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In Depth | Delhi violence: Lives lost, homes burnt, shops looted — but the politics goes on

Locals could be heard on television telling reporters that the rioters came from outside, and many of the families belonging to either Hindu or Muslim communities were given shelter and protected by others

February 28, 2020 / 08:12 PM IST
Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

Current pictures from violence-hit northeast Delhi stir memories of communal riots of 1984 or 1992; or the rioting in Gujarat in 2002.

The streets are more or less empty. Rather, the only people present are weapon-wielding rioters breaking into shops, chanting slogans, destroying vehicles, torching houses— even schools were not spared— and pelting stones from the rooftops of buildings.

Reporters have spoken and written of walking through lanes and roads with plumes of smoke. Religious structure of one or the other community stand vandalized and there are anecdotes that are disgusting and spine-chilling in equal measure.

But how did it all start? And how did we get to this?

Just as past instances of communal violence suggest, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the violence started, who started it or when it all began. Moreover, it is a controversial and often hotly debated claim, with both sides alleging that the other started the violence, and theirs was just a response — a debate that is often made inconsequential by what follows.

What we do know, however, is that the riots in Delhi did not start out as communal clashes. In what was reportedly a continuation of the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC), late on February 22, some women sat in protest at Jaffrabad Metro Station.

Rioters set ablaze a shop during clashes between those against and those supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act in at Gokalpuri in north east Delhi on Feb 25, 2020 (PTI)

Rioters set ablaze a shop during clashes between those against and those supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act in at Gokalpuri in north east Delhi on Feb 25, 2020 (PTI)

Reports suggest that the police were unable to get the protesters to move, and, after the situation turned tense, paramilitary forces were deployed in the area by late evening. However, the police has faced criticism for being unaware of the women gathering around the area in the first place.

And this, despite the distance between the police station and the metro station being only 1.2 kilometers, according to a report.

By February 23, the number of protesters at the site increased. With tensions simmering in the region, Joint Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar visited the area, and members of Aman Committees were called in to reason with the protesters.

At around the same time, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra issued an ultimatum to the protesters. In a video that has now gone viral, he tells what seems to be a crowd that they will take to streets if the protesters don’t clear the roads until the time US President Donald Trump leaves.

He also took to Twitter, urging people to prevent "another Shaheen Bagh" from taking place near the Jaffrabad metro station. While that tweet has since been taken down, his video delivering the ultimatum — with DCP Ved Prakash Surya standing right next to him — is still available.

Representative image

After that, stone-pelting between two groups, ostensibly those who were in support of the citizenship act and those who had gathered to oppose it, started the first instances of violence. That day, reports suggest, 15 people were injured.

Over the course of that night, the violence began to spread to other areas of northeast Delhi. By this time, what had started as an anti-CAA sit-in and a pro-CAA march had quickly turned into communal rioting.

The area

February 24 morning was when Donald Trump was scheduled to arrive in India on his maiden visit as US President. Landing in Ahmedabad, where he was to receive a grand welcome, the American leader was scheduled to make his way to Agra and from thereon to Delhi.

In Delhi, reports suggest, the area where Trump was to address a press conference and sign bilateral agreements with India was close to where rioting had continued throughout the day — and incidents of violence from across northeast Delhi were still being reported.

The total population in northeast Delhi, according to a report by The Economic Times, is 22.41 lakh. According to the 2011 Census, out of this, 68.22 percent are Hindus while 29.34 percent are Muslims.

The report states that it is also one of the most densely populated districts of Delhi, with majority of the people working as carpenters, labourers, electricians and masons.

delhi violence (1)

There are also small-time businesses in the area — businesses which the blood-thirsty mobs attacked and destroyed, sometimes looting them, or burning them down.

Within a span of three days of rioting, reports of violence had come in from areas like Maujpur, Karawal Nagar, Chand Bagh, Babarpur, Shivpuri, Gokulpuri, Brahampuri, Ashok Nagar, Seelampur and Kardampuri, among others.

More often than not, locals could be heard on television telling reporters that the rioters came from outside, and many of the families belonging to either Hindu or Muslim communities were given shelter and protected by others.

But there were also instances when one lane turned on the other.

Nights and days of horror

Much like stories that come out of every instance of communal rioting, there were stories of despair, disgust, horror and pain and then there were stories that gave hope.

A pitched battle between members of the two communities on the New Jafrabad Road ended with the rampaging Hindu mob setting fire to the building's ground floor and shouting at the Muslim occupants of the building— who were holding them at bay all this while by pelting stones, sticks and flower pots— that they would be trapped and charred within 15 minutes, according to a report by Hindustan Times.

In Brijpuri, a Muslim mob reportedly climbed a mosque at the back of Arun Modern Public Senior Secondary School, broke into the building via its third floor terrace and torched the building, leaving a trail of burnt books, broken benches and half-charred boards, reports suggest.

Image: Reuters Image: Reuters

As Abdul Samar prayed inside a moque in Ashok Nagar, a mob broke in, chanting religious slogans and brandishing weapons, attacking worshippers like Samar. The rioters then allegedly hosted a saffron flag atop the mosque's minaret. According to a report by CNN, they also killed the muezzin.

