NEW DELHI ― It has been 10 days since her son was killed in the communal violence in northeast Delhi in the last week of February, but Mamta Singh still cannot bear to sit in her house, which feels like it is full of the 23-year-old’s memories.
On Saturday afternoon, the 49-year-old homemaker stepped out of her green-tiled house in Brijpuri and lingered near the front door, which had a fading campaign sticker of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s lotus symbol along with the faces of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and local MLA Jagdish Pradhan; a sign that said Radhe Radhe, a salutation to Hindu god Krishna; and another one that said Shubh Shubh, a prayer for good to prevail. After some hesitation, she walked to the marketplace at the end of the street and sat down in her family store, where they sell items that Hindus use for pujas.
That day, said Mamta, was the first time she felt like she could think clearly since 25 February, when her son Manish Singh was shot dead during the riots. (Most media reports have identified Manish as Rahul Thakur. Rahul is the name his friends and family used for him).
The first thing she wanted to know, said Mamta, was who was responsible for her son’s death. Not the person’s religion, but his identity.
“Of course I don’t blame Muslims for his death,” she said, dismissing the notion as bizarre. “We don’t know who shot him. Why should I blame Muslims when I did not see what even happened or where the bullet came from? A crowd does not have a face.”
The grieving mother’s response is in stark contrast to the bloodthirsty social media messages and WhatsApp forwards that have sought to squarely blame the Muslim community for the deaths of Hindus in the riots last month.
“A crowd does not have a face.”
In a conversation with HuffPost India, both Mamta and her husband, Dilip Singh, an employee of the Government Railway Police, were adamant in their rejection of any hate politics around their son’s death, pointing out that many Muslims had also died or suffered major losses. Instead, they asked why the Delhi Police had failed to control the riot before it turned deadly.
More than 50 people — Hindus and Muslims — were killed in the communal violence that flared shortly after BJP leader Kapil Mishra made a speech on 23 February in northeast Delhi, targeting those staging sit-in street protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the national capital. More than 200 people were injured. Many more have fled their burnt, looted homes.
In the run-up to the Delhi assembly election, many BJP politicians, including home minister Shah, had targeted the peaceful anti-CAA protests with hateful speeches to polarise the electorate. While this did not bring any electoral dividends to the party, the atmosphere in the hitherto relatively peaceful city was charged to an unprecedented extent days before the riots broke out.
A preliminary fact-finding report—An Account of Fear and Impunity, prepared by the Youth for Human Rights Documentation, a network of ten lawyers and social activists working in Delhi—says that a provocative WhatsApp message attributed to local BJP candidate Jagdish Pradhan, was doing the rounds in Mustafabad on 6 February: “Bajrang Bali todenge Ali ki naali, Jab hoga shor bhajpa ki jeet ka gaali, gaali - Jagdish Pradhan, Bhajpa Pratyashi”. (Bajrang Bali will break the windpipe of Ali, when the loud sound of BJP’s victory will be heard in every alley).
In Brijpuri, the mosque was set on fire, as was the Hindu school next to it. Shops belonging to both Hindus and Muslims near the mosque were torched and looted. On Saturday, store owners sat against charred walls, taking stock of the damage done to their business, as paramilitary troopers kept a lazy eye on the thoroughfare.
“Why did the police not come sooner?” is the question that Hindus and Muslims here ask.
The worst of the rioting went on for three days before the Modi government, to whom the Delhi Police reports, finally decided to step in. Ground reports and the massive financial loss inflicted on the Muslim community strongly suggest that what happened was not a mere retaliation to the anti-CAA protests but targeted religious violence. Some commentators have extrapolated from the death toll of both Hindus and Muslims that what happened was an even-handed fight, rather than an unchecked attack levelled on the minority community.
Even though Mamta and Dilip have lost their son in the violence, they said they want no part in a blame game and that their son’s death shouldn’t be used for more religious polarisation.
“There can be no politics over Hindu deaths or Muslims deaths. I have no anger towards Muslims. Nothing like this has ever happened here. But even if there are fights within families, fights between brothers, there can be no lasting hatred,” said Dilip.
