On February 23, vicious communal violence broke out in Northeast Delhi and continued for three days. Homes were set on fire, vehicles blasted, neighbourhoods looted and over a dozen mosques vandalised. Though Hindus faced loss of life and property, the brunt of the violence was borne by the Muslim community.
A month later, the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 was implemented on March 25. Before long, media and state narratives began to claim that Muslims were “super carriers” of the coronavirus. By then, media persons had mostly disappeared from the riot-torn areas.
Northeast Delhi, one of India’s most densely-populated districts according to the last census, is a microcosm of the community’s livelihood patterns. Data shows that most Muslim workers are self-employed in the unorganised sector. Participation in salaried jobs is abysmally low. With the lockdown, the vast majority of people here have lost their sources of income.
I spent three days catching up with the people I had met during the violence, nearly 75 days earlier, to find out how the victims – beaten, profiled, isolated, and largely abandoned by the state – had been surviving, from riots to lockdown.
Scenes from riot-torn areas
Zardozi is an elaborate form of embroidery. The process involves craftsmen sitting cross-legged over a wooden frame with fabric stretched across it, using hooks and needles to create patterns with gold wire and sequins. Until a few months ago, Mohammad Qasim used to own a tiny zardozi unit in the Jafrabad neighbourhood, where he embroidered lehengas and sold them to big showrooms in the national capital.
Around three weeks ago, he opened a grocery shop and is now distributing rations to those in need. Most of the skilled zardozi workers from Bareilly and Rampur in Uttar Pradesh who worked for Qasim were able to leave for home, but some got left behind.
Qasim’s friend Babbu Malik is a community leader and businessman who used to trade in ready-made garments. He dealt in jackets made from nylon polyester fabric imported from China. They were manufactured in Jafrabad and sold all over India. Now, the entire supply chain has been snapped.
Malik has dipped into his reserves and along with his friends, started distributing food packets for free. “It is the month of Ramzan when those who can, will give,” said Malik. “Inshallah [God willing], no one will starve in the neighbourhood.”
Similarly, Haji Waseem Ansari a garment manufacturer who had to shut his unit employing a few hundred workers, says he is getting frequent distress calls from those in need. He says it is God’s will that he give whole-heartedly this Ramzan. Nadeem Siddiqui, who runs a small transport business, spends his days procuring edible goods from wholesale markets to distribute in Jafrabad.
Jafrabad has a thriving middle class, which makes such acts of charity possible. But in neighbourhoods like Mustafabad, there seem to be few signs of hope. Burkha-clad women walk up to visitors and ask whether they are social workers and can they help. Many are widows, while others emerge as men find it humiliating.
“From working with my hands, I now have to hold out my hands,” said an out-of-work tailor.
There are complaints that amid the despondency, a “survival of the fittest” hierarchy is emerging, with local thugs dominating the food distribution chain. Ali Mirza, a builder, probably distributes food packets only because a man of his stature is expected to do so during the holy month. When a woman comes to his doorsteps to return the spoilt food she had been handed, Mirza asked his staff to send her away.
At food distribution outlets run by the state, the quality of the food is abysmal. “We are only alive because we are now eating what dogs eat, as we have no money to buy anything,” said the caretaker of a mosque.
The Mustafabad lane leads to Shiv Vihar, the neighbourhood worst-hit by the riots. On February 26, I had met Salman Ansari, a welder who fled when his rented home and workshop were burnt down. The only help he has received has not been from the state, but from some activists who transferred money into his account. He came to meet me in Mustafabad with his infant daughter, coincidentally named Saba.
He led me through winding lanes to the room where he now lives with his wife and two daughters. It is his third home in two months. The first was in a relief camp that was abruptly shut down due to Covid-19; the second, a room where he could not afford the rent. He said he would never return to Shiv Vihar.
The absent state
Reyazuddin used to distribute toast made in a local bakery. After his home on Street Number 18 was burnt down in the riots, he got an interim relief amount of Rs 25,000. He was forced to leave the relief camp where he was staying with his family of six, including his aging mother after the lockdown. He had no choice but to return to his burnt home.
In early February, during the Delhi elections, Reyazuddin had been enthusiastically rooting for the Aam Aadmi Party MLA Haji Yunus. Now, he says, he realises that no one really cares.
The Delhi state government has been distributing cooked food on the premises of Manoj Public School, located opposite the destroyed Medina Masjid. But Reyazuddin’s family has been fasting during Ramzan and the food is distributed at a time when they cannot eat it – at 11 am and 6 pm. However, he is grateful to volunteers of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, who distributed 10 kg wheat, five kg rice, oil, dal and dates to break the fast.
Shiv Vihar is filled with burnt homes, soot-covered streets and filthy open drains from which corpses were pulled out. Here and in Mustafabad, there is a daily struggle for survival.
Meanwhile, even amid lockdown, the government has arrested more than 20 people for participating in the Citizenship Amendment Act protests. Residents of Jafrabad say the state sees them as enemies. They say they are treated like terrorists, cut off, adrift, surviving one day at a time.