NEW DELHI — It was late afternoon on 29 February, and storm clouds were gathering over Bhagirathi Vihar, when a police officer asked Mohammed Sarfaraz for the keys to his house. The man was there to assess the damage to Sarfaraz’s house and locate CCTV footage of the communal violence that had consumed northeast Delhi earlier that week.
“What do you do?” the official asked him.
“I build temples for a living,” Sarfaraz replied. He paused and added, “I build Hindu temples made of Korean marble.”
Over 24 and 25 February, the 33-year-old temple builder, father to three children, ran out of his house and into a full-blown riot, pleading with both Hindus and Muslims to stop attacking each other. In a conversation with HuffPost India, Sarfaraz said that every time he ran to the “Muslim side”, he wore his white cap to identify himself as Muslim. He must have rushed over and then doubled back to speak with his Hindu neighbours at least 20 times in those 24 hours, Sarfaraz said. As he was convincing the Muslim rioters to stay out of the street, he told his Hindu neighbours to tell the Hindu rioters that they also needed to back off.
Sarfaraz’s bylane, which has a few Muslim houses and a mosque nestled in the middle of a largely Hindu neighbourhood, became the frontline in a vicious street battle between Hindus and Muslims on the two worst days of rioting.
“It was frightening. Of course, it was frightening, but I could not sit like a quiet mouse in the house. I did not want Hindus and Muslims fighting in our street. I knew the fighting would last for a few days but we would carry its weight all our lives,” he said. “I told my Hindu neighbours that I won’t let Muslims enter the bylane from this side. They had to make sure Hindus did not come into our street.”
I knew the fighting would last for a few days but we would carry its weight all our lives.
Fifty three people have been killed in the worst communal violence that Delhi has witnessed since the anti-Sikh riots in 1984. The overwhelming number of victims are Muslim. People have been burnt alive, shot at and mutilated. More than 200 have been injured. Many more have fled their burnt, looted homes and shops.
While Home Minister Amit Shah has hailed the Delhi Police for controlling the rioting in 36 hours, people who lived through the violence say they could not reach the police on the worst days and authorities did little to check it. A video of policemen taunting and beating Muslim men — one of whom died later — also raises fears of an anti-Muslim bias in the largely Hindu police force. On Thursday, The New York Times reported more instances of the police force acting against Muslims and sometimes actively helping Hindu mobs, a claim denied by the IPS (Indian Police Service) Association.
Shah has promised that anyone found guilty of violence will be punished irrespective of religion, but there is concern whether the police can be trusted to investigate these crimes without religious bias.
Peace over everything else
When this reporter asked Sarfaraz whether he thought justice would prevail, he shrugged. He said that he wants the guilty to be punished, but he would have gladly traded accountability for peace. He wanted things to go back to the way they used to be before the violence — not a secular utopia, but living next door to each other despite the daily travails and disagreements.
Even his narrative of the violence between Hindus and Muslims was mostly about neighbours from both religions holding off the violence for as long as possible and sticking out their necks to save each other’s homes and shops.
Before he started building temples three years ago, Sarfaraz worked as a carpenter for many years. He dropped out of school after class seven and joined his father who worked as a carpenter at the time. There was no doubt in his mind that he would return to building temples made of Korean marble.
But unless the Narendra Modi government makes a herculean effort to rebuild trust in these embattled communities—unlikely, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not even visited the victims so far— Hindus and Muslims who have lived together for as long as they can remember will cease to be neighbours.
“Why do you think I stayed back when everyone was leaving? I was speaking with the Hindu and Muslims sides from the 24th afternoon to the 25th evening,” said Sarfaraz. “I told my Hindu neighbour that it doesn’t matter who is fighting and where they are fighting, but we won’t let Hindus and Muslims fight on our street.”
“I told my Hindu neighbour that it doesn’t matter who is fighting and where they are fighting, but we won’t let Hindus and Muslims fight on our street.
Sarfaraz has reason to worry about the violence possibly changing the equation between his neighbours.
One example of strained relations came when he stood near the mosque and explained how it was damaged and then saved. A Hindu man interrupted him in a loud voice and said, “You are not telling it correctly. We were the ones who ran with the water to put out the fire.” Sarfaraz immediately sought to reassure him. “Yes brother, of course you did.”
In one video that he shot a day after the mosque was burnt, Hindu women were seen refusing to let the Delhi Police personnel and other Muslims clean the site until they had written assurance that no outsider would use the mosque and Muslims would not pray on the street outside the mosque.
What happened on February 24?
Tensions started rising in the afternoon on February 24, a day after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra made an inflammatory speech targeting those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi, Sarfaraz said.
It was around three in the afternoon when he heard a dull chant in the distance, which became louder and louder. Around 200 men were marching into the lane, beating their lathis on the ground and chanting Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram in unison.
Muslims from Mustafabad, fearing that the mosque and the few Muslim families in Bhagirathi Vihar were going to be attacked, gathered near the mouth of the bylane.
Mustafabad, which is next to Bhagirathi Vihar, is the only Muslim-dominated locality in the area, surrounded by the Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods of Shiv Vihar, Brijpuri and Karawal Nagar.
