NEW DELHI — A little after midnight on Wednesday Feb 26, Dr M A Anwar, Director of the Al-Hind hospital received an unusual phone call.
It was Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court, calling to ascertain the situation in this small hospital with a streched, but committed team, working to treat the hundreds of people injured in the riots that began over the weekend and raged across northeastern Delhi for most of this week.
At Al Hind in the Mustafabad neighbourhood, the riots had resulted in a flood of injured patients, but that Wednesday violent mobs had taken over the neighbourhood and ambulance service providers refused help. As hundreds of patients—two of whom were brought dead and two others died in the hospital—swamped the modest two-storey hospital’s facilities, Dr. Anwar was desperately calling for ambulances to ferry critical patients to better equipped hospitals but to no avail.
“At that point, we had just three doctors. Otherwise we have six doctors,” Dr. Anwar recalled. The hospital was running out of medicines, beds and supplies.
On the phone call, Justice Muralidhar listened intently, and at 12:36 AM the Delhi High Court bench of Justice S Muralidhar and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambani passed an extraordinary order directing the Delhi police to provide safe passage from Al-Hind for ambulances ferrying the injured to nearest government hospitals.
“Till the Honourable Delhi High Court gave its order, nobody cared about coming here. Not the police, ambulance or the media. Nobody gave us any help,” said Dr. Ghayarul Hassan, who was present in the hospital that night. The ambulance arrived subsequently and left with the patients at around 2 AM.
At least 38 people have died in the Delhi riots thus far — the worst riot death toll in the capital since the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 — as Hindus and Muslims have clashed in the streets.
The refusal of the Delhi Police or ambulance service providers to respond to desperate pleas by the doctors at Al Hind, the only hospital in the locality, about helping them transfer patients to bigger and well-equipped hospitals until Justice Muralidhar and Bhambani’s direction, is a glaring example of why the police’s role in the riots is increasingly under the scanner.
Suroor Mander, a lawyer and human rights activist who brought the matter before the Delhi High Court said Al Hind had arranged for one private ambulance, except the vehicle was stopped at the Dayalpur Police station by the local police force.
Rather than provide security cover for the vehicle, the police did not allow the ambulance to proceed further because they had said they had “no permission”, Mander said.
After talking with Dr. Anwar past midnight, Justice Muralidhar and Justice Bhambani also mentioned in the order that a compliance report be filed along with information about treatment given to the injured patients by 2: 15 pm the same day. While hearing the matter during the day, Justice Muralidhar also pulled up the Delhi Police for not filing First Information Reports against Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for inciting violence.
Hours later, Justice Muralidhar was transferred out of the Delhi High Court after the Law ministry notified his transfer. Dr. Anwar and his team continued to look after their patients.
WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT
When the riots had picked up steam on February 24 and violent incidents continued to be reported till late evening on Feb 26, hundreds of patients from the predominantly Muslim parts of Mustafabad and Chandbagh flocked to Al Hind hospital.
On Tuesday, when they were desperately trying to call ambulances, doctors said they had at least 22 grievously injured patients, who needed to get urgent and better treatment in a bigger hospital, and two fatalities. “There were injured patients lying all over here on the ground floor as well as on the ground on the first floor, since there were no beds,” said Dr. Anwar.
Initially, Dr. Anwar dialled the 102 emergency contact number but was told that an ambulance couldn’t be sent to Mustafabad due to safety reasons. He also reached out to friends who are doctors in several major city hospitals. While they arranged one ambulance, it could not enter Mustafabad and was stopped outside the locality by the police citing safety. “This entire area was surrounded by rioting mobs so we couldn’t go out and transfer patients to bigger hospitals or get medicines. We didn’t have any idea that situation would worsen so much so we were not prepared to deal with something like this at all,” remembered Dr. Anwar.
Dr. Mohammad Wasim Akram, another young doctor at the hospital, said the emergency was especially severe because there weren’t enough oxygen masks so many people could not get treatment. At least two died because of unavailability of oxygen, he said.
