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  Opinion   Columnists  06 Mar 2020  After Delhi burns, there is despair, but also hope

After Delhi burns, there is despair, but also hope

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Mar 6, 2020, 6:46 am IST
Updated : Mar 6, 2020, 6:46 am IST

Journalists reporting the violence in northeast Delhi have been explicitly asked whether they were Hindu or Muslim.

A families leaves riot-affected Karawal Nagar in northeast Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo: Pritam Bandyopadhyay)
 A families leaves riot-affected Karawal Nagar in northeast Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo: Pritam Bandyopadhyay)

The violence that singed northeast Delhi, destroying lives, livelihoods and dreams, is not just about “them” — the victims and survivors.

It is equally about “us” — those of us who live miles away from the neighbourhoods littered with burnt-out properties, desecrated places of worship, smashed windows, damaged schools and charred remains of motorcycles.

None of us are insulated from the narrative of hate and distrust that is engulfing the country. None of us are safe if a part of the national capital is allowed to burn for several days, if the police can’t be trusted, and if the paramilitary forces are commandeered to bring calm only after many deaths and much devastation.

Nearly 50 people, including a policeman, have died till date in the communally-tinged violence in Delhi; more than 200 are injured. Families are still looking for dead bodies in drains. Many are still missing. The economic cost of the deaths and devastation will be humongous. Faith in the state machinery is being shredded to bits.

If we don’t try to understand, and counter the processes that facilitated the arson, the looting, the killings, the systematic targeting of an entire community on the basis of  their religious identity, the collapse of the state machinery -- we would be closer to hurtling  headlong into an abyss. At the end, there will be no winners.

Over the past week, I have spent time at hospitals, outside mortuaries, with  people waiting for dead bodies of their loved ones, walking down lanes and bylanes of violence-singed localities like Brijpuri, Mustafabad, Maujpur, spending time with families at a relief camp. I have also been talking to medical doctors and nurses who speak of  deliberate attempts to deny or delay medical aid to the wounded, and citizens’ groups like Jan Swasth Abhiyan as well as  myriad volunteers who are trying to help the survivors pick up the broken shards of their lives.

A few things leap out, which concerns us all.

Despite desperate attempts to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus, and deliberate attempts to frame the Delhi violence solely as a fight between two communities who can only be implacable foes, many ordinary Hindus and Muslims in the affected neighbourhoods realise that their lives are inter-connected. Often, economics binds them together. They also realise that letting “outsiders” who have no skin in the game stoke communal passions does not help most ordinary people who live in these places.

Outside the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital mortuary, I met Muslims and Hindu families waiting for the dead bodies of their loved ones. Several young Muslim men vividly recounted the brutalities they suffered at the hands of armed goons, the complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the local police despite innumerable distress calls. A Hindu businessman whose brother lost his life to a bullet wound said the family did not know who shot him. They were there, like so many others, trying to navigate the death-related bureaucratic procedures. The businessmen was worried also about his own future. His factory had many Muslim employees; they had all fled to their villages in the wake of the violence.

Walking down the main road in Maujpur, one of the worst-affected areas, earlier this week, I ran into a Dilip, a tailor. The locality is limping back to a surface normality. Paramilitary forces are everywhere. Across the road from where Dilip sits with his sewing machine, there was a solitary burnt-out shop, amid a row of others which had been untouched.

“That belonged to a Muslim. It was called ‘Pink Angel’. It sold readymade garments. They destroyed everything. This was a very popular shop. I used to get a lot of business from this shop... Many customers wanted quick alterations done…?” the tailor said.

Men, women and children huddling together in the relief camp in an idgah in violence-scarred Mustafabad make clear their complete lack of faith in the state machinery. Many are from Shiv Vihar, where Muslim houses and shops were systematically vandalised, according to eyewitnesses. Muslim families from the area who are now taking refuge in the relief camp organised by the Delhi Waqf Board are terribly worried about the loss of all their identity documents. “How do we prove who we are?” they ask.

Many Muslim families in the relief camp told this columnist that in the early stages of the violence, several of their Hindu neighbours helped them escape, but quite a few also said that subsequently, these same neighbours possibly joined in the looting. They said they felt very unsafe and henceforth would like to stay only among co-religionists.

Almost every family in the camp has a story about how the Delhi police did not help them in their hour of distress and in fact taunted them. A young man from Shiv Vihar said he was afraid to go back to what remains of his home as he fears that he may be framed by the police. Another elderly man said he was not going to fill up the compensation form because he was afraid of the misuse of his personal details.

Hindu-Muslim tensions are nothing new in India. But we must recognise that the project of polarisation with its deliberate stoking of communal passions and the anthem of hate -- goli maaro (shoot the traitors) is now systematically deepening these fissures.

Journalists reporting the violence in northeast Delhi have been explicitly asked whether they were Hindu or Muslim. Even the wounded have not been spared.

At a press conference earlier this week, Harjit Singh Bhatti, a medical doctor assisting victims of the violence in northeast Delhi, said the Delhi police had stopped an ambulance carrying a man with a bullet injury to a hospital as many as four times.” Each time, they made me open the dressing and looked at the wound. They ignored my pleas for urgent transport,” Dr Bhatti said.

A colleague described the situation as the weaponisation of healthcare. This has happened in places like Syria.

Do we want to benchmark ourselves against war zones where trust has completely broken down and where there is a culture of impunity? What is the future of those whose dreams have been gutted? The questions concern us all. Not just the victims of violence.

Heartwarmingly, amid the brutality and poisonous rhetoric that seeks to make Indians hate fellow Indians, many ordinary citizens are coming forward to help those in need and restore peace.

There is acute despair. There is also cause for hope.

Tags: delhi violence, hindu-muslim