Mohammed Wasil looks after Masjid Aqsa in the Chaman Park neighbourhood of North East Delhi. Until last fortnight, his duties involved paying the utility bills for the mosque, overseeing its upkeep and keeping it clean. But now another job has been added to that roster: creating fortifications to protect the place of worship from attack.

Wasil matter-of-factly explained the geography of the area. “Just on that side of the road is Shiv Vihar,” he said. “All through the riots there were constant attacks from that side. Many attempts were made to burn down the mosque.”

Wasil’s solution was to build a large, metal gate just outside the lane where the mosque stands. This week, he was overseeing the construction. “No one will come to save our mosque,” said Wasil. “We need to do it ourselves. That’s why we are making this gate.”

Wasil isn’t the only one building barricades. Rocked by a week of communal rioting in the final week of February, several parts of North East Delhi are building metal gates, walling off their neighbourhoods to stay secure in case of any mob attacks.

The metal gates stand as symbols of the fear that still courses through these narrow lanes.

The main purpose of this gate being built in Chaman Park is to protect the mosque. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Still fearful

In Indira Vihar, the fear is still palpable. “We stay up all night guarding out colony,” explained Wasim, who runs runs a plastic moulding unit and would give only one name. “Two days ago, we caught two unidentified people who ran away when we asked who they were.”

During the conversation, the flag march by a paramilitary contingent cleared the main road, as Muslims scurried back inside their lanes. “Every evening the police randomly pick up Muslim boys,” he claimed. “Khauf ka maahaul hai.” There a pall of fear.

One outcome of this alarm is that Indira Vihar, a largely working-class neighbourhood, is acquiring a feature that is a status symbol in the posher parts of Delhi: it is becoming a gated colony.

The barriers are a community effort. “Every person in this colony has paid [Rs] 500-1,000, 2,000” Wasim claimed. “People are paying what they can. If someone can’t pay, they don’t. Everyone realises how important this is. We all saw the riot.”

A gate being built in Indira Vihar. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Building barricades

Bhagirathi Vihar’s gali 13/5 was one of the first places in the area to build a gate. It is the only one that came across that has been painted. Like in other Muslim neighbourhoods, the place is gripped with fear as a result of police raids. “The police is picking up anyone who is Muslim,” one resident said.

But he was hopeful the gate will protect them in case there was a repeat of the violence. “We will shut the gate at the first sign of trouble,” the resident said. “We need to save ourselves. We saw how the police behaved towards Muslims.”

A few lanes down, bakery worker Mohammed Irshad told that the rush to build gates is so high, there is a shortage of labour. Ironically, the construction of gates due to communal tension is being delayed due to communal distrust. Hindu labourers are wary of working in Muslim neighbourhoods.

One of the first gates to come up in this area was in Bhagirathi Vihar. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

A few kilometres away in Brahmpuri gali 10, there are now two metal bars at the mouth of the lane: the first step to gating this Hindu-dominated space. “So many Muslims had gathered there,” said a woman who runs a convenience store, pointing to the mouth of the lane.

“They didn’t come in because we had also gathered here,” she said. “But they kept throwing big stones, glass.”

Over in the adjacent gali 9, the gate is fully ready. The owner of a small restaurant next to it pointed to the road outside his colony and called it a “border”. “This is India and that is Pakistan,” he shrugged. “There were many attacks from that side. That is why we had to build this gate. The police are useless. Everyone loves their life, that’s why this is happening.”

While these gates are permanent, they follow temporary barricades that were put up in the area during the violence.

Forts or cages?

While most residents are convinced about the fortificatory uses of gates, there are some sceptics too. In Mustafabad, the imam of the Masjid-e-ahl-e-bait does not believe the structures will help this area in case there is another riot. “We are surrounded by Hindu areas. Gates won’t help,” argued Maulana Mehdi Hasan. “On the other hand, we will be trapped. It will be like putting someone in a cage.”

Narinder Kumar runs a dry goods store in Brahmapuri and, like Hasan, suddenly broke character to identify flaws with military precision. “What if people get locked out during a riot?” he argued. “Where will they go? Will they be killed?”

Kumar also suspects local corruption. “Local toughs are using this fear to extract money,” he said. “God knows how much is being spent on the gates and how much is being pocketed. Jab time itna kharab hai, to log theek se sochna bandh kar dete hain.”

When times are bad, people stop thinking straight.