A village burned unnoticed till residents moved into a shelter
Around 6.30pm on Monday, Mehboob Hassan, 74, was preparing for evening prayers inside the small Mubarak mosque in Old Garhi Mendu village in north-east Delhi’s Ghonda assembly constituency when he heard a loud thud on the tin roof. Seconds later, as sounds persisted and grew louder, Hassan realised it wasn’t untimely rain, but stones being thrown at the mosque.
Hassan, the muezzin of the only mosque in the tiny Gujjar-dominated village, asked the four men who had come for namaz to rush out. Minutes later, around eight people entered the mosque and started breaking the taps and sound system, which Hassan had put in place moments ago.
“I was trying to get the keys to lock the mosque when they came running at me. They asked ‘namaaz padhayega?’ (will you read the namaaz?). I couldn’t utter a word. Some of them had rods, but most had wooden legs of charpoys in their hands. They hit me on the forehead and leg,” he said.
Hassan, and members of his family are among the 42 families from Old Garhi Mendu village living in the relief camp set up at a community centre in Shriram Colony, right across Wazirabad road in Khajuri Khas.
“Nobody — neither the police nor the city administration — knew about the riots in the village until victims started coming to this camp. On Friday, two area SDMs and the local police inspected the village and prima facie found that at least 15 houses, five shops, two godowns, one mosque and two to three cars were burnt. Some properties were damaged too, but nobody died. There are about five people with injuries,” said Sunil Kumar, a tehsildar who has been made the in-charge of the camp.
For three days, starting from February 23 evening, the national Capital was on the boil as most parts of northeast Delhi were hit by communal riots that have claimed 42 lives so far, and left more than 450 injured. Areas where riots were reported include Jafrabad, Maujpur, Brijpuri, Bhajanpura, Shiv Vihar, Mustafabad, Brahmpuri, Kardampuri, Gokalpuri, Jyoti Nagar, Jauhripur Extension, Babarpur, Karawal Nagar and some parts of New Seelampur and Khajuri Khas.
In Old Garhi Mendu village, violence raged for two days, as per accounts from multiple residents and local police officers. It started on February 24 with the attack on the mosque, after which most residents, primarily Muslims, fled to Shriram Colony where even Hindu households gave them shelter until the camp was opened.
But some like 62-year old Chand Bibi and her husband decided to stay put in their homes, a choice they call “the biggest mistake” they have made.
Around 8pm on February 25, a mob of around 25-30 people broke open the front gate of Bibi’s home — the first attack on day two. But, the group had a faux pas.
“They dragged my husband out and started sprinkling petrol from small plastic bottles onto a pile of clothes that we had and on the bed. They tried lighting a fire with a matchbox they had brought, but failed over and over again. They picked up the matchbox lying on our table and set the pile of clothes on fire,” Bibi said.
“Seeing the fire reach the bed, they began retreating, and I started throwing water at the fire. The last person to leave then shouted to the others ‘isne toh aag bujha di’ (she has doused the fire). But thankfully, he left,” she said.
By Saturday morning, the main road to the Old Garhi Mendu village was completely shut, making it inaccessible for any four-wheeler. While some houses were charred or locked, only residents in the ones with either a tile of a Lord Hanuman fixed at the front or ‘Jai Shri Ram’ flags fluttering from terraces led their lives normally.
According to 80-year-old Bhikhari Pradhan, the senior-most person in the village, the riots were orchestrated by outsiders. “We have lived together for decades. I even assured the most senior person from their (Muslim) community not to leave the village and asked him to tell others. But they all left. The violence was wrought by outsiders on the intervening night of February 25 and February 26 Our Gujjar brothers here had nothing to do with it,” he said.
At one end of the village, Rukmini Jairam, 31, was collecting sheets of half-burnt tin from a corner of the road. Close to the pile of rubble was an earthen furnace that, until Sunday, used to stay alight almost 10 hours a day to prepare meals and tea.
“This was my shop. I had set it up with the help of my husband. Nothing remains of it now,” she said.
When asked who did it, she said, “I don’t know. All Muslims who lived here have fled. It’s only us Hindus here now. I can’t tell.”
On Saturday, at the camp, at least eight civil defence volunteers and local revenue officers were seen filling forms for the victims to seek compensation from the Delhi government. “We have received about 38 applications, out of which 15 have been processed for the ex gratia compensation of ₹25,000, though the disbursal of the money will take two more days. There are at least 24 claimants in the Shriram Colony camp, so far, who prima facie have faced severe damage to their properties,” the tehsildar said.
The government has set up relief camps in eight night shelters as well, but there were hardly any takers as most victims from the affected areas have shifted in with friends and family.
It was only on Saturday, six days after he was hit, that the police came to the relief camp and took Hassan to get a medico-legal case (MLC) filed. “What is the point of doing the MLC now? What will they even find after so many days? On Monday and Tuesday, when our village was burning, I made a PCR call, like many others. The police officer said the area is not under his jurisdiction and added that even Hindus are suffering and Muslims are not the only ones,” said Mohammad Naushad, 29, a labourer from the village who came to the camp on Friday.
Many even said police started registering FIRs only from Friday evening. The local police said they have registered five cases from the area since Friday. Others complained of not being given any acknowledgement receipt either for the FIRs or the compensation forms they submitted.
They however said they were satisfied with the food and sleeping arrangements at the camp.
Around 3pm on Saturday, Shastri Park station house officer Pramod Gupta came to the camp to interact with inhabitants and convince them to begin thinking of returning to their village.
As victims asked for a guarantee of safety, Gupta said, “Kasoor aapka nahi, kasoor waqt ka hain. Waqt kharaab hota hain, tab aisa hota hain (the fault is not yours, it is of time. When the time is bad, then such things happen).”
To this, a faint voice responded from behind the crowd — “Waqt kharab nahi hota, waqt ko kharaab kiya jata hain (times are never bad. People make it so).” The person speaking was 35-year old Jahanara, whose shop and house were looted on day one and then gutted on day two of the riots in the village.