Scorched Hearths

A photographer-nurse recalls the Delhi violence

Shammi, a 38-year- old resident of Khajuri Khas, looks at the damage done to her home after an attack by mobs with petrol bombs.
Shammi, a 38-year- old resident of Khajuri Khas, looks at the damage done to her home after an attack by mobs with petrol bombs.
Photographs and Text by Sandy Ford
03 September, 2020

I first visited the neighbourhoods of northeastern Delhi, a city I have known for the past two decades and lived in for the last four years, in February, immediately after the area had witnessed a spate of anti-Muslim violence. I had been photographing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across the city in the months prior, and so my visit to this area was a natural progression of the work I had been doing. I had become interested in the protests particularly because they were women-driven forms of resistance, with participants cutting across ages and backgrounds. As I spent time sitting among them, and listening to the speeches, I was moved by their solidarity towards each other and their vision for India. 

Despite having worked for 15 years on health and humanitarian issues, and with an education in nursing, psychology and sociology, when I first arrived in Khajuri Khas, I felt numb and overwhelmed. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, and I felt myself wandering in a kind of daze, in an effort to make sense of what I was witnessing. Many police and military forces were visible. Homes, vehicles, businesses and mosques had been burned and looted. The area was filled with the smell of smoke and covered with ash, and though there were few people in the streets, they looked fearful and upset.

As I made my way around the neighbourhood, finding it intrusive to walk into people’s homes amid the remains of their destroyed lives, I witnessed an argument. A Muslim woman, who had returned home to check her belongings, became upset upon seeing her burnt house. She was shouting in the street that she felt betrayed by her Hindu neighbours, whom she had trusted her whole life, that they had not helped her but instead had helped the attackers. “Bahar walon se kya umeed lagaye jab gali ke logo ne hi hamare ghar jalwaye ho?”how can we hope others to help when our people from our own lane have burnt our house, she shouted. Her Hindu neighbours yelled back that she should watch her mouth. They had not burnt her house, they said, and if they had, her people would not have survived. The tension, horror and sadness of what had transpired was palpable, as was the almost overnight erosion of trust between communities.