Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series that examines how Muslims in and around regions near Delhi have had to significantly alter their lives following the recent riots.
At 2 am last Monday, five college friends sat together, discussing escape strategies in case a riot breaks out in the area. Usually, they share gossip from each of their individual lives. But tonight was not a normal night.
The previous day, riots had broken out in the northeast region of Delhi, beginning with clashes between anti- and pro-CAA protesters.
One of the friends, Zeyad Masroor Khan, a journalist-turned-activist — active in the anti-CAA protests of the Shaheen Bagh area — says that he had left his home in Sarita Vihar the day after riots broke out and came to Jamia Nagar area to stay with a friend. Talking about Sunday, the first day of violence in northeast Delhi, he says, “I knew something was happening. But then I thought it was in northeast Delhi, not here. So I felt staying at home, far away from that part of Delhi would be the safest thing to do. But the next day, the violence had taken a complete communal turn.”
He missed work on Monday, as he was too distressed to go anywhere after hearing about the mayhem. “Where I live, in Sarita Vihar, my roommate and I are the only Muslims in the entire lane. Nearby, there is a place called Madanpur Khadar, where we have heard things like, “Tum musalman ho? Tumhe iss area mein ghar kaise mil gaya? (Are you Muslim? How did you get a home in this area?) We were afraid and as night came, we decided to go to a friend’s house in Jamia Nagar.”
According to him, they spent all of Monday looking out from their balcony to check if something was happening. “People were calling us and asking us to get out of here. Zara sa bhi shor hota tha aas paas toh lagta tha ab kucch ho gaya (the slightest sound would make us concerned that something had happened in the vicinity).” On Monday, Zeyad and his roommate recalled all the things people had said to them in this locality in the past. “Tum log musalman ho? Lagte toh nahin ho, tum logon ko yahan ghar kaise mil gaya? Tum log ki daadi kyun nahin hai? (Are you Muslim? You don’t look like one. How did you get a home here? Where is your beard?” These are just a sample.
“After thinking about all this, we thought it’s best we leave the place. So we decided to go to a friend’s house in Noor Nagar, near Jamia because there is strength in numbers. If anything happened, at least we would all fight it together.”
But their nightmare didn’t end here.
They called a cab, which cancelled upon hearing that they had to go to Jamia Nagar. They called another, which cancelled too. After this happened three times, the fourth cab driver agreed to go there. “He was a Hindu man, but he didn’t feel scared of going to a Muslim locality given all that was happening. We thanked him profusely afterwards.”
He adds, “After reaching, it wasn’t like a usual gathering of friends. We were talking about how we had all accepted that Delhi has become communal and now we must devise ways to deal with it. Long-term plans concerning our safety in case of future riots were being hatched. We are a target, how will we fight? Should we even try to fight this or should we simply leave the city?” These were some of the questions that arose.
After two days of staying there, Zeyad has now left for his home in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. He says he is still deciding whether or not he should listen to everybody around him and leave the house in Sarita Vihar. “Aakhir itna waqt kaata hai wahan pe, bahut yaadein hain, woh apna sa lagta hai (We’ve spent so long there, there are so many memories. We feel like we belong there),” he says. He has lived in this house for 10 years.
Saima Rehman, a woman in her young 20s has been a resident of Subhadra Colony in Delhi for around 15 years. Her younger sister, a school student, she says, has stopped wearing her hijab since the riots broke out. “She has to go to her tuition classes and travel in the metro. With the current situation, where people are turning against each other, it’s not safe at all to carry your religious identity around yourself like that.”
Ruhi Naaz, a resident of Faridabad, says that she is changing her behaviour towards her neighbours these days. “Even if they are wrong, we are smiling and apologising. We are the only Muslim family here in the block. Earlier when we used to pass the street, somebody initiated greetings by saying ‘Salaam’ from their balconies, but now it’s vice versa and the term has conveniently changed to ‘Namaste’.” She adds, “Even if we mistakenly say ‘Salaam’, there is silence on the other side or complete ignorance.”
