The violence in Delhi resulted in damages being skewed towards one community, driving many below the poverty line
Toufiq Akhtar is 25, studied up to standard eight in Bareilly, his home town in Uttar Pradesh, and set up a small footwear shop at a market raised by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in Gokalpuri to the north-east of the national capital.
The shop was leased out to Akhtar for a monthly rent of Rs 1650 by Vinod Kumar who runs an eatery next door. Akhtar’s outlet, called Latest Footwear, was looted and cleaned out when Hindu mobs set upon the market on February 25, two days after the communal violence began consuming the north-east.
Locals, Hindus and Muslims, averred that the mobsters belonged to the Bajrang Dal, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate, and the Hindu Sena, a militant outfit headquartered at the Hindu Mahasabha office.
Akhtar represents a generation of young Muslims that aspired to a decent lifestyle, lived preferably outside the ghetto that his family was consigned to since after Partition. Therefore, he said he looked at Delhi as an option and aborted his studies.
There was more than a trace of cynicism and helplessness when he said, “Private and public sector jobs are out of the reach of most Muslims like me unless one comes from an elite family. Therefore, I had to turn to some form of self-employment and build my life.”
The seed money to start his shop came from his family. Akhtar pegged his losses at around Rs 8 lakh but because he did not insure his outlet, he had nothing to fall back upon but for the security deposit that his landlord will hopefully repatriate. There hangs another story.
Akhtar’s Hindu landlord, whose house is right above his eatery, told his tenant that he will not rent his place again to him for fear of another attack on Muslims. Indeed, if Akhtar’s shop escaped getting burnt, it was only because his and the adjoining properties were Hindu-owned.
Where Muslim stores were self-owned and stood alone, they were plundered and set ablaze. So accurately marked were the Muslim retailers that few, if any, from the community bought the theory that the violence was instigated and fanned by “outsiders” from UP who accepted blood money and the locals had no role.
Stories of Hindus and Muslims mutually saving one another from the goons invariably interspersed a grim narrative but bolstered the “outsiders” theory that in hindsight romanticised and falsified a backdrop in which the two communities just about established a working relationship through the years but shared little or no bonhomie.
In the absence of an abiding reciprocal trust even in the areas with a mixed demography, both Hindus and Muslims were susceptible to internalising the stereotypes about one another that was engendered in a tense ambience.
It is easy to understand why the RSS-BJP propaganda, emanating from a false picture of the Muslims that questioned the community’s “loyalty” to India, found takers. Post the 1947 Partition and the transfer of population, the North and West of India became fertile soil to foster the RSS’s fanciful accounts of Muslims, based on myths and quasi-myths.
Victim after victim confirmed that the scale of destruction was inconceivable without local help and connivance. Indeed, after prodding, the owner of a provision store, a Baniya and a BJP votary by his admission, conceded that the area’s Hindus played a big part in the violence. But he also added that the response was “retaliatory”.
“If we didn’t answer them (the Muslims) back with stones and firearms, we might have been massacred. Hindus saved themselves because we are inspired by (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi and (UP chief minister) Yogi Adityanath,” said Keshav Gupta.
The trail of evidence speaks contrariwise: no temple, shops and homes of Hindus in Gokalpuri were touched. On the other hand, the Jamati mosque was gutted down while a tentative estimate had it that nearly 70 Muslim homes were ransacked and those that were owned by members of the community, incinerated.
Akhtar paid two months’ rent and a security deposit to his landlord as surety. Most Hindu shopkeepers in the market were ambiguous about returning the advance payment. Having lost their documents in the melee, Muslims said they had no “proof” to reclaim their money.
Akhtar says if and when he got the advance back, by a “stroke of luck”, he might think of starting a micro trade like selling vegetables and fruits on a cart. “No Hindu landlord will lease his property to a Muslim again,” he says resignedly. February 25 shattered his dreams of building a life in Delhi, getting married and with “Allah’s blessings”, eventually possessing his own shop and home.
The violence broke the economic spine of Muslims who used the limited spaces that were available to them to live a life of relative calm and independence. Not far from the DDA shops stands a tyre market that was originally located near the Jama Masjid on Chandni Chowk.
Eighteen years ago, the Muslims, who vended tyres and auto parts, were relocated to Gokalpuri that entailed hardship because their homes were in Old Delhi around the mosque. The shift meant a long commute but Naseeruddin, who owns four shops in the market, said they were reconciled to the inevitability.
On the night of February 24, after the market was closed and locked, the lone guard who stood vigil informed Muslims that a mob of about 60 men set the shops afire. “We heard rumours that mischief was afoot. The attackers would be paid Rs 5000 each to carry out the operation but what could we do except down the shutters and leave?” said Naseeruddin.
The area’s police station is a hop, skip and jump away from the tyre market but not a single cop stepped out when the fire blazed. Nothing remained of the market, except clumps of molten rubber, shards of metal and the acrid odour of sulphur and carbon black. No Muslim insured his business so the prospect of starting afresh remained bleak.
If one objective of the violence was to choke the sources of sustenance of Muslims, the other intention was to target the places of worship as a weapon of humiliation.
Like the Farooqia mosque in Brijpuri, a demographically mixed locality. Two days after the mosque was besieged, the floor was splattered with the blood of the muezzin, Jalaluddin, who survived the murderous assault because he was among the few to be immediately shifted to the nearest government hospital.
