In this long-running series, reporters look back at their experiences while reporting.

On February 24, the road connecting Jafrabad and Maujpur in North East Delhi was tense. Police and paramilitary personnel armed with batons, shields and anti-riot gear were everywhere. Two days earlier, residents and protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act had occupied the stretch under the Jafrabad metro station, blocking the road.

The situation had escalated on February 23 after Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra amassed his followers barely a kilometre from the gathering of people in Jafrabad protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, which introduces a religious criterion into Indian citizenship law and discriminates against Muslims. With a senior police officer standing next to him, Mishra gave the authorities a three-day ultimatum to clear the protestors from the roads. Otherwise, his followers would have to do so themselves, he said.

Mishra’s speech raised tensions in the area and precipitated skirmishes that afternoon on the eve of US President Donald Trump’s visit to New Delhi.

I was in the area on February 24 to find out what exactly had happened. What did Mishra say and what effect did his comments have?

The stretch connecting Jafrabad and Maujpur lies directly under the metro line. I walked down the 2 km stretch trying to speak to the residents. Some of them were willing to talk but were anxious. They told me that despite the large police presence, they anticipated greater violence.

It wasn’t easy to have these conversations. Each time I managed to speak to someone, a large crowd would gather to participate, only to be dispersed by police officials a few seconds later. It was impossible to have a conversation for more than a minute.

In Maujpur, another group had gathered to protest against those who were demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Many in this group of goverenment supporters sported saffron tilaks or saffron headbands. They said they would not move until the Jafrabad protestors vacated the streets.

While interviewing members of this group, I bumped into an activist from the Sanatan Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organisation that is linked to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini youth group. I had encountered him during two assignments in 2019 – once when a cow was killed sparking communal tensions in East Delhi and another time in a congested Old Delhi neighbourhood when a scuffle over a parking space escalated into a communal flare up.

He told me that he was ready to sit at Maujpur “day and night” till the police evicted the the people protesting the citizenship law.

Rabble rouser Ragini Tiwari was also at the spot. She sat holding a placard and shouted slogans. But I did not know who she was and did not speak to her.

Maujpur Chowk on February 24. Ragini Tiwari, second from the extreme right, sits with her placard. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

As I walked back from Maujpur, thick black smoke billowed from a distance. When I got closer, people on the street told me that mobs had set fire to a mattress shop in the afternoon.

Smoke pouring out of the first floor of the mattress shop on February 24. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Half an hour later, I watched the mob burn another shop, chanting “Jai Shri Ram!” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” The police did nothing to stop them.

Members of the mob, overwhelmingly male, looked hysterical and warned reporters and photographers on the spot to not record the destruction. It was only after the shop went up in flames that the police charged. The arsonists scurried away.

It struct me that as a journalist, I was as vulnerable as any other person present at the spot. My press badge would not be of much help.

Thankfully, I was not alone. Colleagues from Indian Express and Times of India were also present. Some of us decided to step away from Maujpur and head back towards Jafrabad to see what was happening there.

The carcass of a burnt car was strewn in the middle of the road. Hundreds of people protesting the CAA protestors had formed a human barrier. I walked into the thick of the crowd to speak to some of them about the clashes that had taken place earlier.

Within seconds, everyone started to run. I was forced to break into a sprint too. As my eyes started to burn, I began to hear men around me coughing. The police had fired tear gas at us. While running, I saw crates of stones stacked along the side of the road.

There was no telling which way we were headed but I followed the hundreds of protestors in a tightly packed crowd.

It was a stampede and there was no way out. There was a hard thud of feet on the ground. Most of us were gasping for breath. I felt a strong push on my back that knocked me to the ground. I fell down next to a gutter but thankfully not into it.

There was no space for me to get up because those behind me were trying to jostle their way forward, kicking me aside and running over me. It was difficult to see as my eyes were itching and watering from the tear gas. Then my legs froze. No matter how hard I tried, my knees stayed pressed to the ground, refusing to move.

Suddenly, two men, presumably protestors, picked me up on either side. They put my arms around their shoulders and lifted me. They became my legs and helped me move forward.

While running, the shoe on my right foot slipped out. But I found it a split second later as someone behind me kicked it forward. The two men took me into a lane. The crowd had stopped running. One man was distributing salt to everyone to neutralise the effects of the tear gas.

As the haze from the gas hung in the air, several men began to vomit on the side of the road. I had found my colleagues from Indian Express. One man took us to a car park below his house and offered us shelter till the tear gas cleared.

After a few minutes, we walked out and saw a man in a white shirt whose nose, mouth and jawline were dripping with blood. He was a journalist. His press ID hung around his neck. He had lost his phone in the stampede and pleaded to those around him to help find it.

“It has all the footage,” he said.

We knew it would be impossible for him to find his phone. We decided to walk away from Jafrabad.

By contrast, the government supporters gathered at the Maujpur Chowk seemed to be in a festive mood. They blared out music on loudspeakers and waved rods in the air as the paramilitary watched silently.

I left the area in the evening, and walked out of Maujpur with a colleague from Indian Express to find a cab. In a bylane barely a kilometre away from the area, we heard the sound of a dhol. Someone was getting married in the middle of the riot. We entered the lane and saw a bride, gleaming from head to toe in her wedding finery.

When I think back to that day, I am unable to remember how and when those two men had finally put my arms down from their shoulders. In the rush of the moment, I forgot to ask them their names and had not got a good look at their faces.

The only thing I can remember is what they told me aswe ran: “Hum aapki hifazat karenge.” We will keep you safe.

The wedding procession in Maujpur on February 24. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)