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Burning Hearts: How 70 Hours of Delhi Riots Destroyed Decades-old Brotherhood Beyond Repair

Charred remnants of houses strewn along the street. (Image: Ahona Sengupta/News18)

Charred remnants of houses strewn along the street. (Image: Ahona Sengupta/News18)

Till Sunday night, Lane 29 in Khajuri Khas was a lively neighbourhood where Hindus and Muslims had lived together for decades. Not anymore.

New Delhi: Inside the alleys of the now-ravaged Khajuri Khas area stands a dilapidated mosque, which once called to prayer five times a day. At one corner of it rests a tiny tricycle. Charred from behind, it still rocks upon a push, but its owner, Anaya, isn’t around to claim it. The three-year-old has been taken away by her family while fleeing last week’s riots in north-east Delhi.

Four days have gone by since then, but the little girl continues to wail for her little tricycle, even in her sleep. Her family have lost hope of comforting her.

“At the time of the attack, we could only lock the cupboard and latch the gate before fleeing. Little did we know that our house would be burnt down to ashes,” said Nisha Parveen, whose home is now a memory. A dressmaker by profession and a mother of three, Parveen was devastated after not a single neighbour, whose houses were untouched during the riots, came to their rescue.

We thought we were safe in our place of worship and inside our homes, but we were wrong, she said, alleging that the mob threw cooking gas cylinders at them.

Till Sunday night, Lane 29 in Khajuri Khas was a lively neighbourhood where Hindus and Muslims had lived together for decades. But not anymore. The joyous brotherhood vanished overnight as the neighbourhood plunged into mayhem. The area is a Hindu-majority locality that houses Muslims mostly in rented apartments.

A burnt house lay in the middle of the narrow lane at Khajuri Khas. (Image: Ahona Sengupta)

A Friend for Decades Turns Foe

When 20-year-old Mohammad Shamim lent his motorcycle to his childhood friend Rahul on Saturday, not even in his worst nightmare had he thought that his vehicle would be dragged out of his house on Tuesday and set ablaze by the same faces he grew up with.

“There is not a single belonging that I had not shared with him. From lending my newly bought motorcycle to food. Someone I considered closer than my cousins wielded a sword to inflict harm on me. I was shocked and in denial. He (Rahul) would always be at my place, eating food made by Ammi here with no qualms. Never thought that our friendship had no foundation and I would be backstabbed in my own locality and by my own friends,” Shamim said, almost breaking down.

On February 25, when a Hindu mob thronged their neighbourhood and shot multiple fires at the Muslim residents and pelted rocks at them from adjacent terraces, Shamim saw a familiar face among the many veiled and unknown ones. With moist eyes, Shamim says he dialled Rahul to confirm that it was really him. To his utter surprise, Rahul arrogantly affirmed. “Gaddar (traitor),” was Shamim’s only response.

The young Eminem fan saw his friend wielding a sword and calling for his family’s murder, including that of his toddler niece. Shattered and helpless, Shamim and his family jumped from one terrace to another as he saw vandals dragging his bike out and reducing it to ashes. The charred frame still lay on the street in front of his house.

What remains of Shamim's bike. (Image: Ahona Sengupta)

“We used to listen to Eminem and Raftar together. I always aspired to become a rapper. They knew. But now I don’t even have money to buy their posters,” Shamim rued. “Maybe I will forgive or maybe not, but as of now, I am still in disbelief,” he added before moving towards the torched mosque.

Memory of a Madrasa

Only hours prior to the attack, Imam Ashraf sat in his “janemaz” as his lips moved in prayer for Ravi, a 10-year-old neighbourhood boy running fever. His parents approached Ashraf for dua. Suddenly, his prayer was interrupted by a loud thud and the window pane of the mosque was shattered.

