3 Years of Delhi Riots: Struggling to Make Ends Meet, Widows Say Still Haunted by Memories
On the third anniversary of the February 2020 riots in Northeast Delhi, NewsClick is publishing a series of stories. This is the third of our five-part series. Read the first two parts here and here.
New Delhi: The chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Victory to Lord Rama) and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Long Live Mother India) still give Mallika nightmares. It reminds her of the gruesome incident of February 25, 2020, when a murderous mob barged into her flat on the third floor of a building at Bhagirathi Vihar in Northeast Delhi and bludgeoned her husband, Musharraf, to death. His life was perhaps not enough to quench their thirst for blood. They dragged his body three steps downstairs, she says, and set it ablaze before throwing the charred remains into a nearby drain.
The rioters had pulled him out from under a bed where he was hiding after his wife was informed by his landlord that a crowd of young men were going door to door to hunt down Muslim men.
“They killed him and burnt his body in front of us. They were so violent that even my 12-year-old daughter’s repeated plea for mercy could not melt their heart. We pleaded with them to spare him for humanity’s sake, but we were told ‘Muslims are not humans’,” narrated the mother of three with her hands shaking and voice choking.
Even after the gruesome murder of her husband, the horror was not over for the woman in her mid-40s. Sensing a looming threat to her and her children’s lives, she decided to escape the house. She wore ‘sindoor’ (vermilion) on her forehead so that the rioting mobs on the escape routes misidentify her as a Hindu and she manages to flee for safety.
“As I along with my children (a daughter and a son) stepped out, doubtful of our Hindu identity, another crowd stopped us. They unzipped the pant of my infant son to check whether he is circumcised. When they found out we are Muslims, they attacked all of us. But we somehow managed to escape unhurt,” she told NewsClick.
They had moved to nearby Loni in Uttar Pradesh after the riots but have now shifted to rented accommodation in Gokulpuri.
“The rioters did not spare anything in our house. Whatever we had was either broken or looted. And therefore, we had to shift,” she said.
After losing the sole breadwinner (a driver by profession) of her family to the deadly riots in Northeast Delhi in February 2020, Mallika is fighting against all odds to deal with uncertainties and economic hardships.
She received Rs 10 lakh as compensation, but their financial situation is still dire. “A portion of the sum that I received as compensation was spent on the marriage of my eldest daughter who was 18 in 2020. A good amount of money was exhausted to start life afresh. I have two children (a six-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter) to look after. I used to work in factories but ever since the pandemic, no one is giving me a job. We are surviving on whatever compensation money is left. If I don’t get a job, it will soon run out,” she said.
The police had arrested nine people and have already filed a chargesheet in the case.
Mallika is not alone in this struggle. Over 15 women were widowed during the violence. Most of them complained that Rs 10 lakh compensation provided to them by the Delhi government wasn’t enough as it was exhausted in rebuilding their homes that were lost in the communal conflagration.
More than 53 people (38 Muslim victims and 15 Hindus) lost their lives and properties worth crores were damaged in the sectarian violence that continued for around four days from February 23 to 27 that year. Despite video evidence showing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra and others inciting mobs with hate speech, the government called the violence spontaneous.
SHOT BY RIOTERS, SHUNNED BY FAMILIES
Thirty-five-year-old Imrana and her eight daughters were well-off till her husband — Mohammad Mudassir Khan, 37 — was shot dead at Maujpur on February 25, 2020. He had stepped out a day before to pay the school fees of one of her daughters.
“Half an hour after he reached there, he told me over phone that violence had erupted in the area — with the people indulging in stone pelting. He stayed with his friend in nearby Kardampuri. The next day (February 25), he called once again, informing me that the situation had worsened. I advised him not to venture out and continue to stay there. At around 1.30 pm, we had a video call. He was panicking and wished to return to his children. I consoled and told him not to come as violence had engulfed almost all localities of the region,” she said.
Nearly 30 minutes after their conversation, someone informed Imrana on a call that Mudassir had received a bullet.
“I soon dialled him, but he did not receive the call. The person who responded confirmed that my husband had been shot at and taken to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital for treatment. He had in fact died minutes after the bullet injury,” she said, adding that her brother-in-law along with one more relative, under police protection, soon rushed to the hospital where they received the body after due procedure.
“Since violence had spread everywhere (in the trans-Yamuna region), he was anxious about our wellbeing; and therefore, he was returning despite we asking him not to come,” explained Imrana.
Mudassir had a flourishing scrap business. With his death, there is no bread-earner in the family. His business has been taken over by his younger brother who allegedly does not give a single penny to his widowed sister-in-law. Initially, he used to give her Rs 15,000 every month but it allegedly stopped after a year.
“I also did not get the donations people had given to us. All the money was withdrawn by them,” she claimed.
With the support of some activists, Imrana had recently opened a beauty parlour on the ground floor of her husband’s four-storey building at Mustafabad (with one living room on each floor) to bring in more money for the family household. But her in-laws allegedly did not allow it; and as a result, she had to close it.
