“Meri aankhon mein kissi ne mirchi daal di” (Someone threw chili in my eyes) is how four-and-a-half year old Alina Azaad described the shelling of tear gas at her home.
On the main road as you enter violence-torn Chand Bagh in northeast Delhi is a charred one-storey home that is hard to miss. A few green patches are conspicuous beneath the blackened walls of the ground and first floor, and hundreds of oranges lay scattered and rotting outside.
Azaad stepped out of his relative’s home for the first time on Monday, 2 March, and headed to the district magistrate’s office. He submitted an application for the damage. “Everywhere we go, they insist on documents and ID proof. What do I give them? Everything is burned,” Azaad said.
The SDM’s office has ordered the affected will receive Rs 25,000 in cash. “We won’t even be able to buy bricks for one room with this money. Can the government arrange a loan of about 15 lakh for me? I’ll get my shop renovated and spend my life returning the loan and building my home again,” he asks, hopeful.
Azaad is painfully aware of the economic blow the violence has dealt him.
“I lived in a green home and now it looks black. But who burnt my home, toys, shoes and bangles?” Alina asked this reporter, looking up at her father on whose lap she is perched. She and her parents, 40-year-old Muhammad Azaad and Reshma, lived with their uncle on the first floor of the building which housed a fruit shop at the lower floor.
Azaad said he is unable to answer Alina’s questions. “What do I say? How do I explain this hate? Should I, even?”
Recalling how it started, he said, “We were home, in our safe space. We knew there was tension around Maujpur and Jaffrabad close by but never imagined it would reach Chand Bagh on 24 February.”
They shut their windows when they saw the mob approaching. Through the latticed window, he tried taking a video of the mob, which he claims included policemen. “There were at least 8 policemen and about twenty men,” he said.
Comforted by the sight of policemen with the mob, Azaad and his family stayed at home. “I thought if the policemen, who were with the mob, saw that there was a family inside, a child inside, they will stop the mob altogether. But they didn't. On the contrary, they egged the mob, that chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ non-stop, to burn the house from all sides,” he said.
Azaad witnessed, from the first floor, his car, a red Ritz, burn. A stone hit his face. Pointing to his swollen cheek, Alina asked, “Ab hum nani ke ghar kaise jayenge, abba?” (How will we visit grandmother now?) Azaad looked away. He had only recently completed his car’s EMI payment. Helpless, his cheek stinging, he had rushed to turn on the motor and pour water on his car. However, the mob wasn’t done causing damage.
“I tried to attract the attention of the police. Tried to tell them there were people at home and we needed their protection. But when we saw the policemen join them in the burning and the loot, we were stunned. The ground floor was engulfed in flames. Despite repeatedly using sticks and stones to break the locks, the raging mob had yet not been able to enter the house. But our feet were burning as the fumes reached the first floor.”
Alina was weeping uncontrollably and Reshma, was shocked and in tears when the police began aiming tear-gas shells at their home, filling it with fumes. Alina touched her eyes wondering what had happened. “I didn’t let her see who was shelling tear gas at us. I didn’t want her to see men in uniform in that state. They were raging with madness I’ve never seen before,” Azaad said.
Taking nothing with them, the family jumped from one terrace to a Durga temple, and then another terrace. They had to make a 25-feet jump next. “I told my wife to jump first. She jumped and fell on her knees. Then I threw Alina down.” Alina interrupts. “Abba ne mujhe neeche fenk diya.” (My father threw me).
They ran for their life, across the main road, ducking from the mob. Azaad turned back, one last time, and saw the mob enter their home from 200 m away. “They looted everything and burnt down what they didn’t want.”
Azaad has never opened a bank account. “All the jewellery we had begun collecting after paying the EMI for the car, for Alina’s wedding, is all gone. I don't even have clothes, I am wearing my nephew’s clothes now. All our documents are also gone.”
“If the police had been even mildly helpful, we would have left the house from the front door. Why would we need to run and jump terraces with a four-year-old? The police and the mob were the same. Why was the police shielding the Hindus?” he asked. Azaad and Alina have not slept properly since. Alina is used to a bigger home and her own bed while Azaad is haunted by chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jalao jalao’ (burn it down).
Azaad, Reshma and Alina stopped running only when they reached their relative’s home. Feeling suffocated and helpless, they were convinced they would die. Their extended family, also residents of Chand Bagh, kept calling the police and the fire brigade. “If they had arrived earlier, more of my belongings could have been saved.”
The fire brigade told Azaad he needed to get the electricity wires cut via BSES first. “My house was burning between 2:30 and 3:00 pm and the fire brigade came at 7:15 pm in the evening. The first two fire brigades came and ran out of water. The third came around 45 minutes later. Everything was burned by then. Even the walls of the terrace had fallen.”
The police was yet to arrive. “We kept calling them till 8:00 pm and then we gave up. After that, a woman called back from the control room. I asked her what the point was anymore. Everything was gone and I broke down.”