Mamta added, “Hindus and Muslims have not died. Innocents have died. Humanity has died. Now we want peace. We have to live here. Everything that is ours is here. What will we get out of fighting with Muslims?”
“There can be no politics over Hindu deaths or Muslims deaths. I have no anger towards Muslims.”
Manish aka Rahul
Mamta found it difficult to share memories of her son, saying that it made her feelings of loss more painful, but still spoke about him.
Their family had moved to Brijpuri in 2009, she said. Dilip’s work involved a lot of travel out of Delhi and so Mamta spent much more time with her two sons, Manish and Abhishek.
Manish liked going to school and passed each class with “good marks”, she said. His teachers liked him. He liked dancing, good clothes and good food. His favourite subject in school was science and while in college, he would give science tuitions to earn some money.
Manish had wanted to become a doctor, but Dilip had to tell his son that he could not afford to send him to a private medical college.
“It was painful but I had to tell him that I did not have the money to pay for medical college. I asked him to pursue another career path,” he said.
Manish decided to pursue college privately so that he could sit for competitive exams. Over the past year, he had been studying to become a tax officer.
Her “cheerful boy”, Mamta said, had grown into a man that she had come to rely on.
“He would try and find the positive things in life and not the negative ones,” she said. “Even his tuition sir from his school days still really likes him.”
“We were proud of him,” said Dilip. “I was away so many months but never had to worry. The children managed everything.”
Abhishek, 27, sings bhajans at religious gatherings.
“He would try and find the positive things in life and not the negative ones.”
Who do we blame?
Mamta said that she had her reasons for not getting sucked into a blame game.
First, she said, she wanted to know who had actually fired the bullet that killed Manish barely 200 metres from his house on the main thoroughfare, where Hindus and Muslims of Brijpuri and Mustafabad were locked in one of most vicious street battles of the violence.
It was around 4 pm, when Rahul had stepped out to watch the fight, that he was shot in the chest, Mamta said. That bullet, she said, could have come from anywhere in the chaos, and she wants the Delhi Police to tell her what happened.
“I cannot blame anyone at the moment. Who knows whether it was a Muslim? What if he was Hindu? We are not saying anything against anyone. A special team has come and they will investigate. It is important for me to ask why Rahul was shot and who shot him,” she said.
“I cannot blame anyone at the moment. Who knows whether it was a Muslim? What if he was Hindu?”
Two Special Investigation Teams (SIT) of Delhi Police’s crime branch have been set up to probe into the Delhi Riots.
“One gets angry at the person who shoots. That person. Now when there is so much violence, so much destruction, and so many killings in your family as well as others, who does one blame in a riot?” said Dilip.
“Now when there is so much violence, so much destruction, and so many killings in your family as well as others, who does one blame in a riot?”
The second reason that Singh does not blame Muslims for her son’s death is simply because she finds it to be a “ridiculous” notion. Even as she had grieved for her son, Mamta had learnt of the devastation wrought in the neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi.
Her heart is sore for her Muslim neighbours.
“Many Muslims have died. Their houses have been burnt. They have suffered a lot. My son was saying — ‘go and see, half the Muslims are standing outside because they have lost their loved ones’,” she said.
There was no question of burning bridges with Muslims in the future, Mamta said. Thinking of Hindus and Muslims growing apart saddened her. Thinking of fearing Muslims was even more bizarre to her.
“Like I told you, my husband is away a lot. I lived here alone and brought up two children. I never had anything to fear. There was never any Hindu-Muslim fighting. I have never thought of fearing or fighting with Muslims,” she said.
“Many Muslims have died. Their houses have been burnt. They have suffered a lot.”
What was the Delhi Police doing?
Several calls made from her neighbourhood to the Delhi Police were not answered, said Mamta. If there is anyone she is angry with, it is the police.
Mamta said the Delhi Police never came to their rescue — a tale that has been told and retold in neighborhoods across northeast Delhi. ‘’We made a lot of calls. No one responded. They said, ’ haan abhi ho jayega, haan abhi ho jayega, abhi ho jayega. Kuch nahin hua. They switched off their mobile phones,” she alleged.
