New Delhi: 53-year old Mohinder Singh Khalsa leads a quiet life in northeast Delhi’s Gokulpuri. His routine is simple – he gets ready each morning and climbs down to the ground floor to run his mobile phone store.
On February 24, the day riots raged in his neighbourhood, the simple act of tying his turban – a daily affirmation of his religious identity – became a solemn commitment to offer a lifeline to those in trouble.“I was sitting in my shop in the evening. A mob had attacked a mosque in the neighbourhood. Around 10 Muslim families that live in my gali were scared after the attack,” he said. Some people were also holed up inside the mosque. “We managed to get all of them into our house,” he said.
Khalsa and his son realised that their Muslim neighbours would be safer in nearby Kardampuri. The challenge, however, was to get the 60-odd people out of Gokulpuri, and all Khalsa had for ferrying them was one scooter.
“I didn’t have any means of transport with me at the time. I called my son who was a kilometer away and he got here with his motorcycle,” he said. He explained that the duo evacuated Muslim families on their scooter and motorcycle in batches of two or three, taking 20 rounds between Gokulpuri and Kardampuri.
“We evacuated 60 people in 2 hours,” he said.
They first rescued the young girls, then the younger boys, followed by women. Afraid that young, bearded Muslim men were particularly vulnerable as mobs thronged the streets, Khalsa and his son lent them disguises by tying turbans on their heads for the ride to safety.
The riots that began in Delhi on February 23 raged on for three days. They left 53 people dead and more than a thousand homeless. The number of fatalities would have been higher had it not been for such personal acts of courage.
Jatinder Singh Shunty, a resident of Shahdara and a former MLA, runs an NGO that provides free ambulance facilities. When all the vehicles operated by his NGO were unavailable, he set out himself in his car to take people to hospitals. Over two days, he had transported as many as 14 people to the hospital.
Shunty recounted that on February 24, he received a phone call that a news reporter had been shot, and because all the ambulances were away, he drove his own car and took his son to the spot to ferry the reporter to the hospital.
"The reporter was courageous, he told me what happened without panicking. He was shot in the chest so we got his MRI and CT scan done before taking him to GTB (Guru Tegh Bahadur) Hospital," he said.
Rebuilding northeast Delhi
Unlike other parts of the city, where Hindu and Muslim communities live in segregated colonies, northeast Delhi has mixed-faith neighbourhoods. Many Sikhs, a minority, have made their homes and set up shops in these parts.
Sikh residents in these areas came to the rescue of many like Mohammed Yusuf, a pharmacist, who found his shop reduced to dust. He said that a worker from Khalsa Aid, a Sikh volunteer-based aid organization, helped him rebuild his medical store.
“I had no faith or courage left. I had lost the ability to think. If a trader loses his trade, he has nothing left. It feeds our families, gives us good lives. There is nothing beyond it,” Yusuf said. He mourned the loss of his shop that he had built over many years.
“Some brother from Khalsa Aid came and found me. Someone told him about my plight. I didn’t believe that they would help me,” he said. He explained that the worker listened to his woes and reassured him that he would be back on his feet again.
“I said it was enough that they had showed concern, but they went beyond. It is amazing what they have done,” he said. Days after the riots, Yusuf is finally managing to smile a little bit.
“God sits up there and watches. These people have taken action,” he said, adding, “They must be a little bit crazy to help out a total stranger like that. My own relatives didn’t even call to ask if we were alright.”
Inderjeet Singh, the Khalsa Aid worker who helped Yusuf, is going through the rubble in another shop, assessing the damage. This 26-year old from Dehradun said he will not leave Delhi until Yusuf and others like him are rehabilitated.
“At Chand Bagh, I was told that someone called Mohammed Yusuf was so hopeless that he can’t bring himself to even ask for help. He never thought he would have to go through this, he was leading a good life,” Singh said.
He added that Yusuf’s entire family was depressed, but he reassured them that the damage would be undone. He, along with others, had assessed Yusuf’s loss of about Rs 12 to 13 lakh and immediately started working towards it.
“I met him again today and he hugged me. He said he didn’t think anyone would help. He had tears of joy. I said this is what our Gurus have taught us,” he said.
Amarpreet Singh, the Managing Director of Khalsa Aid (Asia Pacific), said, “We have identified and are rebuilding shops that were destroyed in the riots so people can start their business again.” Citing the example of a fruit market that was burnt down in Khajoori Khas, he said that since the vendors have no income source left, Khalsa Aid has ordered carts for them.
Drawing from experienceAt Chand Bagh, rehabilitation work continues after sunset. People who had well-stocked kitchens just days ago, now line up for langar for dinner.
Bit by bit, Chand Bagh is rebuilding itself. The trauma of the violence, however, will last a long time, according to the Sikh Samaritans. They know that hatred can crush the human spirit, having witnessed a pogrom in 1984 that targeted their community.
Mohinder Singh Khalsa sees his helpful deeds as a debt he had to repay. “I was 16 or 17 years old in 1984. Even then, there was harmony in the neighbourhood,” he shared.
“But during the riots, we saw Sikhs running into colonies, we saw mobs running after them and setting them on fire. We thought we had forgotten those images, but no Sikh can ever forget the massacre. We didn’t want the same thing to happen in 2020,” he said. He recalled that some well-meaning Hindus had kept his family safe in their homes for three days.
Sharing his own experience, Amarpreet Singh said that the shop his family used to run was burnt in 1984. However, they decided to learn the lesson of love and empathy from their past. “We said to ourselves we will not let this happen to anyone else. Hindus and Muslims stood with us when that had happened.”
A community that has suffered indescribable violence at different points of time – during the Partition and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots – has found in itself reservoirs of compassion and empathy.These men said that Sikhism is rooted in the twin concepts of sewa (selfless service) and simran (to remember God), making it impossible for them to turn a blind eye to human suffering.
“The principles of the Sikh faith and the message from our Gurus have an impact on us. We don’t see people’s faith when we help someone,” Khalsa said.
Shunty recalled a Sikh fable of Bhai Kanhaiya, who would give water to his enemies on the battlefield. When asked by the 10th Guru Gobind Singh about it, he said that he did not see them as the enemy, but only as someone in need.