'We'd risk our lives for our neighbours': Stories of hope from a city torn by hate

Amid the communal violence in Delhi, some people refused to give up, and even risked their lives to save others.

'We'd risk our lives for our neighbours': Stories of hope from a city torn by hate
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As North East Delhi witnessed the worst riots the Capital has seen since 1984 — many lives were lost, houses burnt down, and families left shattered. Amidst all this, people refused to give up on their desire for a harmonious coexistence, some even risked their own lives to save others.

From women uniting to help a family in trouble to a Muslim man saving a Hindu’s life even after his own house was burnt down — here are six stories that prove that the Capital still maintains its secular spirit in times of rampant communalism.

'We would risk our lives for our neighbours'

For Mohammad Anas of Lal Bagh, the turmoil began on the afternoon of February 25. He was at home, having skipped office owing to the volatile situation in North East Delhi. “I thought my house is a bit inside, and thus might be inaccessible to the rioters,” he says. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

In the afternoon, he heard a huge crowd gathering, with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram” echoing. At the very next moment, he heard lathis bashing the shutter of the ground floor where he had a godown for mattresses. “They were also pelting stones at our windows, and we could hear the sounds of glass breaking relentlessly”.

From left: Rehmat, Sarika Rana, Shashi, Sarita Devi and Pushpa were some of the many women who guarded the colony in Lal Bagh the entire night.

From left: Rehmat, Sarika Rana, Shashi, Sarita Devi and Pushpa were some of the many women who guarded the colony in Lal Bagh the entire night.

Anas and his family hid in their bedroom on the first floor. “We blocked the bedroom door with two beds and a cupboard so that the goons couldn’t enter and harm my family." He could hear them coming the stairs and breaking the doors of the other rooms in the process.

“They also set my godown on fire, and I could smell the fumes coming from the ground floor. The rioters had left as they couldn’t find us, but the smoke from the fire was getting unbearable. My children had passed out due to the excessive smoke, and we too were choking," Anas recounts. It is then that they heard someone trying to barge in through the door of his bedroom, and Anas feared that they were the rioters. Instead, he saw a bunch of his neighbours, consisting of his 16-year old son’s friends, who had come in to rescue his family.

“I saw a huge crowd wearing helmets and carrying sticks and weapons were hurling stones and setting Anas’ house on fire,” says Rajesh Devi, neighbour and mother of Pavan, who is Anas’ son Abbas’s friend. “When I saw their house burning, I literally started crying and urged my mother that they were inside, and we needed to do something,” says Pavan.

Pavan gathered a few of his friends and decided that they were going to barge into the house and see if they can find his friend and his family. “We went inside, knowing absolutely nothing. The ground floor was completely burning”. Somehow they went inside, managed to break the bedroom door and rescue the family. “We came and sat in front of their house, and they offered us water,” says Anas, pointing towards Rajesh and the group of boys who saved them.

Another resident of the same neighbourhood, Sarika Rana, took the family into her home. “Anas is a very honourable and respected man in our colony, and his wife is friends with all of us,” she says, pointing to other ladies of the colony gathered around her. “His children’s faces were blackened by the fire, and they looked visibly shocked. His wife even had a piece of glass stuck on her foot, and she was bleeding profusely. We were appalled at this shocking scene.”

Sunita Devi, another resident of the area, gave Anas’ family shelter in her home. She says, “I had to, I just couldn’t see their faces”. Sarika, Sunita and a host of ladies in the colony guarded the area all night so that no other rioters could come in. “We were ready to fight them, and would even risk our lives for the safety of our neighbours,” says Sarika. She also gave another Muslim neighbour shelter in her home, fearing that the mob would attack their house as well.

“We celebrate Diwali with as much fervour as we celebrate Eid. There is no distinction of religion in our neighbourhood, and we have lived peacefully together for so many years and will continue doing so”, says Shashi, another resident of the colony.

