When 36-year-old Nasir Ali first saw the posters in North East Delhi’s Subhash Mohalla, he was shocked. There, beaming down at him was the face of Uttam Tyagi. Two years ago, according to Ali, Tyagi had been part of a mob that attacked him, shooting him in the left eye.

Tyagi is currently coordinator of the BJP’s cooperative cell, a body meant to strengthen the party’s relationship with cooperative banks, in North East Delhi’s Naveen Shahdara district.

Two other faces are prominent on the BJP posters scattered across the lanes of Subhash Mohalla: Ashish Poonia, Naveen Shahadara district president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, and Suresh Pandit, who was the BJP coordinator for Subhash Mohalla in 2020.

All three men are accused of serious offences during the communal violence that engulfed North East Delhi in February 2020. Tyagi and Pandit spent eight months in jail before they were released on bail in December 2020.

All three now hope to get a BJP ticket for the North East Delhi municipal elections due this April. They are vying for the same seat – the Subhash Mohalla ward. But it is not important who gets the ticket, they say, it is important that the BJP wins in Subhash Mohalla.

“The goal is clear – in 2022, we need to make the Bharatiya Janata Party win in the Subhash Mohalla ward because we [Hindus] want to live here,” said Poonia. “Apart from about 10 streets, there are Muslims coming at us from every side. We need to stop them.”

But Subhash Mohalla is a Hindu-majority locality. Poonia himself estimated that about 68% of its population is Hindu.

Four incidents and a video

As municipal elections approach, communal tensions are on the rise in Subhash Mohalla, already scarred by violence. In February 2020, when public protests against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act gave rise to a violent backlash against Muslim protestors in North East Delhi, it was badly affected.

Of the 53 people who were killed in the rioting in North East Delhi, 36 were Muslim. Two of Subhash Mohalla’s Muslim residents were among them. Many others were also injured. Uttam Tyagi and his brothers as well as Pandit and Poonia are implicated in at least four incidents in the area.

A mob shot Nasir Ali in the left eye on February 24, 2020. Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer

According to the police complaint filed by Nasir Ali, who works as a junior assistant at the National Cadet Corps, the Tyagi brothers were part of a mob that attacked him on February 24, 2020. He recalls the Tyagis egging on the shooter as he took aim.

In another complaint, filed by filed by 27-year-old Sahil Parvez, Pandit and the Tyagi brothers were part of a mob of at least 16 men who attacked and killed his father, Parvez Alam. “Uttam had a rod, while Suresh Pandit had a sword in his hand,” recalled Sahil Parvez, who witnessed his father’s killing. “One of the people in the mob, egged on by the others, shot at me. I ran for my life but my father was hit.” He filed a complaint at the nearby Bhajanpura police station on March 1, 2020. Tyagi and Pandit went to jail based on his complaint.

Thirty-four-year-old Syed Zulfikar, who was also shot in the face, named the Tyagis in his complaint as well. The bullet, which went through his left cheek and got lodged in his head, was surgically removed later.

Syed Zulfikar, also shot in his face, claims the police did not register an FIR against the people he named.

In a complaint filed by 58-year-old Mohammad Saleem, Pandit and the Tyagi brothers attacked his home in Subhash Mohalla on the night of February 24, 2020. “They shot at us, threw petrol bombs, and pelted stones at my home,” Saleem wrote in his complaint. “I was able to use water and put [out] the fire. They abused me constantly and threatened to kill us too.”

Saleem had filmed the attack on his phone. While he could name Pandit and the Tyagis in his initial complaint, there was another person in the video he could not name for months. “A man can be seen hurling a petrol bomb inside our home – I could not recognise him,” Saleem said.

The video, viewed by Scroll.in, shows a man standing in front of Saleem’s house, a large mob behind him. He is bearded, wearing a grey shirt. He takes a petrol bomb, lights it and hurls it at Saleem’s home. The Muslim residents of Subhash Mohalla said they identified him when his face started appearing on posters in November 2020 as the new district head of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. They allege the petrol bomb thrower was 33-year-old Ashish Poonia.

