This is the second part of a series on a civil society report into the Delhi riots in February put together by a team of about 30 young people who answered the Karwan e Mohabbat’s call for volunteers to run a rescue helpline.
I first begin with the report of the ragtag rescue team of largely young men and women that began work in our office and then did not sleep for 72 hours. With “neither the experience nor the infrastructure, but only the heart to fill in the gap left by the state”, they established a makeshift control room, responding to distress calls that started pouring in once the helpline numbers from the group were made public, shared by other civil society groups as well and so on and so forth.
They recall that the first few hours of the first night (February 25) were the worst. “With the police high command being largely unresponsive and inert, the only option was to call the distressed person, take down the details, dial 100, press upon the necessity to send force immediately, note down the CRN number and their verbal commitment (to at least leave a digital trace)…. As there was no concrete assurance from the higher ups in terms of facilitating the rescue and relief efforts, we were left with no choice but to knock on the doors of the judiciary. After the Justice Murlidhar order we finally got the opportunity to work in coordination with higher ups in the police which facilitated rescue. From late night till 26th day time it seems close to 600-800 odd people were rescued in the process.”
Notes from a riot
Here are some of their notes. “We spoke to a family from Shiv Vihar at 9.13 pm in response to a distress call. It was one amongst the several such distress messages we received from across North East Delhi on that night. Some were trapped on their terrace while rioters prowled in the galis. Some could see houses in their neighbourhood being torched. Kamran* said that about 20 of them were trapped in a house, nine of them children. He spoke in a hushed voice while he tried to tide over his panic.
It needed constant follow up for the next eight hours or so by the rescue team to keep track of their whereabouts and to coordinate with the police to organize a rescue. The police finally was shaken into action after a dramatic midnight petition heard by the Delhi High Court.
Even as six-seven security personnel were attempting to escort them to safety, the rioters tried to attack the group which had grown in numbers as more of those distraught had huddled along. We heard that they had to retreat and were hiding near a shamshanghat as the force requested for reinforcement. Finally, at 5.34 am we received confirmation from Kamran* that they had reached safe grounds under protection. By then, the group had swelled to nearly 500-600 distraught souls. Kamran* was crying in relief and disbelief as he made it to Chaman Park unharmed.”
“We spoke to Afreen* the next morning, the 26th at 8.55 am. She was anxious and spoke very softly. Two families remained in hiding right above a vandalised shop. For the whole of [February] 24th and 25th day and night they did not move, didn’t make a sound, didn’t switch on their lights and barely ate just so that the goons wouldn’t notice. Her father had over the course of the last two days made frantic calls to the police over and over again, but to no avail.
“When we spoke to her on 26th morning, she was panicking as she suspected that the outsiders had noticed their presence and they wanted immediate evacuation. We dialled 100 at 9.10 am and immediately took this on priority basis with the DCP [Deputy Commission of Police]. Since the court hearing the night before, we stayed in close touch with the DCP and he supported us in facilitating several of the rescue efforts thereafter. In this instance, at 9.48 am all 16 of them were rescued and brought to the police station. When we called them last on March 5, they had gone back only to see their flat, but they still preferred to stay the night at their relative’s place at Chandbagh out of fear.”
“Tapan* along with five other migrant workers were stuck in Mustafabad. They worked in a small factory or workshed nearby. They and their Muslim landlord were scared for their safety. With no roots in the area, they are generally transient and thereby particularly vulnerable. It took six hours of constant follow ups to ensure that they reached the nearest police station safely. In another case Jamal* and six other migrant workers from Bengal were trapped in a factory in Mustafabad and were finally escorted out to the railway station by the police after hours of follow up by the rescue team. The rescue team, composed of volunteers of many faiths and even atheists, did not for a moment make a distinction between victims based on their religion”.
And they recorded many stories of solidarity, of courage.
“We got calls in which neighbours not only gave shelter but also stood tall in front of violent mob of their own religion going to the extent of putting their own lives at risk. One of the callers from Loni informed us that a Hindu neighbour who had given shelter to him was being called ‘gaddar’ [a traitor] by the mob and that they would ‘settle scores’ later.
“An old Muslim, Iqbal* man was given shelter by a Hindu acquaintance, Kamlesh, in Mustafabad. In the middle of the crisis, the Hindu acquaintance was both scared of their fate if the miscreants found out, while at the same time he was unwilling to let him go and put him in harm’s way. Iqbal just needed to be reunited with his family who was in a pocket that was safe that was just two blocks away. When we reached out to the police, they said they are willing to rescue Iqbal and bring him to the nearest police station. They wanted his family to reach the police station and take Iqbal back home. But Iqbal would not want his family to risk themselves and come out of their pocket that was relatively peaceful. The maneuvering took four to five hours as we negotiated between the three parties and finally the police agreed to escort Iqbal to the safe custody of his house.
“In yet another case, a Hindu family was stuck in a Muslim neighbourhood and was threatened by a few miscreants who were then dispersed by the local community elders. They also guaranteed safety to the family.
