It was a phone call on February 26, at around 8:30 PM, that changed the lives of everyone in House No. D 222 (which has stood there for 30 years now), Gali No. 16, Old Mustafabad, New Delhi. 17-year-old Hashim was calling his sister Nagma to tell her that he was close to home and that he was travelling with their older brother, Aamir, a 28-year-old father of two. That was the last time Nagma would ever speak to her brothers. She called back after five minutes, but the phone had been switched off.
India’s capital New Delhi has been in upheaval since protests broke out in the city after the passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the Indian Parliament on December 11, 2019. Multiple protest sites propped up in the city, the most famous one being Shaheen Bagh, which has seen a peaceful sit-in by women for almost 80 consecutive days now. Mirroring Shaheen Bagh, protests erupted from February 22 in Northeast New Delhi, India’s most populated district. Northeast Delhi is also one of the poorest districts in the country, and when it comes to the capital, it has the highest concentration of Muslims in any one neighbourhood. But about a week ago, clashes broke out in several neighbourhoods, which spiralled into bloodshed, arson and ransacking. Areas like Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Mustafabad, Shiv Vihar and Brijpuri saw mobs unleashing unmitigated violence. As of February 29, the official death toll in New Delhi stands at 42, with at least 200 people reported as being injured. Two of those killed by the rioters were Aamir and Hashim, their mutilated bodies thrown in the open sewer drain that cuts through the area.
The brothers were returning home after visiting their ailing grandfather. They were at the Gokulpuri Metro station that lies just a few minutes from their house that is situated in the crowded bylanes of Old Mustafabad. Their father, Babu Bhai, a 55-year-old ailing man who is in the tailoring business, had urged them not to come back because the entire area had been witnessing brutal violence that erupted when a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party Kapil Mishra had issued a warning against all those protesting the CAA. He had promised violence if the protestors didn’t stop, and had also warned the Delhi Police that he and his supporters wouldn’t listen to them and take matters in their own hands.
But the brothers were convinced that the area was peaceful because cops were present there and there was no apparent danger. So after staying away for three days, they decided to come home on February 26.
They were to be proved wrong.
When the boys didn’t come home as they had promised, their father Babu Bhai, got worried. He decided to check with the police and to file a missing person’s complaint the following day. He took his 22-year-old daughter Nagma with him. “I took her with me because she is like my son,” he told VICE. “I stay unwell, and she handles all my business.” But the father-daughter duo were sent from one police station in Dayalpur to another in Gokulpuri. The Investigating Officer there said that he didn’t know anything about the missing men. Then they were sent to another department in Gokulpuri station. Two women officers found them waiting, and especially took note of young Nagma. They took pity on her. “They showed us three photos,” said Nagma. “I saw them and knew that two of those three photos were of my brothers. Aamir bhai’s face was bloated and blackened. Hashim’s face was bloated as well and was deathly white.” The cops, however, refused to give them any more information—they were not even told where the bodies were. In fact, the police are yet to classify the deaths as murders. They have told Babu Bhai that it was an accident. But Babu Bhai knows that the innumerable injuries on his sons’ bodies tell a different, gory tale.
Eyewitnesses from the area where the bodies were recovered from, told Babu Bhai that the rioters had made the boys open their pants to confirm if they were indeed Muslim. Muslim men in India generally undergo circumcision at a young age, which is part of their cultural tradition. The majority Hindu population generally doesn’t believe in circumcision. This difference between a circumcised penis and an uncircumcised one serves as a pointer for mobs to determine whether their victim belongs to their religion or not.
The ones who had run away from the murdering mob had informed Babu Bhai that he would find his sons’ bodies in the big open sewer drain that runs through the entire neighbourhood. Groups of men from Ganga Vihar were stationed at the culvert of the drain and they were allegedly capturing Muslims, torturing them, and then disposing of their bodies in the drain.
In between crying uncontrollably and desperately trying to compose himself, Babu Bhai lamented, “My sons were killed like animals. No, even animals are not killed in this manner.”
He is confident that no Hindu will be harmed in his area, but he said that one could take it in writing that if a Muslim man with a beard stepped out of this area and went to a Hindu-dominated area, he will get butchered. “People who lose the ones they love are the ones that lose everything. Politicians come and go. They indulge in hate speech. What do you think these political leaders would do if this was the fate of their sons—if it was their wives who were sitting outside protesting? There shouldn’t be any hate speech—irrespective of whether the leader is Hindu or Muslim. My sons are gone. Others shouldn’t lose their children to this hate.”
He was also confident that it wasn’t his Hindu neighbours who had committed the act. “We’ve lived here peacefully for decades. We even suffered through the aftermath of 1992 together. What happened now? What changed it all?”
In another room of the house, surrounded by neighbours, Nagma was full of rage. “Tell me, what will happen to these two young kids who have been looking for their father? How will we get justice? Why are Muslims being targetted? What did my brothers do? They weren’t even protesting or rioting. They were just coming back home. You tell me, who will provide justice to my pregnant sister-in-law? And Hashim was only 17. He hadn’t even seen the world.” Nagma too, like her father, knows it’s not her Hindu neighbours who have committed the act. She puts the blame squarely on Kapil Mishra and his hate-filled speech.
Neighbours in the house pointed to the two little children in the room. They said that the kids were waiting for their abbu. They had been told that their abbu had gone to buy food and will come back soon.
“I lost my brothers,” said Nagma, her grief and anger palpable. “I hope no one loses their brothers.”
The other women started praying. All of them were praying for peace.
On February 29, the bodies of Aamir and Hashim were released by GTB hospital. Residents of Old Mustafabad came out in large numbers to bid adieu to the boys. They were accorded the respect that is reserved for the most special ones. Women were wailing as they touched the shrouded bodies one last time, and the men were all there to ensure that the crowd didn’t go out of control.
As the family began the process of laying their beloved sons to rest, they also started an uphill climb to achieve the bare minimum: justice.
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