Mohammed Amir’s body being taken for burial in Mustafabad, February 29 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
As bodies continue to be fished out of drains in northeast Delhi, a debate rages over the semantics of the violence that had consumed 49 lives till March 3rd. Some insist that it be called a riot because Hindus also died in significant numbers, though the number of Muslim victims is at least double. Those who call it a pogrom acknowledge this but say that the state apparatus (police) only helped one group (Hindus) against another (Muslims). No matter what one calls it, there is enough evidence on the ground that the police failed both Hindus and Muslims.
As clashes broke out between the two communities, the police may have allied with the Hindus, and in some cases become part of the mob that attacked Muslim pockets. But, overall, both Hindus and Muslims were left at the mercy of the mobs outside their doors as the police failed to respond to distress calls. After the storm abates, an investigation into the failure of police response, especially its control room, will go a long way in ensuring that such violence does not recur.
Consider the example of the stretch that passes through Brijpuri towards Mustafabad and then becomes part of the tiraha (tri-road) with Shiv Vihar on one side and Karawal Nagar on the other. On February 24th, a mob, purportedly formed in the Muslim-dominated Mustafabad, fanned both sides—one towards Brijpuri and the other towards a small Hindu pocket near the tiraha. At about 3 pm that day, 20-year-old Dilbar Negi, a waiter at Anil Sweets, entered its godown for lunch. As the mob appeared in the lane, attacking houses and shops, Negi’s co-workers managed to escape. But somehow Negi got stuck on the top floor. “Some of us were stuck on the other side and could not come out,” says Ankit Pal, the owner of Anil Sweets. In the evening, says Pal, a section of the mob broke into their godown. The same night, they returned and set it afire. Several houses and other properties belonging to Hindus were burnt down. “We kept calling the police. But they said they had spoken to the local MLA who assured them that everything was normal,” says Ajit Tomar, 29.
It was the next morning that Pal managed to visit his godown where he discovered Negi’s badly burnt torso. The mob had dismembered him.
The same mob attacked DRP School in the vicinity, run by Pankaj Sharma. “At 3 pm, my daughter rushed to my quarters [inside the school premises] and said: Papa, bhaago [run],” says Roop Singh, the caretaker of the school. As he came out to see what was happening, some among the mob spotted him. Singh says many were carrying guns and at least one of them fired at him. Singh and his family jumped out from the rear to save themselves. “I could hear them shout: goli maaro, goli maaro [shoot, shoot],” he says.
After he took shelter at a friend’s house, Roop Singh says he kept calling the police and the fire department. “Par number nahi mila [the numbers were unreachable],” he says.
The mob lurked there for hours moving from one classroom to another, one floor to another, till nothing was left to break or destroy. They set the school on fire and smashed every piece of furniture. The adjoining Rajdhani School, owned by a Muslim, was spared.
One of the salient features of this violence has been how tall buildings in many areas were used as launching pads for attacks. In the Chand Bagh area, the terrace of the Aam Aadmi Party Councillor Tahir Hussain’s four-storeyed building was used by a mob to throw stones and petrol bombs across the road in the Hindu pocket of Moonga Nagar. On the Shiv Vihar tiraha, the terrace of Rajdhani School turned into a similar pad. From there, the mob threw ropes to slither down into the compound of the DRP School and destroy it. “The destruction is so complete that we have not been able to salvage even a piece of paper,” says the DRP School’s owner, Kamal Sharma.
Another mob went on to the other side of Mustafabad, burning and looting property owned by Hindus, including another school, run by former Congress MLA Bhishm Sharma.
In Shiv Vihar, a similar absence of police ensured total destruction of Muslim properties. On February 24th, as a mob armed with stones and rods began to push inside the lane where his house stands, Delhi Police Head Constable Mohammed Irfan made a series of frantic calls to his department, asking for help.
“I must have called the control room at least 30-40 times, but all they could tell me was: they are receiving too many calls,” he says. As the mob pressed on, Irfan and his other Muslim neighbours hid in a house at the farthest end of the lane. “Humne us ghar ki saari lightein band kar di [we switched off all the lights in that house],” he says.
As nobody from the police came, Irfan first called the district police chief and then his joint commissioner, who asked him to call the assistant commissioner of police in his area. The officer finally came 90 minutes after Irfan managed to connect to him and took them away. Between the first tide of the attack and their rescue, eight hours had passed.
Four days later, Irfan stood outside his damaged house like a thief, looking around cautiously. He had come to take his uniform and the few other clothes he could salvage. “Hurry up, it is still not safe,” he told one of his friends before they rushed away to the safety of a relative’s house in a Muslim-majority area nearby.
Irfan’s neighbour, Mohammed Nazar, a government schoolteacher, had also come to take his family’s clothes. “I wouldn’t have come, but I need to join duty, so I had to come here,” he said. His hand trembled while he showed us a video of the time when rioters appeared outside their lane. “Yeh danga nahi tha, junoon tha [It was not a riot but a frenzy],” he says.
