NEW DELHI — All Gulshan Bano knew of her mother was that she died of illness soon after Gulshan was born. Gulshan grew up close to her father Mohammed Anwar Kassar who raised her and her sister Ashiyana. Over the years, Gulshan’s sister died of illness as well and her husband was blinded by acid in a workplace accident; Kassar became the only source of support for Gulshan and her children.
Then on February 25 this year, as riots roiled northeast Delhi, Kassar called Gulshan from his home in Shiv Vihar and said, “Beta (child), they are fighting here, but don’t worry, I’ll be okay.” Gulshan, who lives an hour’s drive from Delhi in Pilkhuwa Uttar Pradesh, asked her father to come home immediately. He said he would. That was the last time they spoke.
A mob of rioters, Gulshan later learnt, killed Kassar and set him on fire. And when Gulshan and her husband Mohammed Naseeruddin finally made it to Delhi to recover his corpse, all that remained of her father were a few charred bones.
Since then Gulshan’s life has changed. With her father dead and her husband blinded, her family has been struggling to make ends meet amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Rs 10 lakh compensation, announced by the Arvind Kejriwal-led led Delhi government for the families of those killed in the riots, was held up for months by bureaucratic delays. While the Delhi government’s sub-divisional magistrate Puneet Kumar Patel said the money was wired to Gulshan’s bank account in October, the young couple said they were unaware of the transfer. Gulshan has gone from being a home-maker to her two young sons to a waste picker — separating scraps of steel from mounds of trash for Rs 132 a day. This week, while Gulshan left early for the factory where she works, Naseeruddin says he has tried inquiring about the money at their local branch of the Punjab National Bank, but to no avail.
At least 53 people died in the February 2020 riots, Delhi’s worst communal conflagration since the anti-Sikh riots a quarter century ago.
Those accused of giving inflammatory speeches targeting the people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), such as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Kapil Mishra and Minister of State Anurag Thakur, are yet to be held accountable for their actions. The Delhi Police’s seemingly one-sided investigation has focused on foisting terror and murder charges on the students and activists who led the anti-CAA protests, and characterising the largely peaceful movement as a front for a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And the plight of grieving families like Gulshan’s have faded from view.
Kassar’s brutal murder, and Gulshan’s subsequent struggles as a waste-picker, illustrate the profound human tragedies of seeking political gain from communal riots.
Finally, the Delhi Police’s callousness in the face of Gulshan’s grief — Gulshan was forced to approach the courts twice just to get her father’s remains — makes clear why ordinary citizens have such little faith in the city’s police force.
“I don’t know anything about Hindu-Muslim problems. Why do people fight over religion when everyone gets hurt?” said Gulshan in a conversation over the phone. “I have seen horrors that I cannot speak of. I have seen horrors that I wish on no one else.”
““I have seen horrors that I cannot speak of. I have seen horrors that I wish on no one else.”
Gulshan broke down as she recounted what her father’s neighbours told her about his death. Kassar was surrounded by a mob; he was beaten and then shot at. As he tried to run away, Gulshan said, he was shot a second time. His shanty was set alight and his body tossed onto the fire.
Five Hindu men have been arrested in Mohammed Anwar Kassar’s case, Investigating Officer Rajiv Ranjan told HuffPost India. The men were in jail, they had been charged with murder under the Indian Penal Code, and the trial would start soon, Ranjan said.
The Delhi Police say 751 criminal cases have been registered in connection with the Delhi riots.
“I don’t know why they did it. They beat him, shot him, but why did they pick up his body and set it on fire,” said Gulshan. “They should not have done it. I don’t understand so much cruelty.”
“Why do people fight over religion when everyone gets hurt?”
Nothing left of Mohammed Anwar Kassar
Mohammed Anwar Kassar lived in Shiv Vihar in northeast Delhi and earned his money selling goats and renting his vendor carts to vegetable sellers for a monthly rent of Rs 400. After Gulshan’s husband lost his sight in 2015, Kassar visited his sole surviving daughter, twice a month and gave her Rs 2000 or Rs 3000 each time to meet the family’s expenses.
