NEWS
08/03/2020 9:11 AM IST | Updated 08/03/2020 9:11 AM IST

Riot-Hit Women In Delhi Contemplate Their Future: How To Go Back To Living Together?

Once they are back in their battered homes and the men leave to find work, how will they spend long days among the women they had considered friends until the violence began?

Piyasree Dasgupta
Mumtaz at a relief camp. Her house was burnt and family attacked with acid.

Two days after 19-year-old Arshi ran from her house at night — barefoot, face covered with a dupatta and clutching only her phone — she phoned Manisha. Arshi had spent the past two nights praying that the fires she had run from in her lane did not follow her to the Mustafabad house where she camped out along with dozens of other Muslim women who had fled from the riots.

“Are you okay, did you get hurt?” Manisha asked urgently when she picked up the phone. Arshi told her about hurting her foot while running, how she had heard men shouting abuses and that she still couldn’t believe that she was alive.

“Did you see my house? Did they set it on fire?” Arshi asked. Manisha lived a few houses away from Arshi, around the corner on the same lane in Shiv Vihar, the north-east Delhi neighbourhood where houses and shops belonging to Muslims had been vandalised, looted and set on fire in the last week of February.

Manisha told Arshi that her house hadn’t been torched, but goons had broken into it. The house’s windows were shattered and half-burnt, and destroyed household items were littered outside.
“I cannot believe what’s happening,” Arshi despaired. And then she got a shock.

Sukoon mil gaya? (You are at peace now?) Didn’t I tell you not to go to these protests and stuff? People were so angry, it had to happen,” Manisha said furiously.

When I met Arshi at the makeshift relief camp in Mustafabad — a house belonging to a person in the area, where riot victims found shelter — she told me that of the many things she was trying to wrap her head around, it was her friend’s anger that baffled her the most. Arshi and Manisha, neighbours since childhood, had become close two years ago when they both started college. Their friendship was forged by sharing the thrill of the many firsts they experienced as women from conservative, lower middle-class Indian households venturing out in the world.

“I am not even sure if we can live here anymore, and whether we have anything left in the house. Friends, I will make again,”

Arshi told me that they used to sneak out of college to shop together, lied to their families to watch movies and most importantly, brainstormed ways to earn money. They had enrolled into a computer training course together and then began a part-time data entry job at the same place. To them, the challenges of being young women trying to make a life of their own had mattered more than their religion. Until now.

Since that phone call, Arshi has not spoken to Manisha, and isn’t sure where their friendship stands at the moment.

“I am not even sure if we can live here anymore, and whether we have anything left in the house. Friends, I will make again,” she said, sounding distracted by the difficult decisions looming ahead for her family.

Two weeks after the communal violence that claimed more than 50 lives and destroyed livelihoods, traumatised Muslims are beginning to take stock of their losses and try to rebuild their lives. To add to this trauma, women who fled their homes are trying to deal with an unfamiliar reality they sometimes find difficult to articulate. What happens once the reporters and camera crews move on to the next crisis? When the relatives now giving them food and clothes begin to grow weary? Most of all, once they are back in their battered homes and the men leave to find work, how will they spend long days among the women they had considered friends until the violence began?

‘Extremists overnight’

Mumtaz sat cross-legged, leaning against a pile of bedsheets and blankets, on the floor of a mosque in Mustafabad which had been turned into a temporary relief camp. The floor was sticky with dirt and mud as media crews and a constant stream of people walked across the breadth of the floor, speaking to the victims. “Don’t sit, it’s too dirty,” she told this correspondent. As she looked around, tears welled up in her eyes. “This is what I am left with.”

That morning, despite protests from other women at the camp, Mumtaz had walked across to what used to be her home, the ground floor of which had housed a small stationery-cum-grocery shop she ran. Parts from their fridge were lying outside the devastated house.

SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images
A resident walks past a burnt-out building on a residential area, in New Delhi on March 1, 2020.

“Everything, everything is gone. Kuch nahi bacha (nothing is left),” Mumtaz said. Right opposite was a line of houses and shops owned by Hindus, mostly unharmed. While she stood in front of her house, unable to move, her Hindu neighbour and her son walked past. “They asked me how I was. When I told them, ‘see what happened’, they were silent. Then they asked about Anam, and how she was,” Mumtaz said.

Chalo, that is good to hear that they still care at least about the children,” said a woman sitting beside Mumtaz at the relief camp. Anam, Mumtaz’s 19-year-old daughter, is being treated at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital after acid was thrown at her face during the riots.

On the night of the violence, Mumtaz, her husband and daughter, and a few other women had ran up to the terrace of their house after a cylinder exploded in front of their door, setting the ground floor on fire.

“We sat huddled in a corner, but Anam and her father were standing up, trying to figure a way to escape,” Mumtaz said. There was chaos all around, with people shouting and stones being pelted at the house. Suddenly, Anam and her father screamed. Mumtaz ran over to find her husband covering his eye and Anam clutching her face.

Acid lobbed by an unknown rioter had fallen on her husband’s face, with a splash hitting Anam’s left cheek.

