I have been a journalist for just over a year, but few things will ever surpass the spectacle of bigotry I witnessed in Delhi this week as I hit the ground to cover the communal riots.
Over the past four days, hate has stared me in the face, followed me in the form of a mob, and threatened to reveal my “real identity”.
On 24 February, my colleague Urjita Bhardwaj and I arrived at Jaffrabad-Maujpur in Northeast Delhi to cover what, until then, appeared to be nothing worse than an intensified scuffle between pro- and anti-CAA protesters.
We first went to the pro-CAA side. It was here that we witnessed a seemingly harmless gathering turn into a raging mob. Soon, a series of unsettling chants rent the air — “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro s***on ko” and others that employed explicitly anti-Muslim pejoratives.
Then, a man asked us our names. I usually avoid mentioning my name, because it doesn’t matter and I don’t want it to matter.
But we realised this time, as the question was repeated, that my name did matter —
it mattered very much.
While it took me a minute to process what was happening, Urjita thought on her feet and quickly made up a name for me. A Hindu name.
Later, a reporter from another organisation told me the man wasn’t fully convinced about my identity. So much so, that while I was reporting, he approached her to find out my name.
Thankfully, just a few minutes earlier, I had let the reporter know the name I was going by. She told me that when she repeated my (fake) name to him, he remained doubtful. “Shakal se toh Hindu nahi dikhti (she doesn’t look Hindu),” he said. Whatever that means.
Remember PM Modi’s advice to “identify them from their clothes”? It probably had something to do with that.
Finding a friend in a stranger
I brushed off the incident as an isolated experience.
The next day, I went to Maujpur, from where news of riot casualties had begun to pour in. The first image we encountered there was a strange one. The streets bore a deserted look because most residents were refusing to step out, but there were mobs running amok.
Almost unconsciously, another reporter and I found ourselves walking together, sticking by each other because we knew there was no other way to escape this mob.
When we started asking questions, some men who were part of a mob realised we were journalists. We told them we weren’t, that we were only there to meet a friend, but they refused to believe us. As we continued walking, one of the men, armed with a stick, decided to follow us into the lanes, all the while asking “where is your friend’s home?”.
When we realised that the man won’t stop following us, we turned around and confronted him.
It’s only when we asked him to back off and ‘not follow women’ that other men took him aside.
The reporter I was with wasn’t someone I had met before. But that day, we didn’t part ways until we absolutely had to. This experience, and the one with Urjita the day before, was a great lesson in reporter solidarity in challenging situations. The other big lesson I learnt was how all the rules of the game lose meaning during riots. Only lawlessness prevails.
The man followed two women less than half his age with a stick in his hand because he knew he could get away with this crass act of intimidation. The mob acts with complete impunity when there’s no one to stop them.
A body abandoned on the road
Later that day, my colleague Revathi Krishnan joined me in the field. We were out reporting when I got information about a man having been shot dead in Babarpur. His body, we learnt, had been lying on the road unattended.
It took us at least two hours of walking to cover what would usually not have taken even 15 minutes. This wasn’t because of police barricades, but because of mobs guarding “their” part of the city and stopping us from entering lanes. A series of name-changes had to begin again, with Revathi taking the lead in one lane and I in another.
When we finally got to Mubarak Hussain’s body, it again brought home the reality of the carnage we were out to cover. It had been lying there for a long time, with flies buzzing over it. This was Revathi and my first encounter with death inflicted in riots. It’s easily a sight that could have made us sick. In an ideal world, it should have. But journalists aren’t normal and our world is certainly not ideal.
Barely 200 feet outside the narrow lane where Hussain’s body lay, a policeman was on patrol.
The labourer from Bihar had been mercilessly robbed of his life, and no one was ready to afford him dignity in death either.
Hussain’s 18 year-old brother said he had called police at least 100 times for help taking the body to the mortuary. None came, he claimed.
Revathi, who showed incredible bravery that day, rightly noted later that this job desensitises you.
It’s perhaps not the worst thing.
I think most people tend to see police inaction as police incompetence. My experience at ground zero of the Delhi riots has proven the opposite. The police personnel acted exactly as they wanted to.
On Wednesday, I visited Mustafabad, another pocket affected by the violence, where I visited a mosque and madrassa that had been set afire by rioters. Personnel of Delhi Police as well as the Rapid Action were stationed outside the burnt mosque.
When I asked them when the mosque was burnt, they broke into laughter.
One of the RAF personnel said “kabhi kabhi petrol pump pe hi aag lag jaati hai (sometimes there’s a fire at petrol pumps too)”. Then he gave examples of how people who make bombs often lose their hands in the explosion. The insinuation was clear.
The other RAF and police personnel had a hearty laugh.