Millennium Post

Divided we fall

Now that Northeast Delhi begins to limp back to normalcy after the deadly riots of February, a major economic hub of Delhi NCR seems to have been largely affected due to the riots. With scores of hops, houses, warehouses and factories burnt down in the riots and all others shut due to it, a major supply line to some of the most crowded and important retail markets in Delhi NCR has been hit; report Anup Verma & Abhinay Lakshman

As businesses, shops and trading hubs in Northeast Delhi try to inch back to normalcy after witnessing the most violent communal riots in decades, which killed over 50 people, there are several questions unanswered for the residents of the Trans-Yamuna district – questions like whether they will be able to shop at their local grocery stores, whether they will be safe in their neighbourhoods and most importantly, whether they can still call Delhi their home.

As the world was plunged into an existential crisis due to the novel Coronavirus, so were the residents of Northeast Delhi, most of whom had built their lives in the Capital after migrating from other parts of the country. The population make-up of the entire area is unique and, in a way, anchors a certain level of economic activity across Delhi NCR. Full of warehouses, shops, factories, assembly lines and raw material wholesalers, trading hubs like Seelampur and Durgapuri are essential to the functioning of businesses in entire markets of Chandni Chowk, Karol Bagh and many others.

But as the march to communal harmony continues, questions loom large about whether people will have their jobs waiting for them or whether they will have to return to their respective villages and give up the dream of building a life in the Capital.

Kailash Kumar, who lives in Mustafabad, said his family wanted to leave the city for their hometown in Uttar Pradesh's Ghazipur after the riots but he could not draw cash for travel. Kumar said that apart from banks and ATMs, most of the grocery shops remained shut due to which there is a shortage of essential commodities. The violence in Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Babarpur, Chand Bagh, Shiv Vihar, Bhajan Pura, Yamuna Vihar and Mustafabad areas of northeast Delhi claimed at least 42 lives and left over 200 injured. A large number of properties have been damaged. Frenzied mobs had torched houses, shops, vehicles, a petrol pump and pelted stones at locals and police personnel.

Among the most densely populated regions of the Capital, Northeast Delhi has always been at risk of communal tensions and the Trilokpuri riots stand testament to that. However, residents in areas like Maujpur said that they had never seen anything like the February riots in their lifetime. The Hindu-Muslim divide, which was quite conveniently polarised by some political leaders had exploded into a three-day riot across an entire district of Delhi.

Many of these areas are ghettoised along communal lines, with communities generally asserting their presence by constructing temples and mosques. Despite their significant Muslim population, only two of the eight Assembly constituencies in Northeast Delhi – Seelampur and Mustafabad – have been retained by Muslim candidates over the years.

Mohammad Alam (36), a resident of Vijay Park was part of a group of people who were sheltering innocent Hindus from the riots and ferrying them to safety. "Now, I am unable to buy groceries from a shop I have been going to for 10 years. My shop was burnt in the riots and I can't even explain how difficult it is to start from scratch," he said, explaining that his regular wholesalers in the area are now refusing to dop business with him. "They say that they don't want any trouble dealing with Muslim customers," Alam said.

A stroll through the streets of Vijay Park, Shiv Viihar and many of the other riot-affected areas is enough to show that most Muslim shops were either burnt down or shut out of fear.

An economic blow

While it would not be very usual to see retail customers thronging the markets of Northeast Delhi. The district is crucial to the functioning of many large markets across Delhi NCR, including ones like the electronic market in Karol Bagh, the cloth market in Gandhi Nagar and the many markets in Old Delhi and Chandni Chowk. In fact, for many of these markets, the supply chain originates in the factories and assembly lines of Northeast Delhi.

A host of debilitating economic factors is already an overarching feature of the district. Many young people in the area start dropping off school after completing secondary education. Its graduation rates are half of the 14 per cent national average and significantly lower than Delhi's average. This makes its relatively high young population less acceptable in the job market. Two-thirds of the population here lives in either one-room or two-room houses in buildings packed together like a can of sardines in narrow bylanes.

And while these factories operate on a seasonal basis – churning out jackets in the winters and air conditioning spare parts in the summers, Northeast Delhi also provides for one of the largest sources of cheap labour in the unorganised sector. Most of these labourers hail from areas like Khajuri Khas, Karawal Nagar, Bhajanpura, Maujpur, Durgapuri and Baburpur.

