Then and now: At 5 Delhi riots hot spots, the memory remains
Revisiting the scenes of violence during the north-east Delhi riots, in which 53 people were killed and at least 581 were injured.
A year after communal riots ravaged north-east Delhi, HT revisits five places which were hot spots of violence.
A little ahead of Jafrabad metro station — ground zero for the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in north-east Delhi; where the communal violence is believed to have sparked on the night of February 23, 2020 — sits Mohammad Yasir, a banana seller. The fruit cart is on a stretch where riot accused Shahrukh Pathan was seen pointing a pistol it at a policeman in a photo that became emblematic of the riots.
Yasir says the Hindu residents of the area avoid buying from his stall since last year. “That forces me to push my cart to areas where there are more Muslims,” he said, wearing a white kurta-pyjama and donning a white skull cap.
But some others in the area have managed to bridge the divide. Dharamvir Singh and Mohammad Imran, a milk booth owner and an ironmonger whose shops are located right next to each other, still spend their free hours talking to each other.
They say their shops have been next to each other’s for the past 30 years, and no riot can split them apart. After the riots, when both returned to open their shops, there was some awkwardness, but they ensured that it did not come between them.
Singh does his bit to make Imran feel comfortable. “If someone stands outside my booth and starts talking ill of Muslims, I immediately send them packing,” he said.
Imran, who would earlier allow his friends to gather outside his shop and discuss local issues, in turn stops community gatherings outside in shop because he knows the discussions will veer towards the riots.
The stretch that connects Jaffrabad metro station to Maujpur-Babarpur metro station witnessed heavy stone pelting, tear gas shells, and the looting or burning of shops. While the buildings and houses have been reconstructed and repainted, the concrete fence on the road divider was never reconstructed.
It remains conspicuous by its absence — a grim reminder of what happened last year.
Shiv Vihar parking lots
Gajinder Parihar now runs a banquet hall in Shiv Vihar. Until last year, this 400 square yards area was a parking lot. It was set on fire by rioters during the communal clashes. There were 45 cars parked in the garage. They were all gutted.
With the parking lot his only source of income, it took Parihar over 200 days to re-establish the area, but not as a parking space this time. “Businesses in this area may look normal after a year, but the uncertainty has left people scared. No one would have imagined that their houses or cars will be burnt — but it happened. Many of them who have rebuilt their houses have made sure to have a parking space. Some have left the area never to return,” he said.
Parihar, 46, said he is still here only because this is his ancestral land. “It took me five months to clear the scrap of the burnt cars. They had to be cut, dismantled, and lifted out of the area using cranes. Many owners who were waiting for insurance money did not want their burnt cars removed. Once that was done, I had to make sure that the yard is repaired and painted to new, which took another two months. As the space is usually hired by local residents, I didn’t want them to be reminded of what they witnessed last year.”
He lives in Sonia Vihar with his wife and two children. The parking facility that he owned was right at Shiv Vihar Tiraha (three-road junction) one of the epicentres of the communal violence last February.
A densely populated area where free space is a premium, most residents parked their cars at two garages, one of which was run by Parihar. The other one, next to it, was also burnt to ashes, along with the 54 parked inside. Its owner, Prem Giri, has also turned the place into a banquet hall — it was inaugurated on Tuesday.
Ashok Nagar mosque
At around 1pm on February 25 last year, a mob stormed the Maula Baksh Masjid in Ashok Nagar, and torched it. A year later, the mosque — built over a 400 square yards in this neighbourhood with a low Muslim population — is being reconstructed from scratch.
The local Hindu population, which is the majority here, has offered to support rebuilding the mosque — both financially and physically. Rebuilding the trust between the two communities, however, has not been easy.
The mosque’s imam, Abdul Rahim, and muezzin, Zahir Hussain, continue to stay in the mosque, but their families are no longer with them. “There is dua-salaam (wishes exchanged) with the Hindus here, but all that is just over the surface,” said Rahim, with a tinge of bitterness and regret.
There are less than 100 Muslim houses in this neighbourhood, about one-fifth of the locality’s population. Last year, the armed mob stormed the mosque and used petrol to set it ablaze. The three families living inside had a narrow escape. The imam believes that most in the mob were outsiders.
Attempts by local Hindus to comfort the fear-stricken Muslims in this neighbourhood began hours after the burning. “Several Muslims began preparing to leave the neighbourhood. But we couldn’t have abandoned the Masjid, so we stayed on,” said Hussain.
As it turned out, it was the locals who eventually stepped in to prevent an exodus.
“We convinced them that the attackers were outsiders, and the Muslims here didn’t have any reason to fear. We told them that even the houses of the Hindus around the mosque were not spared by the mob. So far, not a single Muslim family has left from here,” says Jaiveer Singh, president of the Ashok Nagar footwear market association.
Until last February, the Old Mini Motor Market, popularly known as the Gokalpuri tyre market, would remain closed every Tuesday. Ever since it reopened last July, after much of this market was burnt to the ground during the riots, the weekly holiday has stopped.
“Many shopkeepers here lost all their businesses built over years and decades. We now have to work seven days a week and longer hours to even attempt a recovery,” said the market’s vice president, Mohammad Rashid.
But recovery is not the only reason to operate seven days a week. There is also the fear that an unattended market would be prone to a repeat attack.
“When the riots began, we had downed our shutters and left for our homes. Our absence is what the mob took advantage of. Now, we have to ensure our presence on all days,” said Fazly Rahman, the owner of a shop, Famous Tyres.
This market has tyre shops and two-wheeler repair shops, all of them owned by Muslims. Of the 224 establishments here, 62 were gutted, and a few others damaged when rioters struck on February 24. A mosque in the premises was gutted as well.
While much of the cost of the reconstruction was borne by religious organisations, the shopkeepers continue to pursue civic agencies for raising the walls of the market and securing gates of the two entrances. Mohammad Aftab, legal advisor to the market association, says that about two dozen shopkeepers have received compensation, and the rest are under process.
The silver lining, says Rashid with a tinge of irony, is that the market has become better known after the riots. “The riots led to many motorists in east Delhi getting to know of this specialised market. The customers have increased,” he said.
Tahir Hussain’s factory
A few hundred metres on both sides of the factory of former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain on the Main Karawal Nagar Road near Chand Bagh are markets buzzing with activity. But as you near Hussain’s four-storey wood products factory, the crowd thins considerably.
Local residents say this is no coincidence.
“Locals and customers usually choose not to stop on the stretch of road around this building. There is a sense of stigma attached to it,” said Suraj Singh, owner of a recently opened restaurant in a building next to Hussain’s factory.
Around this time a year ago, the stretch was among the worst affected in the Delhi riots. So many stones and bottles were pelted by rival mobs, that vehicles could not negotiate the terrain.
Hussain is in jail on allegations of orchestrating the riots. He and some of his associates are accused of killing some local Hindus, including IB officer Ankit Sharma, whose house is located in the narrow bylanes behind the factory. According to police, Hussain and his men stocked weapons, ranging from acid bags to petrol bombs, on the terrace of his factory.
Now, local residents say, work continues in the factory under the supervision of some of Hussain’s relatives, but the large iron gates remain locked from inside.
Hussain’s factory is in a neighbourhood with mixed population. While there are more Hindu homes around his factory, a few hundred metres away, Chand Bagh is a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood.
While people of both communities have continued their businesses on either side of the road, the bonhomie is gone. Suresh Chand, who operates a tea cart opposite the factory (his previous cart was burnt down by the mob), says gatherings outside his stall have thinned since the riots. “People don’t stop around here to have tea, smoke and converse anymore. The fear hasn’t left anyone.”