Crowded shops and sounds of the evening filled the much-crammed streets of Chandini Chowk. Bubbling pots of tea and smoking samosas lined the road-side tea-stalls. The restaurants were just filling up: men and women returning from work, stopping to grab a bite, or perhaps a late lunch. The many vendors that lined the streets were what made the hustle-bustle of the place.
Two of my friends, Anjana and Karan, had accompanied me for our photography assignment to the much unpredictable place.
It wasn’t until we heard the loudspeaker sounding the Azaan and happened to check the time did we realize, it was 5:31PM. It had been a long day, in the afternoon heat of Delhi (and since it was Delhi the autumn still had traces of summer in massive chunks) and the dust of the Metro construction, we were completely spent. It was getting dark, another sign of winters descending upon us and probably time to head home, my sore muscles were yelling.
We were just 1.7 kms away from Jama Masjid in a crammed street, lost in the chaos. I remember knowing this fine detail because my eyes were glued to the Maps application on the screen of my phone and we were figuring out a way to head in the direction of the Metro station through the magical GPS.
A phone conversation with my father the night before drifted into my ears. “I would rather say you don’t go there. The place is still shaken up by riots.” He was referring to the recent outbreak of riots in Trilokpuri on the October24, 2014. Still belonging to the generation of “I can take care of myself” I took the risk and found myself shooting all morning, into the evening of October 26.
Even though Chandini Chowk was just adjacent to the quarter that had seen communal violence, the area seemed unaffected. I had confirmed the same with friends who had put up in East Delhi. The problems hadn’t spilled over the boundaries of Trilokpuri, they had confirmed. And I had planned the whole excursion. I was independent, but not dumb.
Tension had been mounting since the attempt of Hindu community of constructing a temple near a mosque, close to Diwali. Soon after, holy grounds turned to battle grounds. Delhi Police had very rightly imposed orders under Section 144 of the CRPC, prohibiting any gathering or movement of a group of people, two days after the clashes.
As we were weaving our path through the throngs of people, we heard some men shouting. The mob ran past us and it didn’t take us long to understand that this was the signal: We had to get out of there.
That’s when we heard it, a scream so shrill it pierced our ears above the blaring horns and the voluminous crowds. It was perhaps emanating from the loudspeakers. My friend grabbed my hand and began making her way through the crowd. We were just near the metro station and she managed to drag me in just in time.
One moment everyone stood still, and the next all hell broke loose. People were running all over the place. The men screamed bloody murder. That was our last glimpse of Chandini Chowk as the doors of the metro closed, transporting us towards our destination.
At the junction of the women coach and the general one, we met our third friend, Karan. He was panting for air, just like us. He was scared, just like us. None of us spoke about it, lost in thought. We bid each other farewell and headed in our directions as and when the stations went by.
I reached home, safely: I texted my friends, after having received theirs.
Later that night I got a call from my friend.
“Did you see the news?” Anjana asked me over the phone.
“I live in a PG. I don’t have a TV.” I reasoned. “Why what happened?”
“There was an attempt to burn the Imam of Jama Masjid. That’s what the entire ruckus was about.” She told me.
My mind was already spinning; East Delhi had been simmering with communal tension. It had been the same issue the place had made headlines three decades ago: Communal riots. Thirty years and nine official inquiries later, the remnants of hatred lingered in the air. It was not to be a peaceful neighborhood after all.
Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the esteemed Imam of Jama Masjid was an influential person, both in politics and religion wise. An attack on him surely made matters dodgy. How this attack should be considered: as naïve as a rookie attempt or a calculated move set on the path to the glorification Hidutva, remains a mystery. Judging by the amount of coverage this incident got, which was almost negligible, one can gauge that the media was hushing up on certain issues. Wasn’t it relevant? Wasn’t it one of the things that ticked of a minority-community? Hatred is afterall an offspring of inequality.
