Ayush Tiwari looks back at 2020.
In February this year, Delhi witnessed its worst episode of Hindu-Muslim violence since independence, leaving 53 people dead, mostly Muslims. The carnage in the city’s northeast came amid protests against the citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens by the local Muslim community.
Northeast Delhi was a minefield of stories after the carnage. In street after street, there were people who had either suffered pain or inflicted it on fellow citizens. Outside Dayalpur and Gokulpuri police stations, both located in the same building, I met countless victims and witnesses who provided exhaustive accounts of the ghastly violence.
Over a dozen visits to that corner of the capital since have turned my phone and notebooks into a storehouse of such stories. I reported some, but many remain tucked away in ink-stained pages and cloud folders.
Looking back, two stories remain vivid. They gave me an insight into the nature of violence: how it begets a frightening thirst for destruction and hardens social conscience.
Just as the rampage was beginning to ebb, I tried to track down Kapil Mishra, the BJP leader accused of inciting the conflagration. On February 23, Mishra had told a gathering of Hindu men at Maujpur that if an anti-CAA protest at Jafrabad wasn’t dispersed, he would take the law into his own hands. Stonepelting between Hindu and Muslim mobs had begun shortly after.
On the evening of February 26, I reached Mishra’s address in Yamuna Vihar, a comfortable Hindu-majority neighbourhood that stands right opposite the cramped Muslim-majority Chand Bagh. I did not feel safe at all. It was past sunset and I was by myself. Colleagues and fellow journalists had returned from the affected areas with stories of harassment and assault that week, and I had been chased by a mob just the previous day.
At Mishra’s home, a resident on the ground floor told me the politician did not live there anymore; he had moved out in 2013. The neighbor, a Hindu, had known Mishra and he was livid. “Poori Dilli mai bawal mach gaya hai uski wajah se,” he told me. “Itna galat bayan diya hai.” Delhi is in chaos because of him. His statement was wrong.
A scene of destruction in Yamuna Vihar.
The neighbour, who feared repercussions if he gave his name, told me that Mishra’s speech had set off a series of events that made him feel hopeless about the country. “There was no need to do this. The government would have talked to the protesters. They could have found a resolution, right?” he asked. “I can’t even get out of my house. Buildings are on fire and cars lie wrecked.”
Just then, as if on cue, we heard loud thwacks. A few metres away, a couple of boys were smashing a car with thick logs of wood. They first cracked the windshield, then the side windows, and then climbed on its roof for a better battering experience. Within minutes, the vehicle had crumpled into an ugly metallic mess.
"Why are they destroying the car?" I asked my interviewee. "Just like that," he said. Confused, I asked him if the car belonged to a Muslim family. "No, they don't know who it belongs to. They can't find the owner.”
This was baffling because it really was pointless. Shortly after the carnage began in Northeast Delhi, Muslims living in Hindu-majority areas, and vice versa, had left their homes anticipating trouble. In Yamuna Vihar that day, any object that was not one’s own was suspect. The communal frenzy had spiralled into a kind of madness where even a seemingly unclaimed vehicle deserved destruction. It was the inertia of three long days of violence, driven by testosterone-soaked boys who had discovered a dark, fleeting purpose.
“Communal brotherhood in Hindustan has been dealt a blow because of Kapil,” the resident told me. “I wish he changes his address.”
Two weeks later, while reporting about the corpses fished out of a drain after the carnage, my colleagues and I visited a slum in Northeast Delhi’s Gokulpuri, near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Loni. It housed mostly Dalit families but also six Muslim families. On the other side was a colony called Johripur Enclave, from where I had seen a Hindu mob arrive and set fire to the Muslim dwellings in the slum on February 25. Delhi police personnel stood near the Hindu rioters that night, doing nothing. No one was hurt because the Muslim families had fled a day before.
By the time we returned to the slum in March, the Muslim families had too. Their stories were painful. They had lost almost everything they owned in the arson – savings, food, clothes, even their carts and tempos. However, they were compensated by the Delhi government, which gave them money, food and other essential items. Men and women from an NGO were helping them rebuild their huts.
The slum in Gokulpuri on February 25, above, and March 12.
The Hindu residents of Gokulpuri were not happy with this. They shouted at the Muslim slumdwellers from their terraces, telling them to get lost. One man turned up with a stack of papers and said that he could prove that the slum was an illegal settlement. Mohammad Aleem, who had returned to his scorched home on March 1, told us the man’s claim made little sense given that his house was built on the same land as Aleem’s.
Other residents alleged that while their colony fell in Delhi, the slum was actually located in Uttar Pradesh. Nawab, a dailywage worker who had lost his home, told us houses on both sides of the drain had Delhi addresses, so the slum could not possibly be in Uttar Pradesh. He claimed the UP police itself had clarified this to them. In fact, Nawab had voted in the Delhi election the previous month; and whenever his neighbours in the slum got into trouble it was the Delhi police that dealt with them.
Mohammad Aleem and his family at the slum in Gokulpuri, above, and Hindu residents residents telling the police that the slum is illegal.
The Hindu residents were not prepared to listen to any of this. When we intervened to calm tempers, we got harangued as well. “Why don’t you or Kejriwal keep them in your homes?” retorted one woman, referring to the Delhi chief minister.
All through this, the Muslim slum dwellers did not shout back at the Hindu colonywallas. Class, besides religion, was also at play.
The Dalit residents of the slum, most of them from the Mahavat caste, stayed inside their huts. We tried speaking to a few of them but got terse, deflected answers. An NGO worker who had been around for a few days told us the Dalit community did not wish to be dragged into the conflict. “They do not want to lose their own homes,” he said. “If that comes at the cost of the Muslims getting evicted, it is fine with them.”
NGO workers and slum residents rebuild the huts in Gokulpuri.
The head of the Gokulpuri police station arrived later in the afternoon with some constables. Matters cooled, but the SHO hesitated to clarify whether the slum fell in Delhi or Uttar Pradesh. When pushed, he feigned ignorance. A few metres away, I saw a constable icily walk up to Nawab. “You do not know me, right?” he probed. “No sir, I do not,” the dailywage labourer told him with folded hands.
Once the constable left, I asked Nawab what he was trying to convey to him. He would not say.
Pictures by Ayush Tiwari.
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