At close to 11.30 pm on 7 June, the news publication the Milli Gazette published a video to its Facebook page. The video showed a group of people demolishing a brick structure. According to the caption that accompanied the clip, this structure was a rudimentary mosque located in Ambay Enclave, a small basti near Sonia Vihar in Delhi, where 25 Muslim families resided. Finding themselves with no place of worship during the month of Ramadan, the caption said, these families had constructed a makeshift mosque. “Its existence began to pinch certain enemies of peace,” the caption alleged. On the morning of 7 June, a group of people attacked the structure, and razed it to the ground.
On the afternoon of 8 June, I went to Sonia Vihar to investigate the incident. That day, I spoke to several Muslim residents from the area. They told me that the Hindu residents of the area—primarily members of Thakur and Gujjar communities—were displeased with the construction of the mosque and had decided to demolish it. A Muslim woman residing in the basti told me that the mob was shouting slogans such as “Masjid todo, swarg banao”—break the mosque, and build heaven instead. A 23-year-old Muslim man who resides in the area said that members of the Muslim community earlier prayed in a small building that functioned as both a madrasa and a mosque, and was located down the lane from the demolished structure. This space was too small, the 23-year-old said. “We just needed a large space,” he added. He told me that the Muslim residents had then approached Akbar Ali, who owned a small plot of land, and obtained his permission to construct a four-walled structure that could function as a mosque on it. “It had only been nine days” since the structure had begun to be used, the 23-year-old said. Later that evening, I spoke with officials from the Sonia Vihar police station, but was unable to obtain a response. Subhash Vats, the station house officer, said “it was not my jurisdiction,” and directed me to the district and the assistant commissioners of police. Sudhir Kumar, the ACP, denied that any such incident had taken place. The DCP’s assistant asked me to return the next day.
The next morning, I called one of the Muslim residents that I had met during my visit to Sonia Vihar. The resident told me that the situation had worsened. He said that a Muslim barber who had rented his shop from a Hindu resident, had been asked by his landlords to shut the business for the day. He added that the Muslim residents were worried that they would not be allowed to set up stalls during the weekly market, which was to take place that evening.
I decided to go to Sonia Vihar and to speak with the members of the Gujjar and Thakur communities who had allegedly been involved in the demolition. I reached Chauhan Pati, the nearest bus stop, at about 6 pm. I asked passersby to direct me to the houses of some of the Hindu residents that I could speak to regarding the incident. A man I met suggested I speak to a resident named Charat Singh, and led me to his home. Charat’s house was located at the end of street—a multi-storeyed building, it stood out amid the small, one-storey structures it was surrounded by.
Charat was not home, but I met an old man who identified himself as his father. The man who had taken me to the house mentioned that I was a journalist. Charat’s father asked me to come inside. He led me to a room inside the house, in which a mustachioed man was lying on a bed, watching television. This man, who appeared to be middle-aged, introduced himself as Bharat Singh, Charat’s older brother. He asked me to take a seat, and then asked a young man who was also in the room, and who appeared to be in his mid twenties, to get us water and tea. (The young man later told me that he was pursuing a Masters in Science degree at Delhi University. He mentioned his name, but the notebook I took it down in was later taken from me.) Bharat then asked me who I was. I told him my name, and mentioned that I write regularly for The Caravan. I said that I was investigating the alleged demolition and mentioned the video I had seen. I added that I wanted to hear his account of the events leading up to it.
Bharat said a temple used to stand on the site on which the Muslims had built the structure. He added that some of the Muslim men—he mentioned a man named Zulfikar, and Akbar Ali, the owner of the plot—were “getting funding” from Pakistan to construct the structure. According to him, there were several mosques in nearby areas, and there was no need to build one more. In fact, he claimed, the construction was a ploy to increase the Muslim population. The young man in his mid-twenties echoed the sentiment. He said that this was a part of a “bigger conspiracy.” “Tomorrow they will demand a graveyard,” he added, “Humara shamshan bhi yahan nahi hai, unka kabristan kyun ho?”—our cremation grounds are not here, so why should their graveyards be?
