February 24, 12.15 pm. Donald and Melania Trump reach Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi explains to the guests the significance of the place, home to Mahatma Gandhi between 1917 and 1930. The POTUS and the FLOTUS also try their hand on the charkha.
About 1,000 km away, the situation at the Jafrabad-Maujpur area in New Delhi was mutating into a riot. The trigger appeared to be the speech on February 23 by BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who warned the police to clear anti-CAA protesters at Jafrabad and Chand Bagh. After three days and Trump gone, his people wouldn’t even listen to the police, Mishra had said, the police officer in charge of the area standing right beside him.
1:30 pm. “Your nation has always been admired around the Earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side in harmony…. Your unity is an inspiration to the world.” – Donald Trump at Motera Stadium, Ahmedabad.
Hindu groups charge towards the anti-CAA protest site—peopled mostly by Muslims—at Jafrabad, resulting in heavy stone pelting from both sides. One person, identified as Shahrukh, is seen firing a handgun and pointing it at a policeman. Police seem to favour the Hindu mobs and is even seen throwing stones with them. Several vehicles and properties are also torched.
5.30 pm. The Trumps visit the Taj Mahal. It’s a timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture, writes the American president in the visitor book.
Four deaths have been confirmed, including that of a policeman who succumbs to injuries suffered from stone pelting. The Shahdara DCP is also seriously injured and is hospitalised. By evening, the situation turns into a full-fledged riot. Violence spreads to other areas, mosques and shrines are desecrated, families start fleeing the localities, and desperate appeals of help from those trapped flood social media.
In another two days, the death toll goes up to over two dozen, with over 190 injured. On the third day, security forces march the streets of riot-affected areas, proclaiming a shoot-at-sight order, telling people to stay indoors. Charred vehicles, roads covered with stones, skeletal remains of motorcycles and burnt properties mark the place. As the forces march, people rush inside their homes in Moonga Nagar.
A map of Delhi showing the riot flashpoints.
Our photographer, Suresh K. Pandey, and I are shoved and hit with batons by the security forces for doing our job—taking photographs and notes. His camera is snatched; it’s returned minus the memory card. My notebook is never returned. In the lanes, Hindus recount how Muslims had attacked them, fired shots and hurled petrol bombs. One talks about how an intelligence sleuth, Ankit Sharma, has gone missing and is feared killed, his body dumped in a drain. His death is confirmed by news reports later.
Taking the lanes and bylanes, we reach a locality where a group of Hindus and Muslims are sitting. When asked what happened, a Muslim says, “Doesn’t everybody know? It’s all Kapil Mishra’s doing.” A person with mahakaal written on his scooter visor, chips in: “Dekho danga karoge to danga hoga (If you do rioting, a riot will happen).” His remark reeks of the notion that Muslims are mostly the aggressors, even though loss of life and property on the Muslim side is significantly more. Claims and counterclaims regarding desecration of mosques and temples ensue. It is disrupted by commotion in the neighbouring lane. Thankfully, it’s the arrival of a milk vehicle. The group sighs in relief. “I was sick of drinking black tea over the past two days,” quips one, as we note smoke billowing in the distance.
Visible sartorial markers seem to change every few lanes—the two communities have been living in what seems to be an intricate design. The past few days’ madness lines every tense face. Every visitor to the locality is viewed with hostile suspicion.
Out on the main road, there is a parked pick-up truck laden with the spoils of the riots—burnt, disfigured containers of toffees and other confectionaries. Adults and children alike are rummaging through it for a share. Right next is a man with his four kids, all no more than six or seven years old, trying in vain to hail an autorickshaw, walking a distance between each attempt. One child drags a bag only a bit smaller than himself. The family is fleeing and must have packed all that they could.
At a traffic light, we strike a conversation with a bike rider. “When something crosses its limits, the result has to be this,” he says, smiling all through. The ‘something’ is a reference to the anti-CAA protests. Not that he spells it out as such. The assertion for rights by Muslims appears to be provocation enough.
The violence in Delhi, the role of the police, the stunning spectatorship of the state bring back memories of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi, though this is in no way comparable, in its spread and extent, to those gory details. But a new generation gets to smell the stench of hatred. Those who have seen images of violence in sepia are now witnessing the inhuman cruelty in colour images and videos.
The generation that sees riots as a thing of the past, or deems it to happen in nondescript places in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat or Bihar, is yanked rudely and presented with the grisly reality. One that still writhes in stark nakedness on Delhi’s torn streets. One that is written on five-year-olds dragging heavy suitcases.
Meanwhile, as attacks on journalists continue, news of an 85-year-old being burnt to death in her house trickles in. Civil society groups organise themselves to provide aid and assistance to victims. Another riot prototype just presented itself, right in the capital, home to Parliament and the chattering ‘influencers’ of opinion and India’s most exalted court of justice.