From a distance, I could see dark clouds of smoke fill the sky. It was 11 am but it seemed more like 11 pm. On 25 February, a friend and I rode on a scooty towards Yamuna Vihar, a neighbourhood in northeast Delhi. The previous day, various parts of northeast Delhi had witnessed communal violence. There was stone pelting between supporters of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and those protesting against it. Hindu mobs subsequently targeted Muslim neighbourhoods, set cars and shops on fire, and brutally beat up Muslim residents. According to news reports, the Delhi police looked on, supported the pro-CAA groups, and in some cases participated in the violence alongside Hindu mobs.
We set out from my residence in Shahdara, another locality in northeast Delhi, around three to four kilometres from the violence hit areas. In the middle of the Shahdara-Loni road, when we thought of filling petrol, we found that all petrol pumps were closed. We asked some auto-drivers standing in front of us about where we might be able to get petrol. In conversation, when they learned that we were headed to Gokalpuri and Yamuna Vihar, they altogether recommended against it. I told them that I am a journalist and wanted to go there to report on the ensuing violence, but they pointed out that my safety was not guaranteed. They warned me about going ahead. I decided that I would move ahead on foot and my friend would return home on the scooty.
As I moved forward on the road towards Yamuna Vihar, the cloud of smoke grew thicker. The street that is ordinarily bustling with traffic was eerily quiet. Almost 100 metres ahead, the tyre market in front of Delhi University’s Ambedkar College had been set on fire. The flames from the edge of an over-bridge were growing taller. The fire was not too far from a petrol pump. A middle-aged man standing next to me expressionlessly said that the petrol pump could also catch fire. Behind the flames, I saw a group of people aged 14 to 35. Amidst the crowd, I heard proclamations of “Jai Shri Ram.”
Suddenly, they surrounded a car parked nearby. With a sudden thump, they broke the car’s rear windshield. The chants of “Jai Shri Ram” began to gain momentum. This seemed to give the men new life. The glass from the car lay strewn about the road. I was standing on the other side. I had just taken out my phone to shoot a video when the men from across the two-lane broad road waived their sticks at me. I was forced to put my phone away. Almost feeling like a criminal, I raised my hands, as if seeking mercy.
As I thought of continuing towards Gokalpuri, an acquaintance advised me against it over the phone. He also expressed concern over the “Muslim-beard” on my chin. I had never thought of my beard in this vein, but I suddenly began to see it as something that marked me as seemingly Muslim. The mob on the other side of the road now seemed even more frightening. If my beard appearing Muslim alone was so horrifying, I wondered what it would have been like if I was actually Muslim?