Men in uniform torched Mustafabad’s Farooqia Masjid, assaulted people inside: Locals

“They had petrol, diesel in plastic bags. They spilled it on the walls, on beddings that were stashed together, then they lit it on fire,” Tahir said. “The masjid is in such a tattered state that the plaster over the walls has crumbled, only the bricks remain.” Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
“They had petrol, diesel in plastic bags. They spilled it on the walls, on beddings that were stashed together, then they lit it on fire,” Tahir said. “The masjid is in such a tattered state that the plaster over the walls has crumbled, only the bricks remain.” Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
11 March, 2020

Survivors of brutal physical assaults told The Caravan that men in uniform thrashed them before setting fire to the Farooqia Masjid on the third day of the communal violence in northeast Delhi. The attack took place close to 7 pm on 25 February, when the survivors had nearly finished performing the Maghrib namaz—evening prayers—at the mosque, located at Brijpuri, in the Mustafabad area. Three survivors, as well as other locals who witnessed the incident, identified the attackers as “force” or “policewaale”—policemen. The next day, policemen torched an adjacent madrasa, according to one local who said she witnessed the arson. Mufti Mohammad Tahir, the imam of the mosque, who was among those assaulted, told The Cavaran that there were 16 CCTV cameras within the mosque, and the room in which the footage was stored was located on the madrasa’s ground floor. According to him, the attackers destroyed the room where the recordings were kept.

The three survivors—Tahir, a 30-year-old; Firoz Akhtar, a 42-year-old tailor; and Jalaluddin, the mosque’s 44-year-old muezzin, who gives the calls for prayers—said that the uniformed attackers brutally beat them with lathis. Tahir, Firoz and Jalaluddin sustained severe injuries—I met two of them while they were admitted in hospitals. The survivors estimated that between thirty and sixty uniformed men had attacked the mosque. They said they saw the uniformed men hitting them, but were not able to clearly identify the force—Firoz described the attackers’ garb as “a worn-out military uniform” while Jalaluddin and Tahir said they were dressed in police uniforms. Tahir said the men who attacked the mosque were wearing bulletproof vests because of which “we couldn’t tell whether they were actual policemen or from the RSS or who they were.” The three survivors were certain that none of the attackers were dressed in civilian clothes. 

Locals who witnessed the attack and those who helped the victims escape corroborated the three men’s accounts. During and after the attack, Jalaluddin’s wife, Waheeda, was at an acquaintance’s residence, located around twenty-five metres away from the madrasa. She said that the next morning, she saw policemen torching the madrasa. 

Waheeda, along with a few other families, was staying at the home of Naseem-ul-Hassan, a 59-year-old businessman, after communal violence erupted in northeast Delhi. Hassan recalled what he saw on the day of the attack. The attackers—at least some of whom, Hassan said, were wearing uniforms of a “force”—broke the main gate of the Farooqia Masjid around the time of the Maghrib namaaz, which is performed at around 6.30 pm. He confirmed that the uniformed attackers were not sporting visible name badges, echoing Tahir. The cops then dragged the Muslim men who were performing namaz out of the mosque and “left some of them to die,” Hassan said. He showed me some blood stains on the gate and said the attackers burnt the mosque. Two other local residents said that they had witnessed the same sequence of events, but asked not to be named. 

I visited the mosque and the madrasa more than a week after the men said it had been attacked, in early March. The Farooqia Masjid’s desecration was evident—its walls were charred and several of the beddings and coolers had been burnt. The destruction of the madrasa next door was also visible, with books burnt halfway to ashes and its walls covered in soot.

I called, messaged and emailed the deputy commissioner of police of the North East Delhi district, Ved Prakash Surya, about the allegations against the police, but did not get a response. At the time of publishing, it had been eight days since I reached out to Surya. This story will be updated if and when a response is received. 

The attack on Farooqia Masjid was one of many that targeted the Muslim community amid the violence in northeast Delhi, which began following an incendiary speech by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra at Maujpur Chowk, on 23 February. In the presence of Surya and other police officers, Mishra gave an ultimatum that if the sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 at the Jaffrabad metro station was not cleared within three days, the matter would be taken out of the Delhi Police’s hands. In the subsequent days, communal violence swept different pockets of northeast Delhi, with multiple witnesses stating that Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, aided by the police. As of 10 March, 53 people had died as a result of the violence. 

By 25 February, an area outside the mosque had long been the site of a sit-in protest against the CAA. “It had been more than forty days since it began,” Tahir, the imam, said. Mattresses and other essentials that the protesters used were stored within the mosque. “We had been protesting peacefully and no one was being inconvenienced there. We had also left a way for others to travel through that area,” Tahir said. On the day of the attack, Hindus and Muslims were pelting stones at each other in Brijpuri. Locals told me that a group of Delhi cops and Hindu rioters went about lathi charging and shooting at people. Due to the hostile environment in Brijpuri, the anti-CAA women protesters vacated the site of their sit-in outside the mosque. 

