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.