Pre-Poll Communal Violence in Delhi, Part I—How Trilokpuri was set back by three decades

Riots broke out in Trilokpuri on 30th October 2014, the eve of Diwali. Even now, there is a palpable sense of unease in the air. AP Photo/Saurabh Das
02 February, 2015

A striking feature of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ascent to power in various states and at the centre over the past year has been the regularity with which communal disturbances have occurred in areas going to the polls. In some cases, such as in Western Uttar Pradesh, this has led to widespread sectarian violence.Delhi, too, saw sporadic instances of violence in the past few months. Three months later, in Trilokpuri, the echoes of the violence seem to be heard primarily among those who are combating the BJP.

Both Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal have spoken in a similar manner about the religious tensions that arose in several parts of the city in the months leading to the elections. On 29 January, Gandhi addressed a rally in Seelampur and claimed, “We were in power in Delhi for fifteen years but not a single incident of riot took place. Wherever elections are due, BJP’s people incite riots. … When riots took place in Trilokpuri, you didn’t see (Arvind) Kejriwal or anybody else. There were people from Congress who helped the victims.”

A couple of weeks earlier, on 16 January, I had heard Arvind Kejriwal speak not too far from the site where Gandhi would hold his rally. In his speech, Kejriwal said that, “The BJP claimed development, development, development before elections. What are they saying after elections? We won’t bring development, we’ll bring religious conversions. We won’t bring development; we’ll build temples for Nathuram Godse. ... Not a single riot had occurred in Delhi in the last thirty-five years. People from BJP are inciting riots at various places before elections.”

In its nearly forty-year history, Trilokpuri—a resettlement colony consisting of former slum dwellers in East Delhi—has made national news twice, thirty years apart. In 1984, in the Congress-backed violence against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination, it was one of the sites of the bloodiest massacres. A fact of which, judging from his statements, Gandhi seems to be blissfully unaware. Last year, Trilokpuri made headlines once again. This time, it was for the outbreak of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims that led to a curfew being imposed in the area for over a week.

Prior to this incident, the area, which has over forty blocks, only four of them predominantly Muslim, did not have a history of Hindu–Muslim clashes.

On 23 October last year, on the eve of Diwali, a few Hindu devotees gathered at a makeshift shrine in Trilokpuri. At a spot not too far away from the site of prayer, a group of youngsters—Hindus and Muslims—were drinking in a car. On being asked to leave, the young men, who were inebriated, decided to argue, and an altercation ensued. The Hindus in the area who witnessed the incident claimed that the Muslim men hit and slapped some of the women who were praying before running away, while the Muslims in the area were convinced that a Hindu boy from another block was let off, and that the Muslim boys who were with him—but not drinking—were beaten up, before they managed to run back home. Whichever the case, within minutes, stones and bottles were flying, and a clear "them versus us" sentiment took form. Two days later, the spark from Block 20 escalated into a riot that swet across Trilokpuri.

Once the initial violence in Block 20 was controlled by the local cops, Sunil Vaidya, a former BJP MLA, called for a meeting of Hindu youth in the area, just a few hundred yards from the local RSS office and Vaidya’s house. After Trilokpuri became an assembly constituency in 1993, Congress’s Brahm Pal had won the seat three terms in a row, before Sunil Vaidya won in 2009, only to lose to the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) Raju Dhingan in 2014. According to a person who was present at the gathering and whom I had recently met on a visit to the area, a rumour that Muslims in Block 20 had started pelting stones at Hindus spread amongst this collective during the meeting.

The gathered crowd quickly rushed to the courtyard where the violence had first started, and began attacking Muslim houses.

The truth, as is almost always the case in such situations, comes in many versions. Mohammad Momin Salmani, who lives in Block 20, said the crowd was chanting slogans like “Gujarat banaiengey, ’84 banaiengey,” alluding to two of India’s bloodiest religious massacres and thus igniting the clashes. Just as Salmani was telling me this, one of his neighbours joined us. Salmani, who had to rush to answer the azan, assured me that this Hindu neighbor would tell me the truth about what had transpired. In his presence the neighbour, who told me he was from the Valmiki community, agreed with Salmani’s version, but as soon as we walked away, the neighbor turned to me and said that Salmani and some of his associates had seemed to be prepared for such an incident and had collected stones on their rooftops before the incident.