“My second eldest daughter, Fiza, has done a beautician’s course. And therefore, I had opened the beauty parlour. But it was not acceptable to my in-laws. I hope that she gets some sort of respectable job with which she would be able to manage with her studies and support the family,” she said.
Imrana and her daughter Fiza.
Imrana further said she lives in the fear of losing her house as well. “My in-laws want me to vacate the house, which also has my husband’s share, and return to my parents’ place,” she said and broke down.
Her eldest daughter is in grade XII at a well-known private school in Delhi. She lives in the school’s hostel and the expenses are borne by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.
Imrana is completely unaware of the status of her police case. The police allegedly never recorded her statement, nor was ever presented before any court.
“My in-laws were handling case. I don’t have any idea,” she concluded.
Neither her father-in-law nor brother-in-law wished to speak on the matter on one pretext or the other. The police too declined to comment, arguing all such matters are subjudice and therefore, it won’t be ethical for them to comment.
The FIR of this case (no. 0094/2020) dated February 26, 2020, was registered at Welcome police station against unidentified people. It simply quotes an MLC (medico-legal case) issued by the GTB Hospital that says Mudassir was “brought dead in main casualty in unconscious and unresponsive state” and it was “found lying unconscious at Kabir Nagar, Street No. 1 at 12:15 pm on 25/02/2020”.
Accessed by NewsClick, the FIR has been registered under sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder), among others, of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 27 of the Arms Act.
CURSE OF CONFLICT: LONE LIFE AHEAD
For Prem Singh, a resident of Brijpuri, going out on the February 25 morning to buy milk for his three infant daughters proved to be fatal. “Unaware” of the dangerous situation outside, he left between 7-8 am and never returned.
As time passed, his wife Sunita, 25, began frantically calling him, but his cellphone was not reachable.
Sunita has to leave her two younger daughters in a one-room rented accommodation all alone when she goes out for work.
“When he did not come back till 4 pm, I began searching for him. I went to all the spots he used to frequent. Thinking that he would have suffered injuries in the violence, I even looked for him at the GTB Hospital. But he was untraceable. At last, I along with my landlady approached the police who refused to register my complaint,” she described.
Only after her story was reported in the media, she said, the cops filed a missing complaint. On February 29, she was called by the police to the GTB Hospital morgue to identify a body they had discovered that day.
“It was his body,” she said, adding that she would never wish to recall the moment.
“I had not imagined even for a second this possibility during the search. I felt as if everything is falling like a pack of cards. My supporting pillar was lost. I had three children and was expecting the fourth one at that time. How would I look after them all alone? How would they study? Who would feed them as the sole earning member of the family was no more? These were among the few questions I was asking to myself,” she said, with her face bearing a stoic expression.
Sunita got Rs 20 lakh (Rs 10 lakh from the government and another Rs 10 lakh from individuals as donations), which she has invested in a government bank as a fixed deposit for her children’s future. She works as a domestic help to earn a living.
While her two elder daughters go to school, she has to leave her two younger daughters in the one-room rented accommodation all alone when she goes out for work.
“It’s very difficult for a mother to leave her children who are infants unattended, but I am left with no option but to take this harsh decision,” she said when asked as to how she manages her work as well as her family life.
Prem Singh and Sunita with one of their daughters.
Her in-laws live in Kasganj in Uttar Pradesh.
Asked who she thinks is responsible for many deaths and destructions, her prompt reply was: “Politicians.”
She elaborated, “I don’t know who killed my husband; therefore, I won’t blame anyone for that. But I know they (the political leaders) were the ones who ignited fire for their benefits. Had they not provoked people, my husband would have been alive.”
Sunita does not know anything about the status of her case. No police officer ever came to me to record my statement, nor I was called by any court.
Sources said the police had arrested four persons from Kardampuri in connection with Singh’s murder. But further details are not available. Sunita has not hired any lawyer.
JUSTICE – A BATTLE LOST
What pains Saiba the most is that she could not even see the face of her husband Aas Mohammad before the final send-off. Stepped out to “buy bidi (cigarette made with dry leaves and rough tobacco)” on February 25 morning, the 30-year-old never returned.
His bloated stomach and swollen body — with deep rotting gash on his torso, a round hole in one of his cheeks and an incision on the right temple — was fished out from Gokulpuri nala (a drain behind the Gokulpuri police station) on March 1, five days after he went missing.
He was among the three unidentified bodies, which were lying for days at the GTB Hospital’s mortuary. His family members found the body on March 9 — 13th day of his disappearance — only after they reached out to Gokulpuri police station that had pictures of those recovered from the drains.
What pains Saiba the most is that she could not even see the face of her husband Aas Mohammad before the final send-off.
They were asked to inspect the bodies lying in the mortuary. The mortal remains were decomposed beyond recognition. The green jacket, black pants and the chain Aas was wearing helped then recognise him.
After he went missing, the victim could not be contacted as he had left phone at home. He was also not carrying any identity card. His family tried to file a complaint online, but it was “rejected”. The family could not venture out to look for him as the Delhi Police had issued shoot at sight order that evening as the violence had peaked.
The family was reluctant to register a missing complaint physically also because of their “lack of faith” in the law enforcers and a rumour that the rioters were apprehending those with Muslim identity going to the police station.
