“Media-wale wahi keh rahen jo sarkar unse kehlwana chah rahi hai, sach nahi dikha rahen wo”—The media is saying what the government wants them to say, they are not showing the truth, Sharafat Ali, the president of the Khajoori Khas market association, said. Khajoori Khas was one of the worst affected areas during the communal violence that swept northeast Delhi in the last week of February. All of its neighbouring areas—Bhajanpura, Shiv Vihar, Chand Bagh, Chandu Nagar, Karawal Nagar and Mustafabad—were isolated from the rest of the national capital for around forty-eight hours between 24 and 25 February. For those two days, mobs reigned the streets and the Delhi Police either silently watched or aided the violence, residents told me.
The residents of Khajoori Khas, a Muslim-majority locality, said that they were extremely disappointed with and distrustful of the media because of its fixation on two issues: the killing of Ankit Sharma, a 23-year-old Intelligence Bureau staffer whose body was recovered from a drain in Chand Bagh on 26 February; and Tahir Hussain, a local Aam Aadmi Party councillor who was booked for Sharma’s murder two days later. Hussain’s house is on the main road of Khajoori Khas, known as the Karawal Nagar road, and Sharma’s house is around five hundred metres away, in the neighbourhood’s by-lanes. The residents said that the media was deliberately maligning Hussain and that its reportage on the two subjects was distorted with the intent to project the Muslims of Khajoori Khas as “aggressors” and portray the Hindus as “victims.”
Every Muslim resident, even those whom I met in other neighbouring areas, believed journalists were demonising Muslims even while the evidence on the ground, of targeted destruction of Muslim houses and shops, was proof of their losses. They felt that the media’s focus on Hussain and Sharma had wiped out the common Muslim resident’s loss of life and property from the national narrative.
Khajoori Khas falls within the Karawal Nagar assembly constituency, though its neighbouring areas come under the Mustafabad constituency. Most of these areas that fall within Mustafabad used to be a part of the Karawal Nagar assembly constituency till 2008, when the former was carved out as a separate assembly seat after a delimitation exercise. While each individual locality has a different name, each of them melds into the other as the area is a labyrinth of chaotic lanes and by-lanes in a densely populated area. The communal violence was mostly concentrated in the Mustafabad constituency.
According to the 2011 census, Mustafabad has a 78 percent Muslim population, while 22 percent are Hindus. In contrast, Karawal Nagar is Hindu-dominated constituency with 88 percent Hindus and 10 percent Muslims. Khajoori Khas is one of the few Muslim-majority areas in Karawal Nagar and one of the worst affected in the constituency. Karawal Nagar has been a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party since 1993. Mustafabad, though, has had representatives from the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and now, the AAP. In 2015, Kapil Mishra won the Karawal Nagar seat as a member of the AAP. He was disqualified from the party in 2019 for anti-party activities, following which he joined the BJP. Mishra has come under fire following the northeast Delhi violence, for a provocative speech that he delivered on 23 February, in the nearby area of Babarpur. Several Muslim residents of Khajoori Khas said they had voted for Mishra in 2015 and did not expect him to turn against the community just because he changed his political affiliation.
The men told me that for three days, mobs that kept chanting “Jai Shri Ram” had taken control of the areas under the Mustafabad assembly constituency, including Khajoori Khas. They said the mobs selectively burnt and looted Muslims’ houses, shops, vehicles and mosques between 24 February and 26 February. All of them said that the mobs were aided by Delhi Police constables who helped the goons collect stones. They also accused the police of pelting stones at Muslim households. The Hindu right-wing mobs had also blocked all supply routes to the Al Hind hospital, in New Mustafabad, which was attending to those injured in the violence. Eventually, the Delhi High Court intervened, convening a midnight hearing on 26 February, and asked the Delhi Police to break the blockade and provide security to ambulances coming from and going to the hospital.
All the men said that Hindu right-wing mobs set upon any Muslim individual they saw on the street. Ansari estimated that at least five hundred Muslim residents of Mustafabad constituency, including Khajoori Khas, were still missing—they suspected that many had been burnt or murdered. “There are several lanes from which Muslims have disappeared. People are assuming they might have taken shelter at some relative’s or community-run relief camps,” Ansari said. “But there’s still no authentic data on such displaced people. And then almost every day we hear bodies being recovered from the drains. The question remains though what happened to those people.”
