Sixteen-year-old Alameen Sheikh’s head was wrapped in white medical dressing. On Saturday, just as the sun was setting, a stray beer bottle cracked his skull open on the porch of the local mosque where he had gone to offer evening prayers.
By then, simmering tensions in the mixed working-class neighbourhood of Jahangirpuri in North Delhi had come to a boil. The neighbourhood is home to small-time Hindu traders and Bengali-Muslim waste collectors. Visuals shot on mobile phones in fading daylight showed people flinging stones, bricks and beer bottles as far as they could.
The communal violence in Delhi on Saturday was thelatest in a rash of incidents across the country this month.
Like almost all other episodes, in Jahangirpuri too, a Hindu festival became the occasion for violence. April 16 was Hanuman Jayanti – believers celebrate the day as the birth anniversary of lord Hanuman.
To commemorate the occasion, Hindu right-wing groups organised processions across the country. In Jahangirpuri, there were three of them, organised by the Bajrang Dal, according to local residents. In attendance were people armed with swords and tridents – mobile phone videos also show some of them wielding guns – dancing to loud devotional music and chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. Scroll.in spoke to Hindu men who were part of the procession. They said the brandishing of swords and tridents was merely “ceremonial”.
The first two processions, held in the afternoon, were largely peaceful. Local Muslim residents said they had convinced Hindus revellers to avoid the road by the mosque.
“We told them that loud music hampered prayers in the mosque and requested them to take another route,” said Sheikh Samsuddin, whose garment store shares a wall with the mosque.
The third procession, which took place as twilight set in, took the mosque road – and matters quickly went downhill.
As is routine in communal clashes, each side accuses the other of starting trouble.
The Muslims alleged the Hindu revellers, carried away by the festivities, had tried to enter the mosque. By way of proof, they pointed to the three saffron flags with Jai Shri Ram embossed on them, pieces of broken brick, and a solitary smashed beer bottle strewn on the porch of the mosque on Sunday afternoon. “At around 6.15 in the evening, the procession stopped near the mosque and two-three boys holding saffron flags tried entering the mosque,” said Samsuddin.
Over the past month, there has been at least one instance of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists trying to barge into mosques as festive processions went out of hand. In Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur, crowds climbed top a mosque and hoisted saffron flags.
Hindus who were part of the procession, however, insisted people from inside the mosque and the adjoining Muslim colony attacked them with stones. “The first two times, in the afternoon, they made us take the other road,” said Phoolchand Yadav, a 38-year-old marketing executive from the area who was part of the procession. “But the third time, they gave us permission and ambushed us.”
The police first information report filed in the Jahangirpuri police station tended to lean towards the version of events offered by the Hindus. The procession, the FIR claimed, was being carried out in a “peaceful manner” until it reached the mosque when “one Ansar along with 4-5 people started quarreling”. “That led to commotion with people from both sides pelting stones at each other,” it noted.
Initially, the police arrested 14 Muslim men in a crackdown in the early hours of Sunday morning. “If it was a fight between two sides, why have only Muslim boys been arrested?” demanded Johura Bibi on Sunday afternoon. Her son, 22-year-old Zakir, a daily-wage labourer employed by a fish trader, had been one of the 14 initially arrested.
Later on Sunday evening, the police arrested six more people, mostly Hindus.
But in the enclaves of Jahangirpuri, there is a widespread belief that the police action was “partisan”. “The police could have stopped them if they wanted to, but they were mute spectators,” said an old Muslim man who did not want to be identified by name, fearing retributive action. “All they needed to do was make sure there was heavy deployment near the mosque, everyone knows what the situation in the country is right now.”
Not too far away, Anjuna Bibi was furious. Her phone had been taken away by the police when she went to the police station to find out about her neighbours, brothers Akshar and Aslam, who had been picked up in the dead of the night. “They snatched my phone because I was recording the way they were pushing and shoving us around,” she said. “They said I have to bring the phone’s box and purchase receipt if I want it back.”
The ire is directed not just at the police, but also the media. “Why does the media show only one side?” complained Mehdul, a butcher. “All day they are showing videos of Muslims pelting stones, what about the fact that Bajrang Dal people came with arms?”
Mehdul conceded that Muslims had also indulged in violence, but insisted they only retaliated. “Once word spread that they attacked the mosque, our blood boiled too,” he said.
Heavy police deployment had helped cool down temperatures in Jahangirpuri. By Sunday afternoon, there was apparent calm. Not too far from where the violence had broken out, an Easter Sunday community kitchen was in full swing, open to all who cared for some chhole-puri to be washed down with roohafza.
But traces of Saturday’s violence remain and resentments run deep, particularly among the Hindu residents of Jahangirpuri. They tell stories of Muslim men going on the rampage late on Saturday evening. “I suffered a loss of not less than Rs 60,000,” alleged Rajesh Kumar, who owns a pharmacy that he claims was looted.
Across the road, the rear window of the Chhaddha family’s Santro was smashed. It was the work of a Muslim mob, claimed 15-year-old Moksha Chhadha.
“They are crooks, all of them,” said Rajendra Kumar, who runs a grocery shop in the area. “All Bangladeshis or Rohingyas.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party, too, has blamed “illegal” Rohingyas for the violence, accusing the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government of harbouring “illegal immigrants”. Rohingya Muslims fleeing mass killings and religious persecution in neighbouring Myanmar who have taken shelter in Delhi over the last few years have often been accused by right wing groups of indulging in criminal activities.
In contrast, Muslim residents appear largely conciliatory. They would rather pin the blame on “outsiders” and right-wing outfits. Their Hindu neighbours, they maintain, are not responsible – after all, they had lived together amicably for so many years. “There’s never been any tensions here,” declared 48-year old Rafique Sheikh, who has lived in Jahangirpuri for the last 35 years. “It’s people from outside who created the trouble.”