Rickshaws must plough through garbage to enter Chand Bagh in northeast Delhi, and dodge the lady selling earthen piggy banks at the edge of the malodorous pile. Plunge deeper and the road offers green mangoes. Across the lane, bangles have bloomed on perilous carts. Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Zeeshan must have wheeled one of these carts to the street every day. Until last week, when he was picked up by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police on suspicion of being involved in an alleged Jaish-e-Mohammad plot to bomb the city.

On the night of May 4, the Special Cell and the Intelligence Bureau conducted raids across the city, rounding up 13 terror suspects. They reportedly recovered improvised explosive devices from three of the suspects. They were later arrested and produced in court.

On Saturday, four of the others were given a “clean chit” and released. On Sunday, six more were freed, on the condition that they would return for questioning whenever they were summoned. Nine of these released suspects live in Chand Bagh. Sajid, the main accused, who is still under arrest, is also from here.

Zeeshan was one of the four given a clean chit. Two days after his release, the frail teenager looked bemused but showed no other signs of his recent encounter with the police. He quietly crossed the cool, dark room in Chand Bagh, sat down and braced himself for questions.

“Everybody was good”

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Zeeshan, when asked about the plot he was supposed to have been a part of. He also said he didn’t know Sajid. “Only once, he had burnt his hand and I made the mistake of asking him what happened,” he said. Beyond that, they had not spoken much.

Zeeshan ran into Sajid at Masjid Fatima, where he sometimes went to pray. At 18, he has left school and studies at the madrasa attached to the local masjid. The days are long. Classes at the madrasa start at 4.30 am. Lessons over, he goes to work. Like the rest of his family, Zeeshan sells bangles on the roadside. When the day’s work is done, at around 8 pm, it’s back home for a brief meal and then night classes at the madrasa again. Before he was arrested, he had been planning to start English tuition and enrol in an open university to study Urdu.

On the night of May 4, Zeeshan said, he was returning home around 10:30 pm after lessons at the madrasa, when the police, who had already gone to his home, picked him up. His father and brother were hurrying out to tell him that the cops had come for him, but Zeeshan was picked up before his father and brother could reach him.

“One officer told me I was like one of his children, and they would let me go after questioning,” said Zeeshan. “They only asked where I lived, what I did.” He had no complaints about his stay in prison. “We had AC, we were fed well, we slept on time,” he said. It was the same as being at home, he added, except you were in prison.

The police are trying a new method of deradicalisation with the suspects who have been released. They are to report for regular counselling sessions with psychologists and community leaders. “All of them were radical in their views though they have not committed any overt attack,” said Arvind Deep, special commissioner of the Delhi Police Special Cell. “They have to be counselled, guided and integrated with the mainstream.”

Zeeshan, however, took a cheery view of the matter. “I have to go to a doctor because they want to make sure I’m alright after such an ordeal,” he said. “Everybody was good, they explained things the way parents explain.”

Not everyone has breezed through the experience as well as Zeeshan. Imran, who was also among the four released on Saturday, stormed out of the room, visibly agitated. He said he didn’t want to talk to the press.

“Shokh ka mahaul”

Residents of Chand Bagh said the police raids on May 4 was the locality’s first brush with the Special Cell. It left behind a deeply shaken community. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” said Maulana Liaqat, who teaches at a local madrasa. “There is fear in the whole neighbourhood, everywhere there is an atmosphere of grief. We couldn’t even eat.”

Local residents said that Chand Bagh, a Muslim-majority neighbourhood in the trans-Yamuna area, had come up in the last 40 years or so. Liaqat’s wife, who did not want to be named out of fear that she would be harassed, said it was half jungle when she moved there from Old Delhi after her wedding, about 32 years ago. Many relatives from Old Delhi have also moved to the area since then, she said. The locality is now thick with people and houses. The alleys and food stalls of the walled city are replicated here, though the houses are the narrow constructions favoured by modern builders rather than the latticed buildings of Chandni Chowk.

But many of the old ways have been preserved in the community. Liaqat’s wife said most of the women here, including her, observe purdah. Only the more “fashionable” women have abjured the burkha. Since she is not allowed to meet people outside her circle of relatives, she had only heard of the boys who were arrested. But the shock of the incident had spread from the streets into the inner chambers of homes.

Outside, in the mosques and the marketplace, the men have formed networks of support, and the community has closed ranks around the “bacchon (children)” who were picked up by the police. They did not have the means to hire a lawyer, so the local wing of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind is helping them with legal aid. Most people are prepared to vouch for their innocence.

When word spread that the incident of May 4 was being discussed, a small crowd gathered around a stall selling samosas and other snacks. “We have been here for 27-28 years, we know their parents,” said Abdul Waheed, a retired shopkeeper. “These are not some strange terrorists coming from Kanpur, Rampur. These boys were picked up for no reason, they are good boys.”

“I knew them well, they often came to the shop to buy sweets or Fanta,” said Mushir Ali, who owns the food stall.

Very often, the boys’ religiosity was put forward as a mark of their character; they were all “namaazi” boys, there were no police complaints against them. Mohammad Mehtab, who is Sajid’s neighbour, said, “He was a decent boy, he worked hard and he read namaaz five times a day.”

But it is also this religiosity that might have made them the object of police interest. Some of the boys were associated with the local Tablighi Jamaat movement and one of them had earlier told reporters that it had earned him the “radical” tag. Members of the Tablighi Jamaat urged people to go to the mosque, tutored them if they didn’t know their Quran and generally made sure they stayed on the “right path”, explained Liaqat. For instance, if there was any music and dancing that was creating a disturbance, they would stop it, he said. No one seemed to complain about the hectoring, though.

The arrest and detention of these familiar faces have left the community in Chand Bagh feeling indicted and insecure. “We work 12-14 hours a day but still something like this could happen to us,” said Ali. “Anything can happen.”

“We don’t have much faith in the police,” said Liaqat, “but we trust the law and we feel justice will be done.”

“If you cross the law”

Across the Yamuna, sitting in his office at the Delhi Police headquarters, Arvind Deep insisted that the boys were picked up only after there was sufficient evidence against them. “All 13 were interconnected,” he said. “They all attended meetings, they all had communications with one another. We had certain inputs from central intelligence agencies that these 13 had to be watched.”

The Special Cell had kept them under surveillance for six months before they were picked up, he said. The Delhi Police is also going to start a new project of monitoring social media for radical content, though Deep was quick to clarify that the surveillance would be “non-intrusive” and restricted to content that was available to the public.

When asked about how the police avoided charges of communal profiling during such operations, Deep admitted that this was a challenge. “We have to be cautious,” he said. “No innocents should be harassed.”

It would appear that the police is trying to deal with such cases with a lighter hand. Reports abound of men picked up on mere suspicion and forced to languish in jail for years even with no prosecutable evidence against them. This time, the suspects were let-off within days, apart from the three against whom, Deep claimed, there was sufficient evidence.

Deep has little time for the fears that have besieged Chand Bagh. “People have to be guided and told what is right, what is wrong,” he said. “If you cross the law, action will be taken.”