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How riots — and the pandemic— tore apart the lives of children of north-east Delhi

Mohammad Kaif was preparing for his CBSE class 12 exams last February when communal riots broke out in north-east Delhi, where he lives with his family
By Fareeha Iftikhar & Kainat Sarfaraz, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 23, 2021 11:44 PM IST

Mohammad Kaif was preparing for his CBSE class 12 exams last February when communal riots broke out in north-east Delhi, where he lives with his family. Overnight, the 19-year-old had to forget all about exams as he and family were forced to flee for their lives, to their village in Uttar Pradesh.

Kaif, a resident of Mustafabad, aspired to become a doctor until last year. “We fled to our village the same day our neighbour was killed by a mob. Later, my family did not allow me to return to Delhi, to appear for the exams in the first week of March 2020. Then, before we could even think of returning to discuss my case with the school, a nationwide lockdown was announced. My entire year got ruined -- I finally completed my class 12 this month through distance learning mode.”

A year after the violence, he is uncertain about his future. “Things have changed in the past one year. I could not study properly due to the circumstances. My father is also not keeping well. His work – he rents out bulldozers – was severely hit by the violence and then the pandemic. There is so much uncertainty around; I’m thinking of doing a course in the distance learning mode this year,” he said.

As many as 53 people were killed and more than 400 injured in the riots that broke out in parts of north-east Delhi on February 23, 2020. Police have registered 755 cases related to the communal violence that was allegedly triggered by protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Like Kaif, hundreds of children in these parts are struggling to string together their lives interrupted by violence, even a year after the riots.

Apart from seeing their neighbourhoods and schools laid to waste by rioters, many of them also lost their loved ones – some of them their parents – to the violence. Several children said they could not focus on studies throughout the year.

Arsh Malik, 18, a resident of Yamuna Vihar, failed in two subjects in the class 12 exams. “My tuition centre was set afire by rioters at a time when my exams were on. Several people I knew died in the violence or were injured. Those were disturbing times. I could not study well for the exams that happened a week after the riots. Now, I’m thinking of enrolling in the distance learning mode,” he said.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had to postpone several exams for both classes 10 and 12 after the violence broke out. The board resumed exams from March 2 onwards but it could not conduct the postponed exams as by then, the Covid-19 pandemic had hit the city. Students were finally promoted last year on the basis of alternative assessment schemes.

A 2005 UNICEF report on “Childhood Under Threat” define children as among the first and worst affected by conflict, whether directly or indirectly. Even if they are not killed or injured, they can be left with deep emotional scars and trauma from direct exposure to the violence or from dislocation, poverty, or the loss of loved ones, said the report.

Iqra, a class 11 student who lost her two brothers, Amir Khan (30) and Hashim Ali (19), in the riots, said, “People have started referring to us as “that family that lost two sons in the danga (riots)”. That has become our identity now. I am glad that my class 10 exams were cancelled and we were promoted; otherwise, I would have failed. How do you concentrate on studies with so much tension around?”

For the riot-hit children, the Covid-enforced lockdown was another bolt from the blue. Anjum, whose Khajuri Khas house was burned down by a mob, said, “We were left with nothing; not even a piece of cloth. We also lost the only smartphone we had and there was no way for any of us – myself or my siblings – to attend online classes. We could only resume studies in October after a person donated us a mobile phone.”

Neetu Chaudhary, an official at the Arun Modern School in Brijpuri, one of the four schools that were attacked and damaged in the violence, said their student strength reduced by nearly 40%, post the riots and the Covid-enforced lockdown.

“It took us months to bring back our school to its former status – the construction work is still going on. Now that the school has reopened for classes 9 to 12, we have another task at hand – instilling confidence in parents. We had to request the police to deploy some personnel during school hours so that their fears are allayed,” she said.

Officials at the other three schools affected by the violence ---DRP Convent Public School, Victoria Senior Secondary School, and Rajdhani School -- said a large number of their students were yet to return to school. Farooq Ahmed Nawab, whose family owns both Rajdhani and Victoria schools, said, “The student strength has reduced by almost half in both of schools in the past one year. We are struggling to even manage the operational costs.”

Parents and family members of children in riot-hit areas said the violence has left them traumatised and they are unable to shake it off. Imrana (32), who lost her husband to the firing in Subhash Mohalla during the riots, said her two children are now highly irritable and stubborn.

“Even today, loud noises scare them and they get angry over the smallest of things. Being a single parent has been challenging as I have to discipline them, while still being mindful of the trauma they’ve been through,” she said.

Fifteen-year-old Shifa Naaz, a class 10 student in old Mustafabad and the eldest of eight siblings, lost her father Mudassir Khan (30) to the riots. The loss has scarred her siblings more, she says. “My younger sister (12) refused to even see our father’s body for the last time. Since then, she has become highly irritable. The younger ones often dream of our father and cry. It is difficult to see them like that. Managing finances has also been challenging for our mother. Every day, I feel emptier and weak,” the 15-year-old said.

Experts said a timely intervention is required to bring these children out of their trauma. Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), said the riots, followed by the lockdown, might have led to “conduct disorder” among children. “Conduct disorder is identified by emotional as well as behavioural disturbances. It’s very important that these children are given a chance to express themselves. For kids above 8 years of age, verbal expression is still easier but for those below that age, verbalising their trauma is a challenge. So, intervention by NGOs, child rights bodies, families, and schools is essential,” he said.

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