This is the third 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.

After the December 15 police violence in Jamia Millia Islamia university, a group of idealistic young lawyers came together to offer pro bono legal service to victims in cases of mass illegal detentions that continued to be carried out of students participating in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. This group of lawyers was able to firm its feet in the ground by the end of the month, owing to a well-established and motivated network of lawyers across the country. So, when the February violence broke out in Delhi, this group of lawyers was swiftly able to assist the survivors.

Apart from the historic midnight intervention on the Delhi High Court to secure the movement of ambulances of critically injured persons, between February 24-26, legal teams were present at various hospitals in order to ensure that the Medico-Legal Certificates of the victims were correctly being recorded and the families of the deceased were assisted in recovering bodies from the hospital authorities.

By February 29, the legal team, along with a medical and relief team, set up a camp in a local school in Mustafabad area of North East Delhi. This was the first legal, medical and relief camp to be set-up in that area; several more would follow in the days to come. Initially, the work of the legal team was largely limited to filling and processing of compensation forms. However, by March 1, when the residents of Shiv Vihar had some access to their houses and shops only to discover that they had been completely burned down, the work expanded to filing of complaints and getting FIRs registered.

By this time, several missing persons reports were also recorded in the legal camps set up by us. The medical camp, which was catering to injuries suffered in the riots, largely perpetrated by the mobs in the presence of the police, has also started redirecting victims to the legal camps to make sure the FIRs recorded the injuries and compensation forms were filled accordingly.

The Citizens Collective for Peace established a medical and legal aid centre for victims of the violence in a school in Mustafabad. Credit: @karwanemohabbat

By March 5, reports of bodies being dumped in the Shiv Vihar naala also started surfacing. A designated team of lawyers was accessing hospitals to help families identify bodies recovered from the naala. Around 10 complaints that were received in the camps were thus concluded when the bodies recovered from the naalas were identified by their next of kin. Since the bodies recovered were all of victims of riots, it was imperative that a proper post-mortem be done and video recorded, in order to record the cause of death. To ensure this, several writ petitions were filed by advocates in the Delhi High Court, wherein the Delhi High Court ordered video recording of the post-mortems being conducted.

The camps continued until March 20, when the city was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this one month, they were able to assist 400+ individuals with their complaints and compensation forms. However, the team observed that “the major police stations – Karawal Nagar, Dayalpur, Khureji Khas, Jaffrabad, Seelampur – started creating obstruction in filing FIRs... Every day, lawyers were compelled to visit these Police Station as the police refused to perform their duty and added to the suffering of the victims. Till date, no individual FIRs have been registered for the said complaints. For the rest, only a handful of omnibus FIRs have been registered, which fail to record the personal losses faced by the victims.”

They added: “Their complaints have, however, been endorsed on these FIRs and attached with them. Till June 2020, the SDM [Sub Divisional Magistrate] Office refused to process compensation forms of victims that had attached a copy of the omnibus FIR.”

Many hurdles

Compensation payments also met with many hurdles. “The government had launched an online portal for filing of complaints, which crashed within the first few days of its launch,” the team reported. “Hence, the victims were forced to fill the forms again, physically, and hand it over to the SDM office, which was overwhelmed with work. Not only were victims turned away when they initially started to visit the SDM office to submit the forms, many of them were returned without giving them any receipt… thus making it impossible for them to follow up with their requests.”

They went on to say, “Some victims, however, eventually received a message with their ‘web ids’, which were later used to track the status of the compensation. However, none of this could be done online and the victims had to keep revisiting the SDM office in order to get any response from the Government. Following the nation-wide lockdown, the victims could not physically access the SDM Office and hence, could not get any updates on the status of their form.”

Even after the lockdown, the situation remained dismal. “Eventually, the SDM office started carrying out verification of the losses and the initial compensation amount of Rs 25,000 was handed over to some of the victims,” the team said. “There have been cases where an amount lower than Rs 25,000 has been handed over to the victims. However, no justification has been provided as to how the said amount has been ascertained.’
It elaborated: “In the initial cases, most of these payments were made in cash. However, till date, there are hundreds of victims who have not received even the initial compensation amount. Apart from that, for the victims who did get the initial compensation amount, the wait to get the full compensation has been endless. Till date, several of them have been calling and visiting the SDM office, only to be told that ‘there are no orders yet from above to release the full amounts.”

The destruction in Shiv Vihar. Credit: @karwanemohabbat

Another team of the Karwan e Mohabbat along with a collective of concerned citizens undertook a detailed mapping of the affected families. They recall the words of 80-year-old Sajjad* in Indra Vihar.

  “Humein kuch nahi chaahie. Mere dil ko bus isi baat se thandak pahonch rahi hai ki akhir koi pooch toh raha hai humein ki hum kaise hai, hamari zaruratein kya hai?”
(“I do not need anything. I am just feeling relieved in my heart that someone at least is asking us how we are, and what we need.”)  

