How Mustafabad’s Al Hind hospital became a refuge for displaced Muslims

Around thirty Muslims, displaced from their homes in the Hindu-majority neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi, have sought refuge in Al Hind hospital, in Mustafabad. Ishan Tankha
29 February, 2020

Around thirty Muslims have sought refuge in the Al Hind hospital in Mustafabad, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in northeast Delhi that has seen some of the worst violence in the ongoing, targeted communal carnage in the national capital. The Muslims had been displaced from their homes, situated in the Hindu-majority areas surrounding Mustafabad, such as Karawal Nagar, Shiv Vihar and Govind Vihar. Many of them said mobs shouting “Jai Shri Ram” had vandalised their homes and set these on fire. On 26 February, many Muslim locals from these areas moved to Al Hind, a hospital that was already facing an influx of more patients than it had the medical or physical infrastructure to support, ever since the violence began.

In the immediate couple of days after their homes were set ablaze, their Hindu neighbours had provided the Muslims shelter. But they soon had to leave because the rioters threatened to destroy the homes of all those who provided refuge to Muslims. The ones who came to Al Hind included individuals who had suffered grievous injuries as well as those who did not have any other place where they could seek shelter. The stories of their struggle to reach a place of safety and the hospital administration’s determination to accommodate them give a glimpse into the desperate circumstances of the victims of the violence.

Amjad Khan, a resident of Govind Vihar who was seeking refuge at the hospital, recounted the events that led him there. “When the riots started on 24 February, I came home and there were crowds of young men roaming around with weapons creating mayhem,” Ajmad said. “We got scared and locked our house from inside. They started banging on our door. So our neighbours rescued us by getting us to climb on our roofs and into their homes. The rioters came to know the next morning and they pressurised our neighbours to give us up. We had to move to another neighbours’ home.”

However, it was not possible for Ajmad’s family to survive with their neighbours’ protection for long. “On the third day, everyone in the colony got to know that we are hiding and the Bajrang Dal people told our neighbours to send us away or they would set fire to their home too,” he said, referring to members of the militant wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “We had to shift back to our home. We are only two Muslim families in that galli. Our neighbours stood guard outside and told us that as long as they are there they wouldn't let anything happen to us.”

Ajmad’s brother, Salim, recalled the family’s fear those two days. “When we were hiding, we felt that the mob would find and kill us and burn our homes,” he said. Ajmad said that they had repeatedly tried calling the police for help, but to no avail. Ultimately, they only managed to escape after they called a journalist, who spoke to the police on their behalf, following which they were able to leave their home unharmed. “The force came and extricated us on 26 February at 4 pm. I don’t know if they were Delhi Police, but they had machine guns and were wearing helmets. There are 22 of us in two families.” Since then, the family has been at Al Hind.

Aneesa Bano, a 50-year-old resident of Maha Laxmi Nagar, a neighbourhood in Karawal Nagar, is also among those forced to seek refuge at Al Hind. Karawal Nagar, which borders the Loni town of Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district, is a Hindu-majority area with several pockets of Muslim settlements within it. The Karawal Nagar constituency was one of eight seats won by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent Delhi assembly elections.

On the night of 24 February, Bano recounted, an armed Hindu mob was roaming in her neighbourhood shouting, “Jai Shri Ram.” Frightened, Bano and her family of six left their house and found shelter at the homes of one of their Hindu neighbours. “We were all scared, especially for our young grandchildren. We shudder to think what would have happened to them if the rioters had got to us,” she said. The next day, the mob returned and vandalised their empty house. “They threw our things outside—the fridge, washing machine and television—and set fire to our vehicles,” Bano told me. Her husband and brother-in-law fled to Loni while  the four women members of the family, along with the grandchildren, escaped to Mustafabad.

Naseema Khan, Aneesa’s sister-in-law, said that she and her family had been living in Maha Laxmi Nagar for twenty years. Her husband owned a sweet shop and they led comfortable lives till the violence uprooted them from their homes and forced them to flee for safety. “They wanted to set fire to our house, but our Hindu neighbours pleaded with them not to do so,” Naseema said. “We realised that we would have to leave the area for a safer place.”