One of the most heart-rending stories was that of Mohammad Mohsin, Inaam’s nephew. On 25 February, 29-year-old Mohsin was in Hapur, a city in Uttar Pradesh that is about sixty kilometres from Delhi. Mohsin had married just two months ago and was in Hapur for some business. That morning, Mohsin had breakfast and left for his house—he lived in Khajoori Khas—from Hapur in his car. Inaam said that Mohsin was unaware of the Hindu mobs attacking the area that day. He added that he was hiding with his family at his home, which is very close to Mohsin’s, and no one knew where Mohsin had reached. Both the families stayed in hiding that entire day, till central forces were deployed early morning on 26 February. Mohsin had still not reached home.
That day, Moshin and Inaam’s family went looking for Mohsin and found his car at Khajoori Pushta, another area in the neighbourhood. The car was completely burnt and a body, charred beyond recognition, lay next to it. Inaam told me that he spent four days running back and forth between the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, around eight kilometres from Khajoori Khas, to the local Dayalpur police station, to get a DNA test done so that they could identify the charred body.
“The forensic centre”—the Forensic Science Laboratory at Nangloi—“says they cannot do DNA without getting a clearance from the investigating officer,” Inaam said. “They say the IO had to be present. I’ve been requesting the cop for three days for it but he says he has no time.” He added, “My nephew’s body is still lying in GTB hospital, unclaimed.” Ved Prakash Surya, the deputy commissioner of police for northeast Delhi, denied that there had been any delays in the DNA tests, and said they were being conducted as per “standard operating procedure.”
As I walked through the neighbourhoods, I witnessed the selective and large-scale destruction of Muslim houses and properties that the men had recounted. At every step on the Dayalpur road and Karawal Nagar road—a contiguous stretch of road divided by a small bridge—it was obvious that shops and houses belonging to Muslims had been selectively looted and burned. There were a few Hindu houses and shops that also showed visible damage, but the proportion of such properties was minuscule in comparison.
At least 30 houses belonging to Muslims and a mosque named Fatima Masjid were burnt in Gali Number 4 and 29 in Khajoori Khas—which falls in the Karawal Nagar constituency—on 25 February. According to the residents, the violence began at around 9.30 pm and the Rapid Action Force did not turn up before 3.30 am. Most of the residents escaped the violence by jumping from one roof to another till the RAF arrived, six hours after the rampage started.
The residents recounted near-death experiences of assault, as well as those of humiliation and abuse at the hands of the mob, aided by their own Hindu neighbours. They said they lost all faith in the state machinery when they watched the police—which was deployed on the main road that branches off into various by-lanes—turn away while the mobs set their houses on fire. They also noted that several police personnel participated with the mob in their assault. “Our children also saw, their country’s police is not for them,” Mohammad Amjad, a resident of Khajoori Khas who lost his house in the violence, told me.
He said he pleaded with them, “Burn the houses but please spare the mosque, but they didn’t listen and went ahead.” Shahid said that around eighty Muslims, including women and children, were hiding in the mosque at the time. As the mob reached the mosque, some of the people hiding inside escaped by jumping into the drain behind the mosque, while some jumped on to adjoining terraces, he told me. Shahid, his wife and their two children, both under seven years old, were hiding on the second floor of the mosque and were eventually rescued by one of his Hindu friends, Devendra Singh, from the mosque itself. One of his children had lost consciousness by the time they were rescued. Shahid said his wife and children suffered burn injuries on their arms and back while they escaped. While Shahid was lucky, for many Muslim residents of Khajoori Khas, the incident marked the moment that they saw the police and Hindu neighbours turn their backs on them.
On 29 February, I met other residents of the lane when they returned to their destroyed homes under police protection. Mehboob Alam, who lived next to the mosque, told me that he has lived in Khajoori Khas for 45 years and shared a good relationship with his Hindu neighbours. “But that night”—on 25 February—“I saw many who were known to me participate in the riot,” Alam said. He told me that he was hiding in the ground floor of his house when the destruction began. He ran to the terrace as flames and smoke engulfed all the floors. There, he saw members of the Hindu mob standing on the terrace of his Hindu neighbours, with petrol bombs in their hands. Alam said the mob was already pelting stones at the terraces of Muslim houses. “But it was too difficult to stay on the downstairs floor anymore. I folded my hand and begged them, please spare my life.” He added, “At that point, one of the rioters removed his mask and called me by my name. I did not know him. I thought maybe if he knows my name he will stop. But instead, he threw a petrol bomb towards me.” Alam was rescued by the RAF around 3.30 am.