Acid lobbed by an unknown rioter had fallen on her husband’s face, with a splash hitting Anam’s left cheek.

“Someone set up a ladder at the back of the house just then and I shouted at them to come. Some people dragged them down the ladder,” Mumtaz said.
While both are being treated at the GTB Hospital, doctors are not sure if Mumtaz’s husband’s eyesight is intact.

“He was not able to see then. I am praying he gets his eyesight back,” she said.
In the 25 years that they lived in the neighbourhood, Mumtaz doesn’t remember a single skirmish with her neighbours over religion. “How can I even start to imagine whether they were involved? They have seen my daughter being born. The women call her ‘beti’. How would they know people who would throw acid at her?” Mumtaz said, aghast. Her friend, however, asked how the mob would have known precisely which house to burn and that Mumtaz and her family were hiding on the terrace.

Sab ek dum se kattarpanthi ban gaye (They all turned extremists overnight),” she said.

Mumtaz, however, shook her head vehemently. “No no, don’t say all this. We women were not thick friends or something. Kabhi zaroorat padti thee, to bejhijhak jaate the unke ghar. (We would go to each other’s house when we needed something.) Say, we needed medicine urgently, or some household item, we could always walk to their house and they to ours, to ask for it,” she said.

The conversations they had then weren’t usually long or elaborate, but they would exchange news about the children and their education, and more recently, the prices of daily goods.

“They would come to buy groceries from the shop and we would chat. Sometimes, they would ask about Anam,” she said.

The houses in their neighbourhood in Shiv Vihar were set close to each other, and the easy camaraderie they formed with their neighbours was an essential part of the daily lives of women who spent hours at home. It was easy to forget your own individuality when hours passed in doing housework, running errands and caring for children. A chat with a neighbour while dropping kids at school, or sharing a laugh at the grocery store with other women formed the pleasant interludes many women looked forward to in their unvarying routines. But what happens to those networks of solidarity after violence like this?

“I don’t believe it. I will not be able to live if I believe it,” Mumtaz said, still trying to think the best of the people she saw every day.

Arshi doesn’t have an answer either. She knew Manisha from childhood and had been struck by the fact that her family did not seem horrified that their daughter was friends with a Muslim.

“I don’t believe it. I will not be able to live if I believe it,” Mumtaz said, still trying to think the best of the people she saw every day.

“I have family in Uttar Pradesh and I have heard there are some Hindu families who don’t drink water from a Muslim house and Muslim families which won’t cross the threshold of a Hindu house. Their children don’t even talk to each other,” Arshi said.

But Manisha and Arshi used to visit each other’s houses. In fact, they joined the computer course after wondering how they could earn some money to avoid asking their parents to buy them trinkets or clothes.

“We were both scared to tell in our homes that we are going to work. And we told our families the same day. We also told them that we will be going together, so they were reassured,” Arshi said. Though both sets of parents were unsure, knowing the girls were together was a comfort.

But Arshi noticed that something had changed a few weeks ago, after Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh began an indefinite, peaceful protest against the divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). When a sit-in protest began at Khureji Khas, near Shiv Vihar, Arshi went to attend.

“I did not think of asking Manisha. She is Hindu. Why would she come to the protest?” she told HuffPost India.

One day, said Arshi, “Manisha told me, ‘why are you people bothering everyone by sitting there, behen. Everyone is complaining’. I told her this law (the CAA) will affect us, not her.”

‘Not going back’

Unlike Arshi and Mumtaz, who are still contemplating a return, sisters Mubeena and Ruby have decided they are not going back to live in Karawal Nagar in Shiv Vihar again. “I will never forget what I saw that day,” Mubeena told HuffPost India, sitting inside another relief camp set up inside a mosque.

Mubeena, Ruby and their sister-in-law had just sat down for lunch with their children when they heard a ruckus outside. They peeked out to see men running around shouting. Sensing trouble, they locked themselves inside. Moments later, when they looked out of the window, they saw men with swords running down the street. “I cannot say if they were Hindus or Muslims. They were terrifying,” Mubeena said.

Her husband’s friend, an auto-rickshaw driver, came with his vehicle and Mubeena’s family fled with just the clothes on their back.

Her husband’s friend, an auto-rickshaw driver, came with his vehicle and Mubeena’s family fled with just the clothes on their back.
“My husband had just bought an e-rickshaw after borrowing money from relatives. He was trying to come back home but the men stopped his rickshaw, beat him and kicked him out. He ran for his life, and now we don’t have a rickshaw, our only way to earn a living,” she said.

Mubeena still can’t understand how the riots broke out.

“We had moved here four months ago and our Hindu neighbours sent sweets to us during Lohri. You know, that yellow sweet which comes with a sugary syrup, that one,” she said.

Ruby, whose husband made a living from embroidery work, wasn’t great friends with any of the women, but recalled the time a Hindu neighbour stopped her and told her about local government schools. “Our children don’t go to school. I told her we don’t have money to buy books. She told me you get these things for free in the school,” she said.

The women’s benevolence notwithstanding, Ruby and Mubeena say they won’t go back to Karawal Nagar. “They may be nice, but I don’t think they will be able to save our lives.”