NEW DELHI — Ravi Parashar recalls the moment an elderly Muslim cleric with a flowing white beard turned to the group of Hindus who had gathered near a mosque and pleaded, “Bhai, could someone help, please?”
Abdur Raziq, general secretary of an Islamic organisation called Jamia Ulama-i-Hind, was asking for help to remove the statue of Hindu god Hanuman and take down the saffron flag that rioters had hoisted above the Allah Wali Masjidin Karawal Nagar on 25 February, as communal violence consumed the neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi last week.
Parashar, whose family says he is “soft-hearted,” wanted to volunteer right away, but hesitated.
After all, this was a riot situation and he sensed there were some unsavoury elements in the largely sympathetic crowd that was swelling in the narrow by-lane of Karawal Nagar, where the mosque and five Muslim houses had been looted and torched. The house next to the mosque was his brother’s place that he had bought from a Muslim man named Sonu Khan. Both their houses were set on fire.
As Parashar stood in the rubble in front of his brother’s house two days after the carnage, mulling over whether he should stick his neck out, some men in the crowd refused to help the cleric and walked away.
While the rest of the group remained silent, Parashar said the words just tumbled out of him.
He ended up saying, “I will help you. I will go with you and remove the flag.”
I will help you. I will go with you and remove the flag.
The act by Parashar, who had no qualms admitting to the doubts he felt at the moment, stood out amidst the stories of loss, fear and mistrust that emerged from the communal violence that tore Delhi apart in the last week of February. While the victims were let down by government agencies, many seemingly ordinary people stepped up and performed quiet acts of heroism.
At least nine mosques in northeast Delhi were burnt by Hindu rioters who also climbed atop them, in a grim reminder of the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid, to plant their flags of conquest on the structures. By the simple act of untying the knot that fastened the saffron flag to the minaret, Parashar not only soothed some of the wounds cleaved by the violence, he also provided a powerful counter-narrative to the messages of hate unleashed by politicians and many TV channels almost every day.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, 30-year-old Parashar, who spoke in short, matter-of-fact sentences, said that he was moved by how sad the cleric looked when asking for help.
“I think we felt the same at that moment, ″ he said. “Our house was looted and torched. Their mosque was looted and torched. He must have felt as scared and lost as we felt.”
The cleric remembers
Raziq and Parashar had not met earlier and parted ways shortly after the latter took down the saffron flag from the mosque. They did not exchange mobile phone numbers or addresses.
When HuffPost India spoke to Raziq, all the cleric knew was his first name — Ravi. But the video he made of Parashar, clad in a red shirt and blue jeans, climbing the green-and-white minaret of the mosque, went viral.
The image of the young Hindu man taking down the saffron flag—symbolising a momentary undoing of the violent Hindu nationalism that India’s current crop of leaders is inflicting on its people—offers hope to a city torn by religious violence.
This is how Raziq remembered the events of that morning.
“The crowd was mostly peaceful, but there were still some people there who were trying to stir up trouble,” he said. “If not for the two policemen who were with me, I may not have stayed.”
“I asked people for help but no one replied, some even refused. Then, I turned to this thin young man who agreed,” he said.
Parashar, a wholesale watch supplier in Chandni Chowk, and father to a baby and a toddler, said, “No one else showed the courage in that moment, so I decided to do it. Someone has to do the right thing. Someone has to take a step for peace and brotherhood. Only then will others follow and hate start to disappear.”
Someone has to do the right thing. Someone has to take a step for peace and brotherhood.
His brother’s house
Almost 50 people — Hindus and Muslims— were killed in the communal violence in Delhi, which followed Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra’s speech targeting those who had been protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act for more than two months. More than 200 people were injured. Many more have fled their burnt, looted homes.
Parashar, who lives in a different part of Karawal Nagar, was at the scene to help his brother in assessing the damage he had suffered. With all their cash and jewellery stolen, he says they suffered a loss of around Rs 5-7 lakh.
Parashar’s brother’s home is located in the middle of the mosque and their “friend” Sonu Khan’s house. It was Khan who sold them that house last year.
“We have never thought of Hindus and Muslims as different. This is the truth,” he said. “If it were not true, why would we buy a house right next to the mosque?”
All that remains of the mosque, and the six houses burnt on this by-lane of Karawal Nagar, are charred walls, broken windows and a few items spared by the looters that are a grim reminder of a past life.