As in the tiraha area, what is ironical is how the property of the ‘other’ has been left intact. In Shiv Vihar, next to Nazar’s house, a house belonging to one Shrivastav was left unharmed. “What can I tell you? People came and pointed out our houses to the rioters. We know them, we have eaten with them,” Irfan said.
The entire Muslim population of Shiv Vihar is gone. Most of the houses owned by the community have been reduced to ashes. As one walks through the lanes of Shiv Vihar, the vengeance with which rioters have damaged property become clear. To inflict maximum damage, cooking gas cylinders were dragged into the properties after which these were set on fire; the resulting blasts have brought down parts of houses.
In one of the lanes, beyond a barricade made of wooden logs, a few people sat outside their homes, keeping an eye on the main road. Here, the eight Hindu households managed to save the houses of their Muslim neighbours from the wrath of the mob. While the Muslim families have left, even the Hindu families had shifted women and children to other areas after the tension built up.
“If a mob came shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, we knew the code. We came out shouting back: ‘Jai Shri Ram’. We would tell them: yahan pe sab apne hai [here, everyone is our own],” says Harish Pal, who works with a private firm. “Had the other mob come, shouting azadi slogans, I am sure, our Muslim brothers would have saved us in the same way,” he says.
Pal says Hindus and Muslims have been living here for years and never experienced anything like this before. “I was here in 1992 when the Babri mosque fell,” he says, “but we felt no tremors then.”
Like their Muslim neighbours, Pal and others also kept calling the police. But there was no response.
Meanwhile, people kept getting killed, wherever the other group could find them in isolation. On the evening of February 26th, two brothers from Mustafabad, Mohammed Amir and Mohammed Hashim, were returning after meeting their ailing grandfather. Even as they got down at the Metro station close to their house, they were in touch with their family. But, soon afterwards, their mobiles turned unreachable. The family waited for them the entire night and then went to the police station. A few hours later, their bodies were fished out of a drain.
As a huge crowd gathered outside their home, women jostled with men to get a glimpse of their wounded faces, even as a maulvi advised them to stay back. “Ghar chale jaayiye, mahaul theek nahi hai [go home, the situation is not good],” one of them kept saying.
The entire Muslim population of Shiv Vihar is gone. Most of the houses owned by the community have been reduced to ashes
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Among the crowd was Rizwan, a postgraduate from Jamia Millia Islamia, who said he was preparing for a competitive exam. “I never thought I will witness a riot in my life,” he said. One of his friends showed us a video in which he is seen rescuing a Hindu man identified as Sandeep from one of the lanes in Mustafabad. The man had come to deliver milk, when he was surrounded by an angry mob, baying for his blood. “I convinced them to leave him unharmed,” Rizwan’s friend said. “I kept in touch with him on his mobile till he confirmed that he had reached home safely,” he said.
AT THE GTB HOSPITAL, a man from Bijnore, Feroze, held a picture of his brother, Aftaab, who went missing from Shiv Vihar on the evening of February 25th. He had come to meet a contractor.
On March 3rd, his body was found in a drain.
In the absence of any assistance from government authorities, people were finding it difficult to go through the process of finding their kith and kin. Volunteers from a legal aid cell were helping victims. “It is a very complicated process,” said one of the volunteer lawyers, Mumtaz Hashmi. A family member has to come to the mortuary first and get in touch with a sub-inspector named Gyanender to identify the body. Then he has to go the local police station and confirm to the in-charge that he has identified the body. Then the body will be given its name and will be registered. Then the police officer calls the mortuary and gives his nod to the post-mortem.
On February 29th, Jajma waited for an opportunity to get a glimpse of her son, Munish, 22, a labourer who was killed in the violence. His body had been wrongly claimed by two other families. That afternoon, as his brother entered the mortuary, he realised that somebody else’s corpse was being taken for the post-mortem under his brother’s name. He alerted the hospital staff after which Munish’s body was identified again and taken for post-mortem. Jajma, who stood listlessly outside, now went inside. Minutes later, she came out, crying bitterly, overcome with a mother’s grief at losing her son.
Mumtaz’s colleague Farhan stood in another corner, helping people after post-mortem formalities. “One ambulance without a cooling system has gone to Bihar. In a few cases, we have sent two bodies in an ambulance,” he says.
Another group of social activists helped people with monetary assistance to complete last rites. Dilbar Negi’s family was paid Rs 6,000 by this group to enable them to cremate him. “In the mortuary, everyone becomes the same; there is no Hindu or Muslim,” said one of the group members, Salauddin Siddiqui.
By February 29th, 35 people had been identified, out of which 22 were sent to their native places. Four bodies were badly burnt. A woman called Gulshan had to undergo a DNA test for the doctors to confirm whether a charred leg that they received from Shiv Vihar belonged to her father, Anwar.
The dead, according to Farhan, includes a mad man.
“In this cycle of hate, he may have been the sanest man in the entire northeast Delhi,” he said.