Given the unmanageable situation at the hospital, Dr. Anwar reached out to Mander, the lawyer and activist cited previously in this report, for help in accessing ambulances late in the night.
“She said she was trying to get ambulances from different sources and, if they don’t work, she will approach the court. When no other option worked, she reached out to the court. The Judge spoke with me around 12-12:30 and around 2 am, both the force and ambulances took the grievously injured patients as well as the dead bodies,” he said.
Suroor mentioned that Justice Muralidhar didn’t want to go by her word alone but verified the information by speaking with Dr. Anwar over the phone.
“He actually spoke to the doctor himself. He told us that you must do a video call, but because of the situation we could only do a voice call and he spoke to Dr. Anwar and he explained the situation. After that, the order was passed and since then, we have been working on relief and rescue,” she said.
DESPAIR & TEMPORARY RELIEF IN MUSTAFABAD
But the challenges of arranging ambulances to riot-torn continues, she added. To address them, she said the following measures could help: establish medical desks in Al-Hind, let civil administration be on ground to address people’s needs and make ambulances available in a sufficient number to address the current needs of the locality.
In an interview with this reporter on Thursday afternoon, she described the situation as “precarious”. On Wednesday evening, Dr. Mohammad Wasim Akram had also told this reporter that ambulances from the hospital are going out with patients in cases of serious injuries, but they are not fully assured of safety. He advised this reporter not to head out of Mustafabad in the evening. The fear was palpable.
Late on Thursday night, Dr Hassan said the ambulance driver had suspended service for reasons of safety and asked the hospital to get the patients on the main road well outside the neighbourhood.
The prevailing situation in Mustafabad and the nearby locality of Karawal Nagar was highlighted rather starkly by one family which had temporarily stayed in the hospital on Wednesday evening. Speaking with HuffPost India, Mohammad Yaasen (42), a resident of Govind Vihar locality in Karawal Nagar, described the circumstances in which his family of six left their home for Mustafabad.
“For three days, the people in the area supported us. They were asking us not to go. We won’t let anyone from this locality touch you and no one from outside will enter this area. But what can they do if mobs come to attack us? In the chaos, even they might get hurt. So I thought it best to leave home and come here,” he said.
When asked if there was any specific incident which made him take that decision, Yaaseen replied in the affirmative and recalled one specific incident. “On Wednesday morning at around 3 am, a mob arrived and chanted slogans in his lane. The slogan was “Jai Siya Ram”. The lane has only two Muslim homes.
“Because of those slogans by the mob, we had a doubt and so we came here. We didn’t want someone else to get hurt because of us,” he said. His brother-in-law helped him escape from his home in Karawal Nagar by arranging help from police officials to bring him to Mustafabad. They were planning to head to a relative’s place in the locality to stay temporarily till the violence subsided.
HuffPost India has previously reported about the death of a 22-year-old electrician named Ashfaq Hussain. He is among the earliest identified civilian deaths during the Delhi riots. Dr. Mohammad Wasim Akram informed that the badly wounded body of Ashfaq was brought dead to the hospital on the day he was shot. The pictures recorded show a badly wounded body, which drained substantial blood. Some other bodies also bled substantially and parts of the hospital’s first floor, with stains of blood, bear testimony to the fact as do some pictures the doctors have kept for record.
There was yet another death on the second night of the the riots in Chand Bagh which, Dr Anwar said, would have almost gone unreported but the doctors had to head out to help the family of the victim.
“We found out that the body of a 22-year-old man named Mohammad Shahid had been found in New Mustafabad. We went to see it. They were taking it for burial. We explained to them that this man has a gunshot injury and he should get justice so they shouldn’t bury it right away,” he said.
That was the only instance during the first two days, before the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi police to provide safe passage to ambulances, when he could arrange an ambulance anywhere near his locality. So the ambulance arrived in the next door locality of Chand Bagh, not far from where the body was found, and sent to a bigger hospital.