Finally, it was only with the assistance of the police that the family was able to leave the area without being attacked. “When the police force arrived in Karawal Nagar to evacuate stranded Muslims, someone told them about our location and we were rescued,” Naseema said. “In the rush we forgot our burkhas. We don’t go anywhere without wearing our burkas, but here we are.” At Al Hind, Naseema was sitting on a mattress with her grandchildren—four-year-old Nikhat and eight-year-old Ali. “The most difficult thing is that there is no milk for the children,” Naseema said. Milk, vegetables, medicine, fruit, rice, wheat and other basic items, too, were all in short supply in Mustafabad, and suppliers were afraid to come to the area due to the sweeping violence. When I inquired about this at the nearby medical store, the shopkeeper, too, expressed dismay at his inability to provide the necessary resources. “The most heartbreaking thing was to have to turn mothers away who came looking for milk powder,” he said. While Naseema recounted the daily struggles she continues to endure, Ali joyfully played with his sister, seemingly unaware of the carnage that had displaced them from their homes. “Say mirchi,” Ali told his sister, and Nikhat responded, “Michdi.”

Bano and Naseema were not the only ones who spoke of the efforts by their Hindu neighbours to help them—it was a common refrain among the displaced Muslims at the hospital. Banne Khan, a 60-year-old refugee of the violence, had to flee from Mukund Vihar, in the Hindu-dominated Gokalpuri neighbourhood, to escape the violent Hindu mobs that attacked their locality on 24 and 25 February. “Our Hindu neighbours hid us in their homes,” Banne told me. “On Monday, I hid in one home and the next day I shifted to another home. We were locked up in an inner room, but we could hear the rioters outside shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram.’”

When I asked why they left Gokalpuri, Banne said that their neighbours were under pressure to give up the Muslims to the Hindu mob. “We barely escaped with our lives,” she told me. “I have no idea when we will be able to return. We are scared about returning, so we are at Al Hind.”

Several individuals among the displaced Muslims spoke of the eventual helplessness of their Hindu neighbours who protected them. For instance, Mohammad Yasin was a member of one of the only two Muslim families in Karawal Nagar’s Govind Vihar colony. His family, too, had first sought refuge at their Hindu neighbour’s house, but ultimately had to flee. Yasin also noted that the mob that attacked them were not locals of Govind Vihar. “What can our neighbours do if outsiders come armed with sticks and guns?” Yasin asked.

At Al Hind, the crisis has required all hands on deck since the violence started. The hospital is a small three-storey building with a minimal staff of seven doctors and eight nurses. As a result, to deal with the medical crisis borne out of the violence, locals from the area were constantly present at the hospital to aid the staff. Moreover, the hospital did not have a surgeon, because of which there was no way for the staff to treat victims with gunshot wounds except to ensure that they remained stable till they could be shifted to a bigger hospital.

One of the main concerns was that the hospital had been running low on medical supplies  since the influx of patients began, on 24 February. The next day, the Delhi Police issued shoot-at-sight orders, creating further fear among the suppliers. Simultaneously, the mobs and the Delhi Police prevented ambulances from entering the area, making it difficult for grievously injured individuals to be brought to Al Hind, as well as patients from the hospital to be taken elsewhere for better treatment.

The situation worsened on 25 February, as Mustafabad reeled under further violence. That day, the first floor of the hospital, normally used as a resting place for the staff was converted into a makeshift emergency ward. The staff and the locals requisitioned mattresses from the neighbourhood, and drip feeds were hung on two ropes strung end to end in the first-floor hallway. But hospital officials told me that the situation had turned desperate as Al Hind’s three oxygen cylinders, too, got depleted. The staff resorted to cardiopulmonary resuscitation, more commonly known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

According to Mohammad Wasim Akram, a compounder at Al Hind, the hospital treated over four hundred people for various injuries, including gunshot wounds, stabbings, beatings with lathis and blunt objects, acid attacks and stone-pelting injuries. “There were at least 20 serious gun-shot injuries,” Dr Meraj Ekram, one of the founding doctors of Al Hind, told me. “Our priority was to stem the blood flow from the most serious wounds and then send them to GTB”—the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital—“or other big hospitals.” Late that night, after the intervention of Delhi High Court, ambulances finally made their way inside and took most of the patients from Al Hind to bigger hospitals, such as the GTB and Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a result, when the displaced Muslim residents came looking for shelter on 26 February, the hospital had space for them. The mattresses from the previous day became bedding for the new arrivals. “I realised that the first floor of the hospital was empty and I decided to accommodate them there,” Dr M Ahtesham Anwar, told me. “I told them to go up and rest. We requisitioned whatever food we could find from the neighbourhood to feed them.”

The refugees at Al Hind were unsure how long they would stay there. “Since there is so much uncertainty about the situation, they are welcome to stay as long as they want,” Anwar said.  Ajmad, the resident of Govind Vihar, told me, “I don’t know how long we will have to stay at Al Hind.” The family also had a major concern. “The biggest problem is that my younger sister Ruksar is supposed to get married on 3 March … We don't know how long the violence will last.”