“We play cricket on these same roads every day together, and we had to save our friend from this danger,” says Pavan.

'I can't let another life be ruined'

Irshad Ali’s house-cum-tailor shop in Gali No 2 of Khajuri Khas was his only source of livelihood. “We were a happy community, but everything changed on the afternoon of February 25,” he says. A massive group of about 1,000 people, as Arshad describes, suddenly barged into their narrow lane, with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, and rampaged the whole area. “Aise lagta hai ki maut choo ke nikal gayi” (I felt like death had brushed past me). His house, along with a newly purchased motorcycle, was completely gutted.

Irshad Ali in front of his burnt house.

Irshad Ali in front of his burnt house.

Like Ali's shop, almost all Muslim houses in his colony, including that of a BSF jawan, and even the mosque, were burnt to the ground. “They were wearing bhagwa (saffron) scarves and chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” he claims.

A Muslim mob had also gathered in the area after the attacks and had started to target Hindus. “People had gone completely berserk, and they were targeting Hindus, to find the culprits who almost gutted our colony.”

It was then that Irshad saw a man running, chased by a bloodthirsty Muslim mob. He had run inside the lane and had taken shelter near Irshad’s home. “Seeing him, I went and tapped his shoulder, and on seeing me, he started crying saying he had done nothing,” he says. He took the man inside his burnt-down home, calmed him down and asked him what the problem was.

“He said that he was a salesman who had come to the area to do some official work, and he wasn’t even from the area. "While the man was trying to get out of the area, a Muslim mob suddenly began chasing him out of nowhere,” recalls Irshad. “He was a Hindu,” he adds.

“I calmed him down, and said I would help him,” he continues. “I took him out and decided that I would make a safe passage for him, and accompany him to a safe place." As he escorted the man to the main road, the mob blocked them at one point and threatened to beat him up, but Irshad intervened. “I pleaded with them not to hurt him, as he was just a victim and not one of the rioters who had burned our houses down. Somehow, they listened to me, and I took the man to a safe area near Yamuna Vihar, from where he took an auto and went to Ghaziabad.”

So, why did Irshad, whose house and only source of livelihood were burnt down just a few hours ago by the rioters, save another man? “He was like my brother, and it was my duty to help another man. I have seen first hand the damage that violence brings, and I did not want another life to be lost due to this violence,” he says. “Mera toh sab kuch barbaad ho gaya, kisi aur ki zindagi barbaad hone nahin de sakta thha main” (I lost everything, and did not want anyone else to go through the same).

'Khoon ko jaan lene ka nahi, jaan dene ka zariya banaye'

The Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Shahdara bore a desolate look on Sunday, March 1. A crowd gathered at the morgue as reluctant families came to identify the dead bodies of their kin. The family members of the several hundreds who were injured, too were waiting with moist eyes outside the emergency wards.

The scene at the hospital was witness to the bloodshed that the riots had caused. It was then that two men – one clad in a red kurta and the other wearing a red jacket — entered the hospital, and urged everyone standing there, from the kin of the riot-affected to the media, to donate as much blood as possible as it could save a lot of lives. They too had come for the same.

They were Sandeep Pandit, a priest and Arshad Ali, a lawyer from Old Seemapuri in North East Delhi, who had come to the hospital with the sole purpose of donating blood to the riot-affected. “When I saw the riots on TV, I was shaken. I wondered, what is happening to my Delhi?” says Arshad.

Sandeep Pandit and Arshad Ali after donating blood.

Sandeep Pandit and Arshad Ali after donating blood.

“People are fighting over religion, with politicians instigating them more and more to fuel this violence. There is so much hatred in people now that they even killed each other in these brutal riots,” adds Pandit. In these terrible times, he wanted to put out a message of harmony. He called his friend Arshad, and they both decided to do something that, according to them, would help citizens who suffered.

