Born in the Middle of Delhi Riots

In a room full of women who had just delivered babies, Anjali Bhardwaj, in her mid-twenties, sits with her one-day-old child in arms. Beside her is husband Deepak Bhardwaj. The couple is constantly gazing at the pale walls of the government hospital in Jhilmil colony, in Northeast Delhi. Anjali visibly looks exhausted but happy.

While the couple is thrilled about their first-born daughter, whom they named Vanshika, they have not completely overcome the trauma from the events that they have had to go through over the past few weeks; trauma that till date manifests in their anxieties and apprehensions – in their ‘what if’s’ and ‘thank-god’ conversations.

It was February 24, and the couple had gone to the hospital for a regular check-up. Anjali was nine-months pregnant and was due any time. At around 2 pm, they booked a cab and were returning to their home in Karawal Nagar – 10 km from the ESIC Jhilmil hospital.

One-day-old Vanshika, in the arms of her mother Anjali and father Deepak Bhardwaj. She was born on 26th February, the third day of the riot, in North-East Delhi’s ESIC Jhilmil hospital. Photo: Milan Poudel and Bhumika Saraswati.

As they reached Khajoori Khas, they saw that the road leading to their house was blocked. An angry mob, coming from all directions, began torching vehicles.

The riots in Delhi had broken out.

Like hundreds of others that day, Anjali and Deepak found themselves in the middle of a riot that would go on to consume more than 53 lives, besides leaving a hundred injured and homeless.

“I thought of the worst-case scenarios. It had boiled down to survival,” Anjali recalls, recounting the terror she experienced. That day, she says, she was even ready to abandon the cab and run on the foot. Remembering the condition she was in, both Deepak and Anjali felt helpless and vulnerable.

The stretch connecting Khajuri Khas and Pushta Road were blocked. Sitting in the cab, Anjali could feel her heartbeat getting louder. While the violence was unfolding around them, the couple had to make a decision on whether they wanted to rush home or turn back and head to the hospital. Home was closer, but both were unsure about how the situation would unfold and whether they would be able to get proper medical care in case Anjali’s water broke.

Vanshika on her mother’s lap at ESIC Jhilmil hospital. Photo: Milan Poudel and Bhumika Saraswati.

They quickly decided to return to the hospital. The cab driver, who was equally fearful but supportive, dropped them back to the hospital. After several requests, the doctors provided them with a bed – a bed they found refuge in for the next three days.

With the kind of news streaming in, the couple was panicked. Though Anjali’s house was not affected by the violence, her father, who was going between the hospital and the home to provide them with necessities, was attacked. He wasn’t hurt, but his bike was vandalised by a mob while he was on his way to the hospital.

The gamble paid off. Vanshika was born on February 26.

Also read: How Hate Spread Its Wings in Delhi: Why February 25 Will Haunt Me Forever

But what the couple saw that day traumatised them completely. They saw a city changing in a way – almost as though it has been hit by a natural disaster.

They were lucky to find refuge in the hospital, but around it, the neighbourhood was getting vandalised and going up in flames. Houses, shops and offices (mostly of Muslims) were burnt down or damaged – even as US President Donald Trump was on a visit to India.

On March 2, as Anjali returned to Karawal Nagar with new-born Vanshika, their family waited for the couple and their granddaughter with caution.

Outside, the streets were littered with stones and bricks. Though nothing happened to Anjali’s home, houses and vehicles (mostly of Muslims) were burnt in Karawal Nagar. In the rest of Northeast Delhi – Shiv Vihar, Maujpur, Jafrabad, Chand Bagh and Gokulpuri – scenes are no different.

It is as if a storm had ravaged Northeast Delhi. Residents in these areas narrate tales of horror and despair. Multiple incidents have surfaced, where people have lost their lives while out getting milk and other essentials for their families. In many parts of the riot-hit areas, telephone and internet service had stopped working. Even if they worked, between February 23 to 26, many distress calls either attracted no response from administration or rioters blocked ways for ambulances, relief material and fire tenders. According to Police control room data, 3,300 distress calls were made from Northeast Delhi on February 24, and at least 7,520 the next day.

Vehicles on North-East Delhi’s main Pushta road, that connected Khajuri with Karawal Nagar, were burnt and brought to ashes by a mob in riots that began on February 24th 2020. Photo: Milan Poudel (clicked on February 27).

While paramilitary forces dot the streets in the worst-hit localities, allegations of inaction and complicity of Delhi Police personnel are a highlight in conversations across the city.

The violence is also a tragic commentary on the state of affairs in India’s capital, where law enforcement agencies have failed to ensure the safety and security of thousands from across communities, who continue to live in the fear of being attacked. While many faced attacks, others experienced trauma through their television screens and social media. The paranoia is palpable.

Anjali, Deepak and their entire family aren’t untouched by the sentiment, and what could have happened still haunts them. Anjali says they were luckily the found the cab when they did and that they did not have encounter another mob.

Now, all they wish for is to see Vanshika grow up in an India which is not driven by hatred. The idea of bringing a child in a world so full of violence, loss and hate scare them but they are positive that things will change for the better.

Bhumika Saraswati is an independent journalist currently pursuing her master’s at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Milin Poudel is an independent filmmaker from Nepal, currently studying Conflict Analysis and Peace Building in New Delhi. 

All images provided by the authors