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Delhi’s Anti-Muslim Riots Robbed Dozens of Children of Their Fathers

For the families of the 53 people killed in the February 2020 riots, the violence has left a deep and permanent wound.

Delhi’s Anti-Muslim Riots Robbed Dozens of Children of Their Fathers

Nargis, 26, and her children outside their home in northeast Delhi on August 9, 2021.

Credit: Tarushi Aswani

Rihan is slouching on a bed that holds a thin makeshift mattress made of torn bedsheets. With a phone in one hand that illuminates his face in the dingy house, he caresses his eight-month-old sister Firoza with the other hand. As Rukshana Bano stirs a bowl in which a handful lentils float in a watery gravy, she looks at the empty jars that stare back at her with a need to be refilled.

“He couldn’t even see his new-born child,” Rukshana says. Firoz Ahmed, Rukshana’s husband, was killed during the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in late February 2020. Firoz was returning home to Loni in Ghaziabad on the day riots broke out in northeast Delhi. He was stopped by a mob, who demanded that he show them his ID card. After confirming his Muslim identity, the mob assaulted Firoz. Running away with a broken leg, an injured arm and the horror of hate, he reached Karawal Nagar and sought shelter at a stranger’s home. The next day, the rioting mobs found Firoz, threw him in an auto-richshaw and set fire to it. Thirteen days after his murder, Firoz’s burnt body was fished out of a nearby drain. He was one of 53 people killed in the violence. A further 400 were wounded.

A father of five, Firoz worked as a craftsman making scarves in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market. His youngest child Firoza has never seen her father, as she was born just months after his death. “I edit our recent pictures to include my father’s face, so that we can feel the togetherness that we had when he was alive, even if it is through photos,” says Rihan, Firoz’s teenage son. After Firoz’s death, Rukshana, 33, says that it is a sad truth that Muslim lives have no value in 21st century India. While her family had received monetary compensation of approximately $14,000 from the Delhi Government, she asks, “can any amount of money bring back my Firoz?”

Firoz’s children were among the many – no official figure has been released by the government – that were rendered fatherless when right-wing mobs lit parts of the Indian capital on fire, attacking Muslims indiscriminately. Beginning on February 24 and lasting until the end of the month, the outskirts of northeast Delhi saw anti-Muslim pogroms, in which swarms of anti-Muslim zealots embarked on a mission to cleanse the area, cleanse it of Muslims who had lived in harmony with Hindus for years. Chanting the names of Hindu Gods, mobs looted and vandalized homes and shops, killed and maimed people who were or appeared to be Islamic, leaving behind many children who were oblivious to the crime their fathers committed: the crime of following Islam in Narendra Modi’s India.

During its seven years in power, Modi’s government has introduced a range of policies that overtly target Muslims and the functioning of their religion. Its various actions – from reducing Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, to the status of a large municipality to passing a controversial citizenship law that renders many Muslims effectively stateless – point collectively toward a grim future for Indian Muslims. While the government has offered compensation to the families that lost loved ones during the Delhi riots, and others who suffered serious injuries or the loss of property, many have had to begin lives from scratch. And instead of charging the rioters, the Delhi Police, under the aegis of the central government, have instead detained Muslim victims and bystanders, some of whom have been charged with participating in the violence.

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“They Don’t Know He’s Dead”

Nargis, 26, the widow of Mursaleen, tells me she is in dire need of whatever odd job that I can get her. On February 26, 2020, when scrap dealer Mursaleen went out for work, his wife prayed to him with folded hands to reconsider his decision. Mursaleen, 35, left for work around 2 p.m., but when he did not return until evening, Nargis began dialing him persistently. Unable to reach him the whole day, Nargis couldn’t help but harbor dark thoughts.

“I thought what if the rioters killed him too?” says Nargis in a soft voice, while standing outside her two-room house. After five days in which she received no news of her husband, she filed a missing complaint at a nearby police station, where the police suggested that she look at nearby hospitals and morgues. A day later, the investigating officer called Nargis, and a large smile spread across her cheeks as she anticipated Mursaleen’s return. However, the officer had called her to come to the nearby hospital to identify a dead body in whose pocket they found a damaged identity card. At the morgue, Mursaleen lay dead in front of Nargis’ eyes, with bullet wounds in his torso and right leg.

