This is the fifth part of a series on a civil society report about 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.
Intensely worrying news of outbreaks of communal violence in North East Delhi started pouring in from the evening of February 23. By the morning of February 24, we began to receive desperate phone calls and text messages of people trapped in the violence. Like many peace-loving people in the city of Delhi, I spent the whole morning feeling restless and helpless as we got messages from friends and colleagues about the worsening situation in the area and the lack of police response. By in the middle of the afternoon of February 24, I could not bear it any more.
My very young lawyer colleagues made a brave and idealistic decision to go to North East Delhi. My colleagues came back scarred with images of a targeted violence that they will never forget. It was the first communal violence episode that they had seen in their lives. I had seen riots as a young child with my father in the districts of Madhya Pradesh, and had volunteered as a teenager after the Gujarat 2002 carnage. But I too was deeply shaken by the brutality and ferocity of the violence.
The television media painted a picture of two equal group of rioters hurling stones sticks and guns in pitched battles against each other. This was perhaps partly true for the first 24 hours of the violence. All of that changed on the night of February 24 when the first images of tyre burning in Gokulpuri infiltrated our surcharged WhatsApp world.
As part of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat team, many of us wondered what we could do to help. By the morning of February 25, it was clear that the police were doing little to control the riots, which were from then on clearly targeting Muslim residents. As a lawyer, I wondered what would be the best option.
After a fitful night, I woke up wanting to do something, anything in my power to diffuse the situation and help people in distress. That afternoon my young colleagues in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat team along with para medical workers tried to enter the area first to ensure emergency medical aid to the injured people.
I parked my car at the curb of the Seelampur flyover, next to a small shop that sold samosas. This was also where many of the television crews had congregated, screaming into their microphones and cameras, telling the world about the riots that were taking place in North East Delhi. Comforted by the fact that the media were around, I decided that we should walk past the barricades towards Jafrabad metro station, which I assumed was the nearest one to the riot-hit areas, considering that all the press was stationed at that spot.
A fake calm
A few hundred metres later, I realised that the press were speaking from a spot that was at least a kilometre away from Jaffrabad metro station, which had turned into a battle of prestige for both groups. We reached Jafrabad station only to find a restless fake calm. Groups of young people talking, commenting, screaming at anyone who would listen, surrounded by many police men in riot gear.
My colleague Pradeep (name changed) asked me to take everyone away from there. He said that he had walked all the way from Jafrabad to Maujpur metro station only to be heckled, threatened and questioned. What we found was that the police had created a barricade and blocked both sides of the road from Jafrabad station. But the protestors sitting at the station had taken over only one side of the road.
At the protest site I found a large group of women still sitting bravely and determinedly in peaceful non-violent dharna with many young men from the Muslim community now creating a perimeter of security for the women. Between the Jafrabad metro station and the Maujpur station was a police-created “no person land”. At Maujpur were hundreds of men with saffron hairbands and flags shouting slogans against the people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, ready with rocks, stones, tridents, pipes and other objects that could be used as weapons and projectiles.
Jafrabad metro station was essentially sandwiched between the saffron brigade and the police. Even while we were waiting, wondering how we could move ahead, many of my colleagues and other young lawyers continued to receive distress messages asking us for help and intervene. One call was about GTB Hospital where we were informed that the injured were being barred from accessing to treatment. We decided to rush to GTB Hospital. While leaving, we noticed over 22 Delhi Transport Corporation and other buses parked near the Deputy Police Commissioner’s Office, all packed with police and paramilitary personnel.
Pradeep and I dropped some of my colleagues at GTB Hospital to help the injured approach the doctors in the emergency. We rushed to Jyoti Nagar Police Station where we were informed that over 22 people including women and children were detained. All we had was a name of the desperate caller and a mobile number that we couldn’t connect with.
When we reached the police station, we found the officials were unhelpful, unwilling to share information about the rescued people, even denying the presence of any hostile mob. I became extremely suspicious, given the behaviour of Delhi Police over the previous few months. I pulled out my Bar Council Identification Card, which helped me get some information about the people and access to the boy whose name I had.
He told me that the police had rescued four families after the masjid in the Ashok Nagar area had been set on fire. The group there was frightened, wary of the police and sought help. I promised to return with help, unsure if that was even possible.
Pradeep and I started getting calls from other lawyers and activists about the growing distress at Jaffrabad metro station. We decided to head back there. Even as we were walking towards the station, there were very few press people walking to the protest site or talking to the public to understand what had caused the standoff, mainly mouthing the news that “sources” – obviously police sources – wanted them to convey.
Beside us were hundreds of police personnel marching to metro station. We could hear gun fire in the distance. People running helter-skelter. We were informed that the police had fired tear gas on the people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act at the Jafrabad metro station and that there had been some injuries. We rushed to see if there were injured women or if we could help with police negotiations.
