One week after the Indian capital’s worst religious violence in years, displaced Muslims describe losing everything

This article contains an image that some readers may find distressing

A Muslim woman holds prayer beads inside a camp in Mustafabad, a makeshift relief camp north-east of Delhi. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

As Mohammad Arshad’s body was brought into the courtyard, his lifeless face covered in a white shroud, the wailing began. The 22-year-old house painter, who had been beloved by his six sisters and would always bring them fruit when he finished work, had died a brutal death two days earlier. He had been killed because he was Muslim.

Several of Arshad’s sisters reached out to touch his cold bruised cheeks. “Please wake up, brother,” they cried. “Wake up. Please open your eyes.”

Arshad’s death is just a small fragment of the devastating legacy of the riots that engulfed Delhi last week – the worst religious violence in the capital in decades. For four consecutive days, Hindu mobs of thousands roamed the streets of north-east Delhi, destroying Muslims’ houses and shops, and lynching or killing Muslim residents. The bodies of the dead are gradually being returned to families but the thousands of Muslims who fled their homes in the riots are mostly still too afraid to go back.

While there was retaliation on both sides, the majority of the violence was carried out against Muslims. A senior Delhi government health department official told the Guardian that of the 49 found dead so far from the violence, 35 were Muslim. More bodies were still being recovered from the drains more than a week on.

Last Wednesday had begun as a normal day for Arshad, who had left for work on his motorcycle accompanied by two Hindu friends. But in the Delhi neighbourhood of Karaval Nagar, a mob of around 30 Hindus had descended, demanding to know their religion. According to a witness, Arshad kept quiet, so the mob forced down his trousers. On seeing he was circumcised, as is common among Muslims in India, the mob instantly beat him to death. His bloodied body was later found in a gutter, his pants still around his ankles.

At his funeral on Monday, held in his uncle’s hometown of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, Arshad’s 15-year-old sister Ayesha broke into a furious, grief-ridden rage and began pointing her finger angrily at an onlooker she presumed to be Hindu.

Mohammad Arshad’s mother and sisters surround his body shortly before his funeral. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian

“Why have you killed my brother?” said Ayesha. “His body bears many torture marks. You tortured my brother brutally and murdered him. Do you know what a nice person he was? Did you not hesitate to kill him? I know you killed him just because he was Muslim. Why do you hate some people in society? Does your religion teach you to kill people of other religions? Shed the hatred from your heart.”

While the violence may have abated, the hatred and fear that the riots stirred up among communities in Delhi, where Hindus and Muslims had until last week lived peacefully side-by-side, remains potent. In the aftermath, even in unaffected areas of Delhi, an exodus of Muslim families began this week, with swathes packing up their bags and returning for good to their home villages, fearing for their safety in the capital.

In a prayer ground in Mustafabad, a makeshift relief camp had been set up for over a thousand Muslim families who had fled the violence and still could not return home, out of fear over their safety or simply because their houses and all their worldly possession had been looted, destroyed or burned. Food, shelter and medical care was being given out to those who had lost everything.

Noor Jahan, 48, who lived in Shiv Vihar, said she did not feel she could go back to her home. She had run away as the mobs descended but not before hearing the taunts of the rioters, that she said still haunted her. “They shouted ‘come out, come out, we will fuck you and you will give birth to [Hindu gods] Ram and Hanuman’,” she recalled with a shudder.

“How can I go back, it is not safe there,” said Jahan. “People are saying that the rioters were outsiders but they had local knowledge, they knew which houses were the Muslim houses to attack, so it means local people helped them, my Hindu neighbours helped them. So I plan to either go back to my village or move to a Muslim-majority area in Delhi.”

Many once affluent families suddenly found themselves ruined overnight. Mohammad Akhtar had built up his successful business as a milkman from nothing. But his 14 water buffalo, worth millions of rupees, were stolen in the riots, his family house was looted and destroyed, and his whole family was sheltering in the camp, reliant on donations. Having lived in a Hindu-majority area, most of his customers had been Hindus. “We own our house so we have to go back, but I am scared it will be unsafe for us to live there,” said his wife Raseena Akhtar, 40. “We have nothing left now.”

For the children who witnessed the violence, the trauma was evident. Sehliza Naaz, nine years old, lay under a makeshift tent looking pallid and staring blankly into the middle distance. She and her family had fled their house in the neighbourhood of Shiv Vihar around midnight on Tuesday as the buildings around them had begun to be set on fire by Hindu mobs. They had walked over an hour to Mustafabad, which is a Muslim-majority area.

“She is not sleeping and she keeps repeating the same question – ‘why did they burn the mosques’,” said her grandmother Shahida Begum,as she gently stroked her granddaughter’s forehead.

Shehliza Naaz lies in a displaced people’s camp in Mustafabad. Doctors in the camp diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian

In Shiv Vihar, from where they and many others had escaped, almost every Muslim home lay in blackened ruins, and two mosques looked like bomb sites. For three days, Hindu rioters attacked Shiv Vihar’s Muslim localities and ran mayhem without any resistance from police. The mobs repeatedly used gas canisters as weapons, setting them alight and exploding them in Muslim properties so that the walls crumbled entirely.

Abdul Kalam, a Muslim man who fled Shiv Vihar on Tuesday night, described how “over 1,000” men had arrived in the neighbourhood on trucks. “Most of them wore helmets to hide their identity and shield their heads from possible stone attacks… Apart from being armed with pistols, iron rods, crowbars, hammers and other heavy tools, the attackers also carried gas cylinders, big jerry cans of acid and petrol,” said Kalam.

The families sheltering in Mustafabad and other neighbourhoods spoke repeatedly of their fears of returning to the places they had called home. Hasmata, 75, said her son had gone back to their house this week to pick up some possessions and had been confronted by Hindu neighbours. “They said to him: ‘Why have you come back? You should not be here anymore’. Even though that is our home, they chased him away.”

Shops and motorbikes owned by Muslims lie in ruins in Shiv Vihar. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian

One week on, some are still looking for relatives who went missing, and living with the agony of uncertainty. Sitting outside GTB hospital, where most of the bodies were taken, Gulshan, 27, wept freely as she waited for the DNA results to confirm that a body brought in was that of her father. His body had been so badly burnt that only his right leg was found. “I depended on my father for everything,” she said. “What will I do now?”

Meanwhile, Mohammad Nawab, a rickshaw driver, said he had been frantically searching for his father for days. His father had gone to an Islamic congregation at Kasabpura, New Delhi last Tuesday, in an area that was hit by violence, and had not been seen since.

“Many people are searching for the bodies of their relatives,” said Nawab.” I am searching for my father’s body too. I visited morgues of two hospitals. I could not find my father’s body there. Every day one or two bodies are being recovered from drains and other places. I shall keep visiting the morgues until I find his body.”

“He was a pious man, he never harmed anyone,” he added.

Nawab said he was packing up his life in Delhi and returning with his family to his village in Uttar Pradesh. “I cannot sleep at night whenever it comes to my mind that my father might have been lynched for being a Muslim,” he said. “I have decided to leave Delhi and return to my village. Delhi is unsafe for all Muslims.”

This story first appeared in on March 06, 2020, more…