How different was the Diwali night of 2014 from the eve of October 31, 1984. While the 1984 riots had smeared the blood of the Sikh community, the recent ones saw hateful clashes of the Hindu-Muslim variety. Decades had passed since the orchestrated massacre supposedly devised by the then echelons of Congress, did these have the names of some BJP maestros daubed over it?
Religion in the country stood on as dubious grounds as the politics. How small things became as large as the holocaust on the canvas of the country trotting along the lines of democracy. The spark to any communal riot arises from miniscule incidents of communal hatred.
The entire week that followed was full of news stories and features been done on the 1984 riots. As students of Journalism, it was our job to keep a track of these patterns. Interviews, flashbacks, follow-ups, series of incidents that were the aftermath of Operation BlueStar and Indira Gandhi’s assassination came to light. It was as we were analyzing these for a Print class, I wondered: Had Trilokpuri not struck a chord on the eve of Diwali; these issues would probably not have made front pages.
Religious sentiments are hurt time and again in this country which stands on touchy grounds. The media doesn’t help either, what with all its sensationalizing. Compare it to the sole television broadcast and radio announcement regarding Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and you would think it was so much better. When media only told the news and kept its opinions moderated, mostly to itself.
Matters had gone out of hand starting from block 27 on October 23 and for the entire day only that block remained affected. Few instances of stone-pelting were reported on Friday but at no time did the situation go out of hand. In this way, this incident remained much unlike its predecessor, the one it was supposedly being compared to. The magnitude of that and the minimalism of this in today’s context were in stark contrast.
It was only on Friday night that the police had to deploy extra forces as residents of block 20 and 22 clashed and pelted stones. Over 1,000 policemen, including Rapid Action Force (RAF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, have been deployed in the area since October 26.
‘68 people have been arrested in connection with the Trilokpuri clashes’ read the front page headlines of a leading English daily. My mind drifted back to the countless truckloads of Sikhs that had been dumped away. Surely the nation wasn’t revisiting the brutality of probably the worst communal clashes in Indian history.
Top broadcasters reported clippings of the 25 PCR vans that veered down the roads of Old Delhi, keeping rounds as Muharram was just around the corner, tagging along behind Diwali.
I wondered: How many times was this word ‘communal’ used in our papers, in our news? Hadn’t it become secondary in nature to our communities to fight on matters of faith? Synonymous to conflict?
What the media doesn’t highlight is the number of Hindu volunteers that helped to pave the way for Muharram processions in East Delhi. What it doesn’t emphasize is the growing tolerance in certain areas. Instead it chooses to stress upon the rise in conflicts in different communities and the loopholes of co-existence (even though more than the cases of tolerance) in this democracy. Wouldn’t it be then obvious that we are used to listening to negativity, that a few riots and there consequential casualties are viewed casually as collateral damage.
Nobody wonders about the rations that were drawing to a close in people’s homes, nor do they wonder about the exorbitant prices of necessities like milk and eggs that were a result of the curfew. It’s hard to picture one part of Delhi shut off from the world, still struggling with its past, still reeling in its present. Nobody bothers. As long as it makes news, journalists shall prey upon the victims and their families for one QUOTE or one INTERVIEW. No one delves in the distorted lives of these people, who are left to cope with the cold leftovers of communal hatred, lying awake at night, flinching at the tiniest noise. No one cares.
Realizing how close we were to mishap that day, I began to wonder about the epicenter of such incidents. It was always a small region tucked cozily in the heart of the city, always older architecture that resonated the lingering attachment to roots. A tiny spark of hate could blow out of proportion, consuming the entire region in its vicious flames of malice.
Like the country didn’t have enough problems, I remembered my friend saying, just before she had hung up the phone that night. For a certainty, I knew she wasn’t just speaking about Trilokpuri, I knew she wasn’t speaking just about riots either.
The strain in relations came to end only when tear gases and lathi-charge were used to quell the violence. Perhaps that was the only solution; perhaps resorting to tears would do the deed and bring the change. Perhaps people would rise from petty issues and see reason. Perhaps…
By: Shamita Harsh