Friday prayers at Jamia Faridya Masjid in Delhi’s Begumpur area took slightly longer than usual this week. The imam followed up his customary sermon with a brief prayer for an eight-year-old boy who had died after a scuffle near the mosque the previous day. As the congregation of around a hundred Muslim men started to disperse, the imam said, “Let the law take its own course. I appeal everyone not to take the law into their hands for Allah will make sure the innocent child gets justice.”

Mohammad Azeem studied in the residential madrassa attached to the mosque, one of 70 Muslim male students aged seven to 14. Also studying at the madrassa were his two older brothers. Around 10 am on Thursday, five of the students got into an argument with four Dalit Hindu boys, aged between 10 and 13, over playing space. In the ensuing fight, Azeem received a blunt injury to his head. He died in hospital soon after.

The police have apprehended the Hindu boys and booked them for murder. They all live in Valmiki Colony, a slum adjacent to the mosque, which, because it stands on the ruins of a medieval mosque, is known as Khandar Masjid.

Azeem’s death has triggered communal tensions in the area as Muslims and Hindus blame each other for the incident. The police have deployed several teams to ensure calm.

Fight for space

There is no playground in the area and children often fight over space to play. Some boys at the madrassa recalled that the fight was preceded by a heated argument, but there is no clarity about what exactly was said. The police said they are investigating whether the boys in either group were provoked by any adult at the spot.

“It was an unfortunate incident,” said Vijay Kumar, deputy commissioner of police, South Delhi. “True facts of the incident have been suitably shared with the media and other stakeholders. However, it has come to our notice that attempts are being made in some quarters to give the incident a communal colour by spreading wrong facts and rumours.”

He did not clarify why they have pressed the charge of murder rather than culpable homicide if Azeem’s death was indeed accidental.

In CCTV footage of the incident that has surfaced online, a group of boys in white clothes and skull caps is seen standing on a plinth of the ruined mosque and, it seems, arguing with another group in the open space outside the madrassa which, according to official records seen by, is registered with the Delhi Waqf Board. Suddenly, one of the boys jumps off the plinth and the argument soon turns into a fist fight. One of the boys, later identified as Azeem, collapses by a cart. Another boy runs towards the madrassa, apparently raising an alarm. A man rushes out, and returns with Azeem in his arms. The fight is watched by at least four adults, none of whom appears to try and intervene. The police have refused to disclose their identities.

As to what transpired prior to the scenes captured on camera, the police said one of the Hindu boys threw a stone “over” the Muslim boys while they were playing in the empty lot. They asked the Hindu boys to refrain from doing so. But after some time, the Hindu boys threw firecrackers at the students and began abusing them, the police added.

According to the first information report, one of the Muslim students told the police that one of the Hindu boys held Azeem by the throat and pushed him to the ground.

Hindu residents said they learned about the incident only after the Muslim boy was taken to hospital. In their slum, the alarm was raised by the relative of one of the minors apprehended by the police. Nearly all adult relatives of the four boys rushed to the police station, the resident said, and they have stayed there since.

The Begumpur slum where the four arrested boys live. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

‘It is our land’

Azeem’s death caused an outrage on social media after at least one news organisation described it as a lynching. Though the police have maintained it was not a hate crime, social media chatter, in part, seems to have sparked communal tensions in the area.

“The Muslim boys were provoked by adults at the madrassa,” alleged Rahul, a Hindu resident of the slum who uses only his first name. “The adults there often scold our children and chase them away when they go to the open space to play. What damage have the children done to the mosque or the madrassa by playing in the open area?”

Some Hindus refused to acknowledge the land belonged to the mosque. “It is our land,” said a woman, who only agreed to speak anonymously, as those huddled around her nodded. “Why can’t our children play there?”

In 2016, the sub-divisional magistrate of South Delhi’s Hauz Khas noted in an order that the Wakf property was being encroached upon and asked the police to act. But the police did not take any action for fear it would cause communal tensions. Neither did the mosque’s management insist upon it, likely for the same reason, an official at the Malviya Nagar police station said.

After Azeem’s death, though, the police blocked the path connecting the slum to the ruins of the old mosque and the open space beside it.

The police have blocked the path connecting the slum to the ruins of the old mosque and the empty lot beside it. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Old complaints

Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar Amini, the imam who has lived at the mosque since the early 1950s, said they do chase away youngsters living in the slum, but only when they create a ruckus in the mosque. He also alleged that men from the slum burst firecrackers to disrupt namaaz, drink alcohol in the open space and leave empty liquor bottles on the premises of the mosque. Some occasionally use communal slurs on seeing Muslims, he said. Still, the imam added, he has never encouraged any student at the madrassa to get into an argument with children from the slum, let alone fight with them.

Another cleric at the madrassa recalled that in 2000 they complained to the police about people from the slum throwing liquor bottles on the mosque premises. The police had the offenders sign an undertaking not to do so, he added, but they did not relent.

Today, the Muslim community is again raising many of the same concerns. But it appears divided over which problem needs to be tackled first. While one section wants the path connecting the slum with the ruins closed permanently, the other insists that the police first press the charge of criminal conspiracy in connection with Azeem’s death and arrest the adults allegedly involved. On Friday, the imam tried for some time to reconcile the two factions, but to no avail.