When he did not have any money, Gulshan said, her father brought them rations. Kassar was devoted to his two grandsons, eight-year-old Mohammed Ishrar and nine-year-old Mohammed Usman, and paid Rs 1,100 per month for each of them to be sent to a private school in Pilkhuwa.
All that was left of Kassar’s shanty and goat shed in Shiv Vihar is a cement ringlet where he used to tie his goats.
Shamima Gulshan, who used to live down the road, has not returned. Rioters had looted her house and burnt her shop. Shamima, who once sold cotton bales by weight, now sits on the pavement in front of the charred walls of her shop, not far from the house she had to abandon, and fills cotton into winter quilts to earn some money.
“Fear has now settled in my heart. Generations have lived here together. In two days, it went,” she said. “I used to know Mohammed Kassar. He was a good man. I had made him my brother in name. There is nothing left of him here.”
‘All I saw was a bone’
Gulshan Bano and her husband had to change four autorickshaws to reach Delhi’s Guru Tegh Bahadur hospital the day after Kassar was killed on 25 February. Gulshan said that neither she nor her husband knew what to do. Somehow, they found the mortuary, but were not allowed to enter because Kassar’s name was yet to appear in the register with the names of the dead. It was only after journalists and lawyers spoke up for her, was she allowed to enter the mortuary after hours of pleading with the hospital staff.
“There were people who had feet and hands missing. There were people who seemed as if they had been sliced in two. There were children who looked like this. There were piles of ash,” she said, describing what she saw in the mortuary. “When they asked me if I wanted to see the burnt bodies, I said, ‘Sir, but how can anyone do something like that?’”
“I said, ‘Sir, but how can anyone do something like that?’”
It was later that night and they were still waiting near the mortuary when a policeman told her that all that remained of her father was his foot and a few bones, and that it was kept at the Karawal Nagar Police Station, ten kilometres away. As more journalists started reporting the litany of horrors that were unfolding for Gulshan, the police showed her the remains, the following day on February 27.
“All I saw was a bone,” said Gulshan, falling silent.
“What is my fault? What was my father’s fault? People can have differences but why does humanity have to die? The people who burnt my father, are they human, do they have families? Did they think before burning him, that this man has a family. If they have families, then how could they do this to mine,” she said after a pause.
“The people who burnt my father, are they human, do they have families?”
Her father’s remains
On 29 February, the police took a blood sample from Gulshan to match her DNA with her father’s charred remains; but when months passed without hearing from them, Gulshan reached out to Ritesh Dubey, a Delhi-based lawyer, who was volunteering his legal services to riot-hit families, and who eventually handled four cases of delays in DNA testing.
The police were sluggish, Dubey said, but the coronavirus lockdown coincided with a spike in cases that needed DNA testing after the riots caused the delay.
Dubey in Gulshan’s case argued that urgent testing was needed to expedite identification or else the police needed to take urgent steps to locate that person. On 8 April, 2020, Justice Vibhu Bhakru of the Delhi High Court ordered the Delhi Police to give the test results by 18 April, 2020.
On 16 April, the Delhi Police told Gulshan her DNA had matched with the charred samples. When almost a month passed and her father’s remains were still not released, she moved the Karkardooma district court in Delhi on 13 May
Metropolitan Magistrate Richa Parihar ordered the immediate release of his remains.
In the release order dated 15 May, Investigating Officer Rajeev Ranjan wrote that while some bones of the legs, including the pelvic and femur, were being returned for the last rites, the police had kept Mohammed Anwar Kassar’s foot for “biological opinion.”
Dubey, her lawyer, said the police asked Gulshan if she wanted to take some of the bones or wait until the investigation was over to collect all her father’s remains. Gulshan chose to take some of the bones for the last rites.
Dubey, who returned with Gulshan to Pilkhuwa for the last rites on 17 May, said that traveling during the coronavirus lockdown was tricky, and there was a very real danger of the police stopping her and making her open the sealed box with the remains.
