New Delhi: A disquiet hung over the intersecting narrow lanes that cut through the cramped houses of Begumpur. The death of an eight-year-old boy, a student at the local madrassa, in Malviya Nagar area of south Delhi, has left the locality on edge.
Mohammad Azeem died after a scuffle broke out between children from the madrassa and those from the adjacent Balmiki Camp basti at 10 am on Thursday. Azeem was with his friends at a vacant plot inside the mosque and madrassa compound when an argument broke out between them and four children from the Balmiki Camp. In the melee that followed, Azeem was reportedly shoved. He fell and hit his head on a parked motorcycle. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Madan Mohan Malviya hospital, the police said.
After the incident, police detained four children aged between 10 and 13, all residents of Balmiki Camp, who were allegedly involved in the scuffle with the madrassa children. Since the ‘accused’ are minors, they have been produced before the Juvenile Justice Board, Malviya Nagar police said.
Azeem’s death has sparked tensions in the locality. Since the mishap, initial reports of a communal lynching and a disputed piece of land have led to a volatile situation.
The mosque authorities have accused youths from Balmiki Camp of prolonged communal harassment and assault. The bone of contention is a four-feet-wide passage that connects the basti and the madrassa compound. It is one of the major routes that lead outside the Balmiki Camp, residents say, and it weaves through the mosque and madrassa premises.
The madrassa authorities claim the land as theirs. They even produced a court document that said the vacant land next to the mosque belonged to the Delhi Wakf Board, which had appointed the maulana at the mosque as the caretaker and imam. The residents of Balmiki Camp, however, claim the ground is archaeological land and should be open to public. Mosque authorities want the opening to the lane that leads from the basti to the open plot inside mosque premises to be barricaded permanently.
“People from the basti have created problems for us regularly. They come inside the compound, abuse and beat children who study at the madrassa. They even threw empty alcohol bottles last year,” Mohammad Ali Jauhar, the maulana at the mosque, said on Friday. “The land belongs to the madrassa, but they want to encroach it,” he added.
The maulana claimed that youths from the adjacent basti drink, create ruckus and pick fights with madrassa students regularly. “They grabbed Azeem and threw him at the motorcycle. One Azeem has died. Many other Azeems are in danger,” he said.
Shakeel Akhtar, an advocate present at the madrasa compound, also claimed there was a “conspiracy” to grab madrassa land and drive Muslims out of the area. “People from the basti have created an atmosphere of terror at the madrassa. The government must compensate the family of the deceased child,” he said.
Madrassa authorities say that adults from the basti incite children and sow seeds of hatred. They say Azeem's death is a result of that hatred. The residents of the basti, however, insist that it’s the mosque authorities and madrassa students who create trouble in the locality. Both Hindu and Muslim families live in Balmiki Camp and both communities are displeased by mosque authorities' long-standing effort to barricade the basti lane that exits into mosque and madrassa premises.
"There is no space in the basti. It is very cramped. The ground (that lies in mosque premises) is the only open area. Where else will basti kids go to play?" said one resident on condition on anonymity. Another said that the lane leading out to the masjid and madrassa compound is the major entry and exit point for Balmiki Camp. "They have always wanted to block that road. How will we enter and exit the camp? We feel pain for the child who lost his life in the scuffle too, but they are using his death to get their way and block the road," the resident said.
Police, for safety reasons, have barricaded the disputed lane and deployed personnel in the area to prevent any flare-ups.
The families of the children detained by the police are worried. All four children live with their families in the basti and used to play regularly at the ground in the madrassa premises. There had been fights and arguments before between basti youth and madrassa students, but never had it taken such a turn.
"He had gone there to play, like always. Children fight sometimes, but nothing like this happened before," said the aunt of one of the minors detained. "He told his grandmother that he didn't do anything," she added.
