On April 2, Madhulika Rajput was faced with an angry mob outside the market complex in Rajasthan’s Karauli town where her family owns a number of shops. The men in the mob carried saffron flags, wore saffron scarves and chanted “Jai Sri Ram” – victory to lord Ram. They demanded to inspect the area for “other men who may be hiding”.

“I told them I would not let anyone inside,” 48-year-old Rajput recounted. “They asked if anyone was hiding, but I said no one was here. I did not want the riot to spread further. No one can say anything to me here. No one can force me to do anything I do not want.”

All day on April 2, mobs had been on the rampage across Karauli town in Rajasthan, setting fire to shops and chanting slogans. It had started with a bike rally to celebrate Hindu New Year, which played communally charged songs as it passed through the Muslim enclave of Atwara. In response, stone slabs were allegedly dropped on the procession from Muslim households.

The next three hours saw the worst bout of communal violence in Karauli in decades, leaving at least 35 injured.

The shopping complex in Karauli's market where Madhulika Rajput stood up to an angry mob. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

What Rajput did not tell the mob at the gates was that about 15 Muslim shop owners and workers had gathered in the first floor of the complex. They were terrified and coughing as smoke from the neighbouring buildings seeped in. “I moved them to a safer room,” she said. “I put on the fan, gave them water and told them they could stay there as long as needed.”

A place of greater safety

Among those who took shelter were 28-year-old Danish Khan, who owns a shoe store in the complex, and 31-year-old Mohammaddin Khan, who works at a ladies’ garment stall on the road outside.

When they heard of the commotion in the city on April 2, shop owners and workers exchanged frantic calls to ascertain the cause of the chaos. Soon afterwards, the shutters of shops went down, one after the other.

“We thought we should head home, so we packed up and were leaving,” said Danish Khan. “As soon as we took a few steps outside, we saw a mob holding the saffron flag and destroying shops. My eyes met one of the men in the mob. Along with the others, I ran back into the complex.”

Inside, they met Rajput. Danish Khan said he had not expected such kindness from her. “She said, come to our room on the top floor, this is not safe,” Danish recalled.

Huddled together in the room, the men tried to comfort one another, hoping the police would restore calm soon. While some of the men already knew one another, many were strangers, thrown together by circumstances. There were anxious calls from home.

As they hid, they heard the mob at the gate. “They were screaming, trying to open the gate by force, trying to find out where we were,” recalled Danish Khan. “They were saying they would set alight shops owned by Muslims.”

Then they heard Rajput tell them to go away. “Aunty screamed at them and said she would not allow them to destroy shops,” Mohammaddin Khan recalled. They all heaved a sigh of relief.

Danish Khan owns a shoe store at the shopping complex. On April 2, he was trapped in the shopping complex. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Ties that bind

As the men waited, Rajput’s relative, Sanjay Singh, went up to the room. Singh, a technician, had been away on a job when the riots broke out. Soon afterwards, he received a call from his wife, who was staying with Madhulika Singh, asking him to go back to the shopping complex.

“I came back and saw all these boys sitting in the room,” he said. He made sure they all had water and tea. He also told them that things were calming down outside and the roads would soon be clear.

When Mohammaddin Khan’s mother called, he told her, “We are safe here. Madhulika and Sanjay ji have kept us safe.”

He was especially touched by the kindness because he did not even work inside the complex. “I had never even met them before,” he said. “For them to take me in and keep me safe there, it meant a lot to me. I cannot deny that such acts of kindness are rare. These are very good people.”

As the rioting died down and the group of shop owners and workers started to leave, Singh asked if they needed to be escorted home. “This is Hindustan and we are Rajputs, we are known to protect people and we will always do it. Irrespective of faith,” he said matter of factly.

Karauli district magistrate Rajendra Singh Sekhawat said that a team formed by the district administration in the aftermath of the violence estimated losses worth Rs 2.5 crore because of the damage to shops and property. This amount was to be distributed between seven Hindus and 73 Muslims. The team has sent its report to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s office.

Mohammaddin Khan with his mother. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

As the full picture of the violence became clear to Mohammaddin and Danish Khan, they realised what a lucky escape they had and vowed to help Rajput and her family whenever they needed.

As for Rajput, she stands by her decision to protect them even after hearing stories of Muslims hurling stones on the Hindu rally. “See, these boys had nothing to do with what had happened with the procession,” she said. “They tried to leave but were met by mobs. I did not want them to be hurt or blood to be spilled. I could not have that on my conscience.”

It was, she said, a question of “insaniyat”, humanity.

Read our reports on the Karauli riots here.