Gul Mohammad had a flourishing footwear business until masked men armed with crude petrol bombs burnt down his shops during Delhi’s sectarian riots, shattering the harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the neighbourhood.
The Hindu-majority neighbourhood of Ashok Nagar on the northeast fringes of India’s capital was once held up as an example of how people from different religious backgrounds could live side-by-side peacefully.
Now, it is rife with suspicion and hatred as locals traumatised by the violence that has killed at least 38 people and injured many said they were struggling to come to terms with what happened.
“I had two shops here for the last 10 years and they burnt them down,” Mohammad told AFP in a quivering voice as he broke down in tears.
“I was here since my childhood, I worked very hard (to set up the business) but now I have lost everything.”
Nearby, Mohammad Rashid Khan looked blankly at the charred remains of his three-storey home once filled with laughter and festivities.
“We only survived because we were away for a wedding in the village. How can we trust anyone now after what has happened to us?” Khan told AFP.
The violence, the worst in Delhi in recent years, broke out after protests against a citizenship law that critics say is anti-Muslim descended into battles between Hindus and Muslims on Monday and Tuesday.
– Fearing for their lives –
In the wake of the violence, stories emerged of people beaten, stabbed or shot to death by mobs, but also of Hindu neighbours who offered refuge to their Muslim friends.
Goat farmer Anwar Chotu, 58, was dragged out of his home in Shiv Vihar, shot dead and his body thrown into a fire by rioters, his brother Mohammad Chotu told AFP.
Waiting outside the morgue to collect his body, Mohammad Chotu said he managed to stay alive after fleeing to his Hindu neighbour’s home with his wife and five children.
“They gave us refuge and protected us even after some of the attackers banged on their door to check if they were hiding us,” he said.
Bilkis, a mother-of-seven whose house in Ashok Nagar was also destroyed during the rampage, said her Hindu neighbours took in her family as she blamed outsiders for the mayhem.
“They (Hindu neighbours) gave us buckets of water to douse the fire. They also offered us tea,” said Bilkis, who uses only one name.
Muslim residents of Ashok Nagar — a poor, working-class neighbourhood crisscrossed by narrow alleys and open sewers — said they had always felt welcomed.
But overwhelmed by grief over losing their homes and livelihoods, and believing they were targeted by mobs, some said they didn’t know if they could trust their neighbours again.
“Our (Hindu) neighbours really tried to help us a lot. But at times like this, our faith gets shaken. We never ever imagined that something like this will ever happen,” Mohammad Saleem told AFP.
Contract labourer Faisal said only the local mosque and the homes and shops of the five to six Muslim families in the neighbourhood were attacked.
“Everything else is intact,” the 26-year-old told AFP. “The attackers wore masks, we don’t know who they were. But we know that someone helped them to identify our homes and shops.”
– Cultural diversity or divide? –
Some 80 percent of Indians identify as Hindus. Muslims are the largest minority group, making up 14 percent — or 200 million people — of India’s population.
India has long taken pride in its secular traditions and pledges of equality and fraternity.
But religious strife is not uncommon and has exploded into riots claiming thousands of lives.
In 1984, at least 3,000 people — mostly Sikhs — were killed in clashes that erupted after the assassination of India’s then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh security guards.
In 2002, some 1,000 people — mostly Muslims — were killed in riots started by a mob torching a train compartment carrying Hindu activists in Gujarat state.
In 1992, Hindu-Muslim riots claimed more than 2,000 lives.
Critics say the fault lines have worsened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, citing recent policies including revoking India’s only Muslim-majority region Kashmir’s semi-autonomy.
Outside the morgue, Hindu and Muslim families waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to be released were united by one emotion — grief.
“Nothing can be achieved through violence. It is just senseless and no-one is a winner here,” Vinod Kumar, whose uncle Vir Bhan was shot dead during clashes on Monday, told AFP.