“They were at least ten to twelve men, in plain clothes,” Rehan Ali, a shopkeeper in his early twenties, told me as he recounted how Delhi Police personnel arrested his family members on 7 March. “None of them were in their uniform. Two of them carried guns. Without ringing the doorbell, they walked straight into my home.” Rehan is a resident of Gali Number 4 in Moonga Nagar, a small locality in northeast Delhi’s New Mustafabad area. Somewhere between 5 pm to 5.30 pm that evening, the police arrested his oldest brother, Riyasat Ali, who is in his thirties, and his father, Liaqat Ali, an elderly man in his sixties, in connection with the communal violence that engulfed northeast Delhi in the last week of February. Till 7 March, the Delhi Police had registered 693 cases and either detained or arrested 2,193 individuals over the violence. There is no official data on the religious identity of the detainees or the arrested, although inputs from residents, activists and lawyers suggest that Muslim men were taken into custody in large numbers.
“Every day, they are picking up two to four men from our area,” Mustaqim, a resident of Kabir Nagar in Babarpur who runs a grocery store, told me on 8 March. His brother, Mohammad Shamim, had been picked up that day and taken to the Welcome police station, in Shahdara, where he was kept in detention overnight. Mustaqim was not allowed to see his brother or even enter the police station and it was only the next day that the family was told that Shamim was going to be booked under various charges relating to the violence in their area. Mustaqim’s ordeal echoed almost every testimony I came across that week, including the Ali family.
When I met Rehan at his house around 8 pm on 7 March, he told me that the police said that Riyasat and Liaqat were being picked-up for “pooch-taach”—enquiry; refused to give the family any details about the arrests; and one official asked him to check with the Sunlight Colony police station—located near Ashram, almost twenty-four kilometres away—if they wanted any information. Rehan runs a business of selling plastic sheets along with his father and four older brothers, and the family lives in the floors above the shop. That day, there were at least twenty men, ranging from local community elders to teenagers, gathered there. They were working out a strategy to approach the police and enquire about the arrested men, because they were afraid that they, too, would be taken into custody if they went to the Sunlight police station. Along with the Ali family, a third man from the locality, named Nafees had also been picked up. Nafees, who is in his late twenties, lived in the same lane and worked in a dairy.
Half an hour later, as I was leaving for the police station, Liaqat’s brother-in-law, Ilyas Ali, and a neighbour, Qamurrudin, asked if they could join me. They told me the presence of a journalist would make them feel secure when they met the police. All the men agreed that this was sound strategy. Nafees’ family kept away out of fear of the police. Yunus Saleem, a local resident and a social worker who acts as a liaison for the community and had informed me about the Ali family’s predicament, had to be convinced to accompany us. He, too, was fearful of the police.
The renewed fear and mistrust of the Delhi Police in Gali Number 4 is a pattern that echoed across Muslim neighbourhoods in the North East district. Between 1 and 9 March, I visited the neighbourhoods of Mustafabad, Khajoori Khas, Kardampuri, Kabir Nagar, Chand Bagh, Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Babarpur, Seelampur, and in all these areas, residents said that they had witnessed dozens of arrests and detentions by the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch. But it was not just the detentions and arrests that had stoked fear among the Muslim residents.