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“Ghar banwaye, kiraya de ya khana khayein? Ya toh ek mar jayega ya ek aur attack ho jayega” (Should be remake our broken homes now, pay higher rent or manage to get food? Either one would be dead doing all this, or be dead from another mob attack) says a sobbing Pari, sitting on the debris of her broken home that was burnt down by a violent mob on February 24th, 2020.
Pari, staying with her husband, is one of many families who lost their own homes during a pogrom targeting Muslim households one-by-one across the narrow lanes of Shiv Vihar, Bhajanpura, Jaffarabad and other parts of North-Eastern Delhi.
Eight months since the violence wreaked havoc in their lives and destroyed their means of subsistence, we spoke to members of grieving families who returned to their homes after escaping. Stories of women like Pari, Rukhsar, Haya and the condition of their families, continue to reflect a sense of utter helplessness, and a life that is marked by constant state of fear and communal tension.
Many respondents who we spoke to still don’t understand what happened or triggered the violence. Asiff, a lone resident in his 50s living with his only daughter in Shiv Vihar, says: “I have been living here for more than 35 years, and I have never seen anything like this before. There was communal harmony between Hindu-Muslim households always and there was never any animosity between the neighbors too, irrespective of their caste or religion.”
Breaking down while speaking, Asiff adds, “Within no time, our entire area was engulfed in a thick fire and dense black smoke that made it impossible for anyone to breathe… The smoke stayed in the air for weeks after the violence ended. My entire house was looted with all our clothes, my dead wife’s jewelry stolen… (showing us his broken cupboard)”
On inquiring whether it was an external mob that caused the actual violence, or was involved in the looting, burning down of houses (as the Home Minister said in his Parliament address), Asiff (and others shaking their head in agreement) say:
“That’s a plain lie being sold. It was clear who the mob was targeting… When the mob came here (i.e. in the lanes of Shiv Vihar) they burnt down houses that were owned by Muslim families.. Wherever Muslims were staying on rent (i.e. in Hindu owned homes), these houses were either left alone or were looted.. If you observe closely, none of those were burnt down (or even looted like ours).. How could any external mob know who stays where and owns what house?”
Haya, a resident in her late 20s in Bhajanpura, cries, as she musters the courage to speak: “They took all my jewelry, our hard-earned money, and our clothes as well. They didn’t even spare our children’s clothes. Our mobile van was burnt down as well”. Pari, staying close to Haya, continues to narrate her harrowing story and how she dodged an iron rod that was thrown by a masked mob man which ended up hitting her relative instead. Her husband, Hashim, worked as a street vendor selling boiled eggs before the pogrom. It took him decades to build the house he saw being set on fire in front of him.
This isn’t it.
Kabir, an old resident from Old Gari Mendu Village (in Shahdara), one of the worst affected areas during the pogrom, recalls how he, his wife had to run away with a 2 months old daughter to find a place where they could hide when the mob broke in. “The masked mob men kept shouting Jai Sri Ram as they kept throwing petrol bombs and burning whatever they could find in ‘Muslim-owned houses and business shops’”.
Each affected family still continues to be in a state of absolute shock.
When asked, what has the state and central administration done since February to provide relief, or ensure rehabilitation of those who lost their houses, business-shops, and other belongings, each one’s response evoke even lesser hope.
Asiff says, “I tried to submit all records to claim compensation for loss in property but haven’t received anything from the state-administration. Despite the SDM (Sub-District Magistrate) promising relief for everyone affected, less than 30–40% families have actually received any money or support. When we go to his office now, his staff keeps saying-there is no money available to offer any more relief for those affected… The pandemic, it seems, has made our lives even worse”
Pari adds: “Not even social organizations who visited our houses, promising aid and support have come out to help the affected. We have been left to manage everything on our own. Some of us borrowed excessively from relatives and others while returning to Delhi and are not sure if we can even return this borrowed money.. Debt is eating us up” Hashim, adds it is extremely difficult for the street-business to pick up as local consumer demand continues to be weak in the area.
One of our field-researchers inquired, “How do you see the role of the police in all this?”. On hearing the question, most of the respondents’ faces turned red with anger and expressed a deep-buried resentment.
Kabir still asks and wonders why the police failed to handle the situation well in time. “The video of a man in red shirt, firing with his gun, openly in public even when surrounded by police personnel, surfaced all over media.. Even you know what the police didn’t do.. Such imagery of lawlessness in broad daylight, evoked a sense of terror and horror in the hearts of all of us…”
Most respondents spoke on how police personnel kept blocking escape routes (especially in areas around Shiv Vihar) and were totally “complicit in the violence seen over the two days”.
A very disturbing account of Zakir (from Bhajanpura) emerges as he said: “I saw the SHO of the Police getting a call from a local political leader.. I heard him speaking loudly in front of me, as he said ‘koi nahi sir ji, aaj ek bhi katulla nahi bachega’ (Don’t worry Sir, not even a single circumcised man would be spared today)… How could anyone expect that we would get any help from the police”.
Asiff responds, “When we went to report the damage done to a local police station, as most members of state-administration advised us to do so after the violence stopped, the local police were rounding up anyone who was there saying they are the actual perpetrators who caused the violence. Are we the ‘perpetrators’ or the ‘victims’?”
