Delhi, Feb 27, 2020: For a little over a day-and-half starting Sunday evening, when communal riots erupted in north-east Delhi, the Muslim occupants of a four-storey building on the New Jafrabad Road stayed safe from the warring mobs. Though a group of rampaging Hindus was trying to break in from barely 200 metres away, it was kept away by a stone-pelting mob of Muslims, Hindustan Times reported.
But the equation changed at around 1pm on Tuesday, when the group reached within striking distance of the building. What followed was an hour-long pitched battle between a dozen men on the terrace and the crowd below. From the terrace, the occupants of the building pelted stones, sticks, flower pots, even plants. Stones pelted by the mob did not reach the terrace.
At this point, some members of the mob stealthily walked up to the building’s gate, which was locked, entered, and used cloth and petrol to set the building’s ground floor on fire. “Wait for 15 minutes. You will be trapped and charred,” someone in the mob shouted to those on the terrace.
They didn’t wait
Just when the door appeared to be giving way, the building’s occupants ran down the stairs to take on their rivals head-on; they were joined by reinforcements from the street. The Hindu mob was forced to beat a retreat; the Muslim mob regained its territory, for the time being.
All through this exchange, scores of policemen in anti-riot gear watched the stone-pelting and the arson, making no effort to disperse the mobs.
Exactly 24 hours before the attack on the building, and around 4 km from the building, scores of Muslim men armed with sticks, stones and petrol bombs (Molotov cocktails) walked across a road dividing Bhajanpura and Chand Bagh to enter a service lane dotted with houses and business establishments that mostly belong to Hindus.
Having set a petrol station and dozens of vehicles on fire, they stopped outside a four-storey coaching institute, run by Navneet Gupta, where about 70 students and a dozen staff members had locked themselves in classrooms; they were watching the horrific scenes outside through CCTV cameras.
What they were seeing wasn’t a happy picture
“The videos showed three-four policemen running from the mob to seek shelter in our institute,” said Ram Kishore, a peon. “Before the mob could reach, we hurriedly opened a side gate to let the policemen in.”
The mob pelted stones at the building and tried to set it on fire. Unable to break in, it set fire to four motorcycles parked outside, and then, for good measure, burnt a dozen other business establishments and vehicles on the road.
While the nature and intensity of violence in north-east Delhi kept changing over the last three days, what remained constant was the police’s response: they did almost nothing, until it was too late.
LAY OF THE LAND
After stray stone-pelting incidents on Sunday, Alok Kumar, joint commissioner of police (eastern range), said all arrangements were in place to control a flare-up, with the deployment of about 1,500 police and paramilitary personnel at critical spots in these neighbourhoods. But that did little to prevent the resumption of violence on Monday morning.
Since Sunday evening, a pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act group – largely Hindu men from other parts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh – took positions under the Maujpur metro station, playing the Hanuman Chalisa from a loudspeaker. Most of the residents of Maujpur are Hindus.
But around 1 km to the south of the station is Jafrabad Metro station, where mostly Muslims had gathered to protest against the citizenship law. Another spot, on the other side of the road from the Maujpur station and about 500 metres to the north, was also occupied by Muslim groups. Finally, the metro line passes along a drain on the other side of which is a locality where most of the residents are Muslims.
It is unclear which group began the stone-pelting on Sunday evening, but by Tuesday evening, the 2014 Trilokpuri communal riots – the worst the city has seen in decades – would appear a minor skirmish in comparison to events in Maujpur and Jafrabad over the previous 48 hours.
Both sides clearly marked and zealously guarded their turfs. When a civilian belonging to the other religion accidentally ended up in the rival camp, he was thrashed within an inch of his life, if not lynched or shot dead. On Monday afternoon, in Maujpur, a young Muslim man had barely uttered his name when the mob attacked him with sticks, rods and stones. A policeman fought hard to snatch him away from the mob.
When the police helped the badly injured man to his feet, he folded his hands at the crowd, which attacked him again. It was only at that point that the police brought out batons.
Similar scenes were witnessed in Jafrabad, Chand Bagh and other neighbourhoods dominated by Muslims, according to several eye witnesses.
On Tuesday at 4.30pm in Khajuri Khas, about 5km from Maujpur, a 26-year-old returning from work got the worst of it. “A Muslim mob rioting outside our lane snatched him and his two friends who were with him as soon as he walked into the neighbourhood. A few people who tried to rescue him were kept away with constant firing,” said the man’s brother.
The body of Ankit Sharma – he was a staffer in the Intelligence Bureau, although it is unclear whether his abductors and killers knew his identity -- was fished out on Wednesday afternoon by authorities after local women told them that at least a couple of the dead were dumped in the drain. He had multiple stab wounds. “While dumping the bodies, the mob had pointed knives at us to keep us quiet,” said a woman, who says she watched the scene from her balcony.
