Mohammad Irfan is grappling with shock, while Subash Chandra Jaiswal says so much of this violence is new.
“You have to understand,” the man said passionately. “She comes here everyday. Please let her pass through the barricade. Please?”
The stone-faced policeman stationed at Delhi’s Jahangirpuri shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I have been told we cannot allow anyone to cross the barricade.”
Defeated, the man patted the cow on its back and said, “Go, go. No point standing here.”
Disoriented, the cow turned away.
A day after seven bulldozers rolled into Jahangirpuri and razed parts of several structures, including the gate of a mosque, the roads leading to the area were quiet and barricaded at three points. As the Supreme Court stayed the demolition drive for two weeks, the dust settled over the broken buildings, their owners stuck inside their homes.
Media personnel were allowed only up to the last point, beyond which lies the road that witnessed communal violence – stone-pelting, a stampede and damage to public property – after a Hanuman Jayanti procession on Saturday.
Fresh white tents were put up at this last barricade. Inside, a handful of Delhi police officers sat on red velvet sofas and white chairs, facing coolers and fans while sipping fruit juice. Outside, teams of personnel from the Delhi police, CRPF and Rapid Action Force patrolled the area, ensuring no locals stepped out.
The road leading to the mosque was also sealed.
When Newslaundry entered Jahangirpuri through a different entrance and spoke to a few locals, the police were quick to arrive.
“No, you cannot talk to anyone,” they said, shooing away two women who were talking to this reporter. “You cannot be here.”
Apart from two Newslaundry reporters, an NDTV journalist also said the police at Jahangirpuri were attempting to “gag” the media and block them from meeting affected locals.
In one of the lanes of Jahangirpuri, Mohammad Irfan, 31, was rounding up vegetables inside his house.
“My friend Subash asked me to bring some vegetables to make food,” he said. “It is his mother’s first death anniversary today.”
Irfan, his wife and two children have lived in Jahangirpuri their whole lives. He works as a guard at a government school a few streets away. As he looked for more vegetables inside his one-room home, he told Newslaundry he had witnessed the violence that took place on April 16.
What shocked him, he said, was seeing his own Hindu friends allegedly wearing saffron shawls, holding saffron flags, and swinging swords while shouting “Jai Shri Ram”.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off them,” he said. “These are people I spend my leisure time with. One of them is an auto driver, one is a van driver. These are men I grew up with. We played with them when we were younger, on these very streets.”
Irfan refused to name the people he witnessed on April 16. “What they did was wrong but I don’t want to name them,” he said. “They are my friends.”
Before the violence, Irfan and his friends, most of whom are Hindus, would usually gather after work at a park opposite a school in Jahangirpuri’s G Block.
“We would spend hours sitting in the park – talking, watching videos on our phones. We would go to the tea stall as well,” he said. “I never sensed this sort of anger from them. I never thought they hated Muslims. I didn’t even know that one of them was part of the Bajrang Dal.”
On April 16, Irfan allegedly saw four Hindu men enter the gates of the mosque in Jahangirpuri and attempt to hoist a saffron flag – though Delhi police commissioner Rakesh Asthana has said these “rumours” are “not true”. Irfan said members of the Muslim community then “retaliated” and allegedly pelted stones.
As the violence escalated, Irfan said he and a few others began attending to the injured Muslims. A Hindu local also helped out.
“Now he’s left the locality and his parents are also not here,” Irfan said. “He is scared his people will get angry with him if they find out he helped us.”
Irfan said “mistakes” were made on “both sides”. “But that’s not the point,” he said. “The media is fixated on one thing: Who started it and who is to blame. But what about, what next? We still have to live here, right? These are our neighbours, our people – be it Hindu or Muslim. There’s no point playing this blame game and furthering the enmity between us.”
At this point in our conversation, he’d found enough vegetables, and we set off to meet his friend Subash.
Subash Chand Jaiswal, 46, lives one lane away from Irfan.
Subash works as a subcontractor with the Delhi metro. Exactly a year ago, he lost his mother to Covid. His mother was custodian of a temple, built in 1978 and now owned by Subash, in the lane.
