Natisha Shah hid quietly under her bed on the first floor, clutching the youngest of her five children, 13-year-old Yasmeen. The two stayed under cover till 8.30 pm, even as the gas cylinders burst outside her gate and started burning the house down. It was only when the flames caught up with them and it got too suffocating, that she tried to escape with Yasmeen. With the staircase on fire, she decided to go up to the roof and jump onto her neighbour’s house.
Shakily, she recounts, “There was smoke all over. After two unsuccessful attempts, my son finally had to come with 20 policemen and 3 relatives to open the burning gate. I’m a widow, and my only son has two kids. He is just lying in shock, his head is not working. He had to climb a ledge and nearly fell unconscious… We walked through the fire with our faces covered, and he got us out.”
Accompanied by two daughters, Nafeesa comes to retrieve her family’s partially burnt Quran - their holy book. Hearing loud chanting, they scramble to find any clean clothes that may still be left. Their soot-blackened hands soil the cloth, as they hurry to rush back. When they are told that it’s some Sikh men who’ve have come to the locality in support, they sigh in relief. The cries of the Sikhs ring out in the dusty air, “Bole Sonihal!” (Whoever utters, shall be fulfilled).
Mohamed Hanif is 25. As he nervously surveys the damage to his house in the Hindu-dominant locality of Shiv Vihar, he says: "We had a godown of tomatoes, we sell in 6-7 places here. That day, 30-40 crates of our tomatoes had been kept here. They emptied our carts, and used them to push the gas cylinders to the riot areas. That Muslim house near the Shamshan Ghat (cemetery), they burnt it down.”
The people there are still trying to piece together what happened, and why. The young man’s neighbor, Mohammed Salem declares, “They placed the gun on our own shoulders, and are trying to portray us as the criminals!” The irony is there for all to see in the darkened shells that were once their homes.
Rabia Hussein, a local resident, assesses the damage in the burnt Farooqi Mosque in Brijpuri. Pointing to the dried blood stains and a police baton lying on the floor, she says, “They (the police) helped do this. There were 150 people inside, including children, when the attack happened. Other residents had to climb over pipelines to rescue them. The children were so scared, they thought they’d come to attack them.”
She continues with feeling, “The temple, mosque and gurdwara are places of worship. They shouldn’t be touched. Looking at the burnt Quran, my heart is crying. They’ll be punished – not by us, but by the power above. The books are meant for reading, they teach us goodness and give us knowledge.” (Not surprisingly, Rabia and some others from her community helped guard the Hindu temples, and even their shops.) On the far end of the madrasa inside the mosque, the boys’ lockers stand deserted. There’s no one here to study.
Nazar Mohammed is a teacher at a Delhi Government school. Amongst all the black soot blanketing his house, the gold polish of a trophy shines through. He manages a smile, “That was given to me for the record results my students got.” Nazar was with his wife and three children – aged 8, 10 and 12 – when the ‘tandav’ (or frenzy) played out in front of their eyes. From 4 pm to midnight on February 25, 2020, all hell broke loose.
He says, “There was fire everywhere, gas cylinders were bursting all around, bottles with petrol in them were being hurled at our houses… We saw the firing, as the chanting continued.” It was only at 12.30 am when the police rescued his family.” Nazar lost assets worth Rs 10 lacs, bought over the years from his lifelong savings. “Some people whose houses hadn’t been burnt down, they came back the next day to look for their house registration papers and important documents. That was when they were attacked, and their houses torched. The 25th was a night of qayamat (or reckoning), but things got worse the next day and continued till the 27th.”
And yet, unlike many others, he promises he’ll return once he has reassured his frightened children. As he observes, “We lived here for so long, we’ll carry on living here. There is goodwill and brotherhood. All of society is not bad, only some people are. We can’t leave our locality because of them.”