POLICE WATCH ON
In Maujpur, on Monday, a mob used torches, burning slippers and balls made of cloth to set fire to four buildings belonging to Muslims after failed attempts to break the shutters. Each time a house caught fire, the mob cheered with loud claps and religious chants. Patriotic songs, including ironically “Aye mere watan ke logon” – which is dedicated to the armed forces -- played in the background. The mob would move only when the heat from the flames was too much to take.
The policemen watched, heavily outnumbered, and not interfering while the mob torched buildings and small establishments. It would take hours before fire tenders could reach the location.
The mob, in both Maujpur and Jafrabad, then turned its focus to banners of shops, smashing them if they suggested that they were owned by members of the other religion. CCTV cameras were broken along the routes, except for a few protected by iron meshes.
The Hindu side pelted stones while standing right next to the policemen, who did nothing at all to stop them, let alone make efforts to disarm them. And when the police did occasionally fire tear gas shells to separate rival groups who came too close to one another, the Hindu mob was heard chanting, “Delhi Police Zindabad.”
“Many of these policemen said they felt sympathetic towards the mob raising slogans in their favour,” said a senior police officer, who asked not to be named.
Joint commissioner Alok Kumar, however, said this was not a correct assessment, and stressed that the police was “working dispassionately to contain both sides”.
On Monday afternoon, in Maujpur, a group of Hindus chased a Muslim family in a car, stopped the vehicle, and nearly dragged them out, but the driver managed to speed away at the last second.
The stone-pelting by the Hindu mob in Maujpur was matched by similar action by the Muslim mob in Jafrabad, where petrol bombs were added to the arsenal. The bearded man, later identified as Mohammad Shahrukh, who was seen in multiple video clips pointing his gun at a police officer and firing at protesters from the other group was a part of this group.
On Monday, journalists were able to record some of the violence even as the mobs on both sides frequently forced them to delete images and videos, and identify themselves by their religion.
On Tuesday, the situation got worse. No media persons were allowed use mobile phones to click photographs or record videos. Most television journalists and photojournalists kept away. When a man was seen recording the violence from his terrace top near Maujpur metro station, the mob below began pelting stones at him until he was hit. He chanted Hindu religious slogans to prove he was “one of them”, but the mob broke his door in an attempt to barge in.
The stone-pelting in Maujpur was more intense on Tuesday -- the Hindu mob took on rivals on two sides – one near the building they could not breach, and the other across the Shahdara drain.
As the mob was forced to retreat by rival groups that were smaller in number but equally violent, the devotional chants playing on the speakers went off-air. They were replaced, first by urging the men to hold the fort, and then a woman took over. “Are you not men? These people will enter your homes and rape your wives and daughters. Go and fight!” she thundered in a shrill voice.
The mob responded with renewed vigour, pelting stones at their rivals standing far away. Every few minutes, injured men would have to be carried off from the battle scene, even as others would raise their hands and wave aggressively to keep the others from backing off.
A little distance away, in Chand Bagh, multiple Muslim groups took positions in balconies and terraces to pelt stones as “covering fire” while some of the associates tried to breach the Hindu-dominated lanes in this neighbourhood. For over three hours, they pelted stones from their rooftops, suggesting they had stacked up enough ammunition to continue waging a long battle.
“When we tried to emerge from our lanes to challenge them and take them on, we realised that some Muslims had forcibly occupied Hindu houses at the end of some of our lanes. That allowed them to keep us confined to our houses,” said a man who didn’t want to be identified.
The back-and-forth between the two mobs continued, and then a gun-battle began at around 1.30pm on Tuesday. At least two Hindu men brought out pistols and fired several rounds at the Muslim men charging from a bridge across the drain. Moments later, at least one man was seen emerging from the Muslim camp, firing multiple rounds. The Hindu side said at least three people of their side got bullet wounds in this exchange.
The police finally responded, firing tear gas shells to disperse the mobs.
Not long after, a Hindu family of nine people, including three children, walked out of a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood near the Maujpur Metro station, their bags packed. “We were not sure we will survive the night. We will stay with our relatives in Faridabad till it is safe,” said Anand (one name).
It was around 3.30pm on Tuesday that the police showed some intent. Strengthened by the presence of 2,000 additional personnel, the police and paramilitary forces went about clearing the New Jafrabad Road.
They first used loudspeakers to issue warnings to mobs on both sides, before using tear-gas shells to push the two mobs away from each other.
The spot under the Maujpur Metro station was cleared of people and one team went further ahead towards Gokalpuri station to sanitise the road. The police then walked to the narrow bylanes to warn people not to return to New Jafrabad Road.
When the police moved to clear Jafrabad, where a sit-in protest by anti-CAA women protesters started it all, they were greeted by stones. The police responded by firing multiple bullets in the air – a rare action in the ongoing riots – but that didn’t deter the mob, which set a garbage yard on fire.
Additional forces were called in, but it was only on late Tuesday evening that the Jafrabad protesters could be dispersed. A 2km stretch of road that had seen violent battles over three days was finally cleared.
By Wednesday afternoon, the forces had control of most of the troubled areas.