The father of one of the detained children said he was not present in the basti when the incident occurred. "My wife is sick and I was with her at the hospital. I got a call about what had happened. When I came back, people from the basti told me police had called me and my son at the police station," he said.
According to Kumar, mosque authorities had held his son after the incident. "All kids play there. The people from the madrassa try to run them off and hit them and children fight among themselves sometimes," he said. Kumar said his son told him he was only trying to free one of his friends from the scuffle at the madrassa ground.
Residents of the basti also deny throwing alcohol bottles in the madrassa compound. They say they have lived in the locality for years and know a time when things were not as strained between communities as they are now. "We used to go play at the same ground when we were children. There was never any problem then. Children from the madrassa even come and watch television in our homes. I'm a Muslim too, but people from the madrassa are targeting the basti," said a 19-year-old Balmiki Camp resident.
"They are the ones who aggravate the situation. When it's time for daily prayers at the masjid, children from the basti don't shout or create a ruckus. But when children from the camp play there, they hit them and chase them off," he added.
Basti residents say that madrassa authorities are trying to paint the incident with a communal brush, when in reality it was a mishap. Mosque authorities, madrassa workers and people from the community gathered at the premises on Friday to protest against Azeem's death. They said Muslims were being lynched “across the country” and the child's death was a result of that atmosphere.
"A woman from the basti came to our premises yesterday and said 'for now only one has died, there will be more in the future'. They are threatening us," said a person at the mosque.
The woman accused of communal threats, Shabnam Liaquat Ali, also known as Saroj, denied this claim. "They say these things about me and complain against me because I stand up to them. I have protected children from the basti many times when a fight breaks out," she said. Saroj claimed that her son was brutally beaten up by people at the mosque and madrassa a few weeks ago. "People from the madrassa were pelting stones at our basti even today," she said.
Saroj, a Muslim herself, said she fears this stoking of communal flames could incite violence in the tightly packed locality. "Hindu, Muslims, Christians; we all live here. People from the mosque are making it a Hindu-Muslim issue. If they keep doing it, it might lead to violence between communities in the basti. I'm a Muslim too. What will happen to me and other Muslims in the basti if violence breaks out?" she asked.
A grainy CCTV footage from the camera at mosque premises captured the Thursday morning scuffle which led to Azeem's death. The two-minute video clip is also doing the rounds of WhatasApp in the locality. In the footage, two groups of children — one from the basti and the other from the madrassa —with four in each group are seen standing some distance apart from each other at the madrassa ground. An argument breaks out between the two groups which leads to a brawl. Later in the video, Azeem seems to fall down and he doesn't get back up.
Mohammad Mukeem, a teacher at the madrassa, said he had accompanied the children, including Azeem, to a wedding feast the previous night. "I woke up a bit late, at around 9:20am. I was checking my phone when I heard a ruckus. I went out and saw Azeem lying down. I took him to the hospital, but he was already unconscious. The doctors declared him dead at the hospital," he said.
Mukeem, who teaches Urdu, Arabic and sometimes English to the children at the madrassa, said Azeem was a bright child. "He was very innocent and had a pleasant nature," he said. One of Azeem's friends who was present at the scuffle said the children from the basti incited the scuffle. "Azeem was a very good student. He was the youngest student at the madrassa," Azeem's friend Sahil said.
Azeem, whose was from Mewat district in Haryana, lived and studied at the madrassa with his two older brothers for the past two years. His father, Khalil, was informed about the incident on Thursday. Police officers said Khalil was at AIIMS hospital, waiting to receive his son's body after post-mortem procedure.
Police also said the incident was a regrettable accident and not a communally motivated event. "You tell me, can children aged 10 or 12 do something like that? It was just a freak accident. The fact is, during the scuffle, the boy was pushed and he fell. There are no external injuries on his body. The postmortem report will come in 10 days and then we will know the cause of death. As of now, it seems he hit his head and there were some internal injuries," said a senior officer.
The Delhi government has offered an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lac for Azeem's family.