Despite her telling him not to step out of the house, Mamta said that her son went out with his friends to see the rioting at the end of the street. Not more than 5-10 minutes had passed before a boy came running, telling her that Manish had been shot and his friends were rushing him to the closest hospital on a Scooty. It turned out to be a maternity hospital, which then rushed him to Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital, where he died shortly after.
Why was there no police to crack down on the rioters and shoo away spectators like her son and his friends, Mamta asked.
“If the police had been present there that day, these children would not have gone out. If the police had been there that day, dispersing the crowds, perhaps my son would be alive today,” she said.
“If the police had been there that day, dispersing the crowds, perhaps my son would be alive today”
‘He should have lived a full life’
Manish’s father Dilip said that when he saw his son on 31 December, he had never imagined that it would be for the last time. Last week, Dilip rushed back from Haryana, where he is posted, to see his son’s dead body in hospital.
Dilip used to speak with his children every day during his many months away from his family, but he now wonders whether it was enough.
“I call and talk to the children in the morning and in the evening every day,” he said, fighting back tears. “I had never imagined losing him. My son should have lived a full life.”
“We have lived many years. We have seen the world. It is our time to go, not theirs. All the young men who have been killed should have lived a full life,” he said. “This is a tragedy.”
“All the young men who have been killed should have lived a full life.”
Singh said that he had received Rs1 lakh shortly after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi announced compensation for families who had lost family members in the riot. He doesn’t expect any more support than this from the state for his family or the neighbourhood. That, he said, was the reality of having neither money nor influence in India. But what hurts him and his wife is the insensitivity of India’s leaders.
“The ministers come and do shok (mourn) for two minutes and then they leave. What should we say to them? They can see everything. They can see how parents are withering away with grief. There are no tears left to cry. I’m broken from inside,” said Mamta.
“You never hear of anything like this happening to the children of politicians,” said Dilip. “It is the public who lose their children.”
“They can see how parents are withering away with grief. There are no tears left to cry.”
Dilip and Mamta want the Prime Minister to acknowledge their pain. While never once faulting Modi for the violence, they spoke of his silence.
While The Prime Minister tweeted an appeal for peace three days after the riots began, he is yet to make a public statement about the violence or even to visit the bruised and grieving neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi, and meet with the families who have lost loved ones and their homes and livelihoods.
“Hamari ek pukar se kya woh sunenge?,” asked Mamta. (What will he hear with my lone voice?).
“What will he hear with my lone voice?”
Mamta, who was more outspoken than her husband, said, “No leader told the people not to fight,” she said. “When Trump ji had come, Modi ji did not even look this way. He did not see what was happening in the country.”
“Even the news channels kept showing Trump and only Trump. They were not showing how the riots were growing,” she said.
US President Donald Trump was on a visit to India when violence engulfed Delhi. Neither Trump nor Modi acknowledged the violence in public even as they held meetings and banquets a few kilometres away.
“When Trump ji had come, Modi ji did not even look this way. He did not see what was happening in the country.”
Dilip said that it was not enough to hold the government, the politicians, and the media responsible for the carnage. People, he said, were also responsible for the communal riots.
“How can we absolve ourselves? We are living together, eating together, do we not have brains? Why are we fighting like this? The public is also responsible,” he said.
“How can we absolve ourselves? The public is also responsible.”
As the sun set on Saturday, Mamta said that she was terrified of going home.
Dilip suddenly rose from his chair and said, “The whole house has his memories. This is too painful for us to bear. I cannot remove his image from in front of my eyes.”
After they spoke to each other about relatives who had called and whose call they had to return, dusk and silence filled their store.
Mamta told Dilip it was time they headed back home.
“In five minutes, it was all over. How can I reconcile with that?” she said, as her husband helped her up. “I have lost my son. I hope other sons are not lost.”
As they made their way home, Dilip said, “Maybe he was only meant to spend this much time with us. Let’s think about how happy he was with us and we were with him in the time we had together. Let’s take solace in that.”
“In five minutes, it was all over. How can I reconcile with that?”