I asked Bharat and the young man why they had not objected to the structure when it was being constructed. Both of them remained quiet for a few moments. Bharat then responded that the Hindu residents realised the structure was being used as a mosque only after the Muslims began to pray there. Bharat’s father, who was sitting to my right, said, “Saale char mulleh nahi sambhal raha hum se”—we can’t even handle four Muslims. (The term “Mullah” refers to an Islamic scholar, but is often used as a slur to refer to Muslims.)
Bharat added that the police officials had suggested that the residents resolve the matter among themselves, and a “shanti sabha”—a peace meeting—was being held at the haveli of a man he referred to as “Vijendra Pradhan.” He asked me to accompany him to the meeting. (A resident of Sonia Vihar later told me that Vijendra is not actually a pradhan, but is referred to as one, ostensibly due to his wealth and status in the Gujjar community.) As we were leaving the house for the meeting, we saw a middle-aged woman approaching us. She was dressed in white and black, and donned a black blazer. Bharat asked her if she was heading to the meeting. She said she was, and joined us. She introduced herself to me as a lawyer who works at the Tis Hazari court—she did not mention her name. I introduced myself as well. She asked me where I worked, and if I could give her a visiting card. I explained that I had recently begun working as an independent journalist, and that though I didn’t have a card yet, I could show her the stories I had written. I also offered to show her my voter-identity card, but she declined.
Vijendra’s haveli was located only a few minutes away from Bharat’s house. We arrived at close to 7 pm. Nearly 60 people had gathered in the lawn, and sat in a circle. Bharat introduced me to Vijendra, a middle-aged man who was seated at the head of the group. I told Vijendra that I wanted to sit through the proceedings and record the discussion on my phone. I added that I wanted to pose questions to the attendees. The pradhan agreed. I then told the gathering about the video that I had come across, and asked to hear their stances on the issue.
When Bharat had mentioned the shanti sabha, I had presumed that he meant that it was a meeting between the Hindu and Muslim residents. But the responses I received to my query made me realise that I was mistaken, and that only the Hindu residents had gathered there. Not only did the gathering not include Muslims, its members turned hostile—and subsequently, violent—when they discovered that I had a Muslim name.
After I mentioned the video, a man seated to Vijendra’s left began to speak. He introduced himself as Charat Singh—Bharat’s brother, whom I had intended to meet at their home. Charat echoed his brother and the young man I had met earlier: he said that the site of the makeshift mosque earlier housed a temple, and that the Hindus found out about it being used as a mosque only when the Muslim residents began praying.
Another member of the gathering lamented that the Hindus were not united. The middle-aged woman who had accompanied us to the sabha asked me to include her comments as well. She told me that Bharat was the landlord who has asked his Muslim tenant, Sher Ali, the barber, to close his shop for the day. She said that, by doing so, Bharat had acted like a “true Hindu.” Vijendra added that all matters related to the closing of shops were between the landlords and their tenants. The middle-aged woman agreed with him. She then expressed her displeasure with the police. Instead of doing something about the Muslims, she said, the police was instead “harassing” the Hindus. It was because of this harassment that her husband, a property dealer, had “gone into hiding,” she alleged.
Close to half an hour later, a middle-aged man joined the group. He introduced himself to me as Pintu, the husband of the middle-aged woman (I later found out that his name is Chandan Singh.) I asked him why he was hiding from the police. He said that a Muslim woman had accused him of demolishing the mosque. This was a false accusation, he claimed. He added that although he was present at the time of the demolition, “so were many Muslims.” “But no one is arresting them,” he said. A young man who was sitting to my right stood up. He claimed that Muslims such as Akbar were receiving funding from countries such as Qatar, and that they were building mosques because they needed to “show results.”
The discussion went on. I continued to record the proceedings and take notes for close to an hour after I joined the gathering. By then, night had fallen.
Suddenly, the mood of the gathering changed. Several people, including the middle-aged lady and Singh, got up and walked to the entrance to the lawn, seemingly to speak to someone. The people around me appeared to be tense, and were glancing towards the direction in which the others had gone.
