Driven by Islamophobia, Gokalpuri’s Hindus justify targeted arson of mosque, Muslim homes

Gokalpuri has witnessed targeted communal violence against its Muslim residents, with their shops, homes and a local mosque set on fire, since the violence across northeast Delhi began, on 23 February. ISHAN TANKHA
28 February, 2020

A saffron flag inscribed with “Jai Shri Ram” now flies atop one of the minarets of a mosque in northeast Delhi’s Gokalpuri neighbourhood. The mosque was gutted from inside, its walls sooty but still standing. A Delhi Police constable and two personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force guarded the mosque premises, who tried to prevent me from taking a photo, claiming that it was “sensitive.” Apart from the mosque, at least a dozen shops and houses belonging to Muslim residents of the area had also been burnt down in Gokalpuri and the neighboring Ganga Vihar locality in the targeted communal violence across northeast Delhi since 23 February.

Walking past their charred remains on 26 February, it was evident that only the Muslim houses and establishments had been targeted. Several houses and shops remained untouched, and only those buildings with visible markers indicating the identity of its owners, such as tiles with moon prints on them or the name plates outside the doors, had been set on fire. The household belongings were burnt and scattered on the road. Nobody lived in these houses anymore. The locals told me that some of the occupants had already left before the arson, while the police had evacuated the others that morning.

I spent the day in Gokalpuri and parts of Ganga Vihar, and spoke with residents from different communities to understand the events that had transpired over the last three days and how they felt about it. There was a curfew in the area under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, because of which there were only few men out on the road whom I could speak with. The Sikh community was the only one that sympathised with their Muslim neighbours. The Jatav residents, members of the Dalit community, appeared more worried about their own lives and properties than concerned about the Muslims. Some of them identified themselves as Hindus first, expressing solidarity with their upper-caste brethren. But above all, what emerged from these conversations was the upper-caste residents’ unabashed hatred towards the Muslim community.

The upper-caste Hindus narrated incidents of persecution to justify their hatred towards the Muslim community. But these accounts were based on narratives of persecution that the individuals discussing them had never personally experienced, but believed nonetheless because they heard it from others or seen it on the internet. The instances that they recounted as proof of persecution were either demonstrably false or unverifiable claims. They also tried to justify their inaction and failure to protect their neighbours by arguing that the Muslims had wrongfully occupied their lands, and therefore needed to be thrown out. The upper-caste locals said they found themselves naturally aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Delhi Police because they believed that only these two organisations had “protected the Hindus” during the violence.

Gokalpuri is one of the Hindu-dominated areas in the violence-afflicted North East district of Delhi. It falls within the Gokalpur assembly constituency, a reserved seat that is represented by Aam Aadmi Party’s Surendra Kumar. According to the 2011 census, Gokalpur is comprised of a 77-percent Hindu population and a 20-percent Muslim demographic. The elders of the area said that the colony was originally for Scheduled Castes under the Indira Awas Yojana, a rural-housing initiative launched in 1985. The elders added that over the last three decades, upper-caste individuals had bought the lands from the Dalit owners, and they now dominate the area. According to them, the Gurjar community was in majority in the area, followed by the Jatav, Brahmin, Rajput and Baniya communities, in that order, apart from a few Sikh residents.

A Shiva temple stood at a short distance from the mosque. Six locals, including the temple priest, were sunbathing at the premises. Only three of them, each of them Brahmin, agreed to speak with me on the record, others joined in on the condition of anonymity. In an hour-long conversation, all of them avoided answering who had burnt the mosque and the houses. They even refused to acknowledge that the arson was morally wrong, instead terming it a Hindu “reaction” to Muslim violence over the previous last three days. There was no visible evidence of any such violence—I only spotted Muslims shops and houses that had been burnt down, and the community’s presence in the area was miniscule, and even those residents had left their homes.

Given this context, I asked the gathering why they felt persecuted by minorities. Mangu Singh, who identified himself as Brahmin, gave me an example of the supposed persecution. Singh claimed that in Dharampura, a Hindu-dominated neighbourhood around five kilometres away, Muslim residents had killed a Hindu father, his son and striped his daughter before setting her ablaze. That day, I had visited Dharampura before coming to Gokalpuri and interacted with its residents.

The area disclosed no indication of the nature of violence that Singh claimed. Like Gokalpuri, Dharampura had very few Muslim houses. Most Hindu houses in the area had saffron flags affixed on their front doors. There were no stones strewn on the by-lanes, as visible in other areas that witnessed violence, nor were any of the houses damaged. The residents told me that the colony had remained untouched from any violence. None of the Hindu residents had told me about any such killings or sexual abuse by anyone from the Muslim community.

When I asked Singh about this, he derailed the conversation, suddenly suspecting that I was not a Hindu. He asked for my press card, which bears my family name, Choudhary. But Singh was not satisfied. “Are you a Jatav?” he asked, now with a stern tone. A journalist friend who was with me tried to pacify Singh by stating his upper-caste identity. He took out his press card and told Singh, “Sir, I’m Rajput.” Singh snubbed him, noting that he was not asking for my friend’s press card. He then turned to me again and said, “A man’s caste can be told from his face. You don’t look like a Choudhary.” 

Kunj Vihari, the Brahmin priest of the temple, joined Singh in trying to prove that they faced persecution. He told me that a Hindu Indian Police Services officer, Parvesh Verma, was shot dead by Muslim. Once again, the claim was a lie. No IPS officer had been reported killed in the Delhi violence. He then claimed that a Brahmin priest had been stabbed to death in Usmanpur and that another priest was shot dead in Shiv Vihar, both northeast Delhi localities. I could not confirm either of the supposed killings independently, but yet again, there have been no reports about them. To convince me, Singh told me Mughals had ruled India and persecuted Hindus for “422 years.” I did not try to reason with him further.