Saleem has not named Poonia in his FIR yet. Accused in a rioting case himself, Saleem had filed the complaint against Pandit and the Tyagi brothers in March 2020, when he had not identified Poonia yet. A month after he registered his complaint, Saleem said, he was named in four other cases. Since then, he has avoided police stations, going directly to the court in his search for justice.

Soldiers of the sangh

All three accused reject the charges. Tyagi and Pandit claim they did not leave their homes during the violence. Poonia claimed he left Delhi two days before the rioting started and only returned after it was over. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a few local residents, both Hindu and Muslim, claimed Poonia was on the run immediately after the riots. They also alleged he had shaved off his beard to be less easily identifiable.

Poonia warns that if the complainants continued to claim he was the man in Saleem’s video, he would file a defamation case against them.

“If I am an accused in the case then I should be summoned [by the police] formally – none of that has happened yet,” he said. Besides, Poonia said, he had proof he was out of town. He fished out a video that appeared to place him in a temple in Ujjain at the time of the violence.

These days, Poonia is active in the temples of North East Delhi. “I am conducting hanuman chaalisa in various temples in the area,” he said. “This will make people mentally strong. The VHP, Bajrang Dal, are coming together to organise this.”

Ashish Poonia, a riot accused, believes he would be a good option if the BJP is looking for a youth leader. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Every Tuesday, Poonia said, about 40 Hindu men get together at local temples to chant the chaalisa, an invocation to lord Hanuman, who is seen as a symbol of physical strength. Poonia felt the Tuesday sessions serve three purposes – they bring back the youth who were drifting away from their religion, they help in unifying the local Hindus and they are a show of strength against local Muslims. Within a month, he said, he would ensure that every temple in the area held such events.

“I’ll tell you the situation clearly,” Poonia said. “Ever since Modi ji came to power, these people [Muslims] have been kept under control. And now they will see 30-40 of us reciting the chaalisa at different places. We need to create an atmosphere for the BJP to come to power.”

Poonia said he has been taking part in “Hindutva” since he was 15, making his way through a galaxy of Sangh Parivar organisations. It started with visits to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Brijlok shakha. Around 2008, he joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student association affiliated to the RSS. From there, he moved to the BJP, becoming the head of a local samiti – the smallest administrative unit of the party – in 2012. Two years later, he joined the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, and slowly rose through the ranks.

Like Poonia, Pandit and Tyagi also attended the Brijlok shakha as children. They are childhood friends. Tyagi, too, has held several positions in the Sangh. In the 1990s, he was an RSS pracharak. From 2002 to 2005, he was the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s Naveen Shahdara’s district head. The next three years were spent as divisional head of BJP in Yamuna Vihar. When communal violence broke out in February 2020, he was on a hiatus from active politics.

A few months after he was released from jail in December 2020, he was given the post of district coordinator for the BJP’s cooperative cell. Only Pandit, who was a BJP coordinator in February 2020, does not hold an official post in the Sangh at present.

Posters of Uttam Tyagi, who was made district coordinator of the BJP's cooperative cell after he spent nine months in jail on charges of murder and rioting. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

All three men are now eyeing the BJP ticket for Subhash Mohalla. Pandit said he had already told senior leaders in the sangh that he wanted a ticket. Poonia felt he might be an option if the party wanted a young candidate. Meanwhile, Tyagi feels his experience working as an RSS pracharak made him an ideal electoral candidate. After all, he had years of experience reaching out to people to propagate the RSS’s ideology. That would be useful in an election campaign. “When we do the work of shakhas, do we not go door to door? Is this not routine for us? We do much more than the BJP workers,” he said.

Tyagi was convinced his stint in jail would not get in the way of his political career. If Azam Khan, the Samajwadi Party leader who filed his nomination for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections from Sitapur Jail, could contest elections, he said so could he.

Scars of February 2020

The Muslim residents of Subhash Mohalla dread the prospect of the accused becoming elected representatives. “The possibility that the same men may become my councillors terrified me,” said Nasir Ali. “Even now, when they are just ordinary people, things are so bad. What will happen if they get official positions?”

The violence of February 2020 has left scars, both visible and invisible. Ali lost his left eye in the attack. He continuously wipes fluid trickling down from the hollow where his eye had been. He has trouble remembering things sometimes and cannot pick up anything heavier than two kilogrammes.