“As we hurried downstairs, it was raining rocks. There was firing and stone-pelting from all sides. Every other terrace had at least 20 people lobbing stones at us and hurling petrol-bombs at the mosque, madrasa and Muslim houses,” said Ashraf in despair. “We kept moving upwards as the firing didn’t stop. We tried to contact the cops several times, but none of our distress calls were answered.”

A student of the madrasa, Asim, broke down as he showed the crumbling structure attached to the mosque. Besides the acrid smell of the entire road, one look at the mosque and the madrasa immediately instills an eerie feeling.

“There were mostly outsiders who flanked us in large numbers and started pelting stones. We pleaded them to spare us. Our imam told them there are children inside, but that didn’t soften them. With every prayer came a rock. We even shouted Jai Shri Ram from our terrace as they demanded, but still nothing stopped,” the 18-year-old said.

When the carnage was on and Muslim residents began scrambling for life, their Hindu neighbours had either already fled or locked themselves up inside. Even as scores of cooking gas cylinders were lobbed at the Muslim homes, the adjacent Hindu apartments were meticulously unharmed.

Walking into the madrasa, one is gripped by a feeling of melancholy at the sight of the sooty walls and residues of the Quran scattered all around. A newly built room for children to read and sleep have been completely destroyed, leaving broken pencil boxes behind.

At the centre of the mosque, a frazzled chandelier stares back.

“Our imam had built it for us. We saw a gas cylinder exploding inside as we rushed out from the terrace. I wanted to cry, but had no time for that. They tore our Quran, stepped and jumped on it. What was our fault? We had even chanted Jai Shri Ram,” said Asim. Tensions sprung up in the wee hours of Sunday, he said, as the mob kept shouting Jai Shri Ram, uninterrupted.

Beside the mosque is its secretary’s house, which is now completely gutted. Mobs allegedly exploded a big cooking gas cylinder that was inside it to blow up the house which was recently renovated.

Victims said they had completely lost their trust in their neighbours, who allegedly “snitched” on the locality’s Muslims.

If one isn’t privy to the neighbourhood, there is no way to demarcate Hindu houses from Muslims ones. Only a handful have vermillion marks on them with faces of deities outside. The Hindu households look as fresh as ever.

“It has to be them. They helped attackers locate our houses as we don’t have any Islamic marks outside any of our apartments. These goons stockpiled arson material for the past three-four days and prepared for the carnage well in advance. Now it looks like we can’t even defend ourselves in the face of violence for fear of being made the scapegoat,” he said.

The imam was injured as a spark hit him on the face. The students scurried with a blanket to douse the flame.

“The non-Muslim families used to come to me for ‘duas’. Even on Saturday, a Hindu lady came to me for prayers for her sick child. Two days later, the same people attacked us along with hundreds of outsiders. Those for whom I have been seeking duas from Allah, destroyed His refuge and also abused me with vulgar invectives,” Ashraf said.

An Impending Wedding Marred

Shamim’s younger sister Rosy had a cupboard full of jewellery and glossy clothes for her marriage next year. Now, only the frame of the cupboard remains.

“We had lakhs worth of jewellery that we inherited from our parents and some were bought for my daughter’s wedding. What they looted had our blood and sweat. These rioters left old garments behind and set them afire. I didn’t even have shoes on when we ran for our lives. They destroyed my sewing machine, ransacked our houses before burning them down,” Parveen said, crying inconsolably. The bereaved mother alleged that the ground floor apartment, which also had Muslim tenants, was only looted and not set alight keeping the adjacent Hindu house in mind.

“How do you explain this?” she said. “How do rioters so clearly know which one is a Hindu house and which is Muslim’s without getting inputs from our neighbours? We celebrated Eid and Diwali together, had dawats together? Now, how do we trust any non-Muslim after this? How do we build our lives? They have even burnt our documents?”

“The loss I suffered is of more than Rs 20 lakh, but the Kejriwal government will disburse some 2 lakhs,” rued Parveen as her lips quivered. “Now, we feel that everything was done to deliberately burn our papers to create obstacles for NRC.”

