Delhi’s Riots Are Over But Mistrust Lingers

SourcePrashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Around the World Around the WorldLook beyond your bubble — and beyond your borders.

The worst communal violence to hit India’s capital in nearly three decades began Sunday, triggered by Hindu groups who attacked mostly Muslim protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new religion-based citizenship law. At least 25 people died and more than 200 were injured over three days of rioting, according to the most recent tally from the state-run Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital.

By Jahnavi Sen and Kabir Agarwal 8 March 2020

Why you should care

A week after the riots left at least 49 people dead, deep distrust lingers — for neighbors, the police and the government.

There’s a party on in Shiv Vihar. The pink and white tent is lined with chairs, and food is served out of giant woks. A DJ is setting up his sound system. “He’s had a son, this is the function to name him,” an elderly woman tells us, pointing at a man standing in front of us.

Although not keen to talk to us, the man introduces himself as Sandeep. “The riots never made it to our lane,” he says. “We made sure of it. There are three Muslim houses here, we guarded the lane all night and in the morning, helped them leave with the police.”

Shiv Vihar is one of the several North East Delhi neighborhoods where riots early last week killed at least 49 people. It’s the worst Hindu-Muslim violence that the city has seen in several decades. Parts of Shiv Vihar now resemble a ghost town.

The older woman, though, plays down the extent of violence and arson. “We helped them [Muslims] survive. We guarded them. We stood outside the lanes and told the mobs that there are no Muslims here,” she says. “But now they are turning around and saying ‘Hindus burnt our home’ and ‘Hindus wanted to kill us’. How is that fair? Now we are scared, what if they come back and decide to take revenge?” Women gathered around her agree. “We haven’t slept a wink all week,” one of them says.

“Too many Hindus have died,” another woman says. At this point, Sandeep lets out a forced laugh. “How can you say that?” he asks the older woman. “How do you know this reporter is not a Muslim?”

The party tent is starting to fill up now. It is open from one side and closed off from the other. As the DJ starts to play a Bollywood song, children in parallel lanes start running towards the party, dancing.

In the parallel lane, there’s a huge presence of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), a specialized paramilitary team deployed in riot situations. Several houses are marked with Hindu imagery – swastikas, ‘Happy Diwali’ banners, pictures of gods outside.

The RAF men are at ease here, sharing tea and milk with residents, sitting on plastic chairs that have been put out. Some shops are open. Other than a few stray slippers by the side of the road and some shards of broken glass, there is little to suggest that large-scale violence took place here.

About 200 meters down, that changes. Dramatically.

The RAF men here are not sitting. They’re on edge, hands hooked into their rifles. “No gathering here!” they repeat to any group that stops to take photos. A fact-finding team is trying to make its way through the glass, rubble and burnt houses, but is told to move along.

The houses and shops here have been scorched and vandalized, and look like they have been blown apart from the inside. The shutters are smashed. The walls are disfigured and look like they could crumble if nudged. Clothes, shoes, papers, bricks and burnt vehicles lie scattered outside.

I saw death from up close.

Uma Kant,

A frail, nervous-looking young man enters from the side lane and attempts to reach his house, also burnt and vandalized. An RAF man armed with a rifle and a baton stops him. “The whole thing could collapse! Why are you here? I don’t want to see you here!” The young man retreats hastily, trying to placate the jawan.

We catch up with him. He is not keen to talk. “The house was burnt on Tuesday (Feb. 25). Luckily no one is hurt,” he says and speeds off.

Further down, an even narrower lane leads to the Madina Masjid. The path to it is lined with broken tables, planks of steel, bricks and more debris. Inside the mosque too there is destruction everywhere. The fans are broken. The floor is lined with soot and burnt cloth. The windows are shattered.

On this stretch, it’s not just the Muslim homes that have been burnt. While it can’t be confirmed why the mob burnt the few Hindu homes and shops as well, it is possible that nobody was stopping to check. Adjacent to the Madina Masjid is the home of Uma Kant, who says he and his family barely survived the mob. “They were mindlessly vandalizing and setting everything on fire. I just picked up my three-year-old granddaughter and ran. For a while, I didn’t know whether the rest of my family had survived,” Kant says. “I saw death from up close.”

Protest in New Delhi
A car work shop in Shiv Vihar area of North East Delhi which was set on fire by rioters, February 26, 2020. Source Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Outside another stretch of scorched shops, Sheela Devi, an old Hindu woman, is sitting on her haunches. Her family owns five shops in the row and lives in a house above them, she says. To her left and right were Muslim homes. She and her family had gone home to her village close to Agra when violence broke out in the area. “I have no idea who did this (to our lane),” she says. “But everything has been destroyed. They have destroyed and looted our shops. Even our home upstairs has been burnt.”

Back towards the party area, a few lanes down from the celebration, a family of four has just come back to their house. Here, the Hindu homes have been left intact, while the Muslims homes have been broken or burnt. There is a ‘Happy Diwali’ banner on their doorway, and Lakshman Singh thinks that’s how the mob knew not to burn their house.

“We were scared and we left,” he says, surrounded by his pregnant wife and two young children. “We didn’t know if we would be spared. We came back this morning to find our house untouched.”

A daily wage construction worker, he points to the damage their neighbors’ — Muslims’ — properties have suffered. Two charred cars, plundered homes, a balcony that has collapsed, walls that have caved in.

So were Muslims specially targeted, have they lost more? “Yes. Muslims have definitely lost more.”

And two lanes over, the party continues.