By the evening of 25 October a battle of glass shards and stones had broken out between the Muslim-dominated Block 27 and the Hindu-majority Block 28. Block 15, with a Muslim majority, was under attack from a mob from the Hindu-majority Block 16. Soon, all the blocks that had a Muslim majority were at odds with those controlled by Hindus. The violence eventually gave way to a police-enforced curfew around the area for eleven days with shoot-at-sight orders.

Neither the Delhi Police nor any other authority have gone on record with regard to the origins of the violence in Trilokpuri in October or other similar incidents in Delhi. However, an Indian Police Services officer of the Delhi cadre—who had been involved in controlling one of these communal clashes or “flash riots” in the city—told me that after Modi won the national general elections, the Intelligence Bureau had warned all security agencies of the possibility of religious conflicts across the country in the near future. A person who knew the details of the ongoing investigations into the riots in Trilokpuri told me that union home ministry, to whom the Delhi police reports, wasn’t happy with the “impartial” action taken to control the situation.

Now, three months later as I spoke to people in the constituency, the impact of the violence seemed muted, but was tangible. A young Muslim man from Block 15 told me that he did not know some of the men who started pelting stones at his block initially, but later as more people joined in he could make out that some of the people attacking his house lived just beyond the street dividing Block 15 from 16. He said he had grown up playing cricket with most of them, and has met them after the riots. At such encounters, he said, boys from Block 15 and 16 would joke about which of them attacked the others’ houses. But the laughter is a façade to cover more permanent scars, he said, and pointed to the high walls and gates between the two blocks that have been erected since the riots, with the word “Ram” written in large letters on the gates securing the Hindu dominated Block 16.

During the period of conflict, many Muslims sent their families away to stay with relatives in places they believed were safer. A lot of tenants left the area either to go back to their home states or other, safer, neighbourhoods in Delhi. The property rates in Trilokpuri have come down drastically. Political ambitions have taken Trilokpuri back to 1984.

But even in this scenario, it is not clear if the BJP will reap the gains of polarisation. Vaidya who was accused of instigating people against the Muslims to polarise and attract the large population of Valmikis who had voted for the AAP in the last election is no more. He was on stage, awaiting union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s arrival in Trilokpuri for her first public speech after her controversial Raamzaade versus Haraamzaade comment, when he collapsed after a brain haemorrhage. He died later at Apollo Hospital, and the BJP has fielded his widow in the upcoming elections.

At least from casual conversations, it seems that even the sympathy accruing to Vaidya’s wife is not enough to make a dent in the AAP’s newfound hold on the area. A person from Block 20 who was involved in pelting stones at the Muslim houses in the block and had attended the meeting conducted by Sunil Vaidya on 25 October said that he would vote for AAP this time. He is among the Valmikis the violence was supposed to bring to the BJP, but said he is not enamoured by the party and would prefer that such incidents don’t occur again.

At a tea-stall near the RSS office in the area, the vendor and a customer maintained that there was no real difference between BJP and Congress. These two added that they would want Modi as the PM and Kejriwal as the CM, and then went on to make the kind of assertion that confounds poll forecasts in the country. Despite their preferences, they said they would both still vote for BJP in the assembly elections. Why? Because one of them was related to Ram Charan Gujrati, a local BJP leader with roots in the RSS, and the other was Gujrati’s neighbor. The tea stall owner explained to me that they might want something else, but in the end “apno ka saath dena padta hai” (we have to support our own).

Read Part II of the Pre-Poll Communal Violence series, 'Why the Multiple Attacks on Delhi Chruches Are a Cause for Concern,' here, and Part III, 'No Matter Who Wins in Bawana, the Victory Shall Be the BJP's,' here.