A Fire No One’s Ready to Douse: Inside Delhi’s Violence-Hit Ashok Nagar

First Person

A Fire No One’s Ready to Douse: Inside Delhi’s Violence-Hit Ashok Nagar

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The metro journey from South Delhi to Shahdara is a long one. Some 20-odd stations pass on the yellow line before you reach Kashmere Gate, and switch to the red line to cross Shastri Park, Seelampur, and Welcome stations. Shahdara, a congested district by the banks of the Yamuna, is one of the oldest inhabited parts of this city. A part of Delhi far away from the posh enclaves most Delhites are familiar with. It is the periphery, the fringe. The edge of a city now on edge.

Outside Shahdara metro station, around 7.30 pm, the roads are bustling. I am here because disturbing videos and stories have been coming out of Northeast Delhi the entire day. Violent, armed mobs have been roaming the streets with impunity. I feel it is no longer enough to tweet and retweet; I must go and see what is happening myself. There seems to be no sign of trouble outside the station. That is, until I spot a middle-aged man wearing a sleeveless sweater. He’s holding a lathi and an iron rod in his hand. Nonchalantly, without a care in the world.

I move ahead and try to hire an auto to take me to Ashok Nagar. There have been multiple reports on Twitter that a mosque had been destroyed there. I ask five auto drivers and all of them refuse, although they don’t give me a reason for not going. But their faces give away the truth. There is trouble brewing where I want to go.

So I attempt to book a cab. The driver picks me up from under the flyover opposite the metro station. He’s a local, and his primary emotion is that of irritation. He’s upset that the rioters have caused so much chaos. He has to go to a wedding. Priorities.

Even though I’ve set the location as Ashok Nagar, I have no idea where exactly I have to go. I’ve never been here before. We drive for a few minutes before taking a left turn onto the pump and timber market road. It’s desolate. All the shops are shut, their shutters pulled down. It isn’t even 8pm, too early to be closed for business. “It’s never this deserted,” the cab driver says, a trace of fear lining his words.

I am looking for a mosque, but what I can find easily in the lanes are temples.

As we go deeper into this pocket of Northeast Delhi, signs of life diminish with every kilometre. We reach the left turn which takes us into Ashok Nagar. Which earlier in the day had been confused with Ashok Vihar. Most of the establishments are closed, but people move around in groups of twos and threes. By now I have figured out that I have to go to Gali Number 5. That is where the masjid is. But I get down earlier, because I want to walk, and because the road is getting narrower.

Ashok Nagar seems like an intimate neighbourhood, its geography defined by numbered lanes. Gali Number 1, 2, 3 and so on. I type Gali number 5 into Google Maps and begin following the dots. I am not far.

The lanes are narrow. So narrow that two men crossing each other would graze shoulders. In front of me, a mother and her son are walking. They have pails in their hands, for milk. The boy tells his mother that the neighbourhood seems eerily quiet. She nods and keeps walking.

I emerge at an intersection. Groups of people are standing everywhere, talking about the “situation”. It isn’t as quiet here as in the other galis; here there is a strange excitement in the air. The frisson of an “incident”. This is a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone. I stick out like a sore thumb in my pink shirt and backpack. The men, five or six in number, are jesting with each other, their faces relaxed. Then one of them turns serious and advises the others to keep the bikes inside the houses, in case there is trouble.

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Locals are moving from Bhagirathi Vihar in Mustafabad after violence in Delhi.

Javed Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I decide to follow the map again, this time diligently without any distractions. I am looking for a mosque, but what I can find easily in the lanes are temples. Small structures embedded between houses. The sound of temple bells reverberates in the air. I keep following the dots, trusting technology. The door of one of the houses is ajar. Inside, a young man in his twenties, is lifting a sack of stones and taking it inside. At first I think it’s construction material. But later, when I know better, when I have heard better, I realise the stones are weapons, presumably for self-defence. I keep following the map. Then, suddenly, I don’t need to.

I can smell it.

The unmistakable stench of a large fire. Metallic and pungent. I inhale the fumes. I am close by.

