Features | Politics | South Asia

Delhi’s Displaced Muslims

For many Muslims displaced by February’s violence in the Indian capital, solace and stability are remote.

By Yashraj Sharma for
Delhi’s Displaced Muslims
Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File

After attending a congregation on February 24, Mohammad Dilshad was returning home in Shiv Vihar, New Delhi, bringing a handful of his 7-year-old son’s favorite dates in an auto-rickshaw. The 30-year-old was still 6 kilometers away from his home when a mob of Hindu nationalists armed with swords, iron rods, and batons, stopped the vehicle mid-road.

His clothing, a new set of Khan-dress, an identifiably Muslim attire, was his identity card. A man from the mob dragged him out by his neck and pushed him onto the road. When armed men started raining blows, Dilshad tried to run away from the mob “to save my life”; he failed and fell on the street. “I don’t remember anything else but only their loud chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ [roughly, ‘glory to Ram’, a Hindu god],” says Dilshad. “And they would beat me up continuously till I fell unconscious.”

For the next two hours, Dilshad lay bloodied under the sun.

The Hindu nationalist mob was hunting and beating Muslims to death on the streets of New Delhi after months-long protests against the ruling right-wing government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Islamophobic policies: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a rumored update to the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The NRC — which is not an official government policy at this point — can strip millions of Indians of their citizenship if they fail to prove it with documents. Meanwhile, the CAA grants citizenship to non-Muslims specifically from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

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Together, as explained by India’s Home Minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s confidante, Amit Shah, these steps put millions of Muslims in India at risk of losing their citizenship. Hundreds of protestors across India, in different rallies, called out the government’s policies as being against the idea of a secular India.

The violence against Muslims in New Delhi, arguably, started after a member of the BJP, Kapil Mishra, warned the police in a viral video to clear the protest sites – “or we will have to take to the streets.”

The violence organized at the hands of Hindu nationalists ended up killing 53 people, injuring hundreds, and affecting thousands.

Later, when Dilshad gained consciousness, he realized that he had survived. But the mob had fractured his right hand and severely injured the rest of his limbs. He stood up, limped a few meters, and called his younger brother for help before fainting in the middle of the road again.

After treatment at a district hospital, he went back home to his family of 12 by nightfall, still stained in blood.

And the next morning was more of the same. “A mob surrounded our neighborhood [Shiv Vihar, New Delhi],” recalls Dilshad. “People were screaming in their homes and shouting the directions of the mob’s movement.”

Dilshad claims to have called the police multiple times but the answer remained the same: “Wait. We’ll send our men soon.” Multiple accounts of victims reiterated the police’s incompetency for 72 hours from the outbreak of the violence.

By then, Dilshad had lost his confidence over the state machinery – when the paramilitary forces entered his neighborhood, as he says, on the night of February 25, he didn’t trust them. But he didn’t have many options either.

“I was so afraid that I was wondering – will I and my family survive?” says Dilshad. In a hurry to rush out, Dilshad forgot to put on his slippers. “No one even thought of locking the doors – we just wanted to run away.”

Over the next couple of days, Dilshad moved into one of the Delhi Waqf Board relief camps in the northeastern part of the city to find shelter and a safe space.

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Walking despondently outside tent number five on March 18, Dilshad is carrying an anti-infective from the free medical supplies. He covers his eyes to escape the sun; its sharpness reminds him of the day when he was attacked. Inside the tent, his folding cot is covered in dust and butts of hand-made cigarettes are strewn around.

“Every morning I wake up in this bed – I miss my home. Every afternoon, when I stand in line for food – I miss my home,” says Dilshad. “Every night, when I go to sleep, I’m reminded that I’m not with my family.”

The camp, situated in Eidgah ground in Mustafabad – one of the worst violence-hit areas of northeast Delhi – is home to hundreds of Muslim families who fled their homes in the wake of the violence. One such family is that of 41-year-old Mohammad Shameen Khan.

Inside the tent opposite Dilshad’s, Khan is arguing with his wife over whether it would be safe to send their 16-year-old daughter, Julafsha, outside the camp. Earlier, his 13-year-old son, Majeed, missed a school exam. He had his back-paper on this day.

