Rubina was visiting her home for the first time in nearly a week.
On February 25, a neighbour had sent her a video showing mobs attacking her home on the third floor of a building in Shiv Vihar, among the worst affected areas in the wave of communal violence that ravaged North East Delhi last week, killing 47 people and leaving more than 300 injured.
Before the mob arrived at her home, 33-year-old Rubina had already fled the area with her five children. Only five or six Muslim families lived in the immediate vicinity and she had felt unsafe.
Nearly a week later, amid suspicious glances, Rubina made her way down gali number 14 in Shiv Vihar. It did not look good. The ground floor shop owned by her Muslim landlord had been vandalised, so had his apartments and those of Muslim neighbours opposite. Grain, glass, clothes, the khus screens of water coolers, all the detritus of everyday life, lay scattered in the lane.
As she reached her rooms on the third floor, Rubina burst into tears. Clothes and mattresses lay tangled on the floor. An LCD television had been flung across it. A smaller television set, perched on a refrigerator, showed a cracked screen. A sewing machine had been vandalised. A Quran, bound in red velvet, was torn.
Ten thousand rupees, squirrelled away in a box, were missing. Rubina then frantically went through the steel trunks stored in a box bed. Twenty thousand rupees kept there had disappeared too. This was hard-earned money. Rubina’s husband works as a shop assistant in Pune. The family’s monthly income was Rs 10,000, out of which Rs 5,000 was spent on rent.
“What was my fault? How will I get my daughters married?” she wept. “We built up everything one at a time. We never fought with Hindus. I called them ‘aunty’, ‘baaji’, I made tea for them. When my husband brought back things to eat, I shared it with them. Everybody knew me as Mullah saab’s daughter.”
Beyond the distress at having lost their savings, there was hurt. She had lived there for 15 years, ever since she arrived in the area as a teenaged bride. She had grown into adulthood there. Did they not know her, she demanded of her Hindu neighbours, as she walked out clutching the torn Quran to her chest.
As Rubina left crying, local residents gathered in gali number 14. They had tried to stop the mobs from vandalising Muslim houses, they said. But the mobs would not listen. After they left, the residents said, they had poured water on the house set alight.
Rubina gathered a few belongings and made her way back to their temporary quarters at a relative’s place in Babunagar in New Mustafabad, a couple of kilometres away from her home.
She is among the many displaced by the recent violence in North East Delhi. It had started with clashes between supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those who opposed it. The law makes undocumented, non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Together with a proposed countrywide National Register of Citizens, it is feared, the new law could be a tool to harass Indian Muslims.
On February 24, the clashes turned into communal violence, most of it anti-Muslim. At last count, 47 were reported dead and hundreds injured. There are no clear estimates of the number of people displaced by the violence so far. But according to volunteers working in New Mustafabad, 1,000 to 1,500 displaced people fled their homes in the areas surrounding Shiv Vihar alone. That is only a small section of North East that saw violence last week.
Till March 1, the Delhi government has been missing from these ravaged streets. Of the nine relief camps opened for those displaced by the violence, eight turned out to be night shelters, designed to accommodate not more than 50 people each.
Scroll.in visited three of these shelters on the morning of March 2. Caretakers at all three shelters said no persons displaced by the violence had taken refuge there. “Everyone knows the condition of rain baseras [night shelters],” said one caretaker. “These shelters do not have proper hygiene. Only those who are addicts come here.”
Scroll.in made repeated attempts to contact Delhi government officials in charge of coordinating relief work but they did not respond to calls or messages.
As criticism mounted, by the afternoon of March 2, the Aam Aadmi Party government announced it was setting up a large relief camp in Mustafabad, which could hold 1,000 people. It would be fitted with toilets. Food, water, medicines would be supplied there.
Like Rubina, most Muslim residents who fled Shiv Vihar have taken shelter in Babunagar and nearby Chaman Park. For them, even the two kilometre dash from their homes to Babunagar had been fraught with danger. Rubina, who made the journey on foot in the morning of February 25, recalled running into a gang of five to six boys: “They told us, once Trump leaves, we will not leave Muslims alone.” United States President Donald Trump was on a visit to India that ended on the evening of February 25.
Going farther away from the locality seemed out of the question, even if some were prepared to brave the journey. “The police are not letting us go,” said Saood Alam, one of Shiv Vihar’s displaced residents. “They said if something happens to us, they will not be responsible.”
But some Muslim families who live closer to the night shelters – they are a few minutes’ walk from Brahmpuri, another violent flashpoint – also prefer the safety of Babunagar. “There are announcements at the mosques, asking people to stay in,” said Husna Begum, who had left her home in Brahmpuri. “There is curfew and unrest at night. We feel scared. It is safer here.”