By the time we reached, we found journalists from Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and NDTV were at the protest site, recording the incidents as they unfolded. This included an appeal by the Deputy Commission of Police and some senior religious leaders to the protestors to move. Since the police and senior religious leaders were already present and involved in negotiations, we did not feel that we served any purpose.
We went to GTB Hospital to pick up our colleagues and find a secure way of reaching home. By then, many of us were beginning to feel nervous about being in a riot situation with smoke bellowing, sirens screaming and empty roads and a continuous barrage of distress messages from people on WhatsApp.
I told my colleagues that I would drop them to a cab or metro station, but I would go back and try and help the people in Jyoti Nagar police station. Everyone insisted on coming with me at least as far as the police station. I persuaded most of them to go back from there.
At the police station, I found that the young student with whom we had connected had been able to arrange for transport to go home, leaving behind very poor daily-wage workers and their families. These people were worried about the safety of their children and wanted a safe passage to go home. By the time we reached the police station, there was already another group of three young people including a lawyer who were waiting for us outside, frustrated at the highhandedness of the police.
Shruti (name changed), the lawyer, informed me that the police were unwilling to send the frightened women, men and children to a place of safety. Given the situation outside and the distrust of the people there of the police, we were worried about leaving them behind.
Meanwhile outside, the people waiting were getting very nervous as men in civilian clothes kept patrolling the area on bikes. One such group decided to stop and speak to us. It was seeming increasingly unsafe. We were running out of options and I started worrying immensely for the well-being of all the people there – the people who wanted to travel to safety, and my colleagues who were still with me.
After giving personal assurance of safety to the station house officer who refused to make any additional efforts to send the frightened persons to safety, we finally packed the 19 people into a Maruti Eeco, two persons on a bike and eight of us in a Maruti Celerio, and we all headed out for a nerve-racking adventure. All of the people wanted to be dropped to Loni border with Uttar Pradesh, so we insisted that the full cavalcade would drive with them.
When we reached the border, we found that it was closed. There was high police presence and intense checking. The 19 people got extremely scared. A volunteer named Anvesha and I got out to ask directions from a young, handsome policeman holding a tear-gas gun. We appealed to both his chivalry and vanity and he gave us another route to enter Uttar Pradesh. We dropped all the families one by one to their places of safety, many whom call me even today to inform me of their safety and whereabouts.
Mapping the distress
After dropping everyone to their destinations, I ventured my way back to the office. I reached at around 8.30 pm, only to find the office, bustling with noise, full of people and smells of chai. I did not know that there had been a call put out to create a citizen control room to respond to distress calls and organise rescues. Around 30 young people, maybe more – students, activists, professionals, homemakers – had gathered there to help. I knew some, but had never met many others. They have now become loved friends. Some were answering distress calls, others were making tea, all there in solidarity, anguish and love.
It was from a rescue team receiving and mapping calls of distress that I learnt that one such most desperate call was from one Al Hind Hospital in Mustafabad area. That one distress call would change many lives – including mine – and the trajectory of the violence, which is why a doctor who did his duty is being harassed by the police today.
By the time I had arrived at the office, there had been repeated calls and messages circulating about Al Hind Hospital and the increasing numbers of injured. We were told that no ambulances were agreeing to go to the violence-affected area. After many many calls to various ambulance services, one agreed to go to Mustafabad and pick up the injured. At that point, I personally had no idea about many things – the geography of North East Delhi, Al Hind Hospital or Dr MA Anwar. In fact, I met Dr Anwar for the first time, a few weeks after the incident, but that story is for happier times.
We got a desperate call from the ambulance driver that the police was not allowing him entry into the area. I spoke to the paramilitary jawan on duty who informed me that he had no orders to let any civilian vehicle into the area. We then decided to call a doctor at the Centralised Ambulence Trauma Services and after some persuasion, they had one vehicle driver who agreed to go to North East Delhi.
After sometime, the volunteer pursuing this call, got a desperate call from the CATS driver that he had been arrested and the vehicle and he were brought to the Dayalpur police station. The station informed us that they had orders to stop every vehicle, including ambulances. The station house officer was unavailable. We tried contacting the Deputy Commissioner of Police but to no avail.
Al Hind Hospital had many badly injured people, who they had no capacity to treat. If they did not get to a bigger hospital, they would die. Some had already died. But rioting mobs would not allow passage to the ambulances. Instead, they threatened to stone the vehicles, and beat up the drivers, attendants and patients.
A situation that began that afternoon with two injured patients when the first distress call was documented had resulted in two dead and 22 injured by the time the ambulance arrived.