MD Khatibulla, another resident of the lane, had a similar experience. He told me that the Hindu mob was pelting stones at his house from the terrace of a Hindu neighbour with whom he had shared all his festivals. “I understand the rioters came from outside, but why were you letting them use your house to attack us?” Khatibulla asked. He said his niece’s marriage was scheduled for the next month and the family lost all the jewellery and money they had saved up after the mob set his house on fire that night.
Like Khatibulla, 20-year-old Saleem’s sister, too, was getting married in a month’s time. He, too, lost everything that the family had painstakingly collected. He told me he was standing on the terrace, begging them with folded hands. “Brother, I have a wedding in the house; please do not burn my house. We will be destroyed.” One of them, Saleem said, responded, “We have been given orders to destroy everyone.” Saleem also said that before his house was set on fire, his father had been caught by the mob and that they were going to burn him, but he was ultimately rescued by one of Saleem’s friends.
However, the narrative that emerged from the Hindu neighbourhoods stood in stark contrast to the accounts described to me by the Muslim locals. The Hindu residents’ perception of the communal violence was that of persecution by the Muslims. Most of it was based on what they had learnt from television channels such as Zee News, Republic TV and Sudarshan TV. The Hindu residents I spoke to believed Hindus had suffered the most due to the violence and the entire episode was planned by Tahir Hussain—my conversations indicated that Zee News, Republic TV and Sudarshan TV led the pack in building this narrative. “Here, only Hindus have been killed,” Sachin Kashyap, a tenth standard student from Moonga Nagar, told me. However, unlike Muslim residents who identified those who were missing or suspected dead by name and address, the Hindu residents could not name a single person apart from Ankit Sharma whose death was officially confirmed by hospital authorities. But they still believed that most of the deceased from the Mustafabad constituency were Hindus.
Most of the Hindu residents used the vocabulary of the Zee News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary. On 27 February, Chaudhary had done a show on the Khajoori Khas riots, where he did a “DNA test” on what he called Hussain’s “riot factory.” They also told me that a woman was killed at Hussain’s residence during the violence. When I asked them how they knew this, their source was either Zee News or Sudarshan TV. The report of a woman’s murder at Hussain’s residence was telecast on Sudarshan TV and later amplified by other mediums such as the ABP network’s website sirfnews. The fact-checking website Boomlive later debunked the claim. Suresh Chavhanke, the owner of Sudarshan TV, is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. All the Hindu residents that I spoke to believed that Hussain’s house was a “riot factory.” All of them also believed that Hussain was the “mastermind” of the violence, which went on for three days and that he had planned the “massacre” of Hindus.
None of the Hindu residents had been to Hussain’s house, met him, or seen the videos that Hussain had sent to the news channel Aaj Tak on the evening of 24 February—the video had been telecast by the channel—pleading for help, as a mob gathered outside his building. Their only source of information on Hussain was channels like Zee News and Sudarshan TV. Notably, these channels had declared Hussain the “mastermind” and gained access to his house even before the police began their investigation.
The Muslim residents believed that the councillor was being framed to change the narrative against Muslims. Ansari, the social worker, told me, “Tahir Hussain was home on 24 February when he was seen on his terrace in a viral video on the same day and was rescued the same evening by the Delhi Police.” He added, “If Hussain masterminded the riot, why were Muslims shops and houses burned in large numbers?
A middle-aged Muslim man, who did not want to be named, defended Hussain amid a gathering of young Gurjar men near Moonga Nagar. “Assuming Hussain masterminded the riot, why would he burn his own house?” Praveen Kumar, a Gurjar man from Moonga Nagar, retorted, “He burnt it himself.” The Muslim man then asked, “Why would he burn his own house?” The Gurjar men shouted him down and said he was blind not to see the petrol bombs kept on Hussain’s terrace as shown on the television. “The camera does not lie,” one of the Gurjar men declared.
The Muslim residents believed Hussain had left his house on 24 February, while Sharma was killed on 25 February. Sharafat, the market association president , told me that the video shown on news channels, where one can see a mob with petrol bombs and stones on Husaain’s terrace, is from 25 Febraury, after Hussain had fled his house. “See, as a mob of hundreds was coming, so people here thought, ‘How do we stop them?’” Sharafat said. “This is why they went to the roof. They are the ones who stopped the mob. They just stopped the mob, nothing else, and that, too, to save lives. This is what you can see on the terrace.”