On asking how are affected families rehabilitating themselves now and trying to get their ‘normal’ lives back, most were grateful for whatever little help they could find from local organizations, NGOs and community-based aid support that was made available. It was hardly enough to manage one’s subsistence but atleast there was some help on offer. Salman, from Jaffarabad, says: “How long could we have lived in someone’s else’s house in fear, even if they are our relatives? We needed to come back and try to begin our lives somewhere”.
Though, the initial thought of returning to their houses and shops in Delhi startled them with horror. Ahmed says, “There has been no work since the violence broke in.. Everything of mine was destroyed.. Adding to that, the pandemic and the lockdown’s damage on business has almost made it impossible for us to recover adequately.. It would take years now..”
Most affected families are now living on high debt and have taken loans in cash (or through other informal sources) to rebuild their broken homes and get their business started (those who owned one). Many like Asiff, who didn’t have a permanent job before, find it difficult to last on a frugal pension under the current circumstances. Pari and Haya too feel there is little hope of their kids completing their school education as they can no longer manage to pay the school fees.
A chimera of justice (?)
When asked: “Do they except justice for what happened in February?”, we saw most respondents communicating their responses with a long silence, one reflecting hopelessness and a lack of faith in the current police-and judicial due process.
“No one answered our calls when we were desperately asking for help..” says, Zakir. “I even gathered all the videos I managed to take when my shop was being broken into and burnt down, and sent it to the SHO of the local police station but it has been months, despite having all the proof, there has been no investigation, let alone arrest of the perpetrators”.
Hassan, from Old Gari Mendu Village (Shahdara) says, “No one has been arrested for the attacks even though the police know who they are… We know who they are but can’t say anything.. They are all roaming free in front of us..”
Many respondents (who didn’t want to be identified) said they have all filed cases and petitions against certain identified individuals, even politicians and police personnel for their involvement in the violence. No action has yet been taken. At the same time, in its recent affidavit, the Delhi police, alleges that the episodes of violence were “not instigated in a spur of moment (sic)… but were carefully engineered by mischievous elements… who, in pursuit of their motivated agendas, instilled a false fear and panic in the minds of a section of society and provoked/instigated them to take law and order in their hands and resort to violence”.
And, if the police itself is to be found as a party to the offence (and violence perpetuated), the question would be the same as Justice Krishna Iyer once asked, “Who will police ‘the police’?”
Living in fear and mistrust
It was important as researchers for us to try and understand if, despite all the violence seen and experienced by affected victims, was there any evidence of societal and community-led efforts to restore peace, develop an environment of mutual trust between Hindus and Muslims, or has the situation continue to worsen. The response(s) received indicated the latter.
Haqim, from Shiv Vihar adds, “They (Hindu neighbors) turn their faces away from us. It is not the same anymore. What did we do? The mob robbed us, killed, us, destroyed our buildings.. And we received no help from our own neighbors since then”. Most affected families spoke of living in a constant state of fear for their lives and experiencing collective-suspicious, an ‘othering’ and isolation from rest of the others.
Imran, a mechanic who used to have a shop in Bhajanpura, tells how he decided to relocate his shop to another locality but worries that it would not make much difference as “People who used to take my mechanic services now prefer someone from their own community… The work clientele for most of us has radically changed after the violence”. The pogrom, and turn of events since then, it seemed, were a manifestation of the deep-seated feeling of “otherness” to be entrenched in the local societies.
Yunus, standing next to Imran, spoke to us on how even after his factory and house was burnt to the ground and he has tried to build it all back, “There is still a deep sense of fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen next..” Wasim, who like Yunus, managed to rebuild his business godown (selling furniture) tells how many people next to his godown still taunt at him saying, “Taj Mahal bana liya toh kya, phir se tod denge!” (Even if you have remade your business warehouse like it was Taj Mahal, we will take it down again..”
The economic damage, the psychological trauma, fear and anxiety surfacing from the memories of violence experience by a community, has now been aggravated by the constant day-to-day scoffs; exclusion in help with lack of support from local state-administration, along with a conscious ‘othering’ taking place, shows, what Asiff in his words says: “Is the idea of Modi’s Vikas in a Naya Bharat..”
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Names of all respondents have been changed to protect their identity.
All photographs have been taken by Jignesh Mistry (PAIGAM). This field-analysis is part of the Visual Storyboard field-initiative undertaken by Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) in collaboration with PAIGAM (People’s Association in Grassroots Action and Movement).
Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, CNES, Jindal School of Liberal Arts, O.P. Jindal Global University. Jignesh Mistry is a freelance Photojournalist currently working with PAIGAM. Shivani Agarwal is Senior Research Analyst with CNES. Sarah Ayreen Mir is Research Analyst with CNES. Shrrijiet Roychowdhary and Tarini Mehtani are both Senior Research Assistants with CNES.
The team would like to especially thank and acknowledge the invaluable support and contribution received on this Visual Storyboard from Akriti Bhatia (Founder and Director, PAIGAM) and Kunwar Hari Om (PAIGAM). Please see the Photo-Essay here and the Video-Stories published here (Link 2; Link 3)