The street I am walking on is engulfed in complete darkness. On my right, I am able to make out the shell of a car, burnt or destroyed I cannot tell. At the intersection in front of me, a small crowd has gathered.

I wonder where the mosque is. As I cross the car, I look to my left and realise that the destroyed structure is right there. I wasn’t able to spot it in the darkness. The facade of the mosque is destroyed. The walls have caved in. Parts of it seem charred. Electric poles which cross in front of it have been torn down. Cables hang loose and some are lying on the ground. The minarets, though, seem to have withstood the earlier assault to some extent. I cannot see the flag which the video showed had been planted there. The sky is dark and ominous, and I do not want to linger at the epicentre for much longer.

I reach the intersection and try to mingle with the onlookers, about 15-20 of them. A section behind the mosque is still on fire. Whether it is a store room of the mosque or a shop sharing a wall with it, is hard to tell. Boys on bikes make videos without a care in the world. It is clear that they are locals. All along I have been asking myself a question, what would I say if someone asked who I am? Saying I am a journalist would be a lie and an invitation to get lynched. Earlier in the day Akash Napa, a reporter for JK 24×7 News TV channel, was shot in Maujpur. NDTV’s Arvind Gunasekar, Saurabh Shukla, and Mariyam Alavi were attacked by mobs in Northeast Delhi.

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A view of damaged vehicles following clashes in Mustafabad, Delhi.

Javed Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I take out my phone and start to record the fire in front of me. But all I can manage
is a small three-second video. Then fear grips hold of me. A few boys have noticed me. I shove my phone inside my pocket and start walking. I cannot believe the courage it takes for such a simple act. It is unimaginable, the guts required for filming the videos and images we consume so lackadaisically on social media.

I leave the mosque behind and look for an exit. But I feel the need to talk to someone, to maybe ask a few questions. I look for a kirana shop where there aren’t too many people, and find one not far from the mosque. I ask the shopkeeper, a man in his 30s, for a cigarette. As he hands it to me, I ask him about the incident. He smiles and says something happened earlier in the day. I ask him if the culprits were from Ashok Nagar. He says they were outsiders. There are hardly 5-10 Muslim families here, he says. It is a predominantly Hindu area. Why do we need to do this?

I ask him if the police have come there. He smiles and says there are too many fires in the city for them to cover. There is not much danger here now. What had to happen has happened.

I ask him if the police have come there. He smiles and says there are too many fires in the city for them to cover. There is not much danger here now.

As I am talking to him, a man in his 50s walks up and asks the shopkeeper to come join the mohallawallas outside the temple. They are meeting to discuss what needs to be done in case of an attack. The man is relaxed. It is clear he does not expect retaliation, but still, they must be proactive and plan. The shopkeeper says he will join them in a bit. I follow the man to an intersection where a large crowd of 30-40 people has gathered. I try to linger, but I am too conspicuous. The crowd is boisterous and a few people are eyeing me suspiciously.

It is an intimate neighbourhood. Everyone knows everyone.

I see an exit and head for it. I can see the main road outside, with a flyover that joins the road. On the flyover there is a gang of 15-20 young men. They are hurling abuses and stopping cars which are descending the flyover.

They stop an SUV and thump on its bonnet, abusing and howling, before letting it go. Some cars and bikes turn back when they see the boys. There is a complete breakdown of law and order in the city, and this is an example of it.

I try to get away from the rowdiness. But before I do that, I make a video of the boys stopping the cars. As soon as I am done, a siren hurtles towards the boys. It is a police gypsy. The boys scatter from the road and head towards various alleys which lead into Ashok Nagar. But the cops are going elsewhere. They do not have the time to deal with these hoodlums. As soon as the gypsy leaves, the boys are back on the road, and stop another car. And on it goes.

As I walk away from Ashok Nagar, there are reports of violence, arson, and friction coming in from Yamuna Vihar, Kartar Nagar, Subhash Mohalla, Chand Bagh, Jafrabad and other parts of Northeast Delhi. Many of the stories are about arson. Jhuggis have been burned in Mustafabad. GTB hospital is overflowing with bodies.

Delhi had descended into complete chaos. The city was on fire. But now it seems under control. We can only hope that the embers ease sooner than later.

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