The Djinns of Jamnapar: Fear and loathing in North East Delhi
Ghosts and Djinns are probably not real, but fear is. Here's our personal account of the aftermath of North East Delhi violence and what fear smells like.
There is a burning sensation in my throat and my nasal cavity. I've had it since last night. Last night my colleague Nantha and I had gone to the burnt tyre market at Gokalpuri, right next to the metro station. The metro station was well-lit last night, it looked like an oasis of light in the middle of the kingdom of darkness. But there was something eerie about this darkness. It was like somebody has forced this darnkess upon a perfectly fine area. A fabricated ghost-town. An enforced darkness.
Something else was odd about this darkness. We could see in the darkness. We could see temples, mosques, iron rods, religions, petrol bombs, hate, love, politics and remnants of riots.
This part of North East Delhi, which consists of Maujpur, Jaffrabad, Chand Bagh, Kardampuri and Gokalpuri had turned into a war zone, a hotbed of violence on 23rd, 24th and 25th of February. We went on 26th evening to understand what the local residents went through when the flames of violence reached their homes.
We started our journey on foot from Maujpur-Babarpur metro station with a sense of adventure and fear. The kind of fear one would have had if they had visited the affedcted areas after the Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in Nazi Germany. Our otherwise confident steps became unusually gingerly. The air smelled different as soon as we stepped in the Maujpur area. This area had turned into a bastion of the pro-CAA and later Hindu mobs on those days of unprecedented violence.
We crossed the road to talk to a group of elderly men. They spoke about fear. Fear of how "Mohammedans will come to their houses and will burn it down". One of them almost seemed too eager too talk to us. When he expressed his views about how there is nothing wrong is asking people to shoot traitors and the "traitors" should be shot without a trial, he almost seemed too prepared to say this.
Then slowly the sun completely set, the ghost-town started seeming even more eerie with the constant blaring of siren and people looking at us like we shouldn't be there.
We walked a kilometer or two when a group of policemen stopped us saying that if we want to go any further, it won't be their responsibility. When we said that we would still like to enter the narrow lane, the young officer clad in riot gear told me, "alright, if something goes wrong, give us a shoutout. We understand that it's your job".
We went in and spoke to another lot which said how the fear of Muslims entering their houses, burning their shops and shooting them is what keeping them huddled at every crossroad of the lanes and bylanes. In the middle of the interview an elderly woman came and tapped Nantha's hand quite assertively. Nantha recalls how "he freaked the heck out". Turned out that, the woman did not want the men to speak to us, as if they were violating a collective decision. Sensing that we were not that welcome in the neighbourhood anymore, we quickly decided to head out to the main road.
Next we went to the Vijay Park area, where it was said that most of the houses are inhabited by Muslims, except two. We entered the lane with fear in our hearts. There were people standing at crossroads at Vijay Park as well.
We spoke to two groups of people here. Both Muslims. For some unknown reason, neither of the two groups even mentioned the words 'Hindu' or 'riot' to us. Instead the conversation was about the police inaction, the police siding with "another community" and how Hindu-Muslim unity is above all. And there was fear.
We could almost feel the darkness more potently here.
The second group took us inside and spoke to us over a glass of water. More than hospitality, it was the fear of section 144 in area. Our hosts seemed extremely careful of the laws and how it could act against them.
After we quenched our thirst, we started walking towards the main crossraod where on our left was Chand Bagh, and on the right, Gokalpuri. It was a long and dark walk, and we could feel the air around us getting heavier and more polluted than before. Nantha remarked it must be all the burnt tyres. I downplayed that notion saying that it's been almost three days since the market was burnt. As we got closer to Gokalpuri we realised that Nantha was indeed right. It was all the burnt tyres which had contibuted to the tremendous PM 2.5 count there, it was also the stench of violence. That doesn't go in three days.
We realised that when we tried to get down from the highway to the Gokalpuri residential lanes. We could see a group of people in saffron bandanas, armed with sticks in front of a small temple. We thought we should go there and speak to them, expecting no less enthusiasm than we had recived from people earlier that night.
Our notion changed as soon as we started approaching the barricade near the temple. As soon as we started closing the distance to the barricade, a group of men started banging their sticks and rods on the metal barricade, asking us who we were. When we replied saying that we're journalists, I could almost sense the rage inside them. I didn't have to "sense" much longer, because the subsquent abuses and threats made it abundantly clear. We were told to run away if we wanted to live another day.
We did exactly that because neither of us were exactly negotiation experts or suicidal. We walked back in a pace which could have easily broken the Olympic record for walking back. Now, if you say that there is no event like that in the Olympics, I would say that's a fallacy and it's about time we have that event.
While we were smashing non-existent records, one group from behind the barricade started calling us, with what seemed like genuine interest. But the other faction was still unconvinced of having journalists in their lair. So while a fight broke out between them with the choicest of the words, which can only be heard in Delhi, we had almost evaded danger.
We stopped only when we could see a police car with policemen listening to old Hindi songs inside. We felt alive the moment "Deedar De" entered our ears. Nantha leaned back on the car in relief and muttered to himself "curiosity killed the cat". I don't know what happened to me and I replied saying "but not journalists. Never the journalists." Nantha, without saying a word looked away. After waking up the next morning, I realised that perhaps that phrase sounded cooler in my head than it probably was.
Since the cat was alive and kicking, we decided to proceed to a better-lit locality, where we encountred a Muslim family walking extremely fast, broken shops, burnt vehicles and a similar sight of men protecting lanes in groups.
While we started speaking to the group of shopkeepers, something unusual happened. In the middle of the video recording, a person came almost running to us. The man we were interviewing introduced the new man as the chairperson of their market. The newly introduced chairperson, clearly high on adrenaline from the run, spouted the words "Ek Muslim maar diya ..." (One Muslim person was killed just now). Suddenly our guy got excited and stopped the interview asking us to delete the video then and there.
Needless to say (watch the video above), we kept the video sneakily, and quickly went out that lane to see the charred tyre market.
I've kept mentiong the burnt tyre market throughout the article and there is a reason for that. The first night the news of the violence broke, I remember seeing distress calls all over social media and an entire market burning bright against the night sky. It was the same tyre market which was set on fire on the night of 24th. When we went there, we could hardly breathe because the smell of burnt tyre was so much that Nantha almost wanted to puke. We switched on all our phone flashlights to see what it looked like. It was like someone was showing us fear in a handful of dust.
We realised that April wasn't the cruellest month after all, for us it might just be all twelve.