A mosque on fire, shops looted, people celebrating: My five hours in northeast Delhi

Members of the mob seemed to have no fear. They were roaming about with sharp metallic weapons, thick sticks and iron rods. Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS
27 February, 2020

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?

I spoke to a boy sitting on the corner of the street. He told me he had come for some work at the tyre market and was now watching it burn. He refused to speak to me about anything beyond this. As soon as he fell silent, the thought of my beard began to vex me. I was not able to decide where I would go next and what I should do. Right then, a mob of people on foot and on motorcycles began to come down the road I was on. A youth brandishing the tricolour was walking at the mob’s front; behind him were about 200 people chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” I once again became conscious of my beard. I stepped back from the road and moved to stand in front of an office of the Delhi Jal Board. The mob was now right in front of my eyes.

Members of the mob seemed to have no fear. They were roaming about with sharp metallic weapons, thick sticks, iron rods and wooden staffs. Right then a Delhi Police car passed by. The mob surrounded it. I feared that the mob would react violently to the police, but their slogans had now changed. ‘'Delhi Police sangharsh karo, hum tumhare saath hai,” they shouted—Delhi Police, go ahead, we are with you.

Two Delhi Police members in riot gear were pacing about in front of me. An old man in his late fifties was standing beside me in front of the Delhi Jal Board gate. I asked him, “Are there just two police personnel?” He replied, “There were three, one has gone to take a leak.” The staff of the Jal Board had also come outside on hearing the commotion. Referring to a Muslim shrine across the road, one of them, evidently glad, said, “They are now breaking down the mazaar.” Inside the gate of the Jal Board, a man standing atop a tanker was filming a video. Another man standing next to me had just pulled out his phone to shoot a video when some boys wielding sticks and stones approached us. They loudly shouted “Jai Shri Ram.” The people standing next to me responded with another resounding “Jai Shri Ram.” The matter was resolved. The angry boys quietened and left asking the group not to shoot a video. All broke in laughter. The scenario felt almost jovial.

Soon after, a man, who looked to be in his thirties, arrived and stood next to us. He also took out his phone and began to shoot a video. The mob approached us again. But before anyone in the mob could say anything, a white-haired man standing with us reprimanded him—“If you want to shoot a video, make one of people fucking, so that we can also enjoy it. What will you do with this video?” The man kept the phone back in his pocket.

Presumably done with breaking down the mazaar, the mob moved forward toward Gokalpuri. I checked again with my friend if I too should continue in that direction. He told me mobs were roaming the area and that they were setting a mosque on fire. I figured I could instead go towards Yamuna Vihar. Earlier in the morning, another acquaintance from Yamuna Vihar had asked to come and take a look at the communal violence unfolding there. Arriving at a decision, I rang my acquaintance. However, he told me not to come there either. Bullets were being fired across the neighbourhood, he said. He added the police were not taking any action.

I finally decided to wait until the situation at Gokalpuri calmed down. I headed to the home of another acquaintance, from the Jat community, in nearby Durgapuri. There I learnt that my acquaintance’s 24-year-old nephew had also gone to join the mob. My heart was thumping. I did not want to stay there another moment, but had nowhere else to go. My acquaintance also seemed displeased with his nephew. The 24-year-old’s younger brother was also against this. The younger brother, a badminton player, had to reach a stadium but no one would let him leave. Eventually, the elder brother phoned in. He said in an arrogant voice, “The atmosphere is bad outside, don’t dare set a foot out.”

After some time, I got a call saying that a semblance of calm had returned to Gokalpuri. I immediately left my acquaintance’s home. The road that lead towards Gokalpuri, Yamuna Vihar, and Bhajanpura was now deserted. All I could see were clouds of smoke. Four or five buses of the Delhi Transport Corporation were parked outside Ambedkar College. After the violent mob had passed, buses filled with soldiers from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Delhi Police had reached the area. Standing on the roadside, they were eating food. Some soldiers were sitting inside the vehicle.