As Sarfaraz ran to the Muslim side and explained that they shouldn’t worry, his Hindu neighbours routed the mob away from the mosque and sent them back.
“I was standing on the balcony and watching. When the stone-pelting started (on the ‘Muslim side’), I rushed to meet them. There were three others with me. We said, ‘Nothing has happened. There is no reason to fight. Please go away.’”
“I was wearing my topi at the time so they would recognise me. I did not want Muslim bhais to attack Hindu bhais. I did not want Hindu bhais to attack Muslim bhais.”
On whether it was a good idea for him to have donned his white topi when there was a Hindu mob in the street, Sarfaraz said, “ I knew the Hindus on my street would save me.”
We said, ‘Nothing has happened. There is no reason to fight. Please go away.'
Later that day, reports of Hindus stopping Muslims at the puliya (bridge) close to Bhagirathi Vihar, asking for their religion, started trickling in. Those who were not carrying an identity card were forced to lower their pants to show whether they were circumcised. Those who were identified as Muslims were allegedly beaten or killed and thrown into the now infamous drain that runs parallel to the riot-hit neighbourhoods.
When a Muslim neighbour phoned and and said that he was stuck at one such “checkpoint,” Sarfaraz said that their Hindu neighbours rushed off to rescue him.
“The Muslims who managed to get back were either badly beaten and or had their faces broken. They were taken to hospital,” Sarfaraz said. “As more and more of these boys were coming in this bruised and bloodied condition, the tensions kept rising and rising.”
Hindus and Muslims on his street stayed awake all night to guard against any violence from breaking out.
Sarfraz said that he tried to sleep for a few hours next morning, but the war cries from both sides were deafening.
On their street, Sarfaraz said, Hindu neighbors warded off Hindu rioters from burning Muslim properties and their mosque. A little further down on the same street, he said, Muslims did the same for their Hindu neighbours.
Muslims, he said, saved the hardware store run by one Mr. Chaudhary who called and told them that there was danger of the paint and other chemicals in his store exploding if it was set on fire. “He called and said, ‘Let them take what they want but don’t let them burn it,’” said Sarfaraz.
“Then there was Hari bhai who said I will throw down my keys, let them loot everything, but don’t let them burn the shop. We told him, ’Don’t worry, Hari bhai, you say inside. Nothing will happen,” he said. “People came out with sticks and stood in front of the stores to protect them.”
Sarfaraz said that he went back to running interference between Hindus and Muslims rioters, often via his Hindu neighbors, but despite their best efforts to keep the violence from spreading to their street, there was little they could as the situation spiralled out of control.
As more news came in of Muslims being murdered at these “checkpoints” manned by Hindu rioters, and inside Hindu-dominated neighborhoods, Sarfaraz sent his family away.
“I wanted to stay and protect our house. It would not have been possible for us to build a house like this again,” he said. “The thought that it would be destroyed, burned and looted, it was too much to bear.
It would not have been possible for us to build a house like this again.
As his pleas began to be ignored and bricks and petrol bombs made an appearance, Sarfaraz said that he retreated inside his house, suddenly exhausted. But soon, he got a call from his Hindu neighbours who said his house was on fire from a petrol bomb.
The position of his house is such, Sarfaraz explained, that it was bearing the brunt not from the Hindu side, but the Muslim side, who were trying to throw petrol bombs at the Hindus rioters amassed on roofs. The Hindu rioters, he said, were at an advantage because they were at a height. His Hindu neighbours had told the Hindu rioters to leave him alone.
“If it was not so sad for us to keep saying ‘Hindu home’ and ‘Muslim home’, ‘Hindu shop’ and ‘Muslim shop’, I would even say it was a funny situation at times,” he said. “I had to keep yelling that I’m Muslim, bhai, stop throwing things at my house.”
While Sarfaraz’s home was not looted and torched like so many other Muslim houses in northeast Delhi, it was damaged from the bricks and petrol bombs that had come crashing through its windows.
After the volley of petrol bombs and bricks, Sarfaraz had decided to stay indoors and leave his fate in God’s hands, but rushed out when he heard the rioters had set the mosque on fire.
It was the “James family” (the only Christian family that he knew in Bhagirathi Vihar) that called and told him the mosque was on fire.
As he and a few other Muslim residents came out to save the mosque, Sarfaraz said that his Hindu neighbours handed them buckets of water from their house.
It was around six in the evening when they finally heard the “force” (paramilitary troopers) was in the area and the rioters started melting away.
When the last of the marauders were trying to burn his shops, Sarfaraz said that he ran after them while explaining that he, too, was Muslim. He had rented one store out to a Muslim, who runs a bakery, and sold the other one to a Jain, who runs it as a kirana store.
“I would have been answerable to both of them if I stood by and did nothing,” he said. “If I look back and think of these days, and if I remember doing nothing while everything around me was burning, it would have been a heavy burden to carry all my life. In the end, we all have to answer to ourselves.”
In the end, we all have to answer to ourselves.