Two plastic bags hang from a broken door in Mohammad Irfan’s building in Delhi’s Shiv Vihar. The door once separated his living quarters from his grocery shop. Both were vandalised, burned and looted during the Delhi riots in February 2020. While he hasn’t been able to repair the door since then, it’s far from being the only tangible reminder of the violence two years ago.
The two plastic bags are crammed with photographs, both black-and-white and in colour, as well as copies of FIRs, police statements and application forms. It’s a documentation of his life since that day in February, a chronicle of his journey to secure Rs 1 lakh as compensation from the government.
“That Rs 1 lakh went away during Covid itself,” Irfan said. “Now, I have a lot of debt on my head.”
On February 25, 2020, after hearing about mobs making their way to Shiv Vihar, Irfan and his family fled to a relative’s home in Uttar Pradesh. When they returned 15 days later, everything from their home and shop had been either burned, broken or stolen, including the family’s savings and his wife’s jewellery.
The broken door in Mohammad Irfan's house.
“They didn’t even leave one rupee worth of stuff in my shop. It was empty,” said Irfan, 34, showing Newslaundry photos of emptied shelves and broken cupboards. “They destroyed everything. I am so broken now that I just look at my kids to find a reason to live.”
Irfan with pictures of his shop after it was vandalised during the riots.
Irfan’s store is one of the 322 shops burned during the 2020 violence in North East Delhi that left 53 dead and over 500 injured. According to a report tabled in the Delhi assembly by the committee on welfare of minorities last March, 1,500 complaints were received as of January 2021 for damage of uninsured commercial property. Of these, 1,176 were approved and a total compensation of Rs 11,28,18,042 was sanctioned – 306 claims were rejected as the committee could not assess the occurrence of damage.
“A year after the riots,” the committee said in its report, “no victims should have been struggling to receive the compensation they deserve.”
But two years after the riots, what has changed?
In the narrow lanes of Shiv Vihar, the lines of looted or destroyed shops have now reopened, but business is not like it was before. Many owners told Newslaundry the Delhi government’s compensation was far from enough, forcing them to take huge loans. The multiple lockdowns over the last two years have only added to their troubles.
The Delhi government had announced Rs 5 lakh compensation for completely damaged houses, Rs 1 lakh for complete loot and Rs 50,000 for partial loot at commercial establishments.
In Irfan’s case, his shop was not insured and was destroyed along with his home. But he said that he had to borrow Rs 70,000 from a relative to get by as he only got Rs 1 lakh.
“I went to the sub divisional magistrate a couple of times but they said this is how much the Delhi government has sanctioned,” Irfan said. “I don’t have the money to keep going there and asking. And if I do keep going, who will take care of my kids? If the remaining money has to come, it will come.”
Irfan is a single father to his three children, aged six, 11, and 13. His wife died of Covid during the second wave; Irfan said they were unable to procure oxygen for her in time. While he reopened his shop in May 2020, he said it took him a year to restock it, and he’s still not matched his pre-riots earnings of Rs 400-500 a day.
Irfan's store is among 322 shops that were damaged during the 2020 violence.
On what happened on February 25, 2020, Irfan said he “dialled 100 many times” – referring to the police helpline. “Everyone did,” he said. “But the police didn’t come. Some were picking up our calls but not coming. Some were not even picking up. I told them the riots are escalating here and pleaded with them to come save our lives, but they didn’t come.”
In Irfan’s opinion, the government “supported those who were rioting”.
Haji Yunus, member of the committee on welfare minorities that reviewed the compensation paid to the victims of the riots, said that because of the Covid waves, assembly elections, and upcoming Delhi MCD polls, no meetings could be held regarding the compensation and that the report tabled in March 2021 was the last. He said that the committee would start meeting soon after, in March-April, and hold more frequent discussions to review the applications.
“In the case of commercial establishments (such as shops), 50 percent amount of the value destroyed was given. For example if there was damage of Rs 4 lakh, Rs 2 lakh was given,” explained Yunus, adding that at times, there was dispute when landlords and tenants were involved and the amount had to be split.
Yunus said that cases of looting were examined by the police, based on which the SDM would come to a decision. “The amount that the Delhi government has given as compensation, I don’t think anyone ever has.”
‘We got fed up and stopped trying’
Irfan’s neighbours are the Akhtars – Mohammad Akhtar, 52, his wife, two sons, one daughter, and his son’s two children. A burned bike, belonging to Akhtar, sits by the side of the house – a grim reminder of the events of two years ago.
Akhtar’s home was burned and looted on February 25, 2020. Additionally, his 16 buffaloes – kept in a shed on the ground floor and the source of his income – were stolen.
A photo of Akhtar's burnt home.
Each buffalo cost Rs 90,000, Akhtar said, and had brought in a profit of Rs 200 per day. Four were recovered, but the remaining 12 were never found.
As compensation for his stolen goods, stolen cattle, and burned home, Akhtar received Rs 50,000 from the Delhi government. A form, to the office of the North East Delhi Riots Claims Commission, dated August 16, 2021, promises them Rs 1.5 lakh more – but there’s no sign of it.
“We got fed up and stopped trying,” Akhtar said. “A lawyer told us he can help us but demanded 15 percent of what we would get.”
