Rehan Qureishi misses his friends and the good times he had with them. “Raj, Aditya and Piyush, they were my best friends,” said the 14-year-old from Shiv Vihar, a working-class neighbourhood in northeast Delhi home to both Hindus and Muslims.

The four studied in the same school. They hung around after school, played pranks and long cricket matches.

Then, riots broke out in the city on February 23, 2020.

Qureshi’s home was gutted in the violence. “We had to flee our home. I do not know how the rioters set fire to our house. We returned a couple of months later, after relief workers repaired our house,” he said.

Mobs had run amok in Shiv Vihar, one of the neighbourhoods that saw the worst violence, burning houses and looting shops.

Qureishi no longer attends his earlier school. He is among several students at Sunrise Public School in Loni, Ghaziabad, about 4 km from his home.

It’s not that his path does not cross with his former friends. “I see them but we seldom talk and I do not play with them anymore,” he said.

Qureishi blames the riots and the mutual suspicion the violence left behind.

Several other students at his school either lost their relatives or saw their houses gutted in the riots that raged in Delhi that week in February.

Anas Mansoori is one of them. Two days after they had fled Shiv Vihar, Mansoor’s father, Jamaluddin, and uncle had returned to check on their home on February 27, 2020. A mob waylaid them in their own neighbourhood, killing Jamaluddin.

Children along with their families take shelter at a makeshift camp in a riot-affected area in New Delhi on March 1, 2020. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

By the time the violence ended across the city, 53 people were killed and over 200 injured. Thirty-eight of those dead were Muslim, 15 were Hindu.

Mansoori no longer studies at the private school he used to attend, nor is he in touch with old classmates. Even after school, he said he mostly hangs out with boys from his own community.

Three years after communal riots broke out in Delhi, as a backlash to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the divide between Hindus and Muslims persists, showing up among children, in classrooms and playgrounds, at times turning friends away from each other.

“They do not let us play in the playground at Ram Park,” said Suhail, a 22-year-old car mechanic and Mansoori’s friend. Ram Park is a Hindu neighbourhood in Loni. “They tell us, ‘Go back to your own area.’ But we do not have any space to play here,” he added.

The displaced

Many of the students interviewed for this story said they left their old schools because they were unable to pay fees due to the financial crisis triggered by riots and compounded by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Fifteen-year-old Mohammad Faiz and his younger sister Khushi shifted to the Sunrise Public School in early 2021.

“I was not in a position to pay their monthly fees,” said Rukhsana Bano, 35, Faiz’s mother.

The family is struggling to recover from the death of Faiz and Khushi’s father, Firoz Ahmad, who had been killed in the riots.

On February 26, 2020, Ahmad, who worked at a garment shop, had stepped out for work. His body was found 14 days later near Shastri Park, about 13 km from his home in Ashok Vihar, Ghaziabad.

The family said they have no information about how he was killed nor are they following the proceedings of the case.

At Faiz’s old school, the riots created a communal wedge between Hindu and Muslim students. “I had friends there but I do not miss them,” said Faiz, who studies in Class 8.

Many children from riot victims’ families study at Sunrise Public School, which is run by Aasif Mujtaba, a social activist from Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi. The school has waived fees for close to half of the 400 students, said Mujtaba.

Several children from families affected by the riots go to this school in Loni, Ghaziabad. Credit: Zafar Aafaq.

“Relief and rehabilitation for people who lost relatives or their property is a long-drawn process. It takes years to take them out of the trauma,” said Mujtaba. “But education can’t wait, so we started the school.”

After the riots, non-governmental groups stepped up to help riot survivors. One such initiative in Shiv Vihar led to the setting up of Forward Coaching Centre. “It was started by an NGO from Kerala in 2020,” said Firoz Khan, who is a teacher and manager of the centre. “We believe that education is the best way to overcome the challenge, to bridge the gap between the two communities. We have students from both communities but the majority are Muslim,” said Firoz.

Still friends

While the fault lines between the communities have widened, not everyone has given up on inter-faith friendships.

Faiz’s elder sister Tina, a Class 11 student, continues to attend an all-girl government school in Khajuri area.

The death of her father in the riots has not cast a shadow on her friendships, she said.

“Arshi, Riya, Akansha and Fiza are my best friends in school,” said the 16-year-old. “We get along well. I have never experienced any problems. When I went to the school after the riots, they asked me about my father once but after that we never discussed it again.”

Shikha Sharma, a Class 9 student at the Forward Coaching centre, is the lone Hindu girl in her batch. Her best friend is Aisha, a 16-year-old who goes by her first name alone. “Aisha comes to my home, our parents also visit each other’s homes,” she said.

When the riots broke out, Aisha said they fled their home in Shiv Vihar, which was set on fire by mobs. They were sheltered by a Hindu neighbour before they fled to a Muslim majority area. The family continues to live there.

If Aisha and Shikha have managed to hold on to their friendship, so have Sneha and Shaheen.

Sneha Sharma lives in Shiv Vihar’s Lane no. 8, where most of the residents are Hindu, like her.

In the next lane lives her friend Shaheen, with whom she shares an old, close bond. Both are Class 12 students of a government school in Gokalpuri.

“I have never felt uncomfortable among my Muslim friends,” said Sneha. “My parents are supportive of our friendship. We visit each other’s home regularly.”

Poonam Tomar, a social work graduate who has been working as a counsellor at the Bal Umang Drishya Sanstha coaching centre in Shiv Vihar for a year now, said the divide is not permanent.

“Initially, I could see that the students were hesitant to interact with each other,” she said. “Students from one community would see those from the other differently. But we counselled them and things have improved. Now they play together.”

Gulafsha Ansari, a volunteer at the same centre, said the children “remember everything” but with time they are trying to move on.

Barricades came up at the entrance of lanes in Northeast Delhi immediately after the riots. Credit: Supriya Sharma/Scroll

Divided neighbourhoods

In classrooms, differences are set aside. But, back in the children’s neighbourhoods, hostility simmers.

“The interaction among the communities is minimal now. There is a great lack of trust,” said Samreen Ansari, a local resident who is also a teacher. “It reflects in everyday acts like the shops we go to, the schools we send our kids to.”

Islamuddin Mansoori, who teaches at Sunrise Public School, agreed. “Hindus prefer to hire labourers from their own community and the same with Muslims,” he said. “Renting a shop or apartments owned by non-Muslims is also difficult.”

Samreen Ansari also blamed a constant climate of polarisation for stoking insecurities.

She recalled a recent episode when Bharatiya Janata Party workers celebrating the win of their candidate in the municipal elections barged inside her house. “They were raising slogans, saying lewd things. I rushed out and shouted to push them back.”

Some activists and residents say the riots took a heavy toll on the intercommunity relations. “People see each other with hatred and anger. Fights start on small things and every now and then they take a communal colour,” said Ansari.

Before the riots, Ansari said she was in contact with around 20 Hindus from her locality. “Now I am barely in touch with five people,” she said.

Tomar said while relations appear normal, on field trips to the neighbourhoods, she “noticed the grudges and bitterness one community holds for the other”. “The political parties and news spread hate, which changes mindsets.”

Many residents believe that the riots were politically motivated, and eventually communities will continue to live together.

Vishal Mehra, a 23-year-old accountant who lives in Shiv Vihar, said, “The fear and anger have waned. I have Muslim friends and we go to each other’s homes. We have no hatred or bitterness for each other.”

“Those who suffered will definitely be angry,” said Yashpal, a 24-year-old who lives in Shiv Vihar. “But we live in a mixed locality and regularly go to each other’s homes. Both communities rely on each other for their daily needs and so we have to live together.”