In addition to that, she adds that she has started going to the park and sending her daughter to dance class to break stereotypes about Muslims. “In the end of most of our conversations we add that we are Muslims, and people mostly just gape.”
Amaan Hasan, a former student of Jamia who has now shifted to Mumbai for work, says, “I had to pretend to be a non-Muslim, a Hindu, in fact, in order to secure lodging in Mumbai. The landlady, a very sweet person, said she doesn’t give it to Muslims because they are afraid they’ll have riots in the society.”
He says he rented out his flat in his roommate’s name, who is a Hindu. Owing to an assumed identity, Amaan has to hide traces of his identity when he is in the locality. “Every time I’m on the phone walking outside, I’ve to be careful not to say ‘Assalamualaikum’, ‘Insha’allah’, ‘Khuda Hafiz’ or khair etc. Lest someone hears.”
He said, in addition to that, he has also changed his getup. He says, “I now wear earrings, so that also kind of sells them that I might not be Muslim. Strange that I had to think about that.”
Shaquib Khan is a Jamia student from Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh. Referring to the recent riots in Delhi, he says, “Ever since I saw photos from the riots in Delhi, I have been feeling disgusted, haunted. My parents and I have always lived in a mixed colony and before coming to Jamia, I have spent my entire life there. After seeing those photos, of saffron flags being put up on houses to declare that they are Hindus, I started imagining what would happen in my colony? I can’t bleed in the gardens in which I have played. There are only about 20 Muslim families in a colony with 200 houses.”
Shaquib’s father called him from home and told him, “Ab musalmano ko kafan bandh ke rehna padega (Muslims will will now have to be prepared to die). My father and I share a very formal relationship . He has never shared anything like this with me before. And never earlier, he was never to blunt while talking to me.”
Shaquib had lived all his life in a railway colony, where one of his neighbours was a Jat from Haryana, another one an Adivasi from Jharkhand, another Bengali and so on.
He says, “So, I grew up in such an environment. I always felt that a mixed population is best to understand each other. But seeing this riot in which non-Muslims kept saffron flags on their house in order to identify themselves as Hindu so that rioters know which house to target, I think I understand why ghettos are formed. Now I don’t feel safe in this mixed environment. I feel safe only in the ghettos. It’s unfortunate but that’s how these riots have changed my psyche.”
Hamza Syed, a researcher at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a global research centre, says he has had problems finding accommodation while travelling for work. “I have personally faced accommodation problems in both Jaipur and Patna, and to some extent in Bengaluru as well. In Jaipur, I looked for over 15 days and still couldn’t find a place. People would just say that they don’t give places to Muslims. Some would say they don’t give it to bachelors or to boys. Basically, I qualified for the unholy trinity of being a bachelor, a boy and a Muslim. I did ask some of them about the problem they had while giving a place to Muslims and they gave reasons like you guys eat non-vegetarian food and can’t be trusted. It was only after I started looking for a place with a colleague who was a Brahmin that I finally got a place that was far from office, and that too on the condition that I won’t eat non-vegetarian food inside the house.”
He had similar experiences in Patna.
“In Patna also, people just refused on similar grounds. Even the brokers refused saying the amount of effort it’ll take to find me a house is too much and their costs won’t be covered.” When he finally found a friend who convinced a landlady to let him rent out a place, she agreed but on the condition that he would have to pay Rs 4,000 more than the last tenant. “So, I essentially had to pay a ‘Muslim cess’ to get a place,” he adds.
The friend who had accommodated Zeyad, a resident of Sarita Vihar, a Hindu dominated area, notes, “Afraid of being attacked, my Muslim friends came over to my place – in a Muslim area of Delhi – after the first day of the violence. In normal times, their stay would have brought jokes, laughter, food, stories and memories. But this time, it was all about the unrest and how to escape if things get worse.”
He adds, “Such conversations, trust me, are not uncommon among young Muslims anymore. We are still privileged enough to read and write this. Imagine what the people in crossfire must have felt.”
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