Therefore, instead of contacting cops first, they began the search days later at hospitals. “We went to the GTB Hospital several times with no success,” Saiba, 30, told NewsClick.
She said he left home after getting a call on his cell phone. “We never imagined such a thing could also happen. Only innocent people have died in this violence,” she said.
A resident of Shakti Vihar in New Mustafabad, Aas was a garment hawker. Even after three years, she said, her children have not come to terms that their father is no more. “They often have emotional outbursts and begin crying inconsolably,” she said
Her eldest son Rehan and daughter Sonam (second in her three siblings) go to a private school. Her youngest daughter, Saima, suffers from congenital hearing problems and cannot speak.
After Saiba refused to give the compensatory sum of Rs 10 lakh to her in-laws, they allegedly developed bitter relations with her. As a result, she had to begin working as a daily wager. She was making face masks to earn a living but had to discontinue it after she started experiencing “unbearable” headache.
Before shifting Aas’s body to the GTB Hospital’s morgue, a postmortem was conducted on it at the RML Hospital.
Saiba said the police had arrived at a conclusion even before the autopsy report came out that he died of drug abuse and his body had no injuries. The FIR states a bottle of Avil and a syringe were found on his body.
However, the post-mortem report revealed he died of fatal blows on his head with deadly weapons. The body, it said, was dumped into the drain by rioters with an aim to destroy evidence.
The police registered a case against “unknown rioters” for rioting, unlawful assembly, murder, and destruction of evidence under sections 147, 148, 149, 302, 201 of the IPC.
Trashing the claim of Aas being a drug edict, she alleged that the “cover up” in the matter began since the recovery of the body.
Those in know-how of the incident claimed there was deployment of Delhi Police as well as central reserve forces on February 25 night at the Johripur-Bhagirathi Vihar puliya where Aas was. At least seven others were killed and their bodies were thrown in the drain on the fateful night and within the next 24 hours.
“The Delhi Police knew it well who the perpetrators were, but they protected them by lodging FIRs against unknown people. Had the men in uniform wished, they would have chased away the rioters. But they stood by as a mob went on a murderous rampage,” they alleged, refusing to be named.
Saiba said she does not have any details regarding the police case.
BETRAYED BY BENEFACTORS?
Neetu Saini, 32, had tied the knot with Naresh Saini, 33, to live together forever, but destiny had something else in store. Days after celebrating their ninth marriage anniversary on February 7, 2020, he was shot at on February 25 at around 3.30-4.00 am and later succumbed to injuries.
Neetu Saini's husband was shot dead only a few days after the couple celebrated their ninth marriage anniversary in 2020.
“The tension was simmering since February 24 evening. People were keeping a vigil in our lane (at Brahampuri near Shahdara) to ensure residents’ safety. My husband was also one of them. After he returned, we dined together. He told me that we had to remain alert. There was a commotion outside in the wee hours. Violence had broken out. Before I could advise him to stay put, he with his elder brother went out a little ahead of our street’s main entrance. Soon, a bullet pierced his body and a pool of blood began oozing out,” she recalled.
He was rushed to GTB Hospital where he underwent treatment for 10 days. He breathed his last on March 5.
She alleged Naresh died due to medical “negligence”. “The doctors told us that they had removed the bullet, but the post-mortem report revealed it was stuck in the vertebral backbone. He was unconscious till his death. Had he been treated honestly, he would have been alive,” she said.
Three years on, his widow Neetu has been destitute despite lofty promises by political leaders. “Manoj Tiwari ji (Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Northeast Delhi) had come to meet us along with
Ajay Mahawar ji (BJP MLA from Ghonda Assembly segment). In addition to a monetary help of Rs 1 lakh, he had promised me a job. I was asked to submit required papers at the local MLA’s office. I complied but nothing happened after that. Forget about the MP, even the personal assistant of the legislator no more picks up my calls,” she alleged.
She said she feels betrayed by the people and the party she had trusted. Without naming name anyone, she said, “Those who claim to be champions of the Hindu cause never returned to check on the victims’ families in the past three years. At the cost of innocent lives, they just built their political careers. It’s nothing but a betrayal.”
After Naresh’s death, Neetu is managing her husband’s makeshift vegetable shop to earn a living. “Apart from getting Rs 2,500 as widow pension from the Delhi government and a monthly scholarship of Rs 1,000 for children from the communist party (CPI-M), I earn a meagre sum from the vegetable shop, which I set up for few hours every day outside my son’s school,” she said.
She has deposited Rs 10 lakh she received as compensation for further studies of her two children (a 10-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old daughter).
She lives with her children in a one-room flat on the ground floor of a four-storey building on 42 square yards of land jointly owned by her husband and his brothers in Brahmapuri.
The police had registered an FIR in connection with the murder, but the family of the deceased has no idea about the status of the case. “Neither me nor my in-laws know what transpired in the investigation, what is going on in the court and how the case is advancing,” she said, adding that she will keep reminding the police, the government and the “loud-mouth” leaders that they “failed” to ensure justice and bring the perpetrators to book.
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