Around 6 pm of February 25, when the faithful gathered for the evening namaz, a rioting mob, armed with pistols and lathis, entered the mosque. The residential students in an adjoining madarsa were quickly escorted out to safer refuge but the Imam and the muezzin were fired upon.
A Shaheen Bagh-like sit-in on the road opposite the mosque, with catchy slogans, was apparently the provocation for the attack. Two local Hindus, both of who owned shops and were RSS “swayamsevaks”, were seen firing from atop their shop-cum-home. In Shiv Vihar, that was impacted the most, two mosques, the Auliya and Madina masjids, were desecrated. According to Amanatullah Khan, the chairman of the Delhi Waqf Board and an Aam Admi Party (AAP) legislator, 19 mosques were vandalised.
Schools were the other object of attack although in Brijpuri and Shiv Vihar, Hindu and Muslim owned schools were picked out. Bhisham Sharma, who owned the CBSE-affiliated Arun Modern School in Brij Vihar, is a former Congress legislator. Sharma alleged that hours before his school was set upon, Haji Mohammad Yunus, the AAP MLA from Mustafabad, had a peace march in the area and assured the Hindus they were safe.
Brijpuri is a segment in the Mustafabad constituency that has a large minority electorate. Sharma claimed that Yunus then went to the Farooqia masjid and spoke to Muslims. “My guess is that they plotted the attack on Hindus there,” he alleged although it is unclear who cast the first stone. Little remains of Sharma’s school that is close to the Farooqia mosque. The school’s rooftop, Muslims alleged, served as a “vantage point” to fire on the mosque.
In Shiv Vihar, not far from Brijpuri, two schools came in the line of fire: the DRP Convent Public School managed by the Dayanand Anglo Vedic College Trust and the Rajdhani Public School run by Faisal Farooq, described as an “eminent and inspired educationist” on the website.
Here, the DRP school, managed by Pankaj Sharma, bore the brunt of the onslaught that was carried out from the rooftop of the Rajdhani school, standing cheek by jowl, with extraordinary precision through petrol bombs and boulders propelled by a mechanised catapult that has become a local legend. The damage to the Rajdhani school was limited by comparison.
Both the schools had Hindu and Muslim students in varying numbers but the gap was not wide enough to open either to the charge of partisanship. The comparison - it must be emphasised that the difference in magnitude was an exception and not a rule - invariably spurred Hindus to paint themselves as the “victims” of a concerted pre-planned offensive by Muslims in the aftermath of the BJP’s rout in the Delhi elections. Can a single instance even remotely bolster such a preposterous belief?
It is true that in this part of Shiv Vihar the violence assumed the character of a clash because both Muslims and Hindus agreed that police presence was minimal on the first two days.
Without the police backing, Hindus sounded like they had lost a right arm. SK Parihar, an advocate, asked, “If the union home ministry controlled a big state like Jammu and Kashmir after the dilution of Article 370, what stopped the Centre from stemming the violence in one part of Delhi?”
It later emerged after extensive conservations with local residents, Hindus and Muslims, that the Parihars, who own a large, sprawling house on a huge plot of land, gave the space to the Hindu mobs and even allowed them to use the top of a car park in their possession to fire on the Muslims.
Calls to the cops from the area leaders of both the communities went unheeded. Some Muslims, who were trapped inside their homes as these went up in flames, said when they gave their names on the police emergency numbers, 100 or 112, they were peremptorily told that help will not be available.
The perspective on Shiv Vihar from the Hindu majority side was entirely different: as one approached the place through Karawal Nagar, the manifestations of Hindu militancy were brutish, loud and clear.
At Prem Nagar, Jagdish Pandit, who markets cattle fodder, harked back to the Delhi election results declared on February 11 and maintained that the celebrations by the Muslims “from the other side” came as a dare to the Hindus.
“Our colony is totally Hindu barring a couple of Muslim families who live in rented accommodation. That day, nearly 15,000 Muslims descended here, took off their shirts, shouted slogans and attacked the office of Jagdish Pradhan (the BJP candidate who lost to Haji Yunus from Mustafabad). We were hurt and angry. On February 24, again Muslim men zipped through our area on their motorbikes but didn’t raise slogans. I asked one of them what the matter was. They said (Donald) Trump (the US President) was in Delhi and they would stage demonstrations to draw his attention to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA). I sensed trouble and we started preparing to confront them,” said Pandit.
The Muslims in this part of Shiv Vihar were decidedly vulnerable because they were fewer in number and poorer, being relatively more recent migrants from UP. They lost everything: those who had their homes stared on near-empty spaces and seemed reconciled to spending a longer time in a relief camp than what they initially thought.
Indeed, those who lived as tenants in Hindu homes knew they cannot return. Their documents - prized far more than gold and silver - are gone so how will they pass the arduous CAA “proof centered” test?
To begin at the beginning with Toufiq Akhtar. Half in disgust, Akhtar wished Shaheen Bagh had not happened. “Our problems began when another round of protests started near the Jaffrabad metro station. CAA is politics and what matters most to me know is finding a way to keep body and soul together and not politics,” he said.
Was the Delhi violence a sleight of hand to render the vulnerable Muslims completely defenceless before the state and neutralise the opposition to the citizenship act?