Singh came back inside the lawn. He came to me and snatched my phone. “Kaun ho tum?”—Who are you, he asked. Confused, I replied that I was a journalist, and asked for the reason behind the question. “What if you are from Pakistan?” he said. “Kya baat kar rahen hai aap? Ab mera phone wapas dejiye. (What are you saying? Return my phone please)” I said. Singh held onto to my phone. By this time, we had all gotten up.
Then, a group of young men surrounded me. “Show us your identity card,” one of them said. I retrieved my voter-identity card from my bag, and one of the men from the group snatched it from my hand. Another asked Singh to delete any recordings from my phone.
The voter card I had handed over to the men included my middle name as well, which is Abdul. (As is the naming convention, it reads: “Malik Abdul Basit.”) “Saale Muslim!” one of them yelled, upon seeing the card. Then, one of them asked me how I had found out about the meeting. I told him that Bharat had asked me to come with him. The members of the gathering began to question Bharat. “How could I have known he was a Muslim?” Bharat said.
By this time, many other people had joined the mob surrounding me, and several others continued to enter the lawn. A man in the crowd, who was wearing a red t-shirt, asked me my name again. “Basit Malik,” I responded. “Nahi, Abdul Basit!” someone to my left yelled.
The man in the red t-shirt slapped me. My spectacles slipped from my face, but I was able to catch them before they fell to the floor. Another person, whom I could not see, slapped the back of my head. My head started to spin. “Harami toh Musalman hai”—this bastard is a Muslim, Singh said loudly. “Hum yahan police se bhaag rahe hain aur tu hamari pareshaniyan badhana chahata hai”—we are on the run from the police, and you’re trying to make matters worse, he said. I told Singh that I had no such intention, and that I only wanted to listen to their accounts.
Meanwhile, several people in the mob surrounding me began to take photographs of my voter card with their phones. Since my card was issued in Kashmir, from where I hail, it included some Urdu lettering. This appeared to anger the mob even more. “This has Urdu on it,” someone said, referring to the card. “Yeh yahan ka nahi hai”—it is not from here. A man I didn’t know slapped me again. I attempted to remain calm, and tried to explain that this was the norm in Kashmir, and that the two languages—Urdu and English—are widely used in the state. While I was speaking, the mob kept jostling me around, and several people continued to hit me. I was unable to ascertain the identity of the attackers, and kept reiterating that I was a journalist.
Then, the mob dragged me from the lawn and made me stand with my back to a wall that appeared to be a part of the haveli. The men surrounded me, and pointed their phones at me, recording videos. “Why are you throwing stones at our soldiers and why do you want azadi?” one person asked. I tried again to explain that I was only a reporter, and requested them to stop hitting me, but to no avail. The man who had snatched my voter card said, “Hindi main nahi, Urdu main baat karo”—don’t speak in Hindi, speak in Urdu, he said. Before I could respond, several people hit me again.
The mob kicked me, punched me, and slapped me. They continued to take videos of this assault. “Say ‘Pakistan murdabad!’ [Down with Pakistan]!” one of them instructed, as the others recorded the interaction. “Say ‘Hindustan zindabad!’ [Long Live India]” another added, with a laugh. I repeated what the men asked me to say.
The members of the mob called out to a woman and asked her to come forward. She addressed me, saying she was a journalist as well, and asked to see my press credentials. I told her that I did not have a press card as I was an independent reporter. I repeated that she could look up my previously published articles online. I also added that she could also speak to any of the editors at The Caravan, and that I had spoken to the SHO and the ACP the previous day. The woman did not respond, and continued to stand near me.
Meanwhile, some other men had taken my bag. One of them switched my laptop on, and began to go through the data on it. He continued to ask me questions. Every few minutes, some person or the other would hit me. “Yahi hai”—it’s him, some of them said. They repeatedly asked the man going through my laptop what he had found. When he said that he had not yet found anything suspicious, the middle-aged men in the mob scolded him, and asked him to look properly.
A few minutes later, a bearded man approached me. He dragged me to a structure on the lawns that appeared to be a shed. “Bhai koi sa fawda dena, saala ki gand marte hain”—Give me a spade, let’s beat his ass, the bearded man said to an older man standing nearby. He pushed me into the shed, which was dark. I pleaded with him to not go ahead with this. He slapped me twice. He then put my head between his legs, and jammed his elbow into my back twice.
