delhi riots
violence

How I Felt Walking Through a Riot-Hit Area in India’s Capital

Reporting from riot-hit areas can take a toll on mental health, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
13 March 2020, 4:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

It’s hard to explain what was running through my mind as I walked around Shiv Vihar, a neighbourhood in the northeast of India’s capital New Delhi, which recently found itself at the centre of violent riots.

I had heard a lot about the destruction that had taken place. Many publications had put out disturbing images of the deserted area. But nothing could have prepared me for the rage, and helplessness that I felt once I was there.

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Between February 22 and February 27, multiple areas of Northeast Delhi, a densely populated region in the Indian capital, burned along communal lines. So far, the official death toll in the violence stands at 53, and the Delhi Police has filed 654 FIRs. They’ve arrested close to 2,193 people in connection with the riots.

delhi riots

I was in Shiv Vihar a week after the violence had taken place. I specifically visited Phases 6 and 7. Many argue that these two localities are among the worst-hit spots in the area.

delhi riots

When I got here around a week after the riots took place, residents of the now burnt-down houses were slowly returning. But they weren’t ready to move back. They told me that they would come during the day and leave before sundown. They feared being attacked again in the aftermath of the carnage. Have you ever felt that kind of fear? The fear that you cannot go back home? I never have, because my decision to leave my home was voluntary—an act of migrating for better opportunities. I didn’t leave in the middle of the night, or at the crack of dawn fearing for my life.

The people I met there were completely fine with strangers walking into their homes, filming what remained. It was as if they wanted to show exactly what happened and to as many people as possible, so that the narrative wouldn’t get twisted or lost in the media cacophony.

delhi riots

Initially, I felt like an intruder. I was entering their homes. It was unsettling—walking through room after room and photographing objects that would otherwise not amount to much, but when they presented themselves in these decimated houses, they became evidence for me. Burnt bangles, a lone slipper, a fan whose blades were grotesquely twisted presumably in the fire, a charred sink that weirdly looked like modern art—I felt horrible.

delhi riots

LPG cylinders had been extensively used to set fire to houses, shops, and mosques in the area.

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The first time that LPG cylinder-aided destruction was talked about intensely in India was back in 2002—during the Gujarat pogrom, and these cylinders, just strewn around, blackened and ash-laden, took me back to 2002. I was still in school then.

Back in Shiv Vihar, ceiling fans had been bent out of shape due to the heat. I could not even imagine what that kind of heat could do to fragile human flesh.

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There was evidence of rioting and arson in every structure. But there was also evidence of a past, a past where lower middle-class businesses thrived in the area. I went to a couple of bakeries and biscuit-packing units. The smell of freshly-baked biscuits and cookies still hung thick in the air.

delhi riots

It was a gory sight, through and through, but once you see enough of it, you tend to disassociate with the impact that these visuals can have. But the relief is only temporary.

I had walked into the area despite locals from there telling me that it was still very dangerous to go there. I knew I was safe. I knew that because of my name.

And, I was quickly made aware of the currency that a name holds. I met a young man. He was about 10 years old. When I asked him why a bamboo barricade had been built in the lane, he said that he had helped make it so that “the Muslims don’t enter.”

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But again, at times, even your name doesn’t guarantee safety in the madness that is unleashed during acts of mob violence, as Baghel House that stands right beside a now-completely destroyed Madina Mosque and its hapless residents, would testify.

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Shiv Vihar will forever bear testimony to what happens when blind rage and blind faith come together. It will also bear testimony to the fact that a raging fire does not care if it is destroying a Hindu’s home or a Muslim’s. It just burns and leaves behind ashes, and soot.

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