Parveen also had some grave allegations to make against the rioters. “They chased us as we started fleeing. They stripped and masturbated in front of us and said, ‘Aa jao hamare paas (Come to us)’, from their terrace. They gestured and said, ‘Tum sabko kaat denge (We’ll cut all of you to pieces)’, as they tossed off. It was shocking to see women among them watching these men sexually harassing us while chanting murderous slogans,” she said.

Parveen wept as she narrated the ordeal of a severe betrayal. “Little did we know that these rioters will not just loot everything, but also burn them to ashes. Two minutes after we fled, our houses were set ablaze,” she said.

“Were all these planned to render us stateless and send us to the detention camps as we have no more documents for proving anything anymore?” asked an anxious Rosy.

Hindu Houses Shining, But Empty

Lane 29 is a dystopic sight where Hindu houses remain completely untouched beside ramshackle Muslim properties and smouldering shopfronts, smoke still billowing from them.

The Muslim locals alleged that since the attack, their neighbours have not been staying there after sundown. “They come early in the morning, do some chores, and leave by sunset,” said one of the victims whose house was looted, including her sheep.

When News18 visited the lane on the first day, none of the Hindu residents were available to interact. Their houses were locked from outside even though lights were on. The ashes strewn on the Hindu side were cleanly swept aside. The lane also houses a Delhi police personnel’s and an advocate’s families. Both the houses were locked from outside without any damage. Locals alleged that neither the cop’s nor the lawyer’s families responded to their distress calls.

On the second visit, News18 spoke to a Hindu neighbor who refused to disclose her name. “We don’t know what happened. We only saw people shooting from terraces and pelting stone after stone. We were all scared. I have been living here for the past four decades, but never saw any animosity. I am sure these people came from outside,” the woman said, regurgitating the fact that she along with her other Hindu neighbours also had to flee.

“Even we called the police, but not one call was answered by them,” said another woman standing in front of a cop stationed there.

Shops belonging to Hindus were neatly shut and unharmed. (Image: Ahona Sengupta)

Muslim shops right opposite to that of Hindus completely gutted. (Image: Ahona Sengupta)

When asked how outsiders could determine the Muslim houses with precision, both the women said they had no idea how and refrained from making further comments.

Victims from the Muslim community alleged that “men in uniform” broke the CCTV cameras “installed by the Kejriwal government” in front of them. “We don’t know if they are goons in uniform or real police, but they were men in khaki who fired at us and broke the surveillance cameras,” said a victim.

Most of the displaced Muslims have taken refuge in Chandu Nagar, situated right across the main road. The residents have now established a makeshift relief camp and a community kitchen on their own.

Before one enters Chandu Nagar, there is a coaching centre under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, which is now vandalised, opposite the ravaged lanes of Khajuri Khas.

Sheherpur Chowk, a Virtual Border

The aftermath of the riots is indelible in the hearts and minds of the victims who are now huddled up in one room at Chandu Nagar. The Muslim victims, who once loitered freely across the roads, have now been barred from crossing the Sheherpur Chowk where they say they are jeered with chants of Jai Shri Ram and stones thrown from a distance.

The Chowk that the Muslim victims can't cross. (Image: Ahona Sengupta)

“We hate to relive the memory of the destruction like this. Our families also have asked us to not move beyond Chandu Nagar,” said Irfan, who once owned a factory that has now been reduced to ashes.

“We are left with nothing; our decades-old friendship is gone. We can’t trust non-Muslims anymore and that is unsettling and disturbing because we were all brothers, living and breathing together. Yes, we incurred incredibly heavy losses, but more than that we lost our heart and years and years of community building. How do we douse the flames of a burning heart?” he said. "All these years, we knew Hindustaan hamara hai (India is ours), but at least now we know that we may have lived here, but were never welcome.”

(All names of the victims have been changed for their safety)

first published:March 03, 2020, 07:32 IST