On the afternoon of February 24, as communal violence roiled North East Delhi, three men stepped out of their homes. One wanted to look for his child. The others, his long-time neighbours, decided to accompany him in the search.

They briskly walked together the labyrinthine lanes of Brijpuri, where they had lived all their lives, towards the main road that connects Delhi with Uttar Pradesh. As soon as they reached the main road, two of them – 39-year-old Rahis Ahmed and 32-year old Shakir – were rounded up by paramilitary troops of the Rapid Action Force and tossed into a police vehicle.

The third man, 56-year-old Harish Kumar Garg, was let go – according to him, because he told the security personnel he was Hindu.

A photograph of Shakir.

‘They asked me what my name was’

Ahmed is a hawker. Shakir works in the family textile business. Both are currently in Mandoli jail, charged with rioting, carrying deadly weapons, unlawful assembly and destruction of public property.

Garg, who runs a machinery business, said he was a few steps behind when Ahmed and Shakir were apprehended by the security personnel. When they spotted him, the security personnel summoned him as well, he recalled.

“They asked me what my name was. I told them it is Harish Kumar Garg. ‘I am a Hindu...If you don’t believe me, look at these,’” he told Scroll.in, lifting his shirt sleeve to reveal the threads on his wrist, a religious marker that distinguishes Hindus. “Then I lied to them that I was going to fetch my children from school. They said, ‘Go run’. I never went back that side after that.”

Harish Kumar Garg lives in the same lane as Rahis Ahmed and Shakir.

The violence on February 24 had begun as clashes between groups supporting and opposing the new Citizenship Amendment Act. The law, passed by Parliament in December, enables Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from the three neighbouring countries, introducing a religious criterion for Indian citizenship for the first time. Muslims fear it could be used with a future National Register of Citizens to disenfranchise them.

As Hindutva groups mobilised against the largely Muslim protests in North East Delhi, the clashes soon turned into large-scale communal violence. Bullets, stones and petrol bombs flew thick and fast – and many homes and shops went up in flames over the next two days, leaving 53 people dead.

While Hindus blame the police for not acting in time, Muslims accuse it of acting with bias. Several accounts have emerged that raise serious questions over police complicity in the mob violence against Muslims. Garg’s account is important – it suggests police bias extended to even the arrests made.

A photograph of Rahis Ahmed.

Caught in the storm

Garg lives in the same lane as Ahmed and Shakir.

“I was just outside my home when I saw Shakir and Rahis urgently walking out of our lane,” he said, explaining the course of events. “When I asked where they were going, Rahis they were going to look for his child who was playing in the park across the main road. I decided to accompany them because I thought it was not safe for them to go on their own.”

Ahmed’s wife Shahjahan gave the same account. Minutes after safely escorting their daughter back home from her Class 10 board exam centre in Gokulpuri, Ahmed went out looking for their youngest son. “My mother lives across the road in Noor Ilahi, so the children often play in that park and just go their grandmother’s,” she said. “But since there was trouble that day, he decided to go fetch our youngest one who was out.”

Shakir, who lived across the narrow lane from Ahmed’s house, also went along.

According to Shakir’s elder brother Mohammad Farukh, Shakir had frantically called him up from the police van, informing him of his detention. “It was a very brief conversation,” he recalled. “I could hear some screaming and the line went blank after that.”

Later, Farukh would know from Shakir while visiting him in jail that a security trooper, angered by Shakir using his phone, had crushed it with his boots.

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Rahis Ahmed's wife Shahjahan with their children.

Detained, but families not informed

It was only the next day when the violence subsided temporarily that Farukh could visit his brother in prison where he discovered that Ahmed was also with him.

“I only got to know from him that my husband had been taken by the police,” said Shahjahan, referring to Farukh. “Here I am worried sick – I have four children at home, there’s a riot brewing outside and I don’t even know where my husband is.”

The police have so far detained more than 1,000 people, but families of those detained complain that they have not been informed by the police as the law warrants.

On February 27, Ahmed and Shakir were, finally, formally charged and produced in court which remanded them to judicial custody.

The unexpected turn of events has left the families bitter. “We never imagined things would reach such a level,” rued Farukh. “That the police would arrest people on the basis of their religion.”

Garg, for his part, reiterated that Shakir and Ahmed had done nothing wrong. “Those boys, I am telling you, are innocent,” he said.