“Irfan looked after her more than I did,” Subash told Newslaundry. “He came to the temple everyday and spent time with her. That’s why today, we will do a pooja for her – together.”
The police barricading and patrolling prevented Subash from buying groceries for the pooja, so he entrusted Irfan with the responsibility of getting the necessary items.
Both Subash and Irfan said Jahangirpuri has never seen communal violence like that before. The Hanuman procession takes place every year, they said, and swords and pistols were never part of it.
“This is the first time we saw them celebrate like this,” Subash said. “I feel ashamed.”
Irfan added, “If it is a Hanuman yatra, then carry a gada – the weapon Hanuman carried. I have never seen an image of Hanuman carrying a sword or gun ever.”
If they found the violence shameful, the encroachment drive was “simply not fair” and cannot be attributed to “illegal” constructions, Subash said.
“You have to understand, especially in this area, the bulldozer has a deep history,” he said. “It evokes a lot of historical pain.”
Subash explained that Jahangirpuri as a locality was allegedly born out of another demolition drive which also began in the month of April, except that drive happened 46 years ago.
It was 1976 during the Emergency, Subash said. Sanjay Gandhi had initiated a programme for the beautification of the capital. Within 21 months, nearly 70,000 people in old Delhi were displaced, their homes and shops bulldozed. Most of them were migrant workers from Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh who had come to Delhi in search of jobs.
Rendered homeless, many of them largely settled in what is now Jahangirpuri and Mangalpuri. According to Subash, some people with jobs were given space by the government, others settled on their own. As the years passed, Jahangirpuri became densely populated, and multi-storey buildings were built to accommodate them.
Subash also explained that Jahangirpuri is divided into multiple blocks and, during the Emergency resettlement, those from particular areas took over their own blocks.
“For example, C Block had a lot of Bengalis, D Block had Punjabis and Rajasthanis,” he said. “Now, it is all mixed. In all blocks, there have been both Hindus and Muslims. Now, just because some speak Bengali doesn’t mean they’re Bangladeshis or Rohingya Muslims. These are all mere lies.”
But things have been changing over the last few years, Subash said. The Bajrang Dal began taking out regular processions; he said its members were young and “heavily influenced” by social media.
“We never took them seriously but now I can see what they’ve done, and it is no laughing matter,” he said. “Most of the Hindus I know here do not want to be associated with Bajrang Dal. I also don’t allow them to be associated with my temple.”
With that, Irfan and Subash departed to prepare for the pooja.
Classrooms, and ‘political gimmicks’
On the main road, two boys in school uniforms stood watching TV news reporters speaking into a camera. Saleem* and Mohan* study in Class 8 and have been best friends since Class 3.
According to the boys, ever since Saturday’s violence, the number of Muslim students in their class has allegedly dropped.
“Most of them are scared,” Mohan said, “and maybe their parents are also scared now.”
Have they heard communal conversations in the classroom, either before or after April 16? Both said yes.
“Mostly it’s in the form of jokes,” said Saleem. “They make fun of us for being Muslim and say we are very violent, or that our fathers have many wives. We also make fun of them, saying nowadays Hindus are more violent.”
The two boys said they’re curious to see if this incident might change things in the classroom. “But we will be friends,” they said laughing.
A policeman had been closely watching this exchange. As this reporter left, the policeman said, “Don’t write my name but take my version also. You have to understand that we are also not bad people.”
Darshan* has worked with the Delhi police for 25 years. He alleged the bulldozers were brought in as a “political gimmick” in the run-up to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s election, scheduled to take place in a few months.
“This has nothing to do with illegal encroachment. The BJP-led MCD is simply following the ‘bulldozer baba’ model here as well,” said Darshan, referring to UP chief minister Adityanath, who was nicknamed “bulldozer baba” after his weapon of choice to deal with rioters.
“We policemen may look like villains right now but we are simply a tool,” Darshan added. “So are you, actually. All of this is a much bigger political game.”
*Names changed to protect identities.
Update: This report has been updated to clarify the extent of damage during the demolition drive.