Muslim women who were forced to flee from their homes in Shiv Vihar.
Muslim women who were forced to flee from their homes in Shiv Vihar.|Ayush Tiwari
Ground Report

Beneath North East Delhi’s newfound ‘communal harmony’ lurks discomfort, suspicion

In the aftermath of the violence, Hindu and Muslim neighbours are stumbling upon inconvenient questions and realities.

By Ayush Tiwari

Published on :

Aas Mohammad, 36, is now known as the Tahir Hussain of his locality. He lives in the Hindu-dominated Bhagirathi Vihar in North East Delhi. On the night of February 25, a Muslim mob of 25-30 men occupied his house. They were on the terrace for three hours, pelting stones at the neighbouring homes of the Hindus.

Aas is now desperately trying to fend off allegations of communalism from his neighbours. It hurts more because his neighbours won’t say it to his face; they imply it in their questions.

“Aas bhai, I found a part of your railing on my terrace,” a Hindu neighbour told him in a crisp sentence, pregnant with accusation. “I wonder how it got there.”

Aas, annoyed, turned to Rajeev Dixit, 55, another neighbour. “Rajeev bhai, dekho, how do I tell him now? The mob broke that railing and threw it on your house. How many times will I say this?”

Aas Mohammad’s house in Bhagirathi Vihar, Delhi. He claims the lock was broken by the mob.
Aas Mohammad’s house in Bhagirathi Vihar, Delhi. He claims the lock was broken by the mob.
Ayush Tiwari

Rajeev, who has lived in Bhagirathi Vihar for nearly four decades, tries to say something but keeps quiet. He shrugs. Aas, meanwhile, invites me in, saying I must tell his story. He shows me around his house: broken glass, stone-strewn balcony and finally, a terrace with burnt walls and smashed brick pieces.

“They broke the lock of my gate and entered my house. They said we will kill your children and your wife if you don’t let us in,” Aas recounts. “Yes, they came in. But I also tried to stop for as long as I could.”

Aas’s is a three-storeyed, expansive home. He has a business selling plumbing pipes which he says is largely sustained by his Hindu neighbours. But the Hindus in the area are unhappy.

“Why don’t you show our side of the story too?” one of them shouted at me as I was inspecting the vandalised mosque near Aas’s home. Another insisted on checking my media credentials, and when I asked them to take me to their homes, allegedly damaged by rioters on Aas’s terrace, they declined. “It is in a very bad state now. I can’t,” said Jitendra Choudhary, 25.

Stone-filled balcony at Aas Mohammad’s house.
Stone-filled balcony at Aas Mohammad’s house.
Ayush Tiwari

There is also an inexplicable denial among some Hindu men that repeats everywhere in North East Delhi. “Nothing happened to this mosque, you know. It’s all fine,” said the owner of a tea and snacks shop which is hardly 10 steps away from the mosque. I told him quite a lot happened to it. “Oh really?” he exclaimed. Had he not even peeped inside?

Muslim shops, homes and religious establishments were targeted at Bhagirathi Vihar. They were set on fire and looted. At 6 pm on February 25, a Hindu mob had stormed the area, sacked the Meena mosque in gali number 1 and tried to torch it. “They threw burnt tyres inside the mosque,” said Uwais, 20, a local resident. The tyres left multiple black craters on the ground floor of the mosque.

But the Hindus claimed the rioters were outsiders. When a much smaller Muslim mob arrived in the area, Muslim residents claimed they tried to repel it without success. “We stood in the way and even hit a couple of them,” Md Salim, 50, said. But in the aftermath of the sacking, burning and looting, it is Aas who is at the centre of the scandal – he personifies the throbbing distrust and suspicion the communal violence has left behind.

The ground floor of the Meena mosque in Bhagirathi Vihar.
The ground floor of the Meena mosque in Bhagirathi Vihar.
Ayush Tiwari

This distrust goes deeper than any claim of harmony and amity. In the four days I have spent in North East Delhi, I have seen Hindus and Muslims stand side-by-side and proclaim mutual love and trust. But if you take them into a corner and poke in the right places, the suspicion pours out.

“We Hindus and Muslims can’t survive without each other,” Rajeev told me inside Aas’s house, pulling him towards himself and holding his shoulder as a display of brotherhood. “We have never seen something like this in the four decades I have spent here. This generation is ruined. Be it Tahir Hussain or Kapil Mishra, everyone responsible for this should be punished.”

Sharafat aur insaniyat ki koi qadar nahi hai,” Aas told me, still sulking about the accusations. Decency and humanism have no value.

“If they think I orchestrated this, I’ll give them my home keys,” he added, referring to his Hindu neighbours. “Come, set it on fire.”