For a few moments, I could not breathe. I stayed bent over for some time, unable to move.
Then, Vijendra entered the shed. “No one will beat him,” he told the bearded man. Some more people entered and led me back to the wall against which I had earlier stood, “Saale Kashmir sa aaya hai hamari badnami karne, ISI ka agent”—he’s come from Kashmir to defame us, the bloody agent of the ISI, one of them said, referring to the Pakistani agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. I responded that I had been living in Delhi for nearly five years, but nobody appeared to believe me.
Vijendra said that he planned to call the police, but the woman who had said she was a journalist objected, claiming that I should not be let go. As they considered what to do, the mob led me outside the compound. The man looking through my laptop returned it to me, and I put it in my bag. Everyone appeared to be waiting for a decision from Vijendra. Even during these few minutes, someone slapped me, and tried to kick me. Several people demanded that my laptop be checked again.
Eventually, Vijendra’s decision prevailed, and somebody from the group called the police.
During this entire ordeal, which lasted for an hour and a half, I was surrounded at all times. People from the mob would angrily kick and slap me. I was continuously yelled at, and called various names, such as “mullah,” “Pakistani,” and “aatankwadi”—terrorist. In most instances, it was hard for me to even ascertain the identity of those who were assaulting me. I was fearful that I would be badly injured, if not killed. I was unsure of whether I should respond to their queries. At certain instances, I told whoever would listen to me that what they were doing was wrong. At others, I attempted to justify my presence, but was either left unheard or was dismissed. For me, the arrival of the police was a relief.
At first, a police officer arrived. He asked the members of the mob a few questions, and they showed him my voter card. They then handed back my bag, and my phone—its display was badly damaged. I spoke to the police officer briefly, and once again said I was a journalist. He rebuked me. “You’ve come here to get beaten up?” he said. A few minutes later, he left, and a sub-inspector and a constable arrived, on motorcycles. The sub-inspector asked me to sit behind him on his motorcycle, even as members of the mob continued to debate whether or not I should be allowed to leave. The man who had earlier taken my voter card offered to shake my hand. The gesture confused me, but I accepted. Several people attempted to drag me off the bike, but the sub-inspector raced away, as the constable followed.
We reached the police station at close to 9.40 pm. A police officer asked for my laptop. He discovered that there was no data in it. My damaged phone was rendered useless as well. I had no identity proof, as my voter card had not been returned to me. (The police constable who was accompanying us enquired, “How far is your house from Pakistan?”)
The sub-inspector began asking me questions. I relayed my account of the evening. It was during the course of this interaction that two of the men from the mob arrived at the station: one, the man who had shaken hands with me, and the other who had checked my laptop. They sat on a bed in front of the chair on which I was sitting. When the police officer said asked if I could call someone who had a copy of any document that could confirm my identity, the man who had earlier shaken hands with me showed the officer a photograph of my voter card on his phone. The two decided to leave soon after. Before leaving, the man who had checked my laptop turned to me and said that he was “educated,” and that he worked as a chartered accountant. “Sorry, lekin tum log bhi humara saath yahi karte,” he said—sorry, but you people would have done the same with us.
I used the sub-inspector’s phone to contact my brother, and asked him to come to police station. He reached two hours later—during this time, I was lying down on a bed in the station, as I was experiencing severe pain. The police officials checked his identity card. Before I could leave, they informed me that, since the complainants—my attackers—had called 100, I would have to write a statement. Unable to write for long due to the pain, I wrote a short note on a single sheet of paper, briefly recounting the events of the evening. “I hope no one goes through what I have just because of his name and place of his origin,” I wrote on the paper, before signing it.
For two days after the incident, I was unable to move much, and experienced extreme back pain. A doctor I visited told me that the part of the back behind my kidneys was bruised, and that I may need to visit a specialist if the pain persisted.
On 15 June, with the help of a reporter from The Caravan, I attempted to obtain documentation regarding the incident. Although the police officials did not hand over a copy of my statement, they let the reporter examine the entry regarding the complaint they had received on the 100 number. It contained two short lines recounting what the caller had told the police: “A man has been captured who has no documents. He is a Pakistani.”