In the last week of February, when a journalist asked me if the communal carnage that engulfed north-east Delhi felt amplified because it had happened in the Capital, and in my own hometown, I had answered that it didn’t affect me more or less than violence in other parts of India.
Two weeks later, as I begin typing here, I realize that I had answered wrongly. Perhaps I had been numbed by shock then and the enormity and aftermath of the violence that we are witnessing is now beginning to sink in. The process of writing this column is forcing me to acknowledge the inconvenient truths that I have been trying not to think about.
How Victims Recount Loss
Two days after targeted mob violence in the week of 23 February, 2020 had forced thousands of Muslim survivors of Shiv Vihar to flee their burnt homes and seek refuge in safer places, I was part of a citizens’ team that met them at the construction sites and other makeshift relief camps where they were huddled together.
“I sent my son back to our charred home to give water to our goats,” Khatoon said to me, holding my hands in hers. “They hadn’t even spared our goats. They were all dead.” She closed her eyes as tears welled up. “How can I tell you my grief,” said Anisha, as her two adolescent daughters held on to her from both sides. “All I have left are the clothes I am wearing, but I keep thinking of my children’s school that has been burnt down. Where will they go now? They will lose an entire academic year.”
As a listener, I was surprised by the minutiae of the loss the victims were expressing.
Everything they owned had been burnt to cinders, their livelihood was destroyed, it was hard to predict how long the process of rebuilding their lives would be, yet it was the small details that seemed to be hurting the most.
Can Delhi Violence be Called a Pogrom?
The same evening, I was part of ‘The Big Fight’, a debate show hosted by Nidhi Razdan on New Delhi Television (NDTV) that was focusing on the state’s inadequate response in terms of providing rescue and relief measures. I asked a teammate if I could describe what we were witnessing as a pogrom. “It is a pogrom,” she said emphatically. “How do we define it,” I asked, just to be sure. Of the 53 confirmed deaths so far, 35 victims have been identified as Muslim and over a dozen as Hindu.
“It’s a pogrom when a mob attack against the persons and property of a religious, racial, or national minority is enabled by the state either by their passivity in the face of violence or by their active participation in it,” she said.
“How we define and categorize violence matters,” writes Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University and the director of Centre for Contempotrary South Asia. He elaborates that while the first day of the violence was more like a violent clash between groups, “but the next two days began to look like a pogrom, as the police watched attacks on the Muslims and was either unable to intervene, or unwilling to do so, while some cops clearly abetted the violence.”
Visible Violence, Ongoing Hate
What is astounding about the violence unleashed in Delhi is how visible it has been—literally live-streaming on social media platforms—and yet it has been allowed to escalate as if all the powers who can intervene have become wilfully deaf, mute and blind. In a viral video that I saw on my husband’s WhatsApp feed, the bearded man who is leading a mob attack is also filming it and is streaming it live on his Facebook profile. In the 4- minute clip, the man is exhorting a group of men to pick up bricks from a pile lying in the middle of a main road and throw them at Muslims.
He repeats the chants, Jai Shri Ram (Glory to Lord Ram) and Bharat Mata ki Jai (Glory to mother India).
“Don’t go back. Keep going forward. Hindutva will not be weakened,” he yells. “Those Hindus who are at home, share this video.”
From a distance, one hears the sound of a blast. “Throw the bombs,” he says with renewed energy. “My hands are hurting,” he says after a while.
Delhi police and paramilitary forces in green camouflage uniforms are standing by as the violence continues to escalate. Their postures are relaxed, they are neither intervening in the action, nor feeling threatened by it. When the video ends and the roar of the mob subsides abruptly, one is left stunned by the chaos one has witnessed.
Culprits Can Be Seen in Viral Videos but What is Police Doing?
In a two-tweet thread on twitter, this video has also been shared by Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, the popular fact-checking website. He has tagged @DelhiPolice in his tweet, offering the video as evidence on which they can act. As violence erupted in various parts of north-east Delhi, and even as mainstream mediapersons scrambled to reach the area, videos of mob attacks, lynching, destruction of mosques and burning of vehicles, shops and homes continued to flood social media.
Attacks on property and people continued for two days and nights, despite the fact that the offices of the Central and state governments are within a few kilometres of the area.
In another widely shared video, a group of injured young men are lying on the road, some of them writhing in pain, and quite incongruously, one of them is singing the national anthem. The victims are surrounded by men in police uniform, who are mocking them for having had the audacity to protest against the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act by forcing them to sing the anthem and chant azaadi. Less than a week later, one of the victims, Faizan, died in hospital after languishing in police custody and being denied medical aid.
Unending Cycle of Victimisation
The fate of Faizan has followed the same pattern as the last days of Tabrez Ansari, a 24-year-old man who was lynched in Jharkhand in June 2019. For hours, Ansari was tied to a pole, made to chant Hindu slogans and was assaulted on camera by men who accused him of being a thief. When the police took the victim into custody, photographs published in newspapers show Ansari walking into the police station without support, yet he succumbed to internal injuries a few days later.
In case after case of hate crimes in contemporary India, victims have been criminalized and the perpetrators—many of whom are visible on camera—enjoy complete impunity. In many cases, the original assault doesn’t kill the victims; it is the complicity of the police and apathy of the state that causes the death of the victims.
The targeted attacks on the homes, properties and lives of people in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are playing out in the same pattern as the series of lynchings that India has witnessed in the last six years. Despite multiple witnesses to each of the crimes and the presence of security personnel, no one seems to be able to stop them.
Victims, their families, and those who are trying to help them find themselves screaming into a vacuum. They can hear their own voice, but it doesn’t seem to reach where it matters.
Videos of violence are playing and replaying on millions of smartphones, and yet the crimes have been invisibilized by a state that refuses to acknowledge what it can see.
(Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and author. She tweets at @natashabadhwar. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)