Friendship Day: How Delhi Riots, Covid Lockdown Forged Many Friendships

Sticking together in crisis is a hallmark of true friendship. The 2020 Delhi riots and the Covid lockdown that followed, threw up some memorable examples.

A representational image of communal harmony

Among the emblematic images of Ind­ia’s Covid lockdown that went viral on social media, was one of two friends—Mohammed Saiyub (23) and Amrit Kumar (24). Clicked in May 2020, it has Saiyub cradling Kum­ar’s head on his lap. Kumar’s eyes are shut and mouth open, hinting that he’s gasping for breath. Saiyub, perhaps, is talking to him and mourning as his friend lay dying.

Besides the crisis among migrant labourers desperately trying to escape to their villages, it epitomises friendship in crisis, especially at a time when Saiyub’s community was specifically targeted for allegedly spreading the viral dise­ase, in the aftermath of a religious congregation in Delhi by the Tablighi Jamaat sect.

But as is the logic of social media virality, the photo became a blip in the churn of the 24-hour news cycle, consigned to the recesses of our mem­ories as newer, more outrageous images kept crashing on the shores of our hand-held devices. Few media sources bothered to follow-­­up on their story—because, by then, our collec­t­ive attentions had turned elsewhere. So few came to know that Saiyub and Kumar were chil­dhood buddies from the same village in UP’s Basti district. A friendship they nurtured thr­o­u­gh their teenage years and when they went out into the world to earn a living. They became mig­rant labourers, an escape route for rural youth. Saiyub went to Mumbai and Kumar to Surat. Big cities are jungles, where people har­dly talk to each other.

Saiyub was struggling in Mumbai. So Kumar asked him to come to Surat. He went and both started working in different textile mills, stay­ing together. Away from home, their friendship grew stronger. When the Covid-19 lockdown was announced, they decided to head back home. They boarded a truck full of other migrant labourers.

Happy together Mohammed Saiyub and Amrit Kumar

“Both our families were waiting for us. They were scared that if we got stuck in Surat, we wouldn’t have anything to eat,” Saiyub says.
As the truck headed towards UP under the mer­ciless summer sun, prolonged exposure to heat caused heat stroke in Kumar. As he slu­m­ped down on the bed of the truck, fellow trav­e­l­lers began to suspect he had contracted Covid and asked him to deboard. As humanity was put on trial, Saiyub displayed the clarity of friend­s­hip, insisting on staying back with his friend. They were dropped along the highway in Kola­ras tehsil of Shivpuri district in Madhya Pradesh.

On the shoulder of the highway sat Saiyub, his bosom buddy on his lap as life snuffed away from the latter.

Saiyub stayed with Amrit till his last moment. Amrit died, but their friendship didn’t. it was tried and tested in the Covid-19 crisis, and remained triumphant.

But can the story of Saiyub and Kumar be considered proof of frie­n­dship under crisis? Irshad Ali, one of the victims of the Feb­ruary 2020 riots in Northeast Delhi, who­se house was allegedly set ablaze, rues his broken frie­nd­ships with Hindu neigh­bours. “Politics turns friends into foe. My friends Tyagi, Sachin and Anil have all changed. I too don’t trust them anymore.”

But, recent crises also brought forth several stories of friend­ships. During the Northeast Delhi riots, Sameer saved his friend Ram Nath Chaudhary’s life. Says the latter, “I’m alive today only because of him [Sameer]. When the fighting broke out, I was trapped in a room. He knew I was there, so he let me into his house through a back door.”

Distance, too, impacts friendships, appearing as a crisis. Yet, some friendships survive even over long distances. Two friends, separated by Partition, were reunited after 74 years at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, when Pakistan opened its doors for Sikh pilgrims in November 2021. Sardar Gopal Singh, 94, from India, went there to perform religious rites, without knowing that Muhammad Bashir, 91, from Narowal in Pakistan would be there to greet him.

Crisis is the furnace that puts friendships to the test that most fail to qualify. People cease to speak, lose touch and forget. Many of the peo­ple Outlook interviewed said they don’t talk to their school friends anymore, citing distance and, of late, divergence of political views. The isolation of the Covid-induced lockdowns gave a body blow to physical intimacy. “We were no longer going to the gym, coffee shop, or even on a walk,” says Delhi-based business writer Rahul Rawat.

Jane Hu writes in the the New Yorker: “Pande­mic redefined who and what we could care about.” Our screen time has increased and attention is limited, so those friendships we sustain with a not-so-strong bond—for instance an office bud­dy from your last workplace, or gym part­ner—with whom you no longer talk, are fading away.

How long can a friendship survive on Whats­App? “Friendships, like any other bond, require nurturing. I don’t like texting. My ‘blue tick’ is off on WhatsApp, because I want to avoid res­p­onding to unnecessary office mes­sages. Some of my friends have stopped texting me, thinking I’ve grown arrogant. But that isn’t the case. If I’m not texting you back, it doesn’t mean I’ve lost respect for you. But people take it that way, and they’re right in their own way,” says Sumati, 28, adding, “Friend­ship requires psycho­lo­gi­cal and physical space to be nur­tu­red, which I am not getting with some of my friends.”


British philosopher Thomas Hobbes insisted that there is rel­a­t­ive and contingent evaluation of others, because “we wish others to value us, as we value ourselves”. This is the hallmark of end­uring friendships. Both Saiyub and Kumar shared mutual understanding and respect, that was forged in struggle. They lived together, ate tog­e­ther. “Amrit [Kumar] and I had fought on a lot of issues, but we remained friends. When he had fever, it was my responsibility to take care of him.”

American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “It has seemed to me lately more pos­sible than I knew to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due corresp­on­dence on the other.” Friendships require some structural adjustments to grow, which also set responsi­bi­lities and define the contours of the friendship. Perhaps for Saiyub, his childhood spent in the same village with Kumar and their migration for work were the contours that defined their friendship, and whipped up the responsibility he unflinchingly took up on his shoulders.


(This appeared in the print edition as "As He Lay Dying")