"They brought batons and stones inside the mosque and the people outside had guns as well. We had to stop praying and run away," Samar told the news channel.

A Muslim mob walked through a road dividing Bhajanpura and Chand Bagh, entered a service lane housing shops mostly belonging to the Hindus and stopped outside a four-storey coaching institute run by Naveen Gupta.

The mob had already set fire to a petrol station and the many vehicles there, and now they tried doing the same to the building, where Gupta, his 70 students and about a dozen staff members had locked themselves in. Unsuccessful in doing that, the mob then torched vehicles and business establishments outside.

Image: Reuters Image: Reuters

These are only some of the instances of horror that unfolded day after day, night after night in the areas that witnessed large-scale violence— a communal fury that was marked by shooting, and instances of mindless, unimaginable atrocities.

The case of Intelligence Bureau official Ankit Sharma, whose body was recovered from a drain, is case in point.

According to locals quoted by various news channels and newspapers, Sharma was allegedly attacked by a mob at Chand Bagh and beaten to death.

Sharma's family has alleged that local Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) corporator Tahir Hussain had killed Sharma, and the police has lodged an FIR against Hussain, charging him with murder. AAP, meanwhile, has suspended Hussain from primary membership of the party.

But in these examples of madness taking over to pitch humans against humans and citizens against citizens, there were also examples of basic human decency.

At Maujpur's Gurudwara Mohalla, according to a report by The Indian Express, Champa Verma, Mohd Imran and Balpreet Singh Kalsi kept vigil together. Residents of the lane also collected Rs 4,000 to get a metal gate fixed so that non-residents could be kept out, and they kept 'pehra' throughout the chaos.

Image: Reuters Image: Reuters

When a mob of "non-resident Muslims" tried to barge into lane number 4, they were stopped by the local young men who were on patrolling duty. "They had sticks and seemed angry... They could have harmed the non-Muslim homes in the area. We made sure they couldn't proceed," Salman Ansari, who was on the 'pehra' duty, told the newspaper.

In Ashok Nagar, reports The Times of India, as Muslim residents found their houses reduced to smouldering ruins, Hindu neighbors opened their doors for them.

"... When we thought we would be reduced to living on the streets, we were helped by our Hindu friends in the neighborhood," Mohammed Rashid, one of the residents of the area, told the newspaper.

"They have been with us throughout, and have put us up in their homes. We have been living here for the past 25 years and never in these years have we had a single discord with any of our Hindu neighbors. We all co-exist here like a family," Rashid said.

Follow LIVE updates from situation in Delhi here. 

Criticism mounts against Delhi Police

Throughout the rioting, the Delhi Police has come under criticism for inaction, or not acting at the right time. Observers have pointed out the fact that the Union Home Ministry had to send in National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to control what was a local law and order situation.

Many of the instances narrated by locals to news channels and newspapers suggest that while the police was constantly being alerted about the situation, there was inadequate action from their part. Reports and third0party videos have also suggested how, while mobs walked through the streets and lanes, the police did little to stop them— even when religious slogans were being chanted in their presence.

Even as the paramilitary forces were called in, inner lanes continued to burn, and there were no preventive arrests made. According reports, there was also no scanning of roofs— from where stone-pelting was being reported— done.

Moreover, even after 27-year-old Shahrukh Khan allegedly fired eight rounds in Maujpur, and images of him threatening a police official went viral, he managed to flee and the police has been unable to trace him yet.

Image: Reuters Image: Reuters

"Hours after photos and videos of Shahrukh firing the weapon went viral, local police had identified him and informed their seniors. However, no timely decision over his detention or arrest was taken by senior officers of Eastern range since they were busy with the riots. In the meantime, he managed to escape along with his family members after locking his house in Arvind Nagar, Ghonda," a police officer told The Indian Express.

The police force also suffered losses. A head constable, Rattan Lal, lost his life while a DCP was grievously injured during the course of the rioting.

The aftermath

The police has said while the situation in northeast Delhi remains tense, it is under control and no fresh incidents of violence have been reported. With improving situation, the administration has said the ban on large gatherings will be removed in phases and for 10 hours on February 28.

The aftermath for those who bore the brunt of the riots is a sobering affair. Reports suggest that even as the families of those who lost something— members, businesses, homes— pick up pieces to try and put their life back, the political parties continue their blame-game. The BJP has blamed the AAP and Congress, and vice versa.

Image: Reuters Image: Reuters

The Delhi government has announced compensation for kin of the deceased and those who lost their homes in the riots, and the police has formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe into the violence.

The police also informed that it has lodged 18 FIRs and 106 people have been arrested. These FIRs, however, do not include those against leaders who gave out alleged hate speeches— for that, the police has sought more time from the Delhi High Court.

The death toll from the violence continues to rise, with 42 reportedly dead and more than 200 injured. As life for those affected by Delhi riots limps back to normalcy, a Minister in neighbouring Haryana said on February 28 that riots "keep on happening" and they are a "part of life".

Atharva Pandit
first published: Feb 28, 2020 05:18 pm