None of the Muslim families have returned.
On the losses his family has suffered, Parashar said, “We can’t think about it too much. If we do, we won’t be able to cope. I think of it as we have lost what was not ours to begin with.”
We have never thought of Hindus and Muslims as different.
Taking down the flag
Even before Parashar headed to the roof to take down the flag, he had helped the two policemen who came with the Muslim cleric to remove the Hanuman idol that the rioters had placed at the entrance to the mosque.
The cleric and 10-12 other Muslim men who had come to assess the damage to the mosque, Parashar realised, would have been wary of touching the statue of the Hindu god in front of the crowd in that environment.
As he walked into the mosque and saw the aftermath of the attack, Parashar felt a chill go down his spine. He had felt it first when he had struggled to enter his brother’s charred house which was filled with smoke.
“A man thought of himself as safe in Delhi. I could never have imagined this kind of violence would happen in Delhi. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Parashar’s family is from Agra.
A man thought of himself as safe in Delhi.
When this reporter asked Raziq why the two policemen did not go to the roof and take down the flag, he said they had to stay behind to keep an eye on the crowd.
The saffron flag was tightly fastened to the white-and-green minaret, Parashar said. He held on to the minaret with one hand and untangled what he recalled to be four or five hard knots.
In the minute or so that it took him to take down the flag, Raziq made a video of Parashar and spoke about how the young man was preserving the “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb” of coexistence.
When this reporter asked Parashar where he put the saffron flag, he said, “I just did not know what to do with it. I folded it completely and brought it down with me. I left it in my brother’s house.”
And what of the Hanuman statue? Raziq said the policemen returned it to a temple close by.
A wedding after arson
This was the second time that Hanuman had come into Parashar’s life in the course of three days.
The first time was on the night of 24 February, when his family had dressed in their finest and sallied forth to attend a wedding function for his niece, even as the rioting in northeast Delhi was escalating.
Their wedding party consisted of their immediate family, who were squashed into one car, and relatives who were following in 10-15 motorcycles. They did not go far when they were surrounded by a frenzied mob of Hindu rioters, who had commandeered the Khajoori Khas road and were chanting “Jai Shri Ram” over and over again.
Parashar’s mother, who had joined our conversation, said they were terrified as the wedding party crawled through the mayhem, with hundreds of rioters on both sides of their vehicles.
“We were playing the Hanuman Chalisa very loudly in the car. We were chanting Jai Shri Ram,” she said. “There must have been a thousand of them. We had to show them that we are Hindu. It was madness.”
We were playing the Hanuman Chalisa very loudly in the car. We were chanting Jai Shri Ram.
Parashar’s father said that he had to tell the rioters his name for them to pass. He said, “We went with our hands folded, begging god for strength to survive.”
It was the next morning that his brother’s house was attacked by the rioters, but with the main wedding ceremony the next day, there was no time to take stock of the damage to their home.
“It was a very difficult time for a wedding. There was no joy we were feeling at that point. We were feeling angry and sad and afraid too, but we had to keep going,” said Parashar.
When this reporter asked why they chose to risk their lives instead of postponing the wedding, Parashar looked incredulous and said, “Whether there is a riot or a massive storm, a wedding must go on.”
Whether there is a riot or a massive storm, a wedding must go on.
Until this reporter arrived at his house, Parashar had not told any of his family members about how he had helped remove the Hanuman statue and the saffron flag from the mosque.
He had a clip of the viral video, which his brother’s neighbour had shared with him, but he had not shown it to anyone else.
His wife and mother chastised him for not telling them.
“He does not tell us anything,” his wife said, poring over the video.
“What is there to tell? Man has to help man, doesn’t he,” he replied. “It’s not just what 100 or 1,000 people do in a mob. What each person does on his own also counts.”
It’s not just what 100 or 1,000 people do in a mob. What each person does on his own also counts.
While growing up in Delhi, Parashar recalled there was no bad-mouthing or snide remarks passed against Muslims in his house. He was friends with his Muslim classmates at school. He intends to teach his children — a two-year-old girl and a seven-month-old boy — the lessons that his parents taught him.
When his wife had finished watching the video, she said, “He did a good thing.”
When this reporter asked Parashar if there was something he wanted to say to the rioters, he said, “You are hurting the country. Go meet the victims on both sides — Hindus and Muslims — and hear their pain. Only the innocent have died. Don’t ever do it again.”