Zulfikar went through several operations after he was shot in the face. But his face still gets stuck in painful positions because of the tissue damage. “I am also hard of hearing now,” he said.

Then there is the constant fear. “Threats are a daily occurrence for us,” said Ali. “We leave the house in fear. We try to take cover by choosing alternative routes.”

On August 5, 2020, as Hindus in the locality celebrated the inauguration ceremony that kicked off the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Muslims were asked to leave Subhash Mohalla.

Matters got worse after Tyagi and Pandit were released from prison. Both Sahil Parvez and Nasir Ali claim the accused threaten them regularly. “They cannot believe they went to jail on my complaint. They cannot accept it,” Parvez said. He recounted how Pandit once went up to him and said: “We enjoyed ourselves in jail. What can you do to us now?”

The elusive FIR

Sahil Parvez had named 16 men – all of them linked to the RSS, including Pandit and Tyagi – in his complaint. All of them were arrested in April 2020, but released on bail between December 2020 and February 2021. Of the four cases, this is the only one that led to arrests. The others struggled to even get an FIR registered.

Nasir Ali’s complaint has still not been registered. This despite two sessions courts directing the Delhi Police to register the FIR. One of the courts even fined the police Rs 25,000 for not doing so. Ali continues to attend court hearings just to get an FIR registered.

The lack of an FIR had emboldened the accused, Ali said. “They show us their political power by saying, ‘So, you have registered your FIR by now?’” he recounted. “Uttam may not do much of the threatening. His brothers, Naresh Tyagi and Subhash Tyagi, are the ones who torture me more. They say if I want to continue living here I will have to take my case back. Naresh said this.”

Sahil Parvez says the constant threats by accused, who are out on bail, have forced him to stay out of his house on most days. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Naresh Tyagi, currently out on bail after being convicted in a separate murder case in Baghpat, rejected claims that he had threatened the complainants. So did Uttam Tyagi and Pandit.

Even if an FIR is filed, the complainants allege, the investigation goes nowhere. Zulfikar said that while the police have registered an FIR in his case, it is filed against “unknown” people. Yet, Zulfikar, who is a witness in his own case, said he had given them specific names.

He clearly remembers the men who shot him in the face. “I will not intentionally trap someone – I don’t have that much hate in me, neither am I stupid,” he said. Dhad dhad goliya chalayi hai in logon ne. These people fired on me repeatedly.” Through his lawyer, he is trying to get the police to file an FIR with the names he had given them and start investigating the accused.

In Saleem’s case, an FIR was registered 18 months after he filed his police complaint. That was after two court orders directing the police to do so. However, Sahil claimed the investigation has still not begun. “It has been two years, and none of the people I have named have been picked up,” he said.

The FIR was finally filed in September in 2021, but since it was based on his initial complaint, made in March 2020, Poonia is still not named in it. Saleem said he had not been given an opportunity to add his name either and the police are yet to record his statement before a magistrate.

‘Want to leave while there’s still time’

The three aspiring BJP candidates believe the violence of 2020 had left Hindus weak. Pandit said that if he was elected, he would work to strengthen “our people” – Hindus – so that a riot-like situation never emerged again. According to Pandit, it was the Muslim community that looted and pillaged, because of their “monstrous natures”.

No BJP candidate has won from Subhash Mohalla in the last four elections. The ward was previously reserved for women candidates and an Aam Aadmi Party candidate currently holds the seat. This time, the reservation has been dropped, leaving the field open for Tyagi, Pandit and Poonia.

The Muslim residents of Subhash Mohalla worry that the violence of February 2020 has left the ward more polarised than ever before, which would encourage Hindu voters to elect a BJP candidate with a history of violence against Muslims.

These days, Sahil Parvez tries to spend as much time as he can outside North East Delhi, trying to stay focussed on his career and out of local tensions. But his home is still in Subhash Mohalla, where he lives with his family.

Meanwhile, Saleem said he had already told real estate agents he wanted to sell his house and was waiting for a good price. “Hum chahte hai ki ghadi ki chodhaai mein nikle hum yahaan se,” he said. We want to leave this place while there is still time.

This story is the first in a two-part series on the aftermath of the Delhi riots, two years on.