few hours earlier, BJP leader Kapil Mishra had made a speech, with the district police chief standing mutely next to him, that the anti-CAA/NRC protestors needed to be removed, failing which he would do it himself. Two days before that, a Muslim politician, Waris Pathan, made a controversial speech in faraway Karnataka, saying 150 million (Muslims) can overpower 1 billion (Hindus). That went viral. Within hours, both these video clips were available on cheap smartphones all over India, including Delhi’s northeast.
Immediately after Mishra’s warning, a clash broke out between those against and those in support of CAA/NRC near Maujpur Chowk. By 5 pm, minor clashes erupted elsewhere. These continued till late night with little damage to vehicles and shops.
Largescale violence broke out on the morning of February 24th. From eyewitness accounts, there is evidence that both sides had begun to prepare to ‘teach the other side a lesson’. No matter where one visits in these parts, people talk about how they saw droves of outsiders being brought in from the neighbouring areas in Uttar Pradesh. It is futile to establish who made the first move. Phones seized by police from members of both groups reveal that proper mobilisation had taken place. Over several WhatsApp groups with more than a hundred members, plans for storing stones for attacks were discussed.
At Bhajanpura, a mob, which Navneet Gupta says began appearing from the Chand Bagh side, broke the massive grille on the divider and began attacking establishments owned by Hindus. The first to be attacked here was the Bhajanpura petrol pump. Minutes earlier, the mob broke into a liquor shop at Chand Bagh and brought bottles to the other side to be used for burning properties. Then they walked a few metres down towards Captain Katora restaurant run by Kamal Sharma. It runs from a house owned by Santosh Rani, who lives next to it. These were burnt down along with a computer institute run by Ravi Kumar. All the occupants of these properties had to flee from behind in the Hindu neighbourhood to save themselves. “A few policemen used bedsheets to make us climb down and run away,” says Ravi Kumar, the owner of the computer institute, London Academy.
Three hours later, a mob of about 200 people gathered on the Hindu side. As the Muslim mob retreated, the other descended upon the area, this time targeting Muslim establishments.
Rais Ahmed, 46, who runs an e-rickshaw showroom, Al-Zahoor & Co, next to the petrol pump, ran along with his family members and staffers to the rooftop as the mob began breaking into his showroom. Within minutes, it was in flames. Twenty brand new rickshaws turned into ashes. Rs 4.45 lakh that he had brought from home to be deposited in the bank were gone too. “When we stood on the terrace, we were hit by stones coming from a Hindu house behind us,” he says.
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the road, Noore Khan, 48, watched helplessly as a mob began to cross the road and come to his side. He ran a fruitshop below his house. “At first we thought there were policemen around, so they would not attack,” he says. But as flames erupted all around him, he and his 15 family members ran away after jumping from one terrace to another.
Going through the remains of his house to see if he could salvage documents, Khan is inconsolable. “We never experienced such hatred before,” he says. He points at a teargas shell that the police allegedly fired at his house. “Why would they fire this at me when all I was doing was trying to save my family?” he wonders. Did he recognise someone from the mob? No, he says. “But I am thinking how we will see each other in the eye now. After all, we have to continue living here,” he says.
In Moonga Nagar, behind Chand Bagh, people looked out from behind a locked gate on February 26th, at a sea of broken bricks outside. “We have not slept since Sunday night [February 23rd],” said a woman. The stones, says Shyam Bihari Mittal, who runs a mattress-stitching unit, kept raining on their locality uninterrupted for seven hours from Monday (February 24th) afternoon. “We kept on calling the Police Control Room, but nobody answered,” he says. Moonga Nagar is a mixed population locality but with clear demarcation between Hindu and Muslim parts. “We are now guarding our own locality day and night,” said Deepak, one of the residents.
On the night of February 24th, one of Deepak’s friends, Lala, was waylaid by a group of Muslims near a dairy and badly beaten up. “I held my breath so they would think I was dead,” he said, with his face heavily bandaged.
Some of the residents here have made serious allegations about the Aam Aadmi Party councillor from the Nehru Nagar ward, Mohammed Tahir Hussain. A building owned by him stands right in front of the locality. Amateur videos shot on February 25th show its rooftop full of people hurling stones and petrol bombs all over. While Hussain has claimed that he was rescued himself by the police, a few crates of petrol bombs have been recovered from that rooftop. The police have since sealed these premises and are now investigating his role in the violence, particularly after an FIR was lodged against him on February 27th.
