Heat still rises from the blackened debris inside Khursheed’s home as he opens the door, his palms covered in ash from picking his way through what little is left of his belongings with his bare hands.
His was one of around eight homes belonging to Muslims targeted by a rampaging mob in this Delhi neighbourhood on Tuesday afternoon, picked for destruction because they sat next to a mosque in this otherwise mostly Hindu-populated neighbourhood, vandalised, looted and then gutted with fire.
The mosque was also attacked in what has now become a high profile and especially contentious incident amid three days of religious riots that have so far claimed at least 24 lives.
Khursheed said around 400 people came to the Ashok Nagar neighbourhood in the morning and started attacking Muslim properties. Police officers rescued the residents and escorted them to a nearby station for their own safety but, outnumbered, retreated as the vandalism of the mosque began.
“Look at my home, the whole thing is burnt, as well as all our possessions – clothes, utensils – everything,” he said. “There were 11 of us living here, what do I do now? Where will we go?”
Videos then went viral of men chanting the Hindu nationalist slogan “Jai Shri Ram” (glory to Lord Ram) as the mosque was vandalised and two flags, one of India and the other showing the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman, were hoisted on its tallest minaret.
Due to confusion over the name of the neighbourhood, the Delhi police mistakenly said on Twitter that this mosque had not been targeted and that the videos were “misinformation”, prompting the major right-wing channel Times Now to run unquestioningly a prime-time segment denouncing the “fake” footage – and those sharing it – on TV.
Update Ashok Nagar, Delhi 6.00pm: A mosque has been vandalised by Hindutva terror forces, as they brazenly revisit their demolition tactics. We see complete inaction from @delhipolice, @HMOIndia , @PMOIndia and @arvindkejriwal.#DelhiRiots #DelhiBurning #DelhiViolence pic.twitter.com/jOsrAzVCP8— Shaheen Bagh Official (@Shaheenbaghoff1)February 25, 2020
Yet the buildings around the mosque were still smoking when The Independent met with the Muslim victims of the attack on Wednesday, as well as the Hindu neighbours who tried to protect them from the mob of “outsiders”.
Khursheed, who works driving a battery-powered autorickshaw, said he does not blame Hindus for what happened, but rather the heightened tensions created by the Modi government’s new citizenship laws. Critics say the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and a planned National Register of Citizens (NRC), discriminate against Muslims and threaten India’s secular constitution.
He and other residents said they didn’t recognise the attackers. “I don’t know the people who came and did this – it is all just politics,” he said. “I am just very sad for the situation my family is now in.”
Parveen, another resident, said she had lived in her home in Ashok Nagar for 25 years. Yet seeing it gutted by fire was still not as painful as what the rioters did to the adjacent mosque.
“We were targeted because we are Muslim,” she said. “All the shops belonging to Muslims were burnt, while none of the Hindu shops were touched. They want to single us out, to separate us from the other religions.”
She said Hindus and Muslims in the neighbourhood had “never had any problems”.
“We have always prayed together, Hindus and Muslims, in mosques and temples. We have always believed that we are all equal.”
Like the other residents, Parveen says she bears no ill feelings for her Hindu neighbours, saying that when the mob first came from outside “they tried to save us”.
I am just very sad for the situation my family is now in
But she says she doesn’t know whether the situation will calm down across the city after what happened. She is just thankful she wasn’t home to see the mosque attacked. “It is totally broken and burnt, we feel worse about that than what happened to our own homes. We were so surprised when we heard they targeted the mosque, we never thought that people could be capable of such a thing.”
A little down the road from the burnt-out mosque, shattered shop fronts and piles of debris, a group of Hindu neighbours watch the clear-up and are nervous about speaking to the media.
A 39-year-old man, who asked not to be named, said he welcomed prime minister Narendra Modi’s call for calm on Wednesday afternoon, but that it should have come on Monday.
He admits the situation is “very tense”.
“We have always been living together amicably here, there was no tension, we spent our childhoods together. Now these outsiders have come in and this has happened, and it is the people living here who have to deal with the tension.”
He points to four armed police officers sitting outside the burnt-out mosque. “At least there is some protection now, but we were expecting it earlier. There should have been some procedure in place,” he said
For some, though, the four officers provide little comfort. A Muslim man whose house across the road from the mosque was burnt, who did not give his name, said the violence had turned into “the most terrible outcome possible” for this neighbourhood.
We were so surprised when we heard they targeted the mosque, we never thought that people could be capable of such a thing
“The situation is calmer today but it could still turn turbulent [again]. I see [almost] no police here, no big deployment, nothing. I am obviously worried – surely there must be a heavy deployment of police at a place where a mosque has been demolished?”
Clearly nervous, he says he is only returning briefly to retrieve any key documents that – he hopes – may have survived the fire. “All the documents, all the possessions we have, we had to just leave them behind and just run for our lives,” he said. “If they are not there, how will I get a job? These attacks are not just damaging property, they are ruining people’s lives.”