In the afternoon of March 1, there was a minor stampede in as trucks distributing milk, water and other supplies arrived in Babunagar. These were not organised by the government but by private volunteer organisations, local residents said.
A community effort
In the absence of government support, the local community has stepped forward to look after its own. Saood Alam, his wife, Ruksana, and his son, eight-year-old Liaqat fled Shiv Vihar on the evening of February 24, after their rented rooms were set on fire. Rajdhani Public School in Shiv Vihar, where Liaqat studied, was also ransacked and burned the same say.
The family had washed up at a local mosque in Babunagar, said Alam, from where they were directed to an empty house in the locality. The owner, who lives in Chaman Park, had agreed to let displaced families live there.
“We fled without slippers,” said Ruksana. The family now lives in the dank ground floor of the house. A wooden cart with clothes and other essentials donated by the mosque is the sum of their belongings. Food comes from a local mosque and gurudwara, Alam said.
Four other families live in the two-storeyed house, including 23-year-old Mohammad Shadab, his wife, 20-year-old Soni, and their two children, aged three and fifteen months. Around 10.30 pm on February 25, they had grabbed what they could and fled their home, which is near Medina Mosque in Shiv Vihar.
Shadab had not anticipated violence in the neighbourhood. “I thought everyone here is like a brother to me, including the Hindus,” said Shadab, who is from Bihar’s Araria district and has lived in Delhi for 16 years.
He claimed to have seen a violent mob wearing helmets and chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. “We thought they would not do anything to us.,” he said. “But we ran after they started to blast gas cylinders in front of the mosque and vandalise homes.”
The family roamed the streets of Chaman Park that night when they were found by some strangers, who brought them to the empty house in Babunagar.
A local benefactor
Meanwhile, 42-year-old Mohammad Shamsher, one of Babunagar’s more prosperous residents, has also dived into relief work. Shamsher, originally from Bihar, has lived in Delhi for 32 years, runs a garment business and occasionally volunteers with the Congress. Cauldrons of food crowd the ground floor of his spacious three-storeyed house.
Along with three of his neighbours, Shamsher said, they had provided shelter to about 100 people. They also pooled money together to buy clothes and basic supplies. “Most arrived around 3 am on February 25,” he said.
While most were Muslim, a few Hindu residents of Muslim-majority Babunagar had also taken shelter with Shamsher. “I told them there was no need to be scared and some of us in the neighbourhood guarded the temple as well,” he said.
About 30 people are still in Shamsher’s house – his wife’s five sisters and their families. Some had arrived early in the morning on February 26, taking little with them. “We have been wearing the same clothes for four days,” said Yashina Begum, one of those who had taken shelter.
The women said they could not even think of returning home at the moment. Shamsher, for his part, said he was ready to accommodate the families for as long as they needed.
The local effort is now shored up by volunteer networks, like those run by activist Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat. They have arranged an emergency camp at Al Islah school in Babu Nagar, where medical and legal aid is dispensed.
On March 1, the organisation, along with other individual volunteers who had joined the effort, were hastily setting up a shelter in a local mosque, which had offered its top three floors for accommodation. One floor was to be reserved for men, another for women and children. Pipes were being fitted into new toilets for the makeshift shelter, which can hold about 500 people. Food is being provided by Khalsa Aid.
Another shelter, capable of holding about 1,000 people, was to be opened at a nearby Eidgah. While it has been arranged by the local community, volunteer organisations have offered “operational support”, said one relief worker.
Fleeing families fear they have lost everything. Ruksana said she was robbed of Rs 20,000 at knife-point. Shadab, a daily wager who earns Rs 350 for a day’s work, said they left behind Rs 30,000.
“I do not know if the money has burnt or not,” he said. “Everyone from there is saying they burned everything down and we are being stopped from going back.” Shadab and his wife, who do not have a bank account, had saved the money over four years. If it has survived the fires, Shadab said, they would use it to go home to Bihar.
The Delhi government has offered Rs 5 lakh for total damage of residential units, Rs 2.5 lakh for substantial damage and Rs 15,000 for minor damage. For the loss of household items in homes that suffered total damage, Rs 25,000 has been assured as immediate relief.
But the government’s assistance form asks for Aadhaar and voter identity card numbers. Many displaced families have lost their documents.
Saood Alam said his BA certificate and other crucial documents were gone. “I don’t even have the documents to get a job anymore,” said Alam, who cleaned drains for a private contractor and earned a daily wage. “If the government gives us compensation, we will take it but I don’t have any proof.”
Shadab, for his part, was relieved to have saved one document – his Aadhaar card. “I have always kept it in my pocket since this whole NRC issue started,” he said, unaware that Aadhaar is not a citizenship document and would be of no help were the government to go ahead with the contentious exercise of asking all Indians to prove their citizenship.