Most of the Hindu residents of Moonga Nagar, Khajoori Khas and Mustafabad believed that Sharma was killed by a mob that appeared from Hussain’s house and pulled him. However, I spoke to over twenty Hindu residents and all of them had heard this narrative from someone else, who had been told by someone else—they all were told that two of Sharma’s close friends were with him and all three had been caught by the mob; while the two close friends escaped, Sharma was caught and killed. Manish Kumar, who lived in the lane in front of Hussain’s house, told me he did not see what happened but everyone in the neighbourhood believed that this was the truth. Manoj Kumar, a resident of Moonga Nagar, who runs a tyre and tube shop, called Sharma an acquaintance who often came to his shop. He, too, narrated the same story, but said he heard it from Sharma’s close friends—he refused to give me any names. None of the residents could tell me who these two men were. In fact, none of them even knew that Sharma worked with the IB till after his death.
Many residents of Khajoori Khas told me that the Hindu right-wing mobs that destroyed their houses were accompanied by people who “wore khaki shirts, bullet proof jackets, police helmets and blue jeans.” They said they carried white sticks, similar to those carried by the police. Mohammad Amjad, a resident of Khajoori Khas who lost his house, said, “Initially I couldn’t understand if they came to help us or was with the mob. But when they started firing at us and burning our houses, it became clear that they were with them. But one thing I don’t understand if they were the mob, where did they get these police uniforms?”
The local Muslim residents also showed me videos, which they said they shot themselves during the three days of violence. The videos were of men that fit the description recounted to me, in which they can be seen firing at Muslim residents. The residents told me that these uniformed men numbered in the dozens, controlled the streets for three days, constantly backed the mob and even participated with it. Every Muslim resident I spoke to in Mustafabad told me they had seen such uniformed men and they believed that they were members of “some Hindu militia.”
A similar incident occurred during the student protests against the CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia in December 2019. On 15 December, an image of a group of students being beaten by Delhi Police went viral. In the image, a man in riot gear is visible aiding the police while hitting the female students with lathis. As the photograph spread across social media, speculation began whether the man was part of a civilian militia helping the police. The police later said that the man in the image was a member of the auto anti-theft squad, who had joined the forces that day to quell the protests.
Mohammad Ikram, a lawyer who practices in Delhi’s Tis Hazari court, told me the violence had begun on the night of 23 February when a mob shouting “Jai Shri Ram” first burnt a hotel and a medical shop in Chandu Nagar. He said the mob then set the entire Muslim basti of Chandu Nagar on fire. Ikram said that because of the complete loss of trust in the police, Muslim residents have refused to lodge complaints about their destroyed houses, the killings and the missing people. Every Muslim resident I spoke to repeated this—they did not believe in the police and expect any justice from them. The police “were with them only,” referring to the Hindu mobs, was a common response among the Muslim residents. Ikram told me that after he managed to convince some of the residents to go to the local police station, the police acknowledged the complaint but refused to register them. The complainants were asked to file their compliant online—a complainant needs to provide their Aadhar, PAN data, among other documents, to lodge complaints online.
When I spoke to Surya, the DCP for northeast Delhi, he denied all allegations and said that his men “saved many lives.” Surya said that he was present at Mirpur chowk, which is about four hundred metres from Khajoori Khas. “I was there, me and my staff, we saved around 300 to 400 Muslims. We safely evacuated them from there. It was a very aggressive mob and we took the residents out from there.” He added, “It’s not like we were helping the mob or stone pelting. It was only where there was a Muslim crowd or a particular crowd which attacked the police, there the police gave answer.” He told me that the residents themselves would testify that the police helped them and that the allegations of a few “cannot be projected largely … this is an absolutely wrong projection.” He said that they tried to diffuse the situation wherever it got communal and whenever the crowd would get aggressive, that is when the police used force to disperse the crowds.
The Muslim residents’ distrust of the police and the media was so immense that several residents refused to reveal their names. They suspected that I might edit their voices and project them as villains because they were Muslims. An elderly Muslim man, who refused to tell me his name, told me he had witnessed the 1965 war with Pakistan and lived through the the Emergency. He refused to say anything further and asked me to leave by quoting a couplet: “Mujhko lafz e makruh samaj kar hatane wale, kal kitabon se meri hi aawaz aayegi”—You tried to erase me for my sin of speaking up; tomorrow, it is my voice that will resonate through books.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that at least 30 houses belonging to Muslims and a mosque named Farooqi Masjid were burnt in Gali Number 4 and 29 in Khajoori Khas.
At least 30 houses belonging to Muslims and a mosque named Fatima Masjid were burnt in Gali Number 4 and 29 in Khajoori Khas. The Caravan regrets the error.