“It was as if someone threw boiling hot water on me,” said the 23-year-old. He removed his shirt to reveal flesh-coloured scabs that stretched from the right side of his upper back to his right ear and down his right arm. He could not stop himself from scratching the wounds, which itched madly as they healed.

Nearly 20 days after rioting mobs in North East Delhi’s Khajuri Khas area flung acid on him, the pain is still fresh in his mind. “I cried so much,” he said “I do not know what they would have done to me if they caught me.” He is still so fearful he does not want to reveal his name.

From February 23 to 26, violence engulfed neighbourhoods in North East Delhi. What started as a clash between groups protesting against the new Citizenship Amendment Act and those supporting it turned into communal violence, much of it directed against Muslims. At least 53 were killed in the violence and hundreds injured.

For days, hospitals in Delhi were flooded with the dead and the injured. Their injuries told the story of the violence: gunshot wounds, stabs and burns. Some also bore wounds that spoke of acid attacks. At Al Hind Hospital in North East Delhi’s Mustafabad, at least three cases are marked as “acid attack”. Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Dilshad Garden recorded four such cases, Newslaundry reported.

MA Anwar, founder of Al Hind Hospital, told Scroll.in that the chemical substance used was “strong acid”. He classified some of the injuries sustained by victims as second degree burns. “The body mass melted away and the injuries were very deep,” he said. “Most of these patients still come to change their dressing.”

The acid attack left deep injuries on the 23-year-old's upper back and right arm. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

A perilous walk

The 23-year-old, a daily wage labourer, is now back in his home in Old Mustafabad. On the morning of February 24, he had stepped out dressed for prayer – plain white kurta and pajama, with a white skull cap. He headed to the Idgah in Old Delhi’s Kasabpura area, where there was a prayer meeting. When the prayers ended, he had taken an auto rickshaw and reached Kashmere Gate around 1.30 pm.

As word of violence in North East Delhi spread, no auto driver at Kashmere Gate would agree to take him to Khajuri Khas. “The roads were empty that day,” he recalled. Finally, an auto dropped him off at Usmanpur, close to Khajuri Khas and connected to the Pushta Road, an arterial thoroughfare in the area.

As the 23-year-old walked down the road towards Khajuri Khas, he found himself in the company of around 15 others. Like him, they had gone to the Kasabpura mosque and could not get home. On the other side of the road, he said, there were around 60 men armed with sticks and iron rods, their faces covered with scarves. It was around 3.30 pm, he recalled, they were chanting “Jai Shri Ram!” and shouting “maro unhe”. Beat them.

“They saw us and came towards us chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and we started to run,” he said. They ran past the Khajuri Khas flyover and a police post. “There was a lot of stone pelting and they caught two to three people who ran with us,” he claimed.

As he entered Khajuri Khas, he felt something on the right side of his upper back. The threads of his kurta melted away and he took it off as his upper back burned.

He kept running, not turning back to see who his attackers were. “I had to save my life,” he said. By then, the group he was running with had also scattered. As he entered Bhajanpura, a nearby locality, he was stopped by local residents who told them there was violence up ahead. “They were Hindu and they told me not to enter,” he said. “They guided me to Mustafabad through Chand Bagh.”

As he entered his locality, neighbours noticed the injuries on his back and took him to Al Hind Hospital around 8pm. A doctor poured cold milk over his injuries and rubbed the burnt skin with ice. “I have never experienced such pain before,” said the 23-year-old. The scabs still hurt, he added, and made it difficult for him to sleep on his right side.

He was discharged from Al Hind Hospital on March 3 and sent to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital to get his medico-legal certificate, a mandatory document in medical cases that warrant police investigation. The certificate, viewed by Scroll.in, states that the burns on the right side of his upper back, right arm, around his right knee and right ear were caused by the use of acid.

On March 9, he sent a complaint letter to Shastri Park police station narrating the alleged attack and requested the police to file a first information report. The same day, he received a notice under Section 160 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which empowers police officers to summon witnesses, requesting him to present himself at the police station to give his statement. He did not go to the station but on March 11, he submitted his statement to the police through his lawyers.

Mohammad Khurshid wore the same shirt as he did on February 24. The acid, he said, created holes in his shirt. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

An attack from above

Twenty-two-year old Mohammad Khurshid was also allegedly attacked with acid at Khajuri Khas on February 24. Like others, he had also gone to attend prayers at the Idgah in Kasabpura. He also had trouble getting back to his home in Old Mustafabad.

Around 11 am that morning, a bus dropped off four of his friends and him at Pushta Road near Khajuri Khas. Once they crossed the Khajuri Khas flyover, he said, they saw a mob armed with stones, rods and sticks had gathered. “Their faces were covered with scarves and they chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram!’” said Khurshid, a construction worker who earns Rs 9,000 per month.

Within seconds, a glass bottle smashed into his head, sending drops of acids down his eyes and chest, said Khurshid. “It was very sudden,” he recounted. “It was from the second floor of a building that was someone’s house. My head was hurt. It was a cold drink bottle.” Khurshid started to bleed from his head and fainted on the road.

