“We just want our lives back. Would a compromise get us that?” asked Zehra, visibly tired as she boiled tea on a makeshift stove on her terrace. Her eyes were set on the white dome of Fatima Masjid in North East Delhi’s Khajuri Khas as she recounted her story.

“What do we do when we start fearing the same people who are supposed to protect us?” asked Zehra, whose name, like those of others in this article has been changed to protect her identity.

Nine months after the February 2020 communal violence in the area that left 53 people dead, 38 of whom were Muslim, and a few months after her burned house had been rebuilt by a local community organisation, her husband Ismail was detained by the police, Zehra said. He was the sole bread-earner of the family of seven.

The police alleged that Ismail had instigated violence during the riots, though they did not lodge an official complaint. The father of five and a government worker spent almost three weeks in prison.

Soon after the violence, Ismail had filed a complaint against his neighbours for being a part of the mob that burned down their house. This would help him receive his state-mandated compensation.

Ismail’s undocumented arrest was among the intimidation tactics being employed by some in the police, at the instigation of local residents, to force complainants to withdraw their charges, Zehra alleged.

He had been told that if normalcy was to be restored in the neighbourhood, he needed to compromise and retract his complaint. As for Zehra, a wife and mother who merely wants her eldest daughter to be able to study to her heart’s content, she just wanted to go back to life before those violent nights last February.

A truce

Zehra’s is not an exceptional story. We have come across several similar accounts of intimidation over the past year as we have been engaged in extending support to the survivors of the communal violence for the past year as part of a collective of lawyers, activists and social workers. We hve been conducting an assessment of the medical, legal, livelihood and psychosocial situation of almost 300 survivor families

The police action is often undocumented and the survivor families – economically vulnerable and in a minority in their areas – are reluctant to share their experience out of fear and in desperate consideration of a truce with their neighbours.

Their broken neighbourly relations have resulted in a sense of discomfort that is palpable on the streets of Khajuri Khas, which has a population of over 75,000 people, both Hindu and Muslim. This has led to men choosing to walk in small groups with members of their own communities, and women sitting outside their homes visibly anxious of seeing any new face in the lanes. Children are seldom seen running around. Barricades stand at the end of each lane as they have been for a year now.

A car that was burnt during the Delhi violence on February 27. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

In Khajuri Khas, it all began with the burning of a chicken rshop.

“This country is ours. And only we shall rule here,” is a slogan that echoed on the streets, we were told repeatedly.

As stones were hurled and mobs marched towards the Muslim-residential areas in North East Delhi, 54 houses in Khajuri Khas were damaged. Our field observations were in line with the fact-finding reports: 90% destruction of property was suffered by Muslims.

The mobs at Khajuri Khas consisted of neighbours who had lived in relative peace with each other for decades. Houses, shops and places of worship belonging to Muslims were selectively torched. Men were accosted by the mobs and asked to prove that they were not Muslim, survivors said. Obscene threats were made to women.

With the area witnessing the highest number of riot-related arrests, according to a study by our team, Muslims today lives in fear of any form of confrontation and attracting police attention. Quarrels of an everyday nature – over parking or children playing – assume communal overtones in the blink of an eye.

“We are still being asked to let go of our shops and return them to its owners. They don’t want our names on it anymore,” said a middle-aged man sitting outside his electrical shop, which is rented from a Hindu. One year on, other shops operated by Muslims but owned by Hindus are being forcefully vacated, people in the neighbourhood say. Invisible boundaries have been sketched in the neighbourhood.

Young men in the lanes of Khajuri Khas are still being interrogated and arrested by the police, residents said. Even though investigations against the primary accused have barely been carried out, fresh arrests are being effected against the victims who filed the FIRs.

A settlement

Amidst an environment this hostile, conversations about a “compromise” have recently surfaced, residents said. In a bid to reach a settlement with the Muslim community, some local Hindu leaders in Khajuri Khas have proposed a mutual retraction of all First Information Reports.

In an atmosphere of communal hostility and alleged police intimidation, such a sttlement for the Muslim survivors in the area is a proposition worth considering only because it holds the slim hope of putting an end to the hatred to which they are subjected every day.

Understandably, their lawyers have advised against such an action. This poses a choice before the Muslim residents of Khajuri Khas today – one between survival and justice.

Damage after the violence. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Soon after the riots, the Delhi government had introduced a scheme of monetary compensation for the damage sustained by riot survivors. Classifying such damage into categories such as major and minor, serious and manageable injuries, and houses looted and burned, the state’s redressal mechanism with nominal amounts did not pay any heed to the long-term psychological trauma that the communities suffered.

With no accompanying programmes to rebuild lost livelihoods and broken communal faith, the state seemed to shirk its responsibility.

“How will some money give us back our lives?” said a 32-year-old man who lost his one eye after being attacked by the mobs on his way back home from his factory in West Delhi on February 25, 2020.

On February 1, 2021 – the anniversary month of the riots – a rath yatra was scheduled to wend its way through North East Delhi. In the guise of collecting funds for the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya, BJP MP Manoj Tiwari planned to go door-to-door through neighbourhoods that have still not healed from the wounds of the riots. Afraid that it would spark violence, several Muslim families said that they would be leaving the locality at the time of the yatra.

However, soon after the beginning of the drive it was postponed at the behest of Delhi Police and because of the farmers’ protests in the city. Tiwari announced that the rath yatra would resume as soon as the situation settled down. The police passed off the drive as an act of religious charity.

“Our houses are rebuilt now. But until when can we stay here?” said a 19-year-old woman who conducts tuition classes for school children to help her labourer-father provide for the family. “We are scared that someone will come and tell us that this country is not ours, and we are not this country’s.”

Oishika Neogi and Sarmad Aziz work with the Karwan e Mohabbat campaign for harmony.

Read the other articles in the series here.