Like anywhere else in the city these days, the sight of e-rickshaws mounted with loudspeakers and party flags in the lanes and bylanes of North East Delhi’s Subash Mohalla is common. Campaign songs tear through the din in the market, filled with shops decorated with party paraphernalia.

The national capital is going to the polls on Sunday in order to elect a new municipal government. This comes more than two years after the northeastern parts of the city saw intense communal violence in the aftermath of protests against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Of the 53 people who were killed in the rioting, 36 were Muslim – including two from Subhash Mohalla.

The Subhash Mohalla seat – Ward 233 – is reserved for women. However, campaign materials of every party carry photos of the husbands of the candidates. Fighting the election for the BJP in the ward is Manisha Poonia. But it is her husband, Ashish Poonia who serves both as the main strategist as well as the face of the campaign.

Poonia’s anti-Muslim image

Poonia, is the district president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, in Shahdara, the district that Subhash Mohalla is located in. Muslim residents accuse him of taking part in riots and he is allegedly seen in a video throwing a petrol bomb at the house of 58-year-old Mohammad Saleem.

BJP's office in Subhash Mohalla. Credit: Zafar Aafaq

Both the Congress and AAP point to allegations of Poonia participating in rioting and argue that he has the image of a criminal. “There is a photo of him viral on social media where he has two guns tucked in his pants,” said Mohammad Dilshad, AAP’s coordinator in Subhash Mohalla. “People know he is a goonda.”

The BJP, however, rejects allegations that the memory of the 2020 riots will affect voting. “We will get votes from both Hindus as well as Muslims,” said Rahul Paan, the party’s coordinator in Subhash Mohalla. “Everyone has the right to fight elections – it is the people that will decide. After all, Ashish Poonia worked during the pandemic. People remember that.”

But is Punia’s goonda taint and the accusations of participating in riots going to affect his chances? Ishrak Ali, a Subhash Mohalla resident and BJP loyalist argues that the communal divide in the area might actually see these accusations help him. “Isn’t this what Hindus want?” Ali asked. “That is why they will vote for him. That is why he has been given this ticket. He doesn’t even need Muslim votes.”

Muslim vote

For the Muslims of North East Delhi, the wounds of the riots are still fresh. They recall the absence of political parties during and after riots with disappointment.

Mohammad Dilshad, Aam Aadmi party worker at the party office in Subhash Mohalla. Credit: Zafar Aafaq

The accusations of not standing up for riot victims during the violence is largely directed at the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, however its local workers defend the Kejriwal government, saying it gave a compensation amount of Rs 10 lakh each to the families of the dead and Rs 5 lakh to those who lost their homes.

However, Umar Malik, a Congress worker, retorted that “even BJP would have done that”. “Gopal Rai, the local AAP MLA, did not come here after the riots,” he said. “The party does not want to be associated with Muslims.” Many riot victims are still struggling to access the compensation.

Looking for options

The anger among Muslims at being ignored by mainstream parties after the riots means that the Muslim-led All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen is also fancying its chances. From the Muslim-dominated Mustafabad locality, the party has given ticket to 40-year old Dr Ahtisham Anwar. The doctor had been hailed as a hero for his treatment of the injured at his hospital during the riots. “Dr sahab saved many lives when riots took place,” said Mohammad Faizan, a 21-year-old student who was attending a rally by Anwar. “He treated the bullet injured free of cost. We can never forget that.”

Faizan said that the riots had cost the AAP his vote. “I used to support the Aam Aadmi Party but at the time of riots when we called their leaders to rescue us they did not answer our calls,” he recounted. “We are grateful to [AIMIM head] Owaisi Sahab for giving him [Anwar] the ticket.”

Dr Anwar addressing a rally from campiagn in Mustafabad in North East Delhi. Credit: Zafar Aafaq

Mohamamd Sartaj, a lawyer who lives in Babarpur, alleged that local leaders of all parties turned their back at Muslims at the time of riots. “If you are a leader even at the local level you have some authority and influence,” he said. “You have to stand by people but we were left on our own.”

For Sartaj and his friend Mohammad Shabab, the security and safety of Muslims would be an issue that they would keep in mind while deciding their choice in the elections. “After the riots we have realised the importance of local leaders who you can turn to for help,” said Shabab.

In its messaging, the AIMIM has also attacked AAP’s response to the riots, hoping to wean away the party’s Muslim voters. “Houses were burnt and people were killed,” Asaduddin Owaisi, the party chief, told a campaign rally on Sunday. “[But] The Delhi chief minister could not be seen anywhere.”

Disillusioned with democracy

Even though the party has goodwill in the area, many Muslims believe that it is pointless to vote for the AIMIM, arguing that the party has little chance of actually winning. “Dr Anwar did a good job in the riots but he had no chance,” said Khurshid Saifi, a Mustafabad resident who lost one eye to the bullet that he alleges was fired by his neighbour. “In Mustafabad, it’s Congress versus AAP.”

Saifi’s experience after the riots have left him uninterested in the democratic process. “Nobody supported us in the riots or after that,” he said. “I am tired of doing rounds of their offices but they did not even sign an application. I feel it is pointless to vote.”

Mohammad Kashif, a cab driver from Bhajanpura, feels the Aam Aadmi party has a better chance in his area. “Congress are nice people but my vote will go to AAP otherwise Muslim vote will divide and BJP will win,” he said.

A Muslim resident in Subhash Mohalla who was grievously injured in the riots said his vote will go to AAP for its “pro-education” policies even as he argued that a “BJP win is imminent because Hindus are in majority here while the Muslim vote is getting divided”.

He, however, expressed his dismay at the prospects of BJP’s win, fearing that it would corrupt Indian democracy. “Leaders will be motivated by the fact that if you riot, then you will win,” he said. “This will send the wrong message to the people.”