Rajeev consoled Aas, and dedicated a few more words to communal harmony.

As we stepped out of the house, Rajeev followed me as Aas stayed behind. Outside, he turned to me and said Aas was the “Tahir Hussain of the area”. His whisper betrayed secrecy and his eyes were desperate. Why did he think so, I asked. His answer? “Sab mile hue hai”, meaning the Muslims were in on the plan, and so was Aas. He pointed to another Muslim resident who had accompanied us inside Aas’s house, and said “he is the biggest traitor.”

Rajeev’s duplicity – singing paeans of harmony inside and singling out his neighbours as traitors outside – is emblematic of how fraternity is often just rhetoric and pretense when suspicion is the overarching reality. He did not produce any significant proof when I questioned his private characterisation of his neighbour – he just knew if there could be a Tahir Hussain of Khajuri Khas, “exposed” by the media, there could be one in his locality as well.

***

The Choudharys live in the Muslim-dominated E-2 block of Nehru Vihar. They own a large house, parts of which have been converted into shop spaces and rented out. Beside the house is a temple that was unaffected by the violence. In fact, residents claim that the entire neighbourhood remained calm during those turbulent 72 hours.

The temple in E2, Nehru Vihar.
The temple in E2, Nehru Vihar.
Ayush Tiwari

There are about 15 Hindu families in the neighbourhood, although a few have left temporarily since the violence began.

I visited Nehru Vihar on February 28, and for the first time in years, the Friday prayers in the area were conducted in shifts. The men in the locality usually read the prayers at the nearest mosque when they are away at work, but there was no work that week. And the mosque too wasn’t big enough. The RAF and the CRPF were deployed nearby.

Men waiting their turn to offer the Friday prayers.
Men waiting their turn to offer the Friday prayers.
Ayush Tiwari

I met Ramdas Choudhary, 52, who sat outside his warehouse beside the temple, looking busy. His Muslim neighbours felt free to join us. Choudhary, with reassuring calm, told us there was peace in the locality and that the Hindus and the Muslims had been guarding the temple at night.

His neighbour, Mohammad Zahid, 45, chipped in: “We have talked about this. We are keeping our people in check, and they’re managing their own.”

The Muslim elders in Nehru Vihar were keen on not letting young Muslim men congregate anywhere during the prayers. Since many had now crowded around Choudhary after learning that mediapersons were here, we were invited inside the house.

Zahid and another neighbour, Syed Zakir Ali, 45, came along. Inside a room lit by beams of the afternoon sun, we were introduced to Surendra Choudhary, 43, and the family patriarch Manu Choudhary, a 71-year-old retired inspector in the Delhi police.

Mohd Zahid and Manu Choudhary at the latter’s home in Nehru Vihar
Mohd Zahid and Manu Choudhary at the latter’s home in Nehru Vihar
Ayush Tiwari

Once the formality of “all is well”, “things are calm”, “we live together” was over, a strange argument began between Zahid and Manu. It was strange because they did not argue between themselves, but through me.

“I want to know: why were cameras and stones near our shops broken?” Manu asked authoritatively, implying that Hindu shops were selectively targeted. “And I can tell you that it was not an outsider who destroyed the cameras and stones.”

“Well, we did not break it,” Zahid told me.

Manu: “The cameras have been broken by those who live here. The situation is calm, yes, but why did they do such a thing?”

Zahid: “Sir, we did not break it. We were shooing away troublemakers. They weren’t broken under our watch. I would take instant action if I find out who did it.”

Manu: “I’m not saying you broke it, but since we were all guarding the area and did not let others enter, did you not see who broke the cameras?”

Zahid: “But sometimes, there’s a crowd of 200 people in a colony of 50. Not everyone is a local. It can have bad elements as well – mischief-makers and drug addicts.”

Zakir and Zahid, who were on the defensive thus far, tried to go on the offensive. The Choudharies, and Zakir and Zahid were addressing me, and, indirectly, each other.

Zakir Ali: “Many Muslim shops on the main road have been torched. If we were to say they were all outsiders, then how would they have known which shop and homes belonged to whom? This raises a question: did locals contribute to the plan?”

The wise Ram Lal tried to reconcile: “Granted that cameras were broken. But we didn’t see whether it was a local or an outsider. It could’ve been either. There are antisocial elements in every crowd.”

Zahid ahaa-ed in agreement. “Yes, that is right,” he said.

Ram Lal: “And as for the targeted shops on the main road, that targeting didn’t happen here. One does not know what kind of people are in a mob. We know that our locality lives together with much affection.”