“Hamid* who took shelter at Chaman Park with his family called his neighbour Amit* to get some milk for his baby from Shiv Vihar. Amit* came in his scooty till the pulia [bridge] over the naala and handed over the milk to the police cordon that separated the Muslim areas from the Hindu neighbourhood across the naala.”
Another young team tried to handle the medical emergencies. It began with the now-iconic story of the injured men at the Al Hind hospital, who were rescued after the midnight intervention of Justice Murlidhar.
“They are not letting the relatives enter the ambulance. Ma’am please do something. They are beating them up,” a doctor from Al-Hind Hospital was calling, they recalled. One ambulance driver was able to transport one patient from the small-overburdened Al-Hind Hospital in Mustafabad to LNJP Hospital near Delhi Gate, although he was chased by a mob. He was willing to transport 20 other gravely injured patients, but he called saying that a group of people were following the ambulance with swords and sticks. He was left with no choice but to escape.
Eventually, the ambulance reached LNJP safely. “Over a frantic, broken call from the doctor at the hospital, we learnt that the police were beating up the relatives who were accompanying them . We were also told that they were reopening the wounds of victims to check whether patients were actually injured as they claimed.”
“They tried to set up a team of medico-social workers, lawyers and few committed doctors who could visit the government hospitals to assist the survivors through the complex administrative and medico-legal process. They had many shocking encounters with the hospital staff, ridden with communal prejudice. To take one example: “On the intervening night of 25th and 26th, at 2 am, a patient with acid injury was brought into LNJP hospital. The treatment however only started the next day, afternoon. According to him, whenever treatment was demanded one of the common responses from the guards and police in hospitals was that the patients, once treated, would again start chanting ‘Aazadi’!”
“The medico-social worker recollected that out of 36 patients he met 18 cases were of bullet injuries in GTB Hospital alone. People with serious bullet injuries were told that removing the bullets immediately would damage their internal organs and hence it would be better to keep it. Four of such patients were discharged and asked to come back after two months. All four of them are now being treated at a private hospital with the help of a volunteer without any cost and two of them are successfully recovering from the surgery after removal of the bullets.
“He also recollects that none of the patients with bullets inside their body received an ambulance after they were discharged from hospital. There were also delays in getting Medico legal certificates from both the hospitals where the Muslim patients were explicitly told by the hospital administration that ‘Whatever had to happen happened, now there is no point registering complaints’. There was clear hostility on the hospital administration against the presence of lawyers and medical social workers by the Hospital administration who even threatened legal action against them because they were helping the injured access rights.
“It is also important to note that many minor injuries such as bruises, cuts etc did not convert into medico-legal cases, on most occasions, they were simply handed discharge slips as their only proof of treatment and injury.”
They also found that “after going through the gruelling experience of identifying charred and decomposed bodies relatives of victims had face inordinate delays and hostile hospital administration to get the bodies released. A few were calling for a vehicle to take them back to their home after they got discharged. We dialed emergency ambulance number 102 several times but they refused to take escort injured discharged cases to a place of safety. Private ambulances or any other private vehicles were hard to arrange and in most cases volunteers were left with no choice but to prioritize serious cases. On many occasions, seriously injured patients were sent home in autos, taxis and private transport as ambulances were either unavailable or unwilling to help the injured.”
“The relatives of many deceased were forced to run helter skelter searching for the dead bodies from one hospital to the other since hospitals had refused to release the details and descriptions of the deceased. While the lawyers ensured that the procedure was followed in the rest of the five cases, in three cases where the bodies were unidentifiable, they had to further move to the court to get an order insisting on DNA testing for evidence. While the samples were taken in as early as 28th February, it took over a month for the hospital to release the DNA reports to the families who had to wait for cremation and last rites”.
Struggles for treatment
This team concludes: “As of today, 38 deaths have been reported from the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, 3 at Lok Nayak Hospital, 1 at Jag Parvesh Chander Hospital & 4 at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. The official acknowledgement till date is of 53 deaths. Of the 38 deaths reported from the hospital, 22 (58 percent) were brought dead. But the toll of injured was almost 200 patients, out of which the team of volunteers could reach out to only a minuscule proportion.
“The four recovering patients who were refused surgery to remove the bullets from their body were lucky, however it has to be acknowledged that there is no mechanism as big as the state to reach out to several hundreds of people who still need medical help.
“A small clinic like Al-Hind with one trained physician had to take in hundreds of injured people in the absence of ambulances. The hostility of the police officers prevented the majority of them from seeking medical help even after several days of the attack.
“Many volunteers recollected the biases and struggles to get basic medical treatment from the hospital. At each instance, starting from allowing the ambulances to North-East Delhi, getting the medication, requesting documents after discharge, finding the dead bodies and identifying the dead bodies, the group had to repeatedly approach the court for any favourable action from the government. Several of the survivors are still homeless fearing another epidemic. It would be the gravest violation of human rights in recent years if the state continues to turn it back on hundreds of these survivors.”
*Names changed to protect identities.
This is part two of a five-part series on the Delhi riots. Read the other parts here.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.
The full version of the report “Chronicling Truth, Countering Hate” by Karwan e Mohabbat can be accessed here.