Ramzan 'locked down' in Delhi riot-hit homes
The double whammy of the Delhi communal riots and COVID-19 is forcing many Muslim families in North East Delhi to stay in their arson-hit homes. Their Ramzan is lacklustre, fruits are missing from Iftaar, and there are no plans for Eid. They have a larger worry - employment.
A green scarf tied to two sides to the gate serves as a cradle for Sana Khan. “She just loves to be in this palana (cradle)”, says her mother Juhi Parveen. Juhi and her husband Shaifi Alam walk us through an extremely narrow corridor on the third floor of their house to show us their bedroom. “It is impossible to keep her without the palana. This is where she gets the comfort,” adds the doting father. Sana is two and a half months old.
Alam used to run a general store from the ground floor of the house until February. When Sana was born, the young couple, with much love, had invested a bit of their savings to buy the cradle. But it’s gone now, just like all the other valuables in the house. “Our house was attacked by the rioters. They looted whatever they could, burnt the rest and threw many of our belongings,” says Juhi. “Dangaiyon ne iska palana bhi nahi chhoda (the rioters didn’t even spare her cradle)”.
In the month of Ramzan, in an attempt to leave behind the trauma of the Delhi riots, the family made a decision to reboot their lives. An uphill task has now been made herculean because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This correspondent had first met Juhi and Sana at Muhstari Khatoon’s house in North East Delhi’s Chandu Bagh locality. Khatoon, back then, had emerged as a saviour for hundreds of riot victims, including Sana’s family. Even though this safe refuge provided them with food and safety, the mother-daughter duo needed medical help, among many other immediate requirements.
When the communal riots swept Delhi’s North East district in February, Sana Khan was barely ten-days old. To her mother Juhi and grandfather Shayara’s credit, her life was saved. The family ran for their lives as the mob attacked their house in the Khajuri Khas extension. The front portion of the ground floor was gutted. Alam’s shop was burnt down. And like every other household owned by Muslims in the locality, their house was ransacked. That’s when they were forced to take safe refuge in the Muslim-dominated lanes of Chandu Nagar.
Two months after the riots, the family is back in their home. Alam, along with his two brothers – Mohammad Minhaj and Mohammad Niyaz - have just broken their fast and are sharing the Iftaari in a big bowl. Children in the house – all below the age of five – peep into the first room where Alam and his brothers are seated, occasionally taking a bite or two from the Iftaar food.
“How’s the first Ramzan after the riots going?”, I asked them. “It's right in front of you. Look at our Iftaari and decide yourself,” Minhaj responds pointing at the bowl which has homemade gram, deep-fried pakodas, and cucumbers as the replacement for fruits.
“Jo Khusiya thi wo khushiyan khatam ho gayi (The happiness is gone from our lives)” Minhaj says. “In any other Ramzan, we would have treated you with at least a few different types of shikanji (Indian lemonade). There are no fruits in our iftaaris. And dry fruits, which used to be a must during Ramzan, seems like a luxury now. We don’t get to eat it even during Sehri,” he said.
The four families of the house are managing to operate from the single kitchen. Alam’s mother, Shayara, says that’s a huge challenge, especially during festivals.
Shayara says that, during Ramzan, the neighbours would frequent their shop. “We have lost that business.”
“I don’t know about the world but we are bearing a double whammy. First, the riots tore apart our lives and now Corona is stopping us from rebuilding our homes and lives,” 31-year-old Alam says. A week ahead of Ramzan – the holy month for Muslims – he invested Rs 2, 000 in the shop with hopes of reviving the business. While the family has cleared the debris and scrubbed away the telltale marks of fire soot from their home, they have been unable to access the lower ground floor - which also served as Alam’s shop – as it is in a dilapidated state. The family has received the first installment of the compensation from the Delhi government, but they haven’t been able to carry out the repair work due to the nationwide lockdown.
A few metres away, sits what is left of Fatima Masjid. The mosque was strategically attacked, pelted with stones, and burnt by the communal mob. During the riots, they had unsuccessfully tried to blast a few small gas cylinders and motorbikes inside the mosque to bring it crashing down.