“We don’t have water available here. I need to send my son to a nearby tube-well for a bath,” says Khan. “We had to run because we were afraid for our lives, but now I miss my home every minute. There are so many problems here.”

Julafsha listens to her father composedly. On February 24, she was terrified, watching from the terrace as a mob of a hundred armed men surrounded her house in Sherpur neighborhood. “They were burning shops, damaging vehicles, and abusing us,” she recalls. “One of them looked up at my father [standing on the terrace by her side] and shouted: ‘Dekho Katua khada hai… maaro!’” (See, a circumcised man is standing, kill him.)

The next moment, the mob was trying to break into her house as she jumped from her terrace to another, and another, with her family – barefoot. The family also tried calling the police for help.

“Administration and the government are the enemies of Muslims,” says Khan. “When police are rioters, who do we ask for help?”

The education of the siblings has been disrupted and brought to a standstill. Majeed isn’t prepared for his paper — small wonder, given the circumstances.

Meanwhile, Khan wonders what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi means when he says: “This is our new India.”

“Is this?” he asks, pointing to the surge in Muslim funerals after the violence. “Why are our mosques martyred, shops looted, and houses burnt? We have no rights in the new India.”

The Delhi Chamber of Commerce and Industries has estimated an economic cost of about $3.2 billion due to the violence. As per media reports, about 92 houses, 57 shops, 500 vehicles, six storehouses, two schools, four factories, and four religious places were burnt down during the violence; Khan’s workplace was among them. The family’s only means of livelihood, a dying factory that belongs to a Muslim owner, was burnt down by the mob in the afternoon of February 24.

Khan’s 35-year-old wife, Sameena Khatoon, is afraid for her children’s uncertain future. She feels disgusted at the thought of the violence and how she was displaced overnight from her home: “Earlier, we used to live secretly behind veils – now, we are naked.”

Of the four religious sites burnt, Madina Mosque was one; 21-year-old Farhan Ahmed was a witness to the mob hurling petrol bombs and gas cylinders inside his place of worship.

In the wake of the violence, the Hindu landlords asked Ahmed and his widowed mother to vacate their accommodation in Shiv Vihar neighborhood. With no money at hand, Ahmed was forced to take shelter at the camp.

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Wearing the same clothes he had been wearing for eight days, Ahmed isn’t able to settle down after the recent violence. “We’ve been living peacefully in that area for years. We’ve eaten together,” he says. “But now, the Hindus have turned against us.” The state’s incompetency at addressing their issues and taking firm actions makes Ahmed feel “weak and defeated,” he says.

A native of a village in Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India, Ahmed had migrated to Delhi with his mother to secure a better future. “I feel it was a big mistake,” he says. “Now, my future is gone. It’s finished. I’m left with nothing here.”

At the camp, every enrolled displaced person is given a white wristband with their names scribbled on with a black marker. Every time, they walk in or out of the camp, a guard at the gate makes sure of the displaced person’s homelessness. “I feel like a prisoner in a jail,” Ahmed says, sitting in a group of young boys. “I feel that I’m a criminal.”

But he is sure of one thing after the violence: “Muslims need to unite.” He believes that with the rise of Hindu nationalism, India’s Muslims need to create safe spaces to survive. “This violence will not leave our hearts anytime soon. We are not safe anymore,” says Ahmed. “If we need to survive with Hindus, we need to live together.”

A day after Dilshad came to the camp, his two-story house was burnt to ashes by the mob. The ceiling of his room had fallen in; his beloved bed was nowhere to be seen; the walls were naked and bricks were visible; and utensils and footwear were scattered everywhere.

“The government is at fault – they wanted it,” he says and falls numb. And he stays silent as his eyes swell up. Staring outside the tent, he says he doesn’t want to recall his home anymore. “I’m still afraid; if I go outside, the mob will beat me up again,” he says. “I don’t want to go home either as I’ll be reminded of the memories that I want to forget.”

Yashraj Sharma is a journalist and assistant editor at The Kashmir Walla.