A mother of three, Nargis shuts the door to her house while talking about her husband. “They think Mursaleen has gone for jamaat (Islamic congregation), I can’t let them know their father is dead, it will break them,” she says. “My son Aman lives for seeing his father’s face, sometimes he calls me a liar, he thinks I’m hiding something from him.”

Nargis says she is doing better this week financially, since she has tailoring work worth $20 pending. She shares how it is very hard for her to put on a brave face each day as she pretends to be content with her family’s situation. Nargis describes how when sometimes the children find her crying, she gives them false excuses. As the riots claimed mostly Muslim men as victims, she says her children don’t even understand Islam and how being a Muslim is akin to a vulnerability today. Mursaleen dreamt of his son Aman becoming a lawyer, but with dismal finances, Nargis shivers at the thought of giving her children a future. “Being a widow is hard, but being a widow with young children is harder,” says Nargis, looking at her two-year-old Hifsa, who is crying in her elder sister Nasra’s arms.

“Where Will My Eight Daughters Go?”

Shifa is neatly stacking her grade 10 books in a pile on a dusty windowsill. The 16-year-old is the eldest of Imrana’s eight daughters. With eyes sparkling with ambition, she arranges her three pens on top of the stack of books. Looking at her, Imrana feels more sorrowful than she has been in the months that followed her husband Mohammed Mudassir Khan’s death. “I rarely have money to feed my daughters, how do I tell her I can’t enroll her in grade 11?” she says.

On February 24 of last year, Khan ventured out of their house in Old Mustafabad to pay his daughters’ fees to a nearby school in Maujpur. Hearing about the riots, Khan sought refuge at a friend’s place in Kardampuri instead of venturing toward home in the heated atmosphere, which was stalked by men wielding swords, petrol bombs and metal rods. From there, he video-called Imrana to see his daughters. The next day, an unknown person broke the news to Imrana that her husband had been shot in the head. With a skullcap on his head and a long beard, Imrana says that identifying her husband’s Muslim identity must have been easy for the rioters.

Imrana says that she borrows from one relative to pay back to another, even though she receives around $200 a month as pocket money from her brother-in-law to feed her family of nine. Her youngest daughter Inaya Fatima was just 17 days old when Mudassir died. Two of her daughters who were enrolled at madrasas (Islamic religious schools) have dropped out. Imrana does not even earn enough to call it a hand to mouth situation; whenever her fingers shape morsels of food to feed one mouth, other seven stay open and sometimes empty. On the matter her daughter Shifa says, “It is religious inequality, but I am never going to hate a Hindu, my father taught me to always be kind to everyone, even they aren’t kind to you, because someday they will see the good in you.”

A 16-year-old girl on the brink of adulthood, Shifta has seen and experienced what religious persecution against Muslims does in a democratic country where Muslims make up the largest minority.

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“I Eat at the Mercy of Others”

Jamil, 31, a daily-wage laborer who worked at construction sites for minimal amounts was murdered while returning home from work. His body was fished out of a drain in northeast Delhi; broken limbs, dried blood, and bruised skin held together the remains of Jamil’s decayed body. After a year and a half, his death has cast his wife and children into a prolonged struggle that begins with poverty and extends to fear for their future as Muslims in a country that is currently witnessing a rise in calls for the expulsion of Muslims, in some cases even for genocide.

Jamil’s wife Shehnaz, 25, lives with her brother Naseem at his house. After Jamil’s death, describing Shehnaz as “unlucky,” her in-laws showed she and her two daughters the door. The last time when she saw Jamil was in November 2019 when he dropped her at her parents’ home. In February 2020, she was called to identify his dead body at a Delhi morgue. To feed her two daughters, Shehnaz has since picked up odd jobs. Sometimes she rolls tobacco filled leaves to make cigarettes to sell, sometimes she patches up torn clothes. But most of the time, her brothers fill her empty purse.

Reacting to what Jamil and many other Muslims went through during the riots and many continue to bear, Naseem said, “I don’t understand why the government isn’t checking such people who riot and kill in the name of religion. Are Muslim lives not important enough?”