NEW DELHI — On Monday, 74-year-old Naseer Khan snuck into the street where he has lived for thirty years and silently opened the door to his house in Shiv Vihar, one of the worst riot-hit neighbourhoods in northeast Delhi.
All that remained of the workshop where he used to make seat covers were charred walls and black soot. A smoky odour filled his house. “Be careful, it might collapse,” he said, treading carefully on the staircase as flakes of soot fell on his white kurta.
When he came back outside, Khan sat down and stared at the mangled carcass of his motorcycle. His anger seemed to give way to grief. “There is nothing left to come back to,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “They have cut the feet from under us.”
An overwhelming number of Muslim homes, shops and vehicles in Shiv Vihar were torched and looted in the communal violence that went on for five days last week in Delhi, last week. As the immense scale of destruction in this largely Hindu neighbourhood slowly comes to light, the air here remains strained and menacing. In the day, journalists and activists wander into the homes abandoned by the Muslims, while their Hindu neighbours gaze at them from afar. At night, a resident said they still keep vigil and stop Muslims from entering the locality.
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Most Muslims fled Shiv Vihar on 25 February, when the rioting here reached a fever pitch. A week has gone by but few have returned to check their homes and vehicles since then. On Monday, those who quietly returned to assess the damage were at a loss for words. The beds, cupboards, gas stoves, refrigerators and everything else that was part of their daily lives had been reduced to rubble. Their jewellery and television sets were missing. What was not burnt, had been looted.
But there were no loud remonstrations from the three people who let this reporter into their homes. They walked around the wreckage with a quiet calm, an almost dignified silence, recalling when they had bought “this refrigerator and that washing machine” of which there were only fragments left.
They touched the skeletal remains of their vehicles and looked away.
There is nothing left to come back to. They have cut the feet from under us.
The word that people used while speaking of the devastation was “unimaginable,” especially because it was in the national capital. Unless there is a Herculean effort to mend relations and rebuild trust, victims of the carnage may never return. The neighbourhoods where Hindus and Muslims once lived together would be divided along religious lines, as was the case in Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
A Hindu resident who was making a video of the burnt vehicles scattered along the by-lanes of Shiv Vihar said, “They won’t be able to come back unless the police comes with them. Even then, who knows how long they can stay? The poison has now entered our hearts and getting it out is no easy.”
Close to 50 people — Hindus and Muslims — have been killed last week in the worst communal violence since the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in Delhi. Over 100 people have been gravely injured and more have fled their homes. The violence that lasted for five days followed a speech by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra’s speech against those who continue to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in a few pockets of the national capital.
Both Hindus and Muslims said the Delhi Policedid almost nothing to curb the violence as the crisis deepened on 24 and 25 February.
An auto rickshaw driver, who says he participated in the rioting in Shiv Vihar, said he was struck by how few policemen were on the ground and how little they did to stop the rioters. “They were just watching the tamasha. It’s important that you know this. The rioters had no fear,” he said, declining to be named.
The two mosques of Shiv Vihar— the Medina mosque and the Alhiya mosque — were torched on 25 February, the day that Hindus from here, Brijpur and Bhagwati Vihar were locked in a street battle with Muslims from Mustafabad. The mosques in Brijpur and Bhagwati Vihar were also burnt. Previously, HuffPost India has reported the torching of four other mosques in northeast Delhi.
It’s important that you know this. The rioters had no fear.
Mehraj, a 35-year-old welder who came to assess the damage on Monday, said that he had “lost everything.”
Shifting his gaze from walls caked with soot to ash on the floor, and then looking up at the holes in his ceilings, he said, “I cannot express the pain I’m feeling.”
Next door, 18-year-old Sauran used the torch in his mobile phone to look around his family workshop.
The fabric rolls they used to make dhotis had been reduced to pulp.
“I don’t think we can ever come back,” he said.
I cannot express the pain I’m feeling.
Where cops don’t dare
Khan, who makes seat covers, had heard that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced compensation for people affected by the riots. But as of Monday, he said, no one from the Delhi government had reached out to them.
Despite the presence of paramilitary troopers in Shiv Vihar, Khan said that it took him a long time to convince his wife and daughter that it would be safe for him to make a 10-20 minute trip to look at their property.
The last time that Khan made it to the house was on the morning of 26 February, when he came to rescue his wife and daughter who were not able to run away as the rioting escalated. When their house was set on fire the night before, the women ran across the roof and jumped into a Hindu house. Khan had begged two policemen to go with him to get his wife and daughter, but as they approached the neighbourhood, the policemen told him it was too dangerous for them to enter. He returned with around 25 paramilitary troopers and got them out.
His wife and daughter are traumatised, and not likely to return, Khan said. “Even if I could somehow make myself believe that we will be safe, they won’t be able to do it,” he said.
The scenes in Shiv Vihar speak to the different kinds of people who were actors on the worst days of the riots. There is a Muslim shop where the shutter bears the words, ‘Jai Shri Ram’, right next to a Hindu shop that has the same words painted over it.
A Muslim resident said the Hindus had done it to save both shops.
But the barricades made of bamboo sticks, carts and furniture that are still in place were manned by residents who asked people whether they were Hindu and Muslim.
The narrative that “outsiders” are responsible for the carnage is heard in almost every neighbourhood, but residents here say that is only half true. The accuracy with which Muslim homes and shops were identified and destroyed suggests that people well-versed with the geography of the neighbourhood were involved.
The auto rickshaw driver quoted earlier said the rioters included outsiders as well as people from inside the locality.
Mehraj, the welder, said that he trusted his Hindu neighbours when they said nothing would happen to his family. That is why he did not flee on 24 February, even though Hindus and Muslims had started throwing bricks, petrol bombs and shooting at each other that day. They had also heard about the mobs that were profiling men and brutally beating Muslims.
On 25 February, Mehraj said, the violence was out of control and it was each man for himself. “I can trust my neighbours, but I cannot trust that this will not happen again,” he said.
I can trust my neighbours, but I cannot trust that this will not happen again.
As he reassured his family that he was safe and gave them a summary of the devastation over the phone, Mehraj rapidly gathered the few clothes that had survived the carnage.
“I’m leaving now,” he told his wife, hoisting the bundle of clothes over his shoulder and slipping away.