On June 7, a video was published on Facebook by the Milli Gazette, a digital publication, showing a group of people demolishing the walls of brick structure.
The structure was a makeshift mosque which had been built earlier this year by the Muslim residents of Ambey Enclave, a small settlement near Sonia Vihar in northeastern Delhi.
On its own, the demolition might not have elicited wider national attention – it would have been yet another example of the slow burn of communal tensions in India’s capital.
But, two days later, Basit Malik, a freelance journalist reporting for Caravan, a monthly magazine, who went to investigate the demolition, was badly beaten by a mob in the neighbourhood after they discovered he was a Muslim.
Before they assualted him, the men had justified the demolition, saying the mosque was being built by Muslims who were “getting funding” from Pakistan.
When they discovered that Malik hailed from Kashmir, they became more violent, kicking and punching him, while taking videos of the assault. “Say ‘Pakistan murdabad!’ [Down with Pakistan]!” one of them instructed. “Say ‘Hindustan zindabad!’ [Long Live India]”.
The crowd eventually called the police and handed Malik to them. A police constable asked Malik: “How far is your house from Pakistan?”
Malik left for Kashmir without filing a police complaint.
The police’s tepid response fits into a larger pattern of ignoring communally-inspired violence. For the demolition of the makeshift mosque, the police have filed a case against three people but only for relatively minor offences. Senior officials of the Delhi police claim to have failed to find “involvement of any religious sentiment” in the destruction of the mosque.
The roof-less bare brick structure had been built earlier this year on a 100-square-yard plot owned by a Muslim man in Ambey Enclave locality of Chauhan Patti. Ambey Enclave is home to around 70 Muslim families, about 25 of which used the space to pray.
“Tension started brewing in the area on June 1,” said building contractor Akbar Ali, the owner of the plot on which the mosque had stood. “Some Hindu residents had started circulating messages through WhatsApp and Facebook seeking support for demolishing the structure.”
One such WhatsApp message in Hindi, purportedly sent from the account of local resident Pradeep Singh, read (roughly translated):
There is an area called Chauhan Patti near Delhi’s Sabhapur village. Most of its residents are Hindu. There are only 8-10 homes of Muslims. In one of the lanes, a Muslim man owns a plot of 90 yards but he does not live here. He has started the construction of a mosque by building a 5-feet wall, which is illegal since there aren’t enough Muslims in the area.
The man has brought Muslims from other areas to read namaz here. This has angered local people and the situation might grow tense in the days to come. Muslims from outside are trying to encourage the Muslims of Ambay colony in Chauhan Patti. Therefore, a request to all Hindu organisations to unite to prevent the Islamic developments in the area.
However, Pradeep Singh claimed he did not send that message. He said he was in his native village, Jagdishpur in Uttar Pradesh, when the incident occurred. He returned on June 12, by when the police had issued a notice that he was “likely to commit breach of peace”.
“I did not publish or circulate the message but neither did I make any effort to find out who did it,” Singh said. “I am a popular figure in the locality and people often use my name. I work for a party named Hindustan Nirmaan Dal and had contested the municipal election earlier this year.”
He was asked to present himself before a Special Executive Magistrate, along with Akbar Ali, who had also been issued a similar notice.
Singh claimed the plot on which the mosque stood did not belong to Akbar Ali. “It belonged to a Hindu man who is now dead and his family never returned to lay claim to the plot,” Singh alleged. “There used to be a temple here earlier.”
Singh, who has been living in Ambey Enclave for seven years, said he “knows these facts through neighbours who have lived here for long”.
A call for solidarity was also issued on Facebook. Local resident Chandan Singh urged his neighbours to join him for a Dharam Yudh, or holy war. In a Facebook post on June 1, Chandan Singh asked, “How many Hindu warriors are ready for a holy war? Do not click ‘like’, write comments on the post.”
In comments below the post, he clarified that he was talking about a mosque that was being built in the locality. He wrote that those who join his holy war would have to leave Delhi immediately. In response, several people offered to arrange accommodation for him if necessary.
Chandan Singh has since been identified as one of the people who demolished the structure. He was arrested, along with two other people, but was given bail. When contacted, Singh said his lawyer had advised him not to speak with anyone about the matter.
At least four days before the mosque was demolished, Akbar Ali and another resident of Ambey Enclave Sher Ali wrote to the station house officer of Sonia Vihar police station, which has jurisdiction over Chauhan Patti, that a group of people were fanning communal tensions over the mosque. The letter was received in the police station, and stamped, on June 3. But the police was unmoved.
Around 11 am on June 7, a mob demolished the mosque. “We were all terrified that the armed mob could come for our blood any time,” said Sultan Sheikh, a Muslim resident of the area. “No Muslim man in the colony dared leave their families alone for the next two days.”
A video of the demolition was widely circulated on social media. It is too grainy to make out faces of the people who razed the structure but there were many eyewitnesses to the incident, some of whom the police questioned.
The First Information Report names three suspects – Chandan Singh, Malkhan and Sanjeev – and charges them under sections relating to house trespass and “mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50”.
Why were stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with “activities which are likely to cause fear or alarm or a feeling of insecurity among members of religious, regional or racial groups” not invoked?
“The case is still under investigation and so far it does not qualify for other charges relating to hurting religious sentiments,” Deputy Commissioner of Police (Northeast Delhi) AK Singla said. “If required, further sections can be added.”
As for why the police did not act on the letter warning of communal flare up in Ambey Enclave, Singla said he had “no knowledge of that”.
On the edge
On June 14, sub divisional magistrate of Karawal Nagar, ruling on a bunch of complaints and counter-complaints about the ownership of the land on which the mosque stood, directed the station house officer of Sonia Vihar to seal the plot. In his order, Mukul Koranga said the police had informed him that “some people in the locality were not happy” with Akbar Ali starting a “madrassa” as it had led to “animosity” in the colony.
Akbar has been accused of illegally constructing the structure and stealing electricity. The police told the magistrate that no permission was taken for construction the brick structure.
However, on February 8, Sher Ali and several other Muslim residents of Ambey Enclave had written to the station house officer of Sonia Vihar for permission to build a mosque on Akbar Ali’s plot. In the letter, they mentioned that there was no mosque in the locality and residents had to go far away to pray. They had even proposed a name for the mosque – Zakaria Masjid.
“Two days after we submitted the letter at the SHO’s office, officials from Sonia Vihar police station came to see the plot,” Akbar Ali said.
Agreeing that he did not have written permission, Akbar Ali said, “At the end of the day, it is my property and I allowed the people to build the mosque. I did not think the police would given us written permission but we had to inform them. Also, the police did not raise any objection until the incident happened.”
Meanwhile, Basit Malik, 23, has gone home to Jammu and Kashmir for treatment. He is yet to lodge a complaint in connection with the assault.
Ambey Enclave remains tense and nearly 40 policemen are deployed to ensure calm. Entry to all lanes leading to the contested plot is restricted and nobody is allowed in except the residents.
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