New Delhi: Nestled into Mustafabad’s main market road, Ahmed Saeed’s four-storied shoe-cum-garment shop towers above everything else in the vicinity. But these days, it stands out for an entirely different reason: the structure has been hollowed out by fire. Weeks after violence rippled through the alleyways of several localities in Delhi’s north-eastern edge, the signs are still everywhere. Barely 200 metres away from the shop is a school with broken windows that bear the scars left behind by a stone pelting mob.

Saeed’s nephew, who is in Class X, went to the school to write his board exams barely a week after the family’s life turned upside down. “What can one do, he has to give his papers," Saeed said, sitting on a cot in a corner of the shop—the only corner where the layer of soot on the floor wasn’t too thick.

“We have lived here for three decades but nothing will ever be the same (again)," said 43-year-old Saeed. “We can no longer trust our neighbours who we have celebrated festivals with."

A few kilometres south of Mustafabad, in Brahmpuri, everyone has a story about the mob of “masked men" and how the police did nothing. “They (police) came after two days and even then, they did nothing," said Rakesh Kashyap, who lives in Gully No. 2 in Brahmpuri. “An ATM was vandalized and stones were thrown at shops. We made a make-shift barricade with whatever we could find to protect our neighbourhood."

Kashyap’s locality was one of the first areas to be hit by violence, which continued for three days. The hours of helplessness seemed to last longer. So, inevitably, the make-shift barricade is now likely to turn into a gate. Ironically, an innovation of elite Delhi—the gated community—has made its way to one of the poorest parts of the city in the aftermath of the riot. Iron gate makers do brisk business. And it is a symbol of the deep divides that have cropped up.

Another eerie dividing line is in the shape of a canal that bisects Mustafabad and Shiv Vihar. According to news reports, 11 bodies were recovered from just this one canal. The total death toll: 53. For the living, however, there are more immediate concerns. How does one go back to a street when a neighbour or a friend pointed out one’s house to rioters? The gates can provide a sense of security to some, but what if the street had a fairly mixed population to begin with?

North-east Delhi, in fact, has the lowest share of people with salaried or regular jobs in the city (29.5% of the working population), according to the census. The rest make do on an ad-hoc basis, which may often involve finding new work, by venturing into a different locality in the vicinity.

That unique aspect of N-E Delhi, with its fairly non-homogeneous neighbourhoods filled with working-class residents, throws up a challenge. The violence has stopped, but peace is nowhere in sight. Confidence-building measures are desperately required, said Satish Deshpande, professor of sociology at Delhi School of Economics. “But there isn’t any effort being taken by the people who matter. We have to see if there are unrecognized resources in society. The people whose job it was to make amends are not interested in that job. We need to see how this will play out," he added.

Meanwhile, both Houses of Parliament were gripped by a discussion about the riots on Wednesday and Thursday. However, the main topic of conversation was not peace, but a debate on which side indulged in more hate speeches.

Home minister Amit Shah also declared that more than 1,900 rioters have been identified using facial recognition software. “They will be dealt with sternly," he said.

Till date, over 700 cases have been registered and more than 1,600 people have been detained in connection with the mob violence. But the real test of whether these measures are seen as fair or effective can be gauged only from the gullies of localities like Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad.

Remains of the day

On 24 February, a motley group of arsonists armed with petrol bombs, sticks and stones made their way into Saeed’s locality in Mustafabad. The riots had broken out a day earlier in Maujpur–Jaffrabad, but quickly spilled over. As the violence unfolded, Saeed said: “All we could do was watch and hope that our turn was not next."

“The lane we stay in has two temples and a mosque but we lived together in peace. Now, I don’t know," Saeed told Mint during a recent visit in the days following the riot.

Such fears are rampant. The fact that such fears have taken root in India’s densest district (more than 36,000 people are packed into each sq. km of N-E Delhi compared to just 4,000 in New Delhi) makes it a harder problem to tackle. It affects far too many people.

The economic and livelihood impact is also spread widely as a result. Saeed’s shoe-cum-garment shop, for instance, was worth 1-2 crore, he estimates. “The compensation will not even take care of a fraction of what we have lost," he said. “My brother has two children, whose education was being funded from the profits of the store."

The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government has announced relief measures, which include 5 lakh compensation for those whose houses have completely been burnt down. As of 13 March, the government had received compensation claims from 391 households of which 214 have been substantially damaged. Claims from 707 shops which have been burnt have also been received.