Rajkishore Awasthi, the third Brahmin in the group, agreed with Singh and Vihari. He said whatever happened to Muslims in Gokalpuri happened because they brought it on themselves. As I had stopped questioning their logic by this point, the group appeared to accept me now. Then, Vihari recounted an incident from the day the mosque was burnt down.

On 24 February, Vihari said, a mob of Hindu men entered Gokalpuri from the Ganga Vihar side and walked in shouting “Jai Shri Ram.” Vihari believed they were outsiders to the Gokalpuri locality. He said a Muslim local had thrown a beer bottle at the mob, which instigated the targeted violence in the area. Vihari was convinced that throwing a beer bottle on a mob was sufficient reason to burn down a dozen houses and shops. “Dekhiye, jo kuch hua, opposite party se shuru hua”—See, whatever happened, it happened because the other side started it, Vihari said. “Abh action ka reaction toh hota hi hai”—After all, every action does have a reaction.

Singh then gave me a tour of Gokalpuri and Ganga Vihar, insisting—almost commanding, by his tone—that I must write in favor of the Hindus. He proudly showed me the burnt houses and shops of Muslims, noting that they deserved it. “Hinduon ki jagah kabza karke rakha tha inn logon ne”—These people had occupied the property of Hindus, Singh claimed. “Bhenchod saath lakh, aath lakh mangte the property bechne ko. Abh ho gaya Hinduon kabza. Ladte raho case abh,” (The fuckers would ask for seven or eight lakhs for a property. Now the Hindus have occupied it. Keep fighting the case now.)

I spoke to another group that had gathered near a public hall in Gokalpuri. Arindam Kumar, a Gurjar resident in his thirties, told me that the police had supported the Hindus and did not object to an armed gathering of Hindu men, who assembled in Gokalpuri on the night of 25 February. “Kal raat ko Chand Bagh ke Musalmano ne teen baar ghusne ki koshish ki”—Last night, Muslims from Chand Bagh tried to enter Gokalpuri thrice, Arindam said. Lag bhag hazaar Hindu yahan ikkatha ho gaye phir yahan Ganga Vihar mein. Police dur se dekh rahi thi. Humne Musalmano ko kaha, ‘Aa jao jisko aana hai bhenchod.’”—Around one thousand Hindus then gathered here at Ganga Vihar. The police was watching from afar. We told the Muslims, ‘Come whoever wants to come, you sister-fuckers.’

Arindam, too, said that Muslims had been killing Hindus in Chand Bagh. Over thirty people have died since the violence began. While the number and details of the deceased individuals are still disputed, media reports have noted that Ratan Lal, a Delhi Police head constable who died in the violence, was posted in Gokalpuri for the past few years, and Ankit Sharma, an Intelligence Bureau officer, was found dead in a drain in Chand Bagh.

The upper-caste residents of Gokalpuri also appeared to have a consensus on their hatred for the AAP, for giving free water and electricity to the poor, and for the Congress for “appeasing Muslims.” Rajendra Kumar, a Brahmin resident who was sitting in the public hall, believed that Muslims had taken over Delhi under Arvind Kejriwal’s government. “Paanch saalon mein ghulam bana diya hai behenchodon ne Musalmano ka humme”—Over five years, these sister-fuckers have made us into servants of the Muslims, Rajendra said, referring to the AAP government’s term in Delhi. He then called the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal a “katua, which translates to circumcised, and is used as slur to address a Muslim man, for not removing the women protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Shaheen Bagh from the site of the  road where their sit in is located. “Kya galat kaha Kapil Mishra ne”—What wrong did Kapil Mishra say, Rajendra asked. On 23 February, the BJP leader, while addressing a crowd, had given the police a three-day ultimatum to remove the protesters from the Chand Bagh and Jaffrabad protest sites, noting that he did not want the areas to turn into “another Shaheen Bagh.” Rajendra continued, Do mahine se road band kar rakha hai inohne”—These people have blocked the road for two months. 

Behind the burnt mosque, I met a group of Dalit men, who lived in small houses. Tika Ram, a Jatav resident of the area, told me the mosque was burnt during the night on 24 February, and that outsiders had probably done it. He added that he had seen news on a television channel that on the night of 25 February that Muslims would gather at 3 am and attack his colony. I asked him if they did really conduct the attack. “Pata nahi kyun nahi aaye kal”—I don’t know why they didn’t come yesterday, Ram said. Magar dar laga rehta hai, ho sakta hai kissi aur din kar de”—But we do feel scared, it is possible that they do it some other day. Other members of the community, too, expressed a similar fear of the Muslim residents of the neighbourhood.

As I was leaving the colony, I spoke with a few Sikh residents. Only Manindra Singh, the president of the local market association, agreed to speak on the record. He told me that what was done to Gokalpuri’s Muslims was wrong and that he believed that outsiders had committed the arson. Manindra also expressed his opposition to the CAA, noting that the law was discriminatory for excluding Muslim refugees. “Ye galat hai, samanta hona chahiye isme”—This is wrong, there should be equality in the law, he said. 

Maninder said he had witnessed the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984 and never wanted to see such things happen again in the national capital. He pointed to one major difference between the killings of the Sikhs and those of the Muslims. He explained, “Sikh organised nahi the, isliye bahut jaan gayi. Lekin Musalaman organised hai iss me”—The Sikhs were not organised, that is why a lot of people died. But the Muslims are organised this time.