“If the police had stopped us, I was there to show them the court order and explain anything that needed explaining,” he said.
Gulshan remembered the police telling her to bury the sealed box in the ground.
“My relatives told me that they called the police for help hundreds of times during the riots. He said that the police would not pick up or just put the phone on hold,” she said. “What is the meaning of this? The police are meant to protect poor people like us. Otherwise, what is it for?”
“The police are meant to protect poor people like us. Otherwise, what is it for?”
Feeding the children
Life had been hard ever since her husband was blinded by acid at the place he washed bed sheets for a living, five years ago. When her father’s funeral was complete, Gulshan said, it slowly dawned on her that she would now have to provide for her two boys, who their grandfather had loved dearly.
“After my husband lost his eyesight, my father took care of everything. I have never stepped out to work. I never thought I would be thrust into the world so suddenly. I don’t know whether I like it, but I don’t have a choice. I have to earn for my children,” she said. “My father wanted his grandsons to have a good education. He was paying for them to go to a private school. I don’t know if they can continue there.”
The delay in identifying his remains meant that Gulshan could not receive the Rs 10 lakh compensation that the Delhi government had promised the families of those who died in the riots. While her DNA tests were pending, the government released Rs 1 lakh of the money, but Kassar’s young brother put himself down as the next of kin and took the money.
Gulshan turned to Mumtaz Hashmi, a Delhi-based lawyer, who alerted Puneet Kumar Patel, the sub-divisional magistrate of Karawal Nagar, who intervened and made her uncle return the money.
“This girl has faced such a huge tragedy, and still her own family was stealing from her,” said Hashmi. “She is still so young. Her father was everything to her. She will spend the rest of her life not just providing for her two kids but also her husband who cannot work. What kind of life would that be?”
Gulshan said that she traveled from Pilkhuwa to Delhi almost every day until the coronavirus lockdown in March, and her husband always went with her. One day, Gulshan recalled a policeman asked her if she travelled with her blind husband to garner sympathy.
“It felt so bad. I wanted to say, ‘for his support’” she said. “We suffered more because we are not educated. If it was not for the lawyers and journalists who helped us, we would have got nothing.”
“I never thought I would be thrust into the world so suddenly.”
Head of the household
The one lakh they received from the Delhi government, Gulshan said, was spent in paying the fare for the auto-rickshaws they caught to Delhi, and the food they bought not only for themselves, but the friends and relatives who traveled with them because they were scared to travel alone. The rest went to repay Rs 50,000 they had borrowed to cover their expenses while they waited to complete the formalities around Kassar’s death.
After ten years of marriage, Naseerudin was agonised about having to hunt for a job for his wife. The only one he could find amid the pandemic was for her to sort through trash. Once they get the nine lakh rupees, Naseerudin plans to open a parchoon shop in Pilkhuwa, selling pulses and sugar, but he knows his wife is now head of the household.
“She does the housework and leaves every morning and comes back late in the evening,” he said. “I’m at home because I can’t see anything. I take care of the children and do some housework. I’m not sure what I will do with my life.”
Delhi’s Sub-divisional magistrate Puneet Kumar Patel said that the remaining nine lakh rupees was wired to Gulshan’s bank account in the first few days of October, but she and her husband were unaware of the transfer when HuffPost India spoke to them in November.
On why there was a months-long delay in wiring the money, sub-divisional magistrate Puneet Kumar Patel said, “It was the coronavirus. There was little we could do.”
While she waits for the rest of the compensation money, Gulshan rises early to cook and clean before walking three kilometres to the waste factory because she cannot afford to spend ten rupees on an autorickshaw every day.
In the eight hours she spends separating steel from the trash, Gulshan says she tries not to let her mind wander because she is either overwhelmed by thoughts of the mortuary and her father’s remains, or is panic stricken about the future.
Gulshan says she tries not to think too hard about either the past, or the future; she thinks of ways to speak with the foreman about getting some money in advance without getting yelled at.
The remaining compensation money will probably ease her immediate financial concerns, but “Money won’t bring papa back,” Gulshan said.