Inside the mosque, around the end of the Maghrib namaz, the men in the mosque were making an announcement calling for communal harmony, Tahir told me. Then, he said, dozens of “police personnel” armed with lathis entered the mosque. “The way they were talking, it seemed they are from Bihar or somewhere in the east,” he said.  

Tahir said the uniformed attackers started beating him and everyone they could get a hold of. “We told them we are calling for Hindu-Muslim unity, but they didn’t stop, they beat everyone mercilessly,” he said. “Even when I had almost fainted, they kept beating me angrily on my head, waist, my hands,” he said. Tahir said that the attackers had two common refrains. “One was a chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and the other comment that they said while beating us was, ‘Bohot azadi mangte ho na, lo azadi’”You guys keep asking for freedom, here’s your freedom. 

After beating them up, the uniformed men set everything on fire in the mosque, Tahir said. “They had petrol, diesel in plastic bags. They spilled it on the walls, on beddings that were stashed together, then they lit it on fire,” he said. “The masjid is in such a tattered state that the plaster over the walls has crumbled, only the bricks remain.” According to Tahir, the attackers burnt the essentials stored inside the mosque for the anti-CAA protesters, and even the tent that was set up for them outside. He said that the men in uniform had “systematically” entered the mosque and carried out the attack.

According to Tahir, a few people who were in the mosque ran to the madrasa next door, through a connecting gate. I met two locals, who requested not to be named, who said they helped over twenty-five students and teachers move out of the madrasa during the attack. 

Tahir, the imam, said that the attackers had two common refrains. “One was a chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and the other comment that they said while beating us was, ‘Bohot azadi mangte ho na, lo azadi’”—You guys keep asking for freedom, here’s your freedom.  Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Tahir has since been recovering at his father’s home, in Uttar Pradesh’s Muradnagar area. On 5 March, when I met him, he was visibly injured. He had two stitches on his head; a fracture in his left leg; and his fingers, his biceps, triceps and his back were swollen and blue. “My fingers aren’t working properly, and even my joints aren’t folding,” he said.

He recalled that the attackers thrashed Jalaluddin too. “Muezzin sahab … they beat his face with lathis. His mouth, his teeth, his jaw have all become useless now.”

I met Jalaluddin at the Alshifa hospital in Jamia Nagar, located in Delhi’s Okhla area, on 3 March. He was battered and bruised from head to toe. Once the attackers entered, Tahir approached them, but they immediately began beating him, Jalaluddin said. Seeing this, he ran to a room within the mosque where a microphone, religious scriptures and other bric-a-brac of everyday use were kept, and shut himself inside. His eight-year-old daughter was with him at the time. Meanwhile, he said, men in uniform kept thrashing those outside the room. Some began banging on the door of the room in which Jalaluddin had taken shelter, demanding he come out.

“They used petrol or something and lit everything in the masjid on fire,” Jalaluddin said. He could see what was happening through a window. “When I thought that the fire would engulf us too, I opened the latch and we broke into a run, but they caught me.” The uniformed attackers hit him on the head, and he soon lost consciousness. Jalaluddin said he could not estimate the number of men who beat him up. “They didn’t give me a chance to even try to see their name plates,” he said. When he woke up, he found himself at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan, or LNJP, hospital.

Meanwhile, Jalaluddin’s wife Waheeda, told me that the daughter ran to the Mehmaan Khana, a guest quarters, located in the mosque. An old man, who lives in in the Mehmaan Khana, let her inside. “They started lighting the guest chamber on fire. Then they got the older gentleman to open the door and started beating him as well,” Waheeda said. “Our daughter hid herself under the blanket. They asked, ‘Who is it that’s hiding?’ The old man said that it is a young girl and then the police dragged both of them outside and left them there.” According to her, the men in uniform did not harm the daughter and let her run away again. “My daughter is scared right now. Fear has set in her heart,” Waheeda said. “She keeps speaking about how the police set fire to the place, how they beat up her father.” 

Waheeda told me she found out about the attack as it was taking place. She was among the anti-CAA protesters, who had moved from the site in front of the mosque fearing for their safety by then. Waheeda, along with a few others, took refuge at Hassan’s house, located close to the madrasa. During the attack, she said, “I could hear people shouting, ‘Muezzin sahab is being beaten. Imam sahab is being beaten up.’ … I was in a very bad state as my daughter was also with him.” Some boys in the locality found her daughter somewhere outside the mosque and then brought her to Hasan’s place late at night, where Waheeda was staying along with a few others.

