In Delhi, First Came the Pogroms. Then Came Coronavirus.
For Indian Muslims forced from their homes by mob violence, not even displaced persons camps can protect them now.
NEW DELHI—Lying on a torn cot inside a tent, 38-year-old Nizamuddin didn’t turn when a cloud of dust landed on him. He closed his eyes and tried to recall what his home felt like.
In late February, he lost his house at the hands of Hindu nationalist mob in the Indian capital’s worst communal violence in decades, riots that were arguably sparked by a series of hatemongering speeches by the local leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Nizamuddin ended up stuck sheltering in the Eidgah displaced persons camp in New Delhi’s Mustafabad neighborhood, three miles from his destroyed home.
On March 18, Nizamuddin’s wife, Parveena, was standing in a line outside the tent to collect scarce drinking water while their three children roamed around the camp with other kids who had lost their homes. Many of them are traumatized.
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In a lane sandwiched between tents, under the open sky, young boys were playing ball. A few yards away, Arshad and Ruban, an 8-year-old and 13-year-old whose names have been changed, were sitting despondently.
Arshad was tense because his father had gone out of the camp for afternoon prayers against his son’s wishes. “My father has a long beard,” said the 8-year-old, “and Hindus will know that he is a Muslim and will beat him up.”
He said that when his family realized that they wouldn’t survive or “hold a chance in a fight against Hindus,” they ran away from their home in Shiv Vihar neighborhood in late February. So did Ruban’s family.
In the wake of the violence, the Delhi High Court asked the director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences to provide a sufficient number of qualified professionals to help victims who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wasim Qamar, who heads the medical camp in Eidgah set up by Doctors Unity Welfare Association, said that apart from a single session of counseling that was offered, they aren’t able to provide a psychologist or qualified professional to deal regularly with the mental health issues inside the camp.
Ruban is facing trauma after seeing the communal violence up close. “We ran from our home at night,” he said, “and every night, I’m reminded of it and I get scared.” Arshad, too, said he is struggling with his nightmares: “I see Hindus wearing helmets and armed with swords running after my family to kill us.”
I ask: Does he survive in the dream?
In December 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party amended India’s citizenship laws, which made undocumented migrants of almost all religions—except Islam—from neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship. It is also planning to carry out an exercise that forces everyone to prove their nationality. Put together, the laws could become a tool to strip millions of Indian Muslims of their citizenship.
Since December, New Delhi has become a battleground of identities and ideologies. Hundreds of Muslims have been protesting against the citizenship law. It was Hindu nationalist citizens and leaders angered by those protests who organized the mob that ransacked Nizamuddin’s street.
Meanwhile, the state’s complicity in the crimes against Muslims, as seen in the recent Delhi violence—during which multiple victims say that police didn’t react to their panicked calls or simply turned their backs—has encouraged the mobs on the streets, allowing them to attack Muslims with a sense of impunity.
Modi’s majoritarian government has shown no desire to pass any strict laws against mob violence or hate speech, doing further damage to the idea of a secular India.
Indeed, since Modi took power in 2014, Hindu nationalism in India has been on the rise. So have been communally motivated attacks. A report by IndiaSpend found that Muslims were the target of 52 percent of attacks related to consuming beef—an offense because cows are considered holy by Hindus—from 2010 to 2017; 97 percent of those attacks happened after Modi took power, and 84 percent of those killed were Muslims. Many of these attacks were shot on video, with the faces of the attackers visible, yet the mob vigilantism has gone unpunished.
The Delhi Minorities Commission, a statutory body, in its assessment report called the violence “one-sided, well-planned.” The most damage was done to the shops and homes of Muslims. The panel also concluded that the displaced won’t “be able to start living there any time soon.”
The recent violence in northeast Delhi has displaced hundreds of Muslim families from the neighborhoods where they had lived for generations. But it’s not just Delhi. In India, a Hindu-majority country, over 200 million Muslims are a ghettoized community, and incidents of communally motivated violence in past decades have further intensified the segregation.
In 2017, Raphael Susewind, a lecturer in social anthropology and development at King’s College London, studied religious demography and segregation in 11 Indian cities and found that the segregation faced by Muslims in Delhi is the third-highest among those cities, only after Ahmedabad and Hyderabad.
Talking to Foreign Policy, Harsh Mander, a civil rights activist and a columnist, said that instilling fear in order to force the segregation of minority communities is the major objective of the violence. “You may have lived for generations in mixed colonies, but when you are attacked by your neighbors or with their complicity, the trust and sense of security is broken,” he said. “Hence, it is natural that you will seek safety in people of your own identity.”
It was on Feb. 27, during a family gathering, that Nizamuddin learned from a panicked phone call that the mob had looted his home in New Delhi’s Shiv Vihar neighborhood. He rode a motorcycle 250 miles—from a village in Uttar Pradesh—with his younger brother, Jamaluddin. By evening, when the brothers reached Delhi, a mob of about 50 people was gathered on an otherwise deserted street armed with swords and iron rods.
When the mob asked for a name, the elder brother lied, saying he was “Raju”—a common Hindu name. But the younger brother gave in and told the truth. Then, “They asked me to unzip my pants,” Nizamuddin recalled. Checking whether men are circumcised has become a trademark of Hindu mobs seeking to identify Muslims before attacking them. Nizamuddin refused, but it was too late.
After a failed attempt to run, the mob knocked them onto the ground, beating them until both of them fell unconscious and didn’t scream anymore. “They stopped when they thought we died,” Nizamuddin said. “I thought, too, I would die.”
After lying unconscious for two hours, Nizamuddin woke up on the deserted road. He couldn’t bear to look at his bloodied younger brother and ran for help.
By 7 p.m., he was admitted to a nearby government-run hospital. In the intensive care unit next door, his younger brother, Jamaluddin, was losing the battle for his life.
“No one told me about his death till his post-mortem was completed,” Nizamuddin recalled. He could not even see his brother one last time nor or attend his funeral. “I feel like I’m dying from inside,” he said. At least 52 other people died in the violence that killed Jamaluddin—the majority of them Muslims.
But Nizamuddin could not eulogize his brother for long. He is now unemployed and severely injured, and the worldwide public health crisis caused by the coronavirus has made his family’s life even more precarious.
On March 24, Modi announced a nationwide lockdown amid growing numbers of coronavirus cases in India. The next morning, the families in the camp were asked to leave immediately. A representative of the Delhi Waqf Board, a government body that looks after the management of shrines and mosques, told Foreign Policy, “We can’t keep so many people in such little space. What if one of them would test positive for the virus?”
Nizamuddin was out of options; with no money in hand, he was forced to move back to his looted home. For him, it is a scary reminder of bad memories now. “We were forcefully evicted from the camp due to some viral disease,” he told me over the phone. “Upon our return, we didn’t meet eyes with any of our neighbors.”
He hasn’t received any monetary help to restart his life, apart from a bag of rice and some flour. “When it ends, I don’t know what we will do,” Nizamuddin said. “I cannot earn anymore.”