2 yrs on, riots hot spots try to forget ghosts of the past
On the evening of February 23, 2020, clashes broke out between supporters and opponents of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, just underneath the Jafrabad Metro station.
A local leader, now incarcerated; a parking spot where cars burned down to their bare frames; a shopkeeper who still recalls the violence outside his store; and a drain that earned infamy as the canal of death: the sights, sounds, and horrors of the February 2020 riots still reverberate through north-east Delhi, two years later.
On the evening of February 23, 2020, clashes broke out between supporters and opponents of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, just underneath the Jafrabad Metro station. The clashes continued overnight and snowballed into four days of communal violence in the region, leaving at least 53 dead and 581 injured.
Two years later, much has changed in the area, as it tries to shake off the trauma. But the riots have left an imprint that, according to residents and witnesses who HT spoke to, has defined the time since then.
The two parking spaces in north-east Delhi’s Shiv Vihar no longer house cars. Far from their dark shells after the riots, they play host to happier occasions after being converted into banquet halls.
Mobs set at least 150 vehicles on fire during the riots. Little survived, and the owners of the two spaces lost much of their savings. The pandemic, which set in weeks after the riots, mounted the losses.
“It is safer and profitable to run a banquet hall. The loss our owner and other car owners suffered was beyond what we could sustain. We converted the parking lot to a banquet hall in February last year,” said Neeraj Giri, a manager at the parking hall.
The parking lot is right in the middle of the Shiv Vihar Tiraha, which suffered most of the damage in the riots. Police estimate that around 450 vehicles, including cars and two-wheelers, were destroyed across north-east Delhi during the riots.
“There is still tension between the communities here... Even if a riot breaks out in future, there will be less damage. There are no cars now,” said an employee.
THE FORGOTTEN LEADER
The municipal elections in Delhi are around the corner. A billboard hangs outside former councillor Tahir Hussain’s house in Karawal Nagar, urging residents to vote for the party’s local leader, Sayra.
Hussain won the Nehru Vihar (ward 59 E) seat in 2017, but was suspended by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) after being arrested for his alleged role as one of the chief conspirators of the 2020 riots. His lawyers have denied the charges, even as he has been booked under stringent sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Most residents from the area said Hussain is a closed chapter.
“Before the riots, people spoke about Hussain in this area. He helped underprivileged people in the area. Maybe that is why he won the seat. But all that has been forgotten now,” said a shopkeeper near Hussain’s house.
Hussain was arrested on March 5, 2020. After the riots, police shared photos of the terrace of his house, claiming he stocked up on stones and Molotov cocktails.
His four-storey house is now locked. The building’s window panes, smashed by a mob during the violence, have not been repaired. One of his neighbours said Hussain’s family spend most of their time in Noida.
His neighbours said few residents interact with the family.
Sultan, one of the employees of a carpentry unit on the ground floor of Hussain’s building, said, the former councillor still has “well-wishers” and insisted he was “framed”.
THE SWEET SHOP, WHOSE EMPLOYEE WAS KILLED
It’s business as usual at Shiv Vihar’s Anil Sweets Corner, one of the area’s most prominent eateries. There are about 20 customers inside. Its owner, Anil Pal, said the scene at the store was no different on February 24, 2020. “I was inside, with my employees, when a mob of over 50 started pelting stones at us... We pulled down the shutter and hid inside. But this did not deter the mob. They kept raining stones at the shutter, baying for our blood and intent on trying to break in,” Pal said.
As the mob turned its attention elsewhere, the employees inside the store hid inside until they were rescued. But the mob had moved to the store’s godown, barely 50 metres away, Pal said.
Dilbar Negi, who Pal called one of his “best employees”, was found dead outside the godown on February 26, his body charred and his arms chopped off. “The mob went to my godown when they could not enter my shop. They killed Negi, who was hiding,” he said.
THE DRAIN OF DEATH
A 12-kilometre-long drain, which snaked through north-east Delhi, is nondescript even for residents of the area, let alone the rest of the Capital. But between February 24 and 29, as Delhi Police recovered 11 bodies from the squalid canal, including of Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma, it found itself in the spotlight.
The drain enters Delhi through Loni and covers large parts of north-east and east Delhi before it exits downstream in Noida through the Okhla barrage.
“People have forgotten about this drain again. All across north-east Delhi, people throw their garbage here. When so many bodies were found in the drain two years ago, local government officials promised to clean it. We were happy our part of the city will finally be clean. But we now realise that these were fake promises,” said Mohammed Shahzad, a resident of Karawal Nagar.
For some residents, cleaning the drain is more than a civic necessity. They hope it will help cleanse the lasting memories of that traumatic February week.
Shahzad’s neighbour, Muskan, said,“Our colony has decided we will only vote for the person who promises to clean this drain. Cleaning it will erase memories of the riots and clear the filth we have been living in all these years.”
THE LONE WOMAN KILLED IN THE RIOTS
Eighty-five-year-old Akbari Begum was charred to death on February 25, 2020, inside her home at Gamri Extension after a mob set it on fire during the violence. While the rest of her family managed to escape to the terrace, the octogenarian could not move and died of asphyxia.
Following her death, her son and his family moved to a one-room rented accommodation last year and returned barely a few months ago. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a social organisation, pitched in to repair the family’s house. But members of the family said they were still living in fear.
Aasif Salmani, Akbari Begum’s grandson, said the house was a repository of painful memories.
The fear pervades their lives and movement, he said. His two sisters, both school students, stopped stepping out of the house except for class. Salmani himself ensured he got home by 6pm.
“My father named 25 people in his complaint, but only a few were arrested. Even they are out on bail now. They pass by our house and keep threatening us. They say we shouldn’t have returned and that they will not let us live here once everyone gets bail,” said Salmani.
(With inputs from Sadia Akhtar)