I continued towards Gokulpuri at a brisk pace. As I made my way, my friend called. He told me not to come as the situation had deteriorated once again. By now, I was already at the mouth of the road to Gokalpuri. The mosque was not even 30 metres away. On the road, I could see members of a mob, armed with sticks and iron rods. I gathered courage and passed through them. Throughout that walk, I kept trying to conceal my beard with my hands. 

I entered a by-lane from where I had heard a commotion. An elderly sardar was removing a TV and other household items from a house ahead of me. My friend from Gokalpuri later told me that the home from which he was removing things belonged to a Muslim and had been set on fire. The Muslim family owned a pharmacy nearby that had also been set on fire. The Sikh man was trying to salvage the things inside the burnt home.

Soon, I was relieved to see my acquaintance standing ahead of the mosque. He gestured to me to stay silent. I walked towards him and we sat silently. The mosque that had been set on fire earlier in the day was in front of us. We could see the fire still blazing inside. Outside, large coolers—presumably from inside the mosque—had been toppled over and were lying haphazardly on the street. Soon, after a lull in passions, the fury reignited and mob began beating the coolers with sticks and rods.

We continued to walk down the lane. We climbed to the first floor balcony of a three-storeyed home and looked out from there. Suddenly, people began to scuttle through the lane. I thought that the police had finally arrived and the situation would be calmed. But the police were merely standing by the mouth of the lane twiddling around with their lathis. Instead, a black bull, unnerved by the mob, was doing the work of chasing after the crowd. After a while, the bull’s scurrying became a source of entertainment for the people.

A little later, I saw people moving around carrying iron ladders. Soon, the mob began plundering and looting homes and shops. Things were being stolen from inside the burnt pharmacy. I saw a boy carrying a large carton of Fair & Lovely cream. The other boys, women and men welcomed him with applause and a sense of victory. One by one, more people were seen returning to their homes carrying things inside their shirts, in their pockets or in their hands. All received a resounding welcome from onlookers.

At the mouth of the street, things were being thrown down from the first floor of a building that housed a shop called the Delhi Chicken Darbar. The shop belonged to a Muslim, with the first floor serving as the shopkeeper’s residence. People from the neighbourhood, who had stationed themselves in the house I was watching from, were not able to decipher where these things were being thrown out from. They began shouting. Then a young boy assured the predominantly Hindu crowd that these things were not from their homes, it was from the home of the Muslim shop owner. He walked across the street carrying an LPG cylinder. Among the things looted so far, he had the most valuable and at least seemingly the largest find. Onlookers on the road cheered him with laughter.

The violent mob soon began to surround the mosque once again. The noise of shouts and the clashing of sticks and iron rods became louder. The flames had somewhat died down by then. The things that had been thrown out from the shopkeeper’s residence—clothes, food grains— were then thrown into the flames and used to further fuel the fire inside the mosque.

I then went up to the roof of the three-storeyed home. Standing atop, I looked in all four directions. In the distance, I could see black clouds forming in at least 15 places. I took out my I phone to shoot a video. My friend immediately asked me to put the phone aside. He told me that there had been a disturbing atmosphere since the evening of 24 February. Almost all Muslim families had evacuated the area. He said that until the previous day, one could have tried speaking to the mobs, appealing to their humanity and asking them not to be violent. But he said he no longer felt that was possible. Despite being a Hindu himself, he said he did not have the courage to say anything to the Hindu mobs, even though the groups included people from his neighborhood. It was too dangerous, he told me.

Apart from us, a man in his mid-twenties was sitting on the roof. The neck of his T-shirt was covered with turmeric. He was to be married the next day. He asked me, “Brother, how will things get fixed? Now what will happen?”

A little while later, I was ready to leave. My friend had renewed in me a fear about my beard. Taking responsibility for my safety, he gathered courage and came out to drop me to the main road. The road was quiet, but not a kind of quiet that induces comfort. Earlier, I had spoken to an elderly woman standing beside me at the balcony. Referring to the Muslim family whose home was burnt, I asked her, “Was the Muslim in your lane a very bad person?” She replied, “She was my friend.”