Irshad, a resident of Trilokpuri in east Delhi, must have spent a sleepless night on 24 October when stonepelting mobs ran amok in the neighbourhood. The cab his son drove for a Noida-based call centre was set on fire. Overwhelmed by the fear of mayhem, Irshad, who is in his late 40s, locked his house the next morning and left for a “safer place” with his family of six, including three young girls.
Tens of families like Irshad’s fled Trilokpuri after a drunken brawl on the night of Diwali (23 October) snowballed into a communal riot. The rioting may have been done in groups, but the families are alone in their suffering. According to those who have stayed back in Block 27, where poor Dalits and Muslims have been living peacefully since many years now, those who fled perhaps saw no other option.
As per information collected by the local police, the riots were triggered by a fight between some drunk Muslim and Dalit youngsters near a Mata ki Chowki — a temporary religious structure set up by Hindus in Block 20. Several people have been injured in the riots and more than 60 have been arrested (including 22 booked for “spreading rumours”). Two boys — Ajeet, 17, and Arjun, 15 — were caught in a crossfire between the police and a mob of Muslim criminal elements, and sustained bullet injuries. Ajeet is fighting for his life in a hospital with a bullet lodged in his skull.
At 10 am on 28 October, three days after the violence ended, the streets in Trilokpuri were still completely deserted. The sheer number of bricks strewn all over gave a glimpse into the kind of madness that had got into the mobs while they indulged in stone-pelting and arson for no less than 24 hours. Two shops owned by Muslims had been burnt down.
Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits groups of more than 10 persons from assembling in a particular area, has been imposed across the entire locality. Unofficially, though, the Delhi Police has placed the entire area under a state of curfew. Hundreds of policemen and personnel of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) have been guarding all the exit points of Trilokpuri.
Just after thrashing a young man who wanted to leave the area, an RAF constable laughs and says, “This is collective punishment. Aise thodi na jaane denge (We won’t let them leave like this)”. A senior police officer says on the condition of anonymity, “We are not letting anyone get out of the area unless it is a medical emergency. Today, we are relaxing the curfew from 2 pm to 5 pm. The residents can go out of the area during that period only.”
The officer claims that the police have been able to ensure calm only by adopting such measures. “This is a sensitive, crimeprone area and the youth here are all too eager to indulge in rioting,” he says. Images captured by the surveillance drones deployed by the Delhi Police show that bricks and swords have been stored on the rooftops of several houses in three blocks of Trilokpuri.
Indeed, for a large number of young men in the area, desperation seems to be an everyday anthem. Compared to other neighbourhoods in the national capital, Trilokpuri has a much higher number of men with criminal records. One needs to look at the history of the locality to understand the possible reasons behind this peculiarity.
Trilokpuri was created as a resettlement colony for people evicted from slums in old Delhi during the Emergency years in the mid-1970s as part of the “slum-free India” campaign spearheaded by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi. It grew into a highly congested neighbourhood marked by narrow, labyrinthine lanes and one- or two-room tenements.
Today, the area has a population of 1.5 lakh people. More than half of them are Dalits and close to 20 percent are Muslims. Around 10 percent of the population comprises migrants from other parts of India. Policemen and politicians, almost out of habit, refer to most of the Dalits as ‘safai karmacharis’. The Muslim families make ends meet mostly by doing odd jobs.
A precarious form of peaceful coexistence normally exists among the communities living in the 36 blocks of Trilokpuri. But it is an uneasy calm that is always under threat. During the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984, Trilokpuri was the site of the most egregious scenes of violence. On 2 November that year, mobs led by Congress workers had hacked and burnt to death more than 350 Sikhs, including women and children, in Block 32.
“The massacre took place in two narrow alleys not more than 150 yards long, with one-roomed tenements on either side. It lasted over 48 hours, with the murderers — who go unpunished to this day — even taking breaks for meals before returning to resume their mad slaughter,” Rahul Bedi had recounted in an article in Tehelka (A darkness unforgotten, 25 April 2009).
Thirty years later, memories of that horrific day have been revived. The reactions of the residents of Trilokpuri, weary after the violence and struggling to carry on with their lives in the midst of the curfew, are a mix of cynical cursing and helplessness.
“Stone-pelting is quite common among the boys here. They do it at the silliest of provocations,” says Subhash, a resident. Another resident, VK Baburam, who owns a sweet shop, refers to the recent violence as “a repeat of the Mahabharat”. After his daughter intervenes, he adds, “We will keep the peace, though.” A young Tamil woman, who lives in a block where most of the south Indians reside, says, “It started in Block 20 and soon men in all the blocks wanted to kill each other.”
An incensed Muslim resident from Block 27 points out that Sunil Vaid, former MLA from Trilokpuri constituency and a member of the BJP, had conducted a meeting of Hindus at 1 am on the night the riots started. “Why did he do that?” he asks. “The police raided only the houses of Muslims. Our vehicles were set on fire. There are 200 Hindu families among the 500 families in our block. Ask them whether we have ever threatened them. Have they ever felt scared? Have their shops ever been burnt down?”
Police investigations have revealed that Vaid did meet some of his supporters just before the riots spread. The former legislator, however, denies any role in the violence and asserts that he is doing everything to establish peace. Instead, he blames the Muslims. “The Muslims did not want the Hindus to set up the Mata ki Chowki. They beat up two Hindu boys and there was no satisfactory investigation into the matter. That is why everything went out of control,” he says. “Muslims are against Hindus by nature. It needs to be investigated why they planned this just before Diwali. People have a tendency to blame the BJP and the Sangh Parivar for every riot.”
In the 2013 Assembly election, Vaid lost the Trilokpuri reserved seat to Raju Dhingan of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). He is hoping to wrest the seat back in the next election.
Meanwhile, the residents of Trilokpuri hope that things will soon limp back to normalcy. But they are not sure if the distrust between the communities will end in the foreseeable future.