While most violence-hit areas were divided into Hindu and Muslim pockets, these had a higher proportion of young population than the rest of Delhi. This purportedly made provocation a lot easier. In Northeast Delhi, the proportion of those aged between 20 and 40 years in total population was almost 43 per cent – higher than Delhi overall. In fact, Muslims in this age group constituted 46 per cent of the population (higher than Hindus).

Moreover, the area is also home to a large leather market, which also supplies raw materials for leather products in wholesale to a host of other markets in the city. Further, electronic items like fans and coolers, jeans and cloth-making units, shoe-making units and similar assembly lines number in the hundreds in areas like Seelampur, Jafrabad, Babarpur, Maujpur and Zakir Nagar. And there is a huge market in Northeast Delhi that mainly supplies materials to the Gandhi Nagar cloth market, which is the largest cloth market in Asia. What's more is that Durgapuri is a hub of automobile spare parts, electronic spare parts and auto servicing shops.

All of these activities have seen a downtime since the riots in February and the people supporting this level of economic activity are reeling under the trauma that comes with the aftermath of a communal riot. Also, another factor impacting businesses in the area for a few days after the riots was the fact that banks and ATMs in the area were not opening up.

A trust deficit

As of the last count, Northeast Delhi has 40 lakh people, of which more than 50 per cent – 26 lakh people were left reeling under the aftermath of the riots. With one of the largest proportion of Muslims in the Capital, the Northeast has 30 per cent Muslim population, but most youths have a record of not finishing their schooling and often enter the workforce at young ages - in many cases before they turn 18. However, what the riots have left behind is a young population that has not finished their schooling and is not getting employment as communal fears continue to run high all over the area.

Salman (24) used to work at a soda-bottle factory along with many of his friends, which included people from all religions. "It was a very nice place when I started working some five years back," he said. But now, Salman has been asked to refrain from coming to the factory until asked to. "I don't know what else to do but wait for them to call me back because this is all I know how to do," Salman said.

On the other hand, Kamlesh (28) spoke of a deep mistrust that had been sown into the community by some politicians looking to score brownie points. "Even though I know that politicians keep doing things like this, my family and I have for some reason started feeling a mistrust. The riots really shook us all up. We are also putting up iron gates to separate our colony," he said. Kamlesh lives in Gokalpuri and such gates are being erected in many of the riot-affected colonies.

In fact, more than mistrust of each other in the Hindu-Muslim community of Northeast Delhi, measures taken by the residents after the riots reveal a deeper mistrust of law enforcement and police personnel and the general establishment to keep them secure. Raj Kumar (46) said that the reason they were building iron gates was simple - safety. "We honestly do not believe that the police are capable of protecting us and taking the right action at such times so we are doing whatever we can by ourselves," he said.

Most of these large gates are being built where blockades were created by residents during the riots to keep their homes safe. Now, the divisions are just being reinforced.

A ray of hope

Despite the sombre outlook of the entire Northeast district after the riots hit the area and the poor economic recovery of the region, there are always stories of Hindu-Muslim unity that give hope for the future. In fact, even as many Muslims are asked not to continue working at Hindu-run factories and assembly lines, there are also stories of Hindu families living peacefully with their Muslim neighbours. In Kardampuri, which is largely Muslim-dominated, Hindu families still remain after the riots and say that there is no reason for them to fear their neighbours - people they have known for years.

Ramesh Kumar (48), has lived his entire life in Northeast Delhi and on a street dominated by Muslim families. During the riots, his son was brought home to safety by a Muslim youth, who was himself trying to escape from gunfire and tear gas shells. "Why should I suddenly start fearing my brothers and sisters?" he asked, continuing, "Just because some people think they can inflame tensions in our homes does not mean will fall into their traps and start hating people because of their religion," Kumar said.

On the other hand, there were many local shop-owners where Hindus and Muslim employees were still working together and even providing free delivery services to homes that were being rebuilt after the violence. Many residents from both religions in areas like Kabir Nagar agreed that there were extremist elements on both sides of the riots but also said that the targeted violence against people of one religion was very obvious from which side the police had chosen to stand with.

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