“Ek car khadi thi Musalmaan ki, vo Hinduo ne jala diya. Ek auto thi vo bhi jaladi. Aur jo dukaane jinmein board lage hue hain Musalmaano ke, jinmein likha tha Allah, vo sab tod diye. (A Muslim's car which was parked on the road, was set on fire by Hindus. There was an auto which was also burnt. And the boards on shops that had 'Allah' written on them were also broken),” said a Hindu resident from Maujpur in northeast Delhi, where clashes between pro- and anti-CAA protesters turned violent on 24 February.
The violence took shape a day earlier on 23 February and ever since, threats, sloganeering and scuffles added to the tension. But the morning of 24 February was far less tense as it started with an appeal of peace by anti-CAA protesters.
An Appeal of Peace With Roses
“They are here to pelt stones at us but we will give them flowers instead,” a boy protesting at Jaffrabad Metro Station told The Quint, at a time when the violence, just half a kilometre away, was escalating.
With roses in their hands, a smattering of police personnel ahead, they were bystanders to the rising cloud of smoke, shouting and jeering. Conspicuous in the midst of this chaos was the repeated tossing of tear-gas shells.
Their effort, however, failed to keep the situation at Jaffrabad and neighbouring Maujpur in northeast Delhi from spiralling out of control – stones were pelted from all sides, two vehicles were burnt, and the acrid smell of tear gas hung thick in the air.
All this while stones were being hurled from right behind where the Delhi police stood, and they took no action.
What Led to The Violence
The atmosphere at Jaffrabad Metro Station was simmering with tension since 23 February.
“Kapil Mishra had come to Maujpur and said in front of senior police officers that ‘We will be peaceful till US president Donald Trump is here but after that we will not even listen to the police to open the roads. Mishra said this and instigated the crowd. A few hours after he left the violence began,” said Arya Khan*, 36-year-old resident of Jaffrabad, who is originally from Bihar’s Patna.
We reached around 1:30 pm on 24 February. As we tried to understand the series of events that led to Sunday’s clashes, we found ourselves swept in a fresh wave of chaos.
Barricades & Burning Cars
Soon after the first few tear-gas shells exploded, we went to the barricades ahead of the protesting women at Jaffrabad where a group of men had gathered, clasping roses, hoping to deter attacks on the women at the sit-in protest behind them.
At around 2 pm, we saw smoke rising from the adjoining neighbourhood of Maujpur and a large number of boys and men from Jaffrabad – a predominantly Muslim area – going towards them. Many of whom picked up stones as they made their way.
As we went closer, we saw two vehicles had been set on fire and stones were being hurled from both sides. Beyond the burning vehicles, one in each lane, we spotted a thicket of policemen, who were clad in riot gear, with lathis in hand.
The stone-pelting from the pro-CAA side, was happening from right behind where the police stood. A splatter of brick red, rocks and stones, lay everywhere. Jaffrabad’s men, covering their faces with scarves, smashed CCTV cameras right behind where we stood. The cameras overlooked the roads where the violence unfolded. Similarly, the crowd at Maujpur, standing a few hundred metres away, did the same.
Several of Jaffrabad’s men insisted we not record videos of what was going on, leading to many altercations between us, which were resolved only when we told them we were journalists with The Quint. Despite which, they asserted we refrain from recording the events.
A young man, Atif*, at the site informed us that his family’s car had been overturned and burnt by people who he claimed were goons from RSS. “Will we not retaliate if they do this,” he asked me from under the black scarf covering his face.
On this side of the divide, we were told that right-wing extremists from RSS are responsible for the violence – setting cars on fire and initiating stone-pelting. Several referred to Kapil Mishra’s speech as the catalyst for the violence, noting that there had been no trouble for nearly 40 days at the original protest site – near Seelampur bus stop which was barely 500 meters away
At one point, we had to stop moving further as a tear-gas shell blew towards Jaffrabad. Protesters promptly came forward with salt to help alleviate the gas’ effect on the throat and eyes.
By now, at least one shop on the other side of the road was ablaze.