They found that “people from affected areas had fled en masse to relatively safer neighbourhoods or to their hometowns in other states, indicating a large scale forced migration...Localities such parts of Shiv Vihar had been subject to extreme looting and violence, and were completely deserted by their Muslim inhabitants.”

They moved to the safety of Muslim majority settlements, where people “opened their homes and hearts, and absorbed them – giving them spaces within their houses, in madrasas, in unoccupied buildings – without distinguishing between kin and strangers. We called these houses where displaced persons had been hosted ‘private relief camps’. Food and basic amenities were arranged by members of the host community, with multiple individuals coming together to manage community kitchens and host families. People were housed in spare rooms and halls of the larger houses in the area, in unoccupied buildings, and in madrasas.”

In the mapping, they visited each such house – door to door – and noted demographic details, medical and legal needs, mental health status, and immediate relief requirements. Their back-end team linked the on-ground mapping to the relief network. “Information from each private relief camp was geo-tagged, digitised and forwarded to concerned relief teams (medical, relief, psychosocial),” they reported.

To address material needs, the team would relay family specific needs to the various collection centres in Delhi, who would then deliver the required materials. That materials reached every individual household in person was an important aspect of our ethical framework, which focussed on care and empathy. The back-end also conducted follow up calls to each family and private relief camp”.

Complete anguish

Within a day of the mapping exercise, they noted, “it was clear that this was a population in complete psychological anguish. Nearly all families reported that they were facing insomnia, night sweats and other psychosomatic manifestations of post-traumatic stress. A combination of poverty, pre-existing trauma and grief had pushed many to extreme mental distress.

They reported many heart-wrenching stories. For instance: “On the 24th, as the riot came creeping into their street in Shiv Vihar, Akram* and his family escaped to the neighbouring locality of Babunagar, dodging the rioters by a whisker. When we met them a week later, Akram showed us his neck, burnt with a splatter of acid, thrown at him by the rioters to the chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. The family of ten was now living in a small, cramped room that also had a small cooking area on the floor.”

They continued: “Yet, they did not want to move anywhere else for. the fear and trauma they carried from the riots were still palpable. They wanted to stick together, regardless of how difficult it became. … Like all other men in the locality, he had been up all night, keeping watch, for they still feared that rioters could come marching in at any moment. The and three days of violence had taught them to have little faith in the police. When we asked how they were doing physically, they said they were glad that they were alive.”

Four weeks after the riots, when they visited Akram’s family again, they had decided to stay on in Babunagar, “renting the very same place where they first took refuge in. Many landlords in the area have waived off or significantly reduced rent for the survivors. Even though the family has not yet been able to resume their vegetable cart work, they have now decided it to rebuild it from Babunagar. ‘Shiv Vihar mein kuchh nahi bacha hai (there is nothing left for us in Shiv Vihar),’ Akram told us. Akram’s brother however, has decided to return to Shiv Vihar even though their house has been completely burnt.”

Decisions whether to return or not, the team found, was also directed by house ownership. “Families that stayed on rent in Shiv Vihar found it easier to leave the place permanently,” they noted. “While those who owned their burnt or looted houses had more to consider. Some families returned, choosing to count their losses and rebuild their lives. Others said that the hostility they felt from their neighbourhood during the riots was enough to override their sense of belonging to their homes – even if it means abandoning their houses in the near future”.

This, they said, was true for Idris, from Karawal Nagar. “Right before the riot started, Idris was able to escape with his family to a relative’s house in the nearby town of Loni,” the team said. “His Hindu neighbour was however able to keep his documents safe, but the rest of the house was rummaged and looted by the mob. Idris is a self-employed carpenter – as a result of the riot, he has lost his network of clients, his tools and home. Two weeks after the riot, Idris returned to Karawal Nagar to see his house. He said that even though his neighbours insisted that he should return to his home, he does not see himself going back.”

The home of tailors Mumtaz and Akram Ansari and their two daughters. Credit: @karwanemohabba

They conclude that “while the community’s response was commendable, the state government remained missing in the days they were needed the most. Even when it stepped in after due criticism and advocacy efforts, it was grossly inadequate. Their decision to open only nine night-shelters as ‘camps’ reflected a deliberate ignorance of reality. Over and above displacing the homeless persons already residing there, these nine shelters would only house about 700-800 people – when mapping in our limited area alone revealed 3,000 displaced. The displaced families could not expect much from a hostile central government. However, the sense of betrayal engendered by the state government was far more pronounced, for many of these families recounted being taunted by their assaulters for how they voted in the state government elections just weeks before the violence.”

The team noted: “A return to normalcy is only a pipe dream to the community and survivors – their lives will always be split into before and after the riots. When life returned to the deserted streets, large iron gates also began appearing at every street in the area – some even coloured like the Indian flag. These new performative borders are probably the new normal. As the country went into lockdown owing to Covid-19, the disruption and structural violence faced by the community has only been prolonged. With the civil society having to limit their work, it is imperative that the government, both state and central, step up and protect the community from another round of loss and grief.”

This is part three 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.