He was taken to Al Hind Hospital by his friend, Mohammad Ihjaz, who was part of the group fleeing the mob that day, and was discharged the same day. Khurshid said the acid had spread around his eyes. “It burned and I was not able to open them for two days,” he said.

A medico-legal certificate issued by Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital on March 5 and viewed by Scroll.in states that he had burns caused by “throwing acid”. They had caused lesions around the macular region, or the eyes, and around his shoulder.

Khurshid said he does not want to file a complaint.

The scars on Anam's neck. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

‘Ammi, my eyes are burning’

At the relief camp set up in the Mustafabad Eidgah, 20-year-old Anam is recovering from her injuries. “It itches more than it hurts,” she said. The lower part of her face and her neck bear scars, acquired when marauding mobs allegedly attacked their house in Shiv Vihar on February 25.

They lived in Gali Number 13 in Shiv Vihar’s Phase 6, down the road from Medina Masjid, which was also desecrated in the violence. The family ran a grocery store from the ground floor of the two-storeyed house. Anam’s mother, 40-year-old Mumtaz Begum, recalls hearing gas cylinders bursting on the main road running through the neighbourhood on February 25. Around 8 pm, Mumtaz recounted, her husband, 52-year-old Mohammad Waqil, went up to the terrace to see if the violence had stopped.

“I told him we should leave but he said, ‘Are you mad? This is our house, we have our family and our goats here – where will we go?’” Mumtaz said. “He said we would leave only after we saw what was happening from the terrace.”

There was no electricity that night, Mumtaz said, so her daughter, her husband and she climbed to the terrace in darkness. As Waqil and Anam looked out from the terrace, she waited inside in the staircase.

Anam said she heard the mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram!” and Mumtaz said she could see smoke billowing out from houses in the neighbourhood – “there was fire everywhere”. Within minutes, a glass bottle landed on Waqil’s face, spilling acid on his eyes and on Anam’s mouth, chin and neck, Mumtaz said.

“I could not see if the acid came from below or from the front but it was so quick,” Mumtaz said. “We had not even been up there for 10 minutes. It was very sudden.”

Once the acid touched her face, Anam ran towards her mother. “I thought dirt had got into my eye but it was acid,” she said. Her mother wiped the substance off Anam’s face with her scarf. “She kept saying ‘Ammi, my face is burning’,” recalled Mumtaz.

Waqil, however, was rooted to the spot. As Mumtaz went closer, she said, she saw blood oozing from his face. “I could not understand where the blood on his face came from,” she said.

That was when the family, including Anam’s brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad Wasim, 14-year-old Mohammad Naseem and their uncle, Shakeel, decided it was time to leave their home. The six of them and another neighbour began to walk towards Medina Masjid.

The mosque was deserted, save for another neighbour who said he was trapped there, Mumtaz recalled. The family hid in the mosque even as mobs bore down on it, setting gas cylinders alight. Till 2am that night, Mumtaz kept calling the police on 100 but no one answered her calls. Meanwhile, Waqil had fallen silent. In despair, Mumtaz said, she started to pray: “I was praying to Allah to get us out of there safely or bury us along with the debris of the mosque.”

Around 3am, the family decided to venture out of the mosque. A neighbour had called and asked them to reach the main road running through the neighbourhood and walk towards Chaman Park, a Muslim-majority locality nearby. “When we got out, we saw everything was vandalised and burning,” Mumtaz said.

At 5am on February 26, Mumtaz called an ambulance from Chaman Park. It was to take Waqil and Anam to the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital at Delhi Gate. Anam was discharged on February 29. Waqil continues to receive treatment at the hospital.

Mumtaz Begum's complaint copy at Karawal Nagar police station.

Orders not to speak

Doctors at the hospital, who did not wish to be named, told Scroll.in that both father and daughter had “chemical burns” and that Waqil was unable to open his eyes. They said they had been instructed by the Delhi government not to reveal any information about the case. Police keeping the register of medico-legal cases at the hospital also refused to reveal details.

Nearly two weeks after the attack, Mumtaz said that Waqil was still not able to speak much. “He only speaks to say he has a headache,” she said. She pointed to the area between her eyebrows to indicate where the acid had burnt Waqil’s flesh. “He had such big eyes but now he is not even able to open them,” she said. “His hands have turned black because he has lost so much blood.”

When Mumtaz went back to Shiv Vihar on March 8, she found their house burned, their jewellery stolen and their shop looted. On March 9, Mumtaz filed a complaint at the Karawal Nagar police station, requesting them to file a first information report and investigate the rioters who allegedly threw acid on Waqil and Anam on February 25 and destroyed their property.

Scroll.in has reached out to Delhi Police spokesperson MS Randhawa about the total number of acid attack cases during the riots but is yet to receive a response. According to a report on February 26, the police had confirmed four cases. Both Mumtaz and the 23-year-old said the police had not filed FIRs on their complaints. The local police were not available for comment.

Meanwhile, at the relief camp, Anam spends her time with friends at the camp or watching videos on TikTok as her scars heal. “Whatever happened that day happened,” she said. “I still have to laugh. It is not as if things will become alright if I start crying.”