The burning vehicles had become an unofficial line in the sand. On one side, the crowd in Jaffrabad shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’, stepping forward only to come running back as stones were thrown at them from the other side. Often the police fired tear-gas shells to push them back.
The protesters continued to ride high on tension when we filmed them, insisting that we film the other side. “Why don’t you shoot their videos? Why don’t you show the truth? Go to that side,” they said while pointing beyond the burning car.
Realising that this could help us get closer to the epicentre of violence, these reporters enlisted their help to cross over. Trays of bread and milk were used as shields. Those accompanying us said, “The shopkeeper, a Hindu man, sells milk and bread. As soon as he saw violence erupt, he shut his shop but told us to take the crates that are used for bread and milk to protect ourselves.”
At the point when they told me we were on our own, we found ourselves next to the burning car. This is when a pro-CAA protester reached out and helped us cross over. The hurling of stones had stopped by this time and nobody else was present in the no-man’s land between the two sides.
In The Pro-CAA Rally
On the other side, there were several policemen in gear, as opposed to where we had come from where they were not stepping up. A crowd of people chanting pro-CAA slogans alternated by chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Desh Ke Gaddaro Ko, Goli Maaro S**** Ko’ and Hindu Ekta, Zindabad’.
After we got past the police barricade, we entered Maujpur. Here we saw Jai Shri Ram flags, herds of protesters multiplying into crowds and anger hovering. We were guided by local residents to a side lane where a Hindu family very kindly took us to their home.
The courtyard that we passed to go inside the house had many stones and bits of brick lying around. The family of six told us they hadn’t been able to go out of the house since the trouble began in the area, on Sunday.
“We have no gas at home and the serviceman is refusing to come because of this violence,” the wife complained. Her youngest son has a Sankrit final exam of Class 7 and one of her three daughters is due to take her English Class 10 board exams soon.
Atif’s* claims, of his car being burnt were confirmed here when the father said that Hindus had, in fact, burnt the car. His house is located on the road where the violence was unfolding.
Talking about how the violence began, he said, while they weren’t sure which side threw the first stone, the violence began after men from Hindu right-wing groups raised provocative slogans. “People are angry that they’ve closed the road. So Hindus sat at the Babarpur chowk and said they will move only after Jaffrabad protesters moved. That is when right-wing groups merged and started saying Jai Shri Ram and other things,” he said.
These conversations were interrupted by the bang of the teargas, what appeared to be gunshots, and stones being hurled into their courtyard. Several times when the crowd ran inside the bylane, the doors had to be closed and everyone came rushing into the safety of the room.
‘Desh Ke Gaddaron Ko, Goli Maaron Sa***n Ko’
We followed the family’s instructions to get to Maujpur Chowk, from where we could go towards Shahdara and exit the area.
At the Chowk, we found a group of women sitting on the road, with a crowd of men sporting tilaks, bearing the tricolour and RSS’ ‘double-triangle’ saffron flags.
“We are here to show support for CAA and NRC and they are all against us,” she said. When asked about the various flags, she pointed to the Bhagwa flag and said, “This is RSS’ Bhagwa flag and it means that we are Hindus, and nothing else.”
The crowd also went on to chant, “Desh mein agar rehna hoga, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ kehna hoga” (If you want to remain in this country, you will have to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’), Vandana Sharma, a resident of Babarpur, told The Quint while chants for Hindu Ekta Zindabad grew stronger in the background.
Another slogan being shouted was “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron sa***n ko.” (Shoot the traitors of the nation.) When we asked Naveen Verma, a 26-year old resident of Vijay Park, why shoot people, he said, “We had two options – either we could have folded our hands, which we did and nothing happened. Now the only option left is to shoot the traitors.”
A woman in the vicinity who was part of a group trying to organise the pro-CAA protesters using loudspeakers, appealed for calm after the police came and spoke to them. “Help the police do their job, do not be a hindrance,” she said.
As we left the scene early evening, the area remained tense on both sides.
* Names changed to protect identity