Those who have lost their houses, meanwhile, have to chase immediate accommodation and the compensation amount simultaneously.

“We spent the initial days at a relative’s house but could not stay for very long," said a woman resident, who did not want to disclose her name. “The area has been our home for 20 years but now we cannot trust anyone. We have spent the last week in a relief camp but it has been raining."

She’d been living in the Eidgah relief camp in Mustafabad along with her mother-in-law, husband and their three children. “We are working with relief workers to try and figure out our next steps. We are scared to go back to our colony. Once our compensation comes through, we will look for a rented house," she added.

In nearby Shiv Vihar, Vijay Kumar has a slightly more uphill task. He is trying to get DRP Convent Secondary School— which caters to 1,200 students—back on track. “We have tried to salvage some of the desks and tables that were not burnt and we are repainting them," he said. “The mob of about 200-odd men who came in wearing helmets and masks left nothing un-torched. Thankfully, the incident took place after we had closed the school for the day."

With many children either witnessing or going back to zones of rampant violence, Anwar, a doctor, at the nearby Al Hind Hospital, has started small counselling groups. “The riots have made me realize medical care can be given anywhere," he said, after being forced to cater to more than 400 patients in the 15-bed hospital during the riots.

“Whatever was possible at the time, we did just to save lives. We had to improvise. Patients were made to lie down on the floor; ropes were used in place of IV stands," he said. “The situation is better now."

Police apathy

One common thread, across the many divisions and differences, was that something must be done to improve the level of support available—whether from the police, ambulance services or fire brigades. Several residents recounted calls going unanswered.

And the lack of response stretched, in some cases, even to the days after the violence had stopped. Mohammad Rizwan, a resident of Shiv Vihar, for instance said: “Our house was robbed on 26 February after the riots were controlled in the area—the material for our shop was stolen, household goods were damaged and we have lost about 30 lakh. We have been trying to file FIR, but the cops have not responded as yet."

Many residents complained of sporadic cases of robberies and vandalism even days after paramilitary forces had put boots on the ground to contain the violence.

Anees Abdul, a local business owner in Chand Bagh, is still a bit nervous and keeps looking over his shoulder while speaking. “We don’t know how many times we called the police. We were stuck in our daughter’s school and everyone stayed together. But the police did not bother to respond," he said.

It remains to be seen whether accountability will be pinned on those responsible for such lapses. The demand for an FIR against three Bharatiya Janata Party leaders for hate speeches also remains unresolved before the Delhi high court. The Union home ministry offered a boilerplate response. “Investigation is ongoing and all culprits will be dealt with severely. This (kind of violence) will not be tolerated," said a senior home ministry official.

In Parliament, home minister Shah rejected all the charges that have been levelled on the police. “Don’t blame the Delhi Police," he said in the Rajya Sabha, adding: “They did a great job in containing the violence. This is a 16 sq. km area with 2 million people. When the atmosphere was so violent, the Delhi Police kept the affected area limited to 4% (of the city) and just 13% of the population."

Many unknowns

With many thorny issues so far away from a resolution, suspicion has inevitably created an irreparable chasm in a once harmonious N-E Delhi. The district has a substantial Muslim population. Since the violence, a series of rumours in the area and the city have not made it any easier for the residents, who are still stitching their lives back together.

Naresh Saini, a 34-year-old vegetable seller and resident of Brahmpuri, was part of a group of men who ran to the main road after hearing screams in the early hours of 24 February. While the rest managed to run back, Saini suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen.

Saini’s sister-in-law Shabnam Saini said: “He had to be taken to the hospital on a motorcycle. The cops did not come and neither did any ambulance." She claimed that the mob had come from Jaffarabad and that fear remains.

Deshpande, the sociology professor, describes violent riots as just the extreme end on a spectrum of threats that affect a city resident’s perceptions of safety and well-being.

“The rest of the spectrum remains (in N-E Delhi) and these acts have been particularly vicious in the sense that there is no sense of regret. There is, in fact, brazen celebration by those who have been involved in the violence. That is what we will have to recover from and I don’t know how that will happen," said Deshpande.

Regaining what has been lost may be painstakingly slow. For Saeed, it is a question of how the building blocks can be stacked up again in an area that may never be the same again.

“Where do we even start? Everything has to be built from scratch—and not just the physical structure of the store (which was set on fire), but our entire life has to be rebuilt. We grew up here and religion was never a point of discussion but now we no longer know whom to trust. For three days, there was pandemonium here and nobody came to anybody’s rescue," he added.

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