Imam Akram, 30, told Asiaville that Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind paid for the repair work. New waters for wuzu have been installed, the debris has been cleared, and new carpets have been spread over the charred marble flooring.
“The security personnel assured us safety and had asked us to resume Namaz,” Akram recalls, saying that around March 3rd they had gained access to the mosque. “Due to the coronavirus outbreak, only I and three muezzins offer prayer at the mosque,” he says. The paramilitary force is deployed right outside the mosque and works in three shifts.
Imam Akram says that despite having funds at their disposal and the month of Ramzan having arrived, they couldn’t carry out the planned repair work. Only soot and debris have been cleared from two other floors of the mosque.
As he shares these details, 32-year-old Masoom Ali chimes in saying, “Had it been just corona, we would have still managed to smile. In Ramzan, this Mosque is lit up and the entire lane has a sense of festivity.” He adds, “Many of the residents have not even returned back to their homes. Many are living in rented houses despite having their house and the rest have cleared the rubble to settle-in in one or two rooms of their homes. Can we have a celebratory mood in such a situation?”
India has been hit by a wave of unemployment due to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the latest CMIE survey, during the nationwide lockdown, unemployment has increased by nearly 15 points, and the current unemployment rate is at 23.5 per cent. If one conducts a survey in the riot-hit areas of North East Delhi, these numbers will skyrocket.
Ali works at a private firm in Delhi but he is not sure whether he still has a job. “I couldn’t attend my office for two-three weeks due to riots. Barely eight days after I resumed work, the lockdown was announced. I am not very sure whether they will retain me,” he said.
There are others like Razia Begum and Kher-ul Nishan for whom the Ramzan festival is meaningless. They say, “Allah will help us to pass the holy month.” Both are widows and their only source of income was the rent they collected from their tenants.
Begum owns a two-storey house in the Fatima Masjid lane. The first two rooms on the ground floor were rented and the latter half of the house had a kitchen, washroom, and a bedroom, as well as access to the first floor. In this part of the house, Begum lived with her two teenage sons and her daughter Nagma.
The rioters brought down the portion of the house where they lived and the first room was set on fire. Standing in the middle of the debris, Begum says, “Ramzan has lost its lustre. Hum kahin reh rahe hain, humare bacche kahin aur (Our family is not living together). We used to live in an open space. Now, my daughter and I live in a single room. On our own.” She has hung up a bed sheet at this end of the house to give a sense of the wall. “We use this area as our bathroom, hence I have put up this bed sheet to cover.”
To ensure the safety of her sons during the riots - they are both school students - she has sent them away.
The construction material is lying in the front room but like many other households, the lockdown has halted the repair work. The tenants are gone. And the single room serves as the bedroom, kitchen, and the place to offer prayers and break the fast.
In the narrow lane to the right of Begum’s house lives Kher-ul Nishaan. The rooms are still standing, and it looks like a house. At the end of a narrow passage is a staircase which can be accessed by one person at a time. On the other side of the house is a broad drain where rioters threw away valuables from Muslim houses that they could not carry away.
Nishaan showed us each room of the house, sharing how the rioters didn’t even spare the rooms in which her tenants lived. All her tenants are unmarried migrant workers. And they haven’t paid her rent since the Delhi riots.
“How can I ask for rent from them when I can see their plight from my own eyes? They have lost their jobs since the riots. Even during Ramzan, they are dependent on others for food or are borrowing money on interest,” Nishan said.
Not that the 50-year-old widow has deep pockets. She was directly dependent on income from rent and decorative items that she used to make for some nearby vendors. Both sources of income have come to a screeching halt. First, due to the riots and then because of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Her adopted son and daughter-in-law fled to Bihar’s Sitamarhi during the riots, and have not yet returned. She has asked one of her tenants – Wasim – to stay with her on the third floor of the house as she has health issues. Out of curiosity, I enquired whether they were fasting even in these difficult times. The answer was affirmative.