On 5 March, I met Jalaluddin’s doctor at Alshifa, Mohammad Farooq, the head of the hospital’s orthopedics department. “It’s his fortune that he is alive,” Farooq said, before adding, “When I saw such injuries, it did remind me of the situation during 1984”—the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi.  Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

“There are houses next to the madrasa and after the houses is a gali. Next to the gali is a big building of four–five floors that is Hassan bhai’s home,” Waheeda said. “We put up in that house for the whole night. By morning, we thought that things had settled down by now, but then they set the madrasa on fire in the morning.” Waheeda said she saw four or five policemen break the lock of the madrasa’s office and enter it. “We were watching from the roof … I saw police enter the madrasa myself,” she said. “We could see smoke come out of the room, so we knew it is being burnt.” 

When I first met Firoz at LNJP hospital, on 26 February, he was not in a condition to talk. More than a week later, on 5 March, we spoke about the attack. He told me that around thirty-five or forty men in a “type of military uniform” had attacked the mosque. He said he had counted fifteen of them when they were showering lathis on him. “They kept hitting me on the head,” he said. “Their target was to keeping hitting us on the head and to kill us.” Firoz said he immediately fell down as he is differently abled—his left leg was injured in an accident. The attackers stopped beating him, after four–five minutes, when he was in a “half-dead state,” Firoz said. He could hear gunshots and blasts outside the mosque. Like the imam, he recalled that the attackers taunted the men by using the word “azadi” and hit Jalaluddin on his face with lathis. 

The uniformed men dragged Firoz outside the mosque and threw him on the site of burnt tent. The attackers instructed one man to restrain him till they got the “samaan”—stuff. Once they left, Firoz recounted the man telling him, “Run away from here. The road from the back is open. I won’t be able to help you anymore than this.” Firoz said he ran a few steps, tripped, then got back up to run and then lost consciousness. 

Meanwhile, Firoz’s wife, Sanjida, was sitting worried at their home, located around five hundred metres away from the mosque. Through her neighbours, she was hearing updates about the events unfolding in northeast Delhi—about police brutality and attacks by Hindu mobs. “All the ruckus was happening there. Many, so many, have been shot and so many of them have died,” Sanjida told me. “I was getting anxious as I didn’t know where he was.” 

Sanjida asked Danish Akhtar, their 20-year-old son, to go and look for Firoz, but to not venture too far. When Danish came back, unsuccessful in his search for his father, it fueled her anxiety further. A little after 7.30 pm, Sanjida received a call from a man who said he had taken Firoz to his house near Brijpuri Pulia, a bridge near the mosque—the family still does not know the identity of this person. “He told me that my husband had been beaten up in the masjid badly, very badly,” she said. She tried to figure out the best way to proceed, as it would have been dangerous for her to step out in Mustafabad at that time—many in her neighbourhood had been injured and were being brought back home then. Black smoke, created by teargas and presumably burnt properties, had engulfed her locality. Sanjida said Firoz told her over the phone that they “shouldn’t come because the situation there was quite bad. They were firing guns—a lot of firing was going on there.” 

Meanwhile, the stranger got a doctor to perform basic dressing on Firoz’s wounds. The stranger told the family that the doctor insisted that Firoz be taken immediately to a hospital. As the situation cooled a bit, the man took Firoz to the Al Hind hospital in Mustafabad. One of Sanjida’s neighbours took Danish to the hospital on a bike. Sanjida told me that Danish broke into tears when he saw his father, who was soaked in blood, and asked her to come to the hospital as soon as possible. She then reached the hospital with the help of her neighbours. 

“It was so overcrowded that many of the injured were laid out on the floor,” Sanjida said. “Men who had beards had their beards and faces lit on fire. Stomachs had been split open.” Since the hospital was at capacity, the staff were unable to treat Firoz. Tahir, too, mentioned that he was first taken to Al Hind, which was packed with injured patients. 

Between 9 pm to 10 pm on the night of 25 February, Sanjida and Danish made multiple calls to different hospitals begging them to send their ambulances. When nothing worked out, Sanjida reached out to a relative, Salim, who approached NGOs working on the ground in riot-affected areas. A lawyer from one of the NGOs managed to reach a senior Delhi police official who said that he would send in the ambulances once the situation de-escalated in northeast Delhi. Salim said he called the police for help, but did not receive any response. 

The ambulances finally arrived a little after 1 am in the night—according to Firoz, Sanjida, Danish, Jalaluddin and him took one of them. “Somewhere close to Bhajanpura, someone pelted stones at the ambulance,” Firoz said. 

Family members of both Firoz and Jalaluddin spoke about LNJP’s reluctance to treat them. After Al Hind, Tahir said, he was also taken to LNJP, but the hospital refused to admit him as it was overcrowded. Tahir was then taken to the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in central Delhi. Sanjida, and Waheeda both narrated instances that further showed that the authorities at LNJP were apathetic towards them and repeatedly became a hurdle in their struggle for medical care.