The residents of Moonga Nagar allege that it is from the entrance of Hussain’s house that three people, including a special assistant of the Intelligence Bureau, Ankit Sharma, were dragged inside. Sharma’s badly mutilated body was found the next morning in a drain nearby. Anoop Singh, a student, and a resident of Moonga Nagar, was hit by a bullet on the road outside his house here. It hit the corner of his neck and made a clean exit. “I was standing outside when a bullet hit me from somewhere,” he says.
At Moonga Nagar, Gokul Chand Bharadwaj, the priest of a small temple, watched in horror as stones and sharp objects like axe-blades were thrown at him from the Muslim part of the locality. “I locked my daughter and myself in a room thinking that now we would be killed,” he says. They were finally rescued by neighbours.
Today, Moonga Nagar is divided. Neither side goes to the other’s area. From their side, a Muslim group silently watched people who had assembled on this side on the afternoon of February 26th. A resident of the Hindu pocket, OP Singh Sengar’s daughter got married a day before. The family had prepared food for over 1,000 guests. But only a hundred could reach. “We are not asking for anything but security,” he says.
This divide is now visible across all localities in northeast Delhi. On February 27th, people started coming out in small numbers in the nearby Brijpuri area. On February 25th, at about 4 pm, a mob broke into the Arun Public School owned by former Congress MLA, Bhishm Sharma. They broke the school’s CCTV cameras first. In the next three hours, the attackers robbed whatever they could and then set the building on fire. They also destroyed things that could not be destroyed by fire, like ceiling fans and urinals.
“I must have made a dozen calls to the Police Control Room,” says Jyoti Rani, the school principal, “but I never got connected.” By the time the mob was done with the school, it had swelled to about 1,000, according to several eyewitnesses. This crowd then targeted a shop belonging to one Mr Kapoor and then a house belonging to Virender Chaudhary. Then they set fire to the office-cum-residence of Sanjay Kaushik, a distributor of cooking oil. On February 27th, Kaushik stood outside his burnt home, not knowing what to do. “I have lost everything except the shirt and pants I am wearing,” he said as he broke into tears. Outside his house, a red drum lay on the ground with an inflammable material leaking from it. “The mob had brought many such drums to destroy this part completely,” he says.
As the mob continued its attack, a Hindu mob took shape on the other side. From 4 pm to 7 pm, the two sides fought pitched battles as the police, even after being called repeatedly by scores of people, remained absent. “They [the Muslims] were receiving supplies of stones loaded on cycle rickshaws from behind,” says Kuldeep, who was among those who led the counterattack. Residents allege that one resident, Rahul Thakur, was shot here by a Muslim shopkeeper who is absconding since.
Finally, a few policemen came from the nearby station at around 7 pm, followed by the Rapid Action Force. “I have no hesitation in saying that once they arrived, our boys went to the other side and launched an attack,” says Surinder Khanna, the president of the Brijpuri Resident Welfare Association.
The first attack on the other side took place on the Farooqiya mosque and madarsa where the imam and the muezzin were beaten up. On the morning of February 26th, Kishwar Jahan, 38, watched from her house opposite the mosque as a few men returned with a man in police uniform. They broke CCTV cameras and then set the mosque on fire. They also damaged a site of an anti-CAA/NRC sit-in.
Jahan’s husband drives a rickshaw and she had six children. Their eldest son died over a month ago after developing sudden pain in the abdomen. “My heart is nowhere,” she says, “I do not know how to deal with this pain and the pain of losing my son.”
Depending on where you go, one gets to hear what led to this, between Kapil Mishra and Waris Pathan. Both sides claim they were attacked first. Both sides say they did not attack the other and that the religious places of the other side are safe in their area. Both sides now say they want security and nothing else. As pitched battles were fought between Jafrabad and Maujpur on February 25th and 26th, both sides pointed at select houses from where they claimed organised attacks were launched. At Bhajanpura, the owner of the coaching centre said something which a lot of people say openly in Hindu localities: “Monday [February 24th] belonged to them, Tuesday [February 25th] belonged to us.” At the time of going to press, 38 people were confirmed dead in the clashes.
Normally a man’s domain, in northeast Delhi today, women from both sides are coming out and saying the other side needs to be controlled. On February 26th, Hindu women in Maujpur could be seen taunting policemen that they need to wear bangles if they cannot control the other side. On both February 25th and 26th, Muslim women threw acid and boiling water from their rooftops on policemen.
At Bhajanpura, Sharma, the RWA president, stands at the point where the locality gets divided. “You know, my own people used to taunt me that I have too many friends from the other side,” he says.