Mohammad Wasim, 28, who works as a daily wage worker, says, “Can’t stop keeping Roza. I used to fast even when working.” When asked how he was managing food for Iftaar and Sehri (food eaten to break the fast after evening prayer and the last meal before the dawn), “She has been feeding us and at times, we step out to buy some food as well.”
You don’t have to have deep pockets to be kind, even during the most difficult times. That’s the biggest take away from Nishan’s story.
“We are a family who used to do zakat of at least Rs 70,000 – 80,000 in every Ramzan, ” Mannan says. “Now we have to spread our hands for khairat (alms).”
The back to back woes of riots and COVID-19 has hit even those who belonged to slightly more financially stable families, making the first Ramzan after riots lacklustre and forcing them to pass the holy month in the same riot-hit unrepaired houses.
Mohammad Irshad’s family owned three different businesses that operated from the ground floor of their house. The rooms, which served as the sitting area and as a godown for their embroidery and sports material businesses, still wear the same riot-hit look. The fans are damaged, construction material has taken the place of the debris, and the soot on the walls reminds you of what communal hatred is capable of doing. In the front room, they ran a common public services centre filling computerised forms for government services, such as Aadhar cards.
When asked about the preparation for Eid, Irshad’s 60-year-old father Abdul Mannan shares the worst part of being hit by the riots.
“We are a family who used to do zakat (annual payment for charity in Islam) of at least Rs 70,000 – 80,000 in every Ramzan and regular charity to Madrass and muezzins and other Islamic preachers,” Mannan says. “Now we have to spread our hands for khairat (alms).”
What about the emotional trauma? Irshad was supposed to get married in April. “My marriage has been called off. It is the decision of the girl’s family. My sisters were also supposed to get married a few months from now. That too has been cancelled. I can’t share the emotional trauma we are going through,” Irshad tells Asiaville.
“Any person who comes to donate even things of the smallest value, they ask us to pose for pictures. There are people who request our women to pose for photos while accepting the donations. How can a human treat others like this?” he asks.
They had a clientele base in different cities of the country. Their income from the family’s embroidery and sports material business alone ran into anything between Rs 50,000 to 5 lakh a month. “Lockdown has taken away the opportunity to rebuild our lives. Had we been able to begin our business, even from scratch, our lives would have improved. It would have reduced the emotional burden,” the young businessman says. “Eid will be all about old clothes and keep our family closer to our hearts,” he says, adding that it will take at least 6 more months for them to bring the business back on track once the lockdown is over.
Two months after the Delhi riots, the country and Delhi have forgotten the miseries of those who were hit by the communal violence. The COVID-19 outbreak is keeping the media and the public busy. For most people, the memories of the riots are blurring. But this is not the case for the people who survived the brutality, and who are facing the consequences of the riots to this day. They are not spared even during the holy month of Ramzan.
Meet Mohammad Kaiyyum and his family. Only the ground floor - with one room and kitchen - of their three-storey house is accessible to them. The blasts and arson have made the upper floors unsafe to live in or access. Even though the family has received the full compensation of more than Rs 6 lakh from the Arvind Kejriwal government, all 15 family members are forced to live in cramped conditions in one room and a hall.
Heavy construction is required in the retired daily wager’s house to make the other floors accessible. “We can’t begin the construction work until the lockdown is over. It seems we will be spending Eid like this,” Kaiyyum says.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has extended the lockdown by two more weeks. All of Delhi’s 11 districts are characterised as a red zone. Relief from the lockdown restrictions doesn’t look like it will happen in the near future. The riot victim families of North East Delhi will have to spend the holy month of Ramzan and conduct whatever festivities they can in their arson-hit homes. The concurrent ills of the riots and COVID is not allowing them to even think about Eid celebrations.
Back in Sana’s home, the best gift Alam and Juhi can think of for their daughter is a cradle. “Shops are closed now. I am not sure whether it would be possible to get her a new cradle due to the lockdown,” Alam says.