Sanjida told me the LNJP hospital staff initially refused to admit Firoz. Salim said Aaley Mohammad Iqbal—the son of Shoaib Iqbal, an MLA from the Aam Aadmi Party—helped the family. Aaley had arrived at LNJP, lawyers in tow and armed with a Delhi High Court order delivered by a bench of the judges S Murlidhar and Anup Jairam Bhambhani. The order directed the Delhi Police to ensure “safe passage” of injured victims for them to receive “immediate emergency treatment.” The hospital staff then buckled and admitted Firoz. 

When I had first met him at LNJP, Firoz had multiple stitches on his head, shoulders and hand; deep lacerations on his back; swollen hands and legs; and four gashes on his legs. Salim told me that the doctors in charge at LNJP refused to treat him properly. According to him, they appeared keen to discharge those coming from riot-hit areas as quickly as possible, even when the patients were clearly severely injured. Sanjida had said that there are stitches all over Feroze’s head, but “the doctors are telling me that ‘Your husband is okay, take him home.’” When I met her, it had been more than twelve hours since Firoz was admitted. “Look at him, look at his condition. The dressing you see on him was done by the people at the Mustafabad hospital and the doctors here haven’t even removed the dressing,” she said. “When the doctors talk to us, their tone, their language, is very rude.” 

“They kept hitting me on the head,” Firoz said. “Their target was to keeping hitting us on the head and to kill us.” He said he immediately fell down as he is differently abled—his left leg was injured in an accident.  Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

The LNJP hospital did not appear to care about Jalaluddin’s condition either. When Jalaluddin spoke, he could only mumble, as his jaw bone was shattered in three places. Waheeda told me his jaw had been strung with a pin as his teeth almost came loose. He had a nasal fracture, a fracture on his skull and his left hand, and on two fingers on his right hand. A rod was yet to be inserted in one of his arms as part of the treatment. He was limping, his eyes were bloodshot and there were bluish imprints on his neck.

Waheeda said that the LNJP staff was eager to discharge Jalaluddin as well. According to her, the doctors kept saying: “Khali karo, khali karo”—Vacate the premises, vacate the premises; “You have been discharged”; “Do you think this is a dharamshala?” In two days, the hospital drew up his discharge papers twice. “Some good soul moved us here, to Alshifa Hospital. Why haven’t we been discharged from here? Because this hospital is private and they can see that my husband’s condition is quite critical,” Waheeda said. “Couldn’t doctors at LNJP see that his condition is so critical for them to discharge him twice in two days?” 

On 5 March, I met Jalaluddin’s doctor at Alshifa, Mohammad Farooq, the head of the hospital’s orthopedics department. Farooq confirmed that when Jalaluddin was brought in to the hospital, on 28 February, he was critical. “It’s his fortune that he is alive,” he said, before adding, “When I saw such injuries, it did remind me of the situation during 1984”—the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. 

Ritu Saxena, the deputy medical superintendent of LNJP, denied that there had been any premature discharges from LNJP or that there had been any negligence or shortfall in the treatment of those injured during the violence.

Waheeda noted that LNJP is a state-government hospital, and so, she said, the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal should have stepped in. “Everyone keeps saying that Kejriwal gives good medical services, so what has happened this time?” she said. “At least, at this time Kejriwal should stand up and say that all patients will be released from the hospital only when they are stable.” As I was talking to Waheeda, someone walked over and forced a note of Rs 500 in her hand. I asked her if someone from the Delhi government had approached her and offered help. “No, there are people from our community who have stepped forward, but nobody has come from the government,” she replied.

The survivors said that they could not understand why they were targeted. “I only heard them say ‘You wanted freedom, I will give you freedom,’ once they entered,” Jalaluddin told me. “It’s unclear what their motive was,” Tahir said. “But Kapil Mishra’s provocative statements make it seem like their real target was the protest, and because of that, our masjid was also burnt.”

Throughout our conversations, both Sanjida and Waheeda were visibly shaken. Sanjida said that her family and all her neighbours have been “living in complete terror. People are forced to hide on their terraces with their kids. There is no cooking, no food, all that we are doing is reading namaaz and kalima”—Islamic professions of faith—“day and night for the security of our kids and our husbands.” 

Waheeda was sure that the men in uniform had attacked her husband to kill him. “The police have hit him in a way that he should not be left alive,” she said. “If he would have been hit on his hands and legs, then the police would have known that somehow he will live, but they have hit him on the face and the neck so that he should die. But they are not bigger than Allah. Allah has saved his life.” 

Jitni Quran shareef thi, unhe bhi shaheed kar diya”—They set fire to the Quran also—Waheeda said. She described the entire attack as an assault on her faith. “The Muslim is losing both life and property,” she said. “Tell me, what crime did our masjid commit? What crime did our Quran commit? They were just there. This was a matter of religion and faith.”