There is widespread relief that peace has been restored in the Lal Kuan area of Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi. The historic walled city had been gripped by communal tension for many days. That danger has now receded.
But worries remain. What kind of peace is this? How deep does it go? And will it endure?
Behind the peace that has settled in the old city of Delhi lie two different narratives. One is of the laudable and responsible efforts of local elders, particularly Muslim leaders, supported by the police, to assuage hotheads and ensure that peace returns to the old city. But the other – which we must also acknowledge – is of open hate speech and instigation to violence against Muslims.
The trouble, it may be recalled, began on the night of June 30 with a minor squabble over the parking of a two-wheeler. Before long, it flared up as groups from both Hindu and Muslim communities gathered at different places and shouted slogans and tried to incite mobs. On the same night, as rumours were flying fast and furious, a small Durga temple in the area was stoned. Some Hindu activists accused the Muslims of vandalising the temple. The next morning, incensed Hindu youth came out on the streets, shouting angry slogans and hurling abuses at Muslims.
Some young Muslim men retaliated. Provocative slogans were shouted on both sides. Messages that the Hindu religion was in danger spread across WhatsApp groups. Local BJP and Sangh activists started gathering at the spot, as did their counterparts from other parts of the city. As the petty dispute acquired a worrying communal colour, the Hauz Kazi police swooped down to douse the mounting passions.
On July 2, in a gesture of community goodwill, Mufti Mukarram, the Shahi Imam of Old Delhi’s Fatehpuri mosque, urged the Muslim community to help repair the temple with their own resources. On the evening of July 3, a group of civil society activists and members of Karwan e Mohabbat, the group to which the writers of this article belong, visited Lal Kuan. We met Imam Mukarram in the mosque and asked him about why he made this appeal. “As people of faith, we understand the hurt of the Hindu community,” he said.
It was not known who threw stones but as a gesture of solidarity he had asked Muslims to contribute to the rebuilding effort. He spoke about the strong ties Hindu, Sikh and Muslims shared in the area and lamented that this legacy was now being poisoned. Several others who joined us in his office, talked about decades of peace being disturbed now by “outsider” Hindutva groups trying to fish in troubled waters.
The Karwan team also visited the temple situated in the narrow Durga Mandir lane in Lal Kuan market that had been vandalised. The broken glass panes had been repaired and red curtains were drawn on them. The team met the young pujari, Ashwani Kumar Pandey, and other members of the community who had gathered there.
We asked 23-year-old Pandey who had vandalised the temple. “A Hindu won’t vandalise a temple,” he replied. “Of course this is the work of Muslims.” Others who had gathered asked, “What kind of question is this?” When asked about the imam’s offer, a senior member of the priest family said that it was gracious of him to have made the gesture, but they did not accept it.
There was a big banner outside the Hindu temple inviting the community to a “Murti Pran Pratishtha” on July 9. Some Muslim residents whom we met were all very apprehensive. They wanted us to ask the administration not to allow the entry of the outsiders in the area when the new idols were installed.
Hate material was also in circulation and the Karwan team filed a complaint with the Hauz Kazi Police Station about specific fake news items. The police began arrests. But all the arrests were of Muslim youth charged with vandalising the temple, and none of the activists who were inciting violence.
On July 9, the day of the Shobha Yatra or parade of the idols to be installed in the damaged temple, worries of violence increased. There are two versions of what transpired that day, one heartwarming, another troubling. Both are true, and both seen together mirror the nature of peace that has been restored in the old city of Delhi.
The Citizen reported “a rare but warming sight in the winding lanes of Old Delhi” when Muslim men came out to greet the Shobha Yatra to reinstall idols in the Durga temple at Lal Kuan, with flowers and bottles of water. As the procession passed, they showered rose petals on it. In the bhandara or community feeding organised by the temple, the Muslim residents served the food to the marchers.
Among them was a young man Abu Sufiyan who released the videos of peace and Muslim gestures of goodwill on the social media to counter rumours aimed at inciting passions on the streets. As the march ended peacefully, Sufiyan told The Citizen, “We have shown the way to all of India.”
But there is also another story which also must be told. The procession on which they showered flowers threatened violence and used hate speech.
The day had started peacefully. On the morning of 9 July, police personnel and armed Central Reserve Police Force men were also deployed in large numbers. At the temple, a small crowd had gathered, among them local Muslim and Hindu leaders, with many onlookers from the houses, curious and apprehensive.
Songs were played about Ayodhya and Ram. There were also songs about how Kashmir is Hindu and bhaghwa (saffron), and that India is a nation of the Hindus. Members of the local peace committee kept repeating to journalists who gathered there how they wanted peace back to the area and that nothing was amiss.
But many we spoke to in the crowd said that they believed that Hindus were being persecuted because they are fewer in number in this part of the city. They said they welcomed this display of Hindu power because it would make Muslims start respecting Hindu groups.
They said that most of the people the police had arrested for vandalising the temple (an action based on CCTV footage) were juveniles. They believed this was a deliberate strategy to allow the alleged offenders to get off lightly without jail terms. Many commented that Hindus are frequently targeted but that the media does not highlight these events.
The march started around 10.40 am. There were chariots of Ganesh, Shiva, Durga and there was a truck with people dressed as Krishna and Radha dancing to Bhojpuri Leela songs. The area became quickly suffused in saffron. A mass of mostly men, with sticks, trishuls and triangular saffron flags wound their way through the lanes of the medieval city. We counted six Hindutva organisations that were represented. The largest contingent was of the Bajrang Dal. The groups had brought in plenty of flags and scarfs with Jai Shri Ram written on them. Slogans rent the air.
Many participants carried phones and cameras, and livestreamed the event on Hindutva social-media groups with appeals to watchers to gather other Hindu participants and keep faith in the mission. There were claims that Hindus have awakened and were combatting their oppression.
Near Fatehpuri Masjid, participants in the procession, especially the Bajrang Dal members, chanted slogans for around 10-15 minutes, refusing to move ahead. Young men threw water bottles and lassi on the Masjid. Local Hindu leaders and the police had to intervene and plead with them to proceed.
At around 1 pm, after their march, the crowd gathered near the main temple. Even as local Muslims were serving food at the bhandara, troubling speeches were broadcast from the temple loudspeakers. In the first speech, a man in saffron robes said that Hindus had been quiet for too long. He asked Hindus to wake up, adding that Hindus in Gujarat were already awake and could avenge the plight of their dead relatives.
Another leader added that Muslims who loved Islam went to Bangladesh and Pakistan and those who want to stay here should start loving Hindus, warning about how Chandni Chowk could turn saffron in mere days. Asking Muslims to live in peace, he warned that otherwise they would have to teach “peace” to them. Another religious leader spoke of how those who don’t support the Hindu cause have been thrown out of Parliament.
Just a few metres away, Muslim clerics and volunteers were serving food to the yatris. A few hours earlier they had sprinkled flowers on them.
Bringing these two contrasting narratives together, of goodwill and hate, we realise the fragile and unequal nature of the peace into which the old city of Delhi has settled. This indeed is the peace of new India.