A nervous phone call
At that point, it was 10.30 pm. Some of us lawyers and law students were desperately working on an application to move the duty magistrate to get access to the police station. The compounding of the vehicle was devastating. It also dawned on us that this affected more than one police station and thus decided – ambitiously, maybe recklessly – to move the Delhi High Court. If the 22 lives had to be saved, we could not wait until the morning. We had to approach the court that night itself. Indeed, every passing minute could mean lives lost.
We looked at getting hold of the chief justice but we saw online that the cause list said that the senior two judges were not sitting the next day. This left us with the option of calling Justice S Murlidhar.
I nervously made the call. Hesitant at first, I cut it immediately. I looked to a volunteer I had never met before and told him it that it was past 11 pm. I asked him “Is it okay to call?” His words gave me the confidence that drives me even today, “Ab nahi call karenge toh kab? [If not now, then when?] People are dying around us!”
I called again. It was a long ring. The line was answered by someone. I explained to him why I needed to speak to the judge. He then connected me to Justice Murlidhar. Stammering, I told him that we couldn’t connect to the registry and that there was an urgent need to ambulances to enter Al Hind Hospital. He was gentle and reassuring. He told me that someone from the registry would call me.
I honestly expected not to be called that night. I thought that we would be first in the cause list that morning. But within half an hour, I did receive a call from the registry. The official told me to come with a note, even if it was handwritten, to Justice Murlidhar’s house by midnight. He informed us that Justice AJ Bhambani was also going to be present. By then, a talented young lawyer, Aman (name changed) helped prepared the draft. Aman and I hurried to get everything in order and rushed in our car to the residence of the High Court judge. We reached at 11.45 pm as the roads were quite empty that winter night.
I paced nervously outside. Aman and my colleague Anil (name changed) kept telling me it would be fine. We walked in at midnight to the house and found that both judges were waiting for us in Justice Murlidhar’s drawing room. Both of them smiled at us reassuringly, perhaps they could see us shivering to our bones. Justice Murlidhar informed us that he has called Advocate Sanjay Ghose, the Joint Commissioner of Police for North East Delhi, the Deputy Commissioner of Police and the police legal liaison to be present for hearing.
They all walked in at 12.30 am. I remember the police persons explaining the situation and their role in controlling and curbing the violence. The judges were not antagonistic towards the police. Instead, they asked often how the courts could facilitate the work of the police. The judges then directed the police to ensure safe passage for the ambulances, under police protection, to secure the evacuation of all the injured persons trapped in Al Hind Hospital. The final rounds of evacuations at Al Hind continued till 4 am.
After the now-historic order, the Joint Commissioner of Police and I exchanged numbers and he assured me of help in any rescues. I returned to the office to find the distress calls had continued without any police support. We decided to pursue the channel of communication with the Joint Commissioner.
‘Save our masjid’
The first rescue call that I shared with the Joint Commissioner was met with casualness. I believe that he did not think that we had such a robust system of verification. It took multiple calls for him to send the first and second rescue teams by the police. After that, for those four days, we were in regular touch and through him we were able to rescue hundreds if not thousands of people. He told me to call him personally, and he would receive the call with urgency and ensure that the police responded.
The helpline ran for three days and nights, first organising rescues and then morphing into a relief helpline. We received innumerable calls in those days, all of them were cared for and supported by strangers on both ends of the line, bound by solidarity and compassion. Many distressed callers were on the phone with a caller for hours helping calm them till the police rescue came to them. We received calls that saved our own humanity and also made us believe in the humanity of our people.
One of the calls we received on the night of February 25 was from a Hindu boy crying that the masjid in his lane was being burnt down by a mob. “Save our masjid,” he said. Other calls we received were from Muslim landlords protecting their Hindu tenants and seeking their safe passage. After it was over, the helpline volunteers would have innumerable stories to share about police brutality, hatred between communities, anger, fear and distrust. But they would also share stories of compassion, solidarity, faith and hope.
The longest day
Justice Murlidhar said that the night of February 25 was his longest working day. It was mine too. In fact – and allow me to boast here – my longest four days and nights. It was only two nights later that I allowed myself to sleep.
It was chance that I was there at the moment when someone had to go to the judge. It was chance that Aman was there to help me prepare a fine draft. It was chance that the two senior-most justices were on leave, and we could approach Justice Murlidhar. It was chance that the Joint Commissioner of Police was a good man who tried to do the right thing.
Perhaps it was the perfect storm. Perhaps it was the universe conspiring to help us. Or perhaps what bound all of us – judges, policepersons, lawyers, court clerks, volunteers – was our love for our country, our Constitution, our fellow country people and a conscience that demanded that we do the right thing because if we didn’t do it then, when would we?
*All names have been changed to protect identities.
Suroor Mander is a lawyer and Human Rights Activist in Delhi. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the fifth part of a five-part series on the Delhi riots. Read the other parts here.
The full version of the report Chronicling Truth, Countering Hate by Karwan E Mohabbat can be accessed here.