The family was forced to borrow Rs 5 lakh from relatives; the amount has not been repaid yet. They rented 12 buffaloes at a total cost of Rs 6 lakh, which needs to be paid within the next two months. The property they lost during the riots includes clothes, jewellery, a washing machine, a cooler, eight fans, a Quran stand, blankets, an LCD TV, and mattresses.
“I know who did it,” said Akhtar’s wife Rasina, who said she had been home “crying” when the looting took place.
Rasina with the burnt appliances, which were meant to be given as dowry to her daughter's in-laws.
The family then packed up and fled to their relative’s house in Mustafabad, mainly because their son Wasim’s wife was pregnant at the time and they feared for her safety. She gave birth to a baby girl, two days later.
“We went in whatever we were wearing to Mustafabad,” said Akhtar. “We had not carried anything. The Muslims in the area helped us.”
They returned home a month later.
Meanwhile, Akhtar’s daughter, who was 23 at the time, had been due to get married soon after the riots took place. But during the looting and burning off their home, they lost a lot of items that had been purchased for their daughter’s dowry. Her fiancé’s family called off the wedding when they couldn’t afford to replace everything again.
Compounding their woes is they now find it difficult to find tenants for the two vacant rooms in their home.
“Things are fine communally now but where do we get the money from? Our younger son is supposed to get an operation done but we can’t afford it. Nobody comes to this side to check also – NGOs used to, but not anymore.”
The ‘outsider’ theory
In Shiv Vihar, Ram Baran Singh’s voice is filled with pain when he’s asked about the Rs 1 lakh compensation he received from the government.
“What will happen with Rs 1 lakh?” he demanded. “Are you looking at the prices of things these days? My full shop was burned.”
On February 25, 2020, Singh lost his kirana shop in Shiv Vihar to a mob. “They emptied the full shop. They burned and stole things,” he said. “This roof on top? That was burned too. I had to put a new one.”
Ram Baran Singh's shop was looted and vandalised.
Like Akhtar, Singh took a loan of Rs 70,000 after the riots. To get his shop back on its feet, he spent Rs 8,000 on a new counter, Rs 2,500 on an oil tin, and Rs 1,000 on an oil container.
But business has changed. Before the riots, he said, he would get Rs 1 lakh worth of products from bigger shops and make the payment within 15 days. Now, it takes double the time to make the payment, especially with Covid sending most residents back to their hometowns.
He said he’s supposed to receive Rs 1 lakh more from the government, but hasn’t.
“Life is now about paying rent,” said Singh, who pays Rs 5,000 per month on his shop and living quarters upstairs.
During the riots, Singh said even the clothes hanging in his balcony were burned. “I ran to save my life,” he said. “There’s not one person who didn’t try calling the police. They finally arrived only three or four days later. It’s hard to think of those times.”
Singh said there has been no communal tension in these parts in the 25 years he’s lived here, until the Delhi riots. He believes those involved were “outsiders”.
“We never thought it would reach the stage it did,” he said. “There was never any Hindu-Muslim problem. We couldn’t recognise anyone as they had helmets on and had covered their faces. We were anyway too focused on saving our lives. But the people who do these things don’t belong to any caste or religion.”
But not everyone agrees with this “outsider” theory.
Hashim Ali has been a resident of Shiv Vihar for the last 35 years. He runs a fabric shop a few lanes away from Singh, which earned him Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 per month, and also a sewing business from his home.
During the riots, his house and shop were burned along with his three-wheeler and motorcycle.
In February 2020, Ali filed a complaint regarding arson and loot in his house and desecration of the mosque, where he named 14 people as being involved in the riots.
But the police clubbed his complaint with that of another resident, and arrested him on the basis of CCTV footage which they said showed him instigating the mob. He was granted bail two months later, and the court termed Ali's arrest as “an apparent absurdity”.
“The police say they have no evidence but I have a video of the people who have done it and have given it to them,” he alleged.
Once he was freed, he rebuilt his shop, packed up his belongings, and moved to a few lanes away. Both his shop and home in Shiv Vihar are now rented out, earning him around Rs 8,000 in total per month. He got Rs 1 lakh as compensation.
“I don’t stay here anymore or run the shop,” he said, “because of the people I have named in my complaint. A lot of Hindus live in this area.”
Hashim Ali outside the shop he has now rented out.
Ibrahim, who runs a mobile shop in Shiv Vihar, also told Newslaundry stories of the violence in February 2020. Ibrahim himself fled to Mustafabad, he said, but a friend had texted him photos of his shop on fire. He subsequently received compensation of Rs 1,62,500 from the government.
The photo Ibrahim's friend sent to him while his mobile shop was being burnt.
Similarly, Ram Prakash, who runs two shops – selling dairy products and sweets – opposite Ibrahim’s, said he got Rs 1 lakh as compensation after his businesses were set on fire. He finally borrowed Rs 3 lakh from relatives to meet his costs.
“I bought a kadai, a counter and a fridge. I didn’t have money for money,” said Prakash, who has lived in Shiv Nagar for 16 years. “I had shut the shop on February 25 but the locks were broken late evening. Both shops were burned. Nothing was left. Sugar, flour...none of it remained. Some things were taken and some were set on fire. I was in my house upstairs and could hear the sounds...Couldn’t see anyone’s faces as they had helmets on.”
Pointing at Ibrahim’s shop, Prakash said there has always been brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims in the area.
“If that wasn’t the case, then how would we be working so close to each other?” he asked.
Like the others, he said he repeatedly tried calling the police while the mob burned his shops. But no one answered.
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