There was a deadlock in the room and one could feel it. These were inconvenient and nestling questions, and the answers were no different. An indirect argument had occurred, and it was clear the men thought it better to settle it through comforting, vacuous platitudes than painful answers.

Zahid had granted resolution to the camera argument, but Ram Lal’s answer to Muslim shops and homes being sought out for arson was too vague. As if to end the tension, Zakir found a bait and drove the conversation to an end: “There has been a flux of migrants in this colony over the past few years. Who knows what these people are like? It is possible that they participate in this madness, and old residents like us have to suffer.”Everyone agreed.

***

On February 27, I met the family of Parvender Kumar Singh, 34, in Brijpur. Singh is a manager at a private company in Karawal Nagar, and was stuck on Gamli Road on the night of February 24, when violence first broke out in the area. He returned home the next day with the help of the CRPF.

Parvender’s brother, Manoj, had locked himself in their house that day, when a Muslim mob from Mustafabad – across the drain from Brijpur – had pelted stones at the locality.

“Hindus and Muslims of our bylane stopped them together,” Manoj told Newslaundry.

In gali number 4, there are almost as many Muslim homes as Hindu ones. The evening I visited the area, Muslim men were manning the street’s entrance. Manoj and Parvender’s Hindu neighbour left on February 25, but the Singhs stayed back.

“We stay vigilant all night. Even the smallest noise causes disturbance here,” claimed Parvender.

The Singh brothers said the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in his street has fractured. “They don’t talk to us much since the violence, and neither do we talk to them,” Parvender said. “In better times, we would hang out at each other’s homes. But now the Muslims behave as if they don’t know us. They mill about among themselves, and we do the same.”

As calm limps back in North East Delhi, the common refrain across localities is that “our Muslims” are alright, but “others” from outside are undesirables. This attitude seems to stem from a couple of factors: in a space as local as a street, impressions about each other stem from personal relationships; and in localities like Brijpur, which is Hindu-dominated, confidence in the “other” is boosted by the assurance of numbers.

“The Muslims here are safe. They are roaming about normally on the streets,” said Sudhanshu Sharma, 45, a priest at the Shiv temple in gali number 7 of Brijpur. “There are 30-35 percent of them here.”

About seven young men stood outside the Shiv temple with sticks and rods, and they would be there until 7 am. They’ve been on guard since February 26, when a midnight rumour spooked Hindus in North East Delhi. “My sister called me and said a Muslim mob from Karawal Nagar was headed here to destroy temples. It was 2 am,” the priest told me. The mob, of course, never came.

Priest Sudhanshu Sharma and Manoj Singh at the Shiv temple in Brijpur.
Priest Sudhanshu Sharma and Manoj Singh at the Shiv temple in Brijpur.
Ayush Tiwari
Residents guard the street, alongside a police patrol car.
Residents guard the street, alongside a police patrol car.
Ayush Tiwari

The rumour led to the residents erecting makeshift barricades in Brijpur. A few metres from where the temple guards stood, Dharam Singh, 48, sat with his neighbour, manning a haphazard barricade. He told me there was stone-pelting from “that side” on February 25 – “that side” in Brijpur means Muslim-dominated Mustafabad across the drain.

“That side is Pakistan. They are still collecting stones there, and I’ve been told that even that mosque announced that the Shiv temple has to be destroyed,” Dharam Singh claimed. He did not hear the announcement himself, but believes it to be true, demonstrating how easily rumours morph into beliefs in sensitive times.

A makeshift barricade near the Shiv temple in Brijpur.
A makeshift barricade near the Shiv temple in Brijpur.
Ayush Tiwari

In Brijpur, temples were not harmed but a mosque did get torched. However, at the Singh household in gali number 4, like in Bhagirathi Vihar, there is denial about this simple fact. Manoj claimed the Arun Modern Public School in Brijpur was badly burnt. I told him that indeed it was, and so was the mosque beside it. “The mosque was burnt? No!” he said. I maintained that it was. “No! No mosque has been burnt,” he insisted, and Parvender nodded. I said mosques were indeed burnt and I had been to the one beside the school. I had pictures.

The torched Arun Modern Public School in Brijpur.
The torched Arun Modern Public School in Brijpur.
Ayush Tiwari
The burnt mosque beside Arun Modern Public School in Brijpur.
The burnt mosque beside Arun Modern Public School in Brijpur.
Ayush Tiwari

The school and the mosque were a couple of hundred metres from the Singh home. But only the news of the burnt school travelled in Hindu-dominated Brijpur. Manoj and Parvender believed a Muslim mob had wrecked the school and shops around it, but the mosque’s fate came as an inconvenient and uncomfortable piece of information. As the brothers stared into space, a quiet settled. I took my leave.

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