“The least we could do was donate blood,” says Ali. Pandit donated blood to a severely injured, pregnant Muslim woman, who desperately needed a blood transfusion. Her husband could not donate blood as he was underweight. Pandit came in as a blessing in disguise for them.

“The happiness on their faces after I donated my blood to her, filled my heart with pride. At least I did something good in these times of hatred,” he says. Arshad also donated a unit of blood, which doctors preserved for future use. “I don’t know in whose veins my blood will run, but at least I will be satisfied knowing the fact that I saved a life, be it Hindu or Muslim”.

“We wanted to donate more blood, but the doctors didn’t allow us to,” says Pandit. “We will come back tomorrow and donate more blood,” adds Ali.

“In this battle between the tilak and the skullcap, it is the aam aadmi (common man) who is suffering, irrespective of their religion,” reiterates Ali, as his eyes begin to moisten. “Khoon ko jaan lene ka nahi, jaan dene ka zariya banaye” ( Blood should not be a means of taking life, rather it should help in giving lives), concludes Pandit, who even brought his daughter, Sandeepani, to donate blood.

'Now I know what people in the 1947 riots must have felt like'

Sameer, who owned a paan shop in Shiv Vihar, says that his shop was looted and ransacked by Hindutva mobs who came to the area on the afternoon of February 24. Recalling the horrific eexperience, he says, “My home is located just behind the shop, and my wife and daughter were inside when the mob came.” Since he wasn’t home, he called his wife to remain calm and stay indoors.

The Hindu mob was later chased away by a Muslim mob, and the violence took an ugly turn. It went on for more than 6-7 hours. When Sameer and his friends managed to rescue his family, they got to know that their friend Abid, who used to stay next door to Sameer in a Dharam Kanta, was stuck there with his family. “Somehow we managed to save our friend and his family, amidst all the violence, at around 7.30 pm.”

Abid recalled that his colleague, 58-year old Ram Nath Chaudhary, who also lives in the Dharam Kanta was stuck downstairs for 6-7 hours.

Chaudhary recounts the horrific incidents he had to encounter when he was trapped inside. “Like any other day, I was working here, when suddenly I heard that a mob was approaching the area and was ransacking anything and everything in sight. Fearful, I hid inside my room and locked the shutter from inside,” he recounts. “I was stationed in one corner of the tiny room, and I could hear the mob chanting expletives and shattering things outside,” he adds.

The mobs burned a mini truck parked outside, and the smell of smoke came into the room, as Chaudhary’s heart began to pound faster. “Now I know what people in the 1947 riots must have felt like.” With nowhere to go, he was trapped in that dark room for hours and hours, with the hope of survival slowly diminishing.

Ram Nath Chaudhary says he owes his life to Sameer, who saved him from rioters.

Ram Nath Chaudhary says he owes his life to Sameer, who saved him from rioters.

All this while, Chaudhary kept hearing slogans of “Jai shri ram” and “Allah hu akbar” coming from outside, in addition to expletives. “I heard a group shatter Sameer’s shop, and even tell everyone ‘Kisiko beedi ya thanda peena ho to loot lo yahaan se’ (If someone wants a smoke or a cold drink just loot it from here).”

“Suddenly, I heard a loud crackling noise that left me shivering. Perhaps it was a gunshot. I got so frightened that I was convinced I would lose my life that day,” says Chaudhary, visibly perturbed.

“I don’t know what time it was, but I saw a few men open the shutter, and then help me out of here. It was Sameer and his friends, all of whom are Muslim,” he adds.

“We have known Panditji (as Chaudhary is referred to in the area) since we were young, and he is like a father figure to us. I couldn’t leave him there knowing he was trapped inside,” says Sameer.

Somehow, Chaudhary says, he managed to escape with their help and reached home safely. “If it weren’t for these boys I wouldn’t have been alive today,” he concludes.

“Jai Ram, Rahim, Isu”

A locality in East Kamal Vihar, Gali No 1, close to the border, displayed another example of communal harmony. Using all kinds of tactics, people from the area diverted every rioter from entering their colony.

One such tactic was to change the slogans. To show communal harmony and make Muslims feel safe, they now shout slogans calling gods of all religions. Kailash Chandra, 50, a resident, says, “Our locality has mixed people, Muslims and Hindus live together, without any fear, even though Hindus are in the minority here. We celebrate festivals together, understand each other. When riots broke out, we decided to change the slogan from “Jai Shri Ram” to “Jai Ram, Rahim, Isu” as this shows that there is no fear to anybody.”

Residents of Gali No 1, East Kamal Vihar.

Residents of Gali No 1, East Kamal Vihar.

People here stay awake all night since this violence broke down on February 24. All men sit together and sip tea, while kids and women sleep in their homes. Chaudhry, a man in his late 70s, told us that on February 25 when they saw a group chanting religious slogans burning their Muslim neighbour Munabbar’s home, they rushed to that house which was just outside their locality, and rescued the family.

Rioters set the house on fire while all family members were inside. Munabbar's two daughters and a son fell unconscious due to the smoke. People of Chaudhry’s locality went there and broke the lock. Since they had kept heaps of material at the gate to stop rioters from coming in, it took a lot of effort to reach them.

They managed to rescue Munabbar’s family and bring them into their home, and give them food. Their relatives were called to receive them, as Munabbar felt that it was not safe for his family to stay there for long at that time. They called the police and arranged their safe passage.

No house of the Muslim community was burnt in Gali No 1. But once the violence broke out, the fear psychosis among Muslims of that locality was exacerbated. They gave their home keys to their Hindu neighbours and went to their relatives’ place. “At the time of violence, Muslims felt unsafe because this area has a Muslim majority. We told them to stay back but they couldn’t due to fear. They handed over the keys of their homes and went to their relatives. But they do come here to check. We told them everything is safe now. Soon, they will come back with their families.” Chandra added.

'Sister, don't worry. We are with you'

On March 1, as Savita grieved the death of her husband Prem Singh outside the mortuary of GTB hospital, a man in his early 30s, along with some other people, consoled her saying, “Behen, fikr matt karo hum tumhare saath hain. Koi bhi zarurat hogi hum help karenge (Sister, don’t worry, we all are with you. In case you need any help, we are here). His name was Faraz, and he’s a resident of Jamia Nagar, Delhi.

His other two friends Farhan Azimee from Okhla and Mumtaz, a resident of Krishna Nagar, were sitting just outside the mortuary, noting down the names and contact details of families who have lost someone and require legal help.

Then another woman came wailing with a copy of an FIR. She was looking for her brother, Bhure, who went missing from the Loni border area. The FIR was incomplete because police did not put any stamp on it. Farhan noted each detail and informed her that her FIR is incomplete. She scolded him, saying, “How would we know, we are illiterate, you tell us what we should do.” Without losing his calm, Farhan asked Mumtaz to help her file an online FIR.

Farhan, Mumtaz, and Faraz.

Farhan, Mumtaz, and Faraz.

Farhan, Mumtaz, and Faraz are lawyers, all three alumni of Jamia Milia Islamia. When they got the news of the gruesome riot in North-east Delhi, they realised that those who were affected are poor people and would require help. They immediately rushed to GTB hospital, set up a tent, and started working.

Since February 25, they have been visiting GTB hospital on a daily basis, noting down details of missing and injured people. “We know the system. Poor and disadvantaged are always in need of help. Therefore, we came here on February 25 to help them fight the legal battle,” Farhan said. The trio is also planning to set up a stall in North East Delhi, as those visiting the hospital are less in number.

They believe what they are doing is a service to the country and their people. Mumtaz said, “Our clients are waiting, but we are here because our inner voice is telling us to help these innocents.”

This trio is not alone in providing legal help. When we